American Culture

The painted kipper: Reith, the BBC, facing Modernity (pt 1)

Editor’s Note: S&R is broadening its reach and mission so as to present our readers with more in the way of thoughtful cultural fare. Today we launch part one in a series by University of Colorado Media and Cultural Studies scholar Dr. Michael Tracey. This essay presents a critical reconsideration of the BBC’s John Reith, one of the most important figures in the history of broadcasting. While much of the story Dr. Tracey addresses is uniquely British, it nonetheless raises issues about the proper and productive role of media and capitalism in a society, issues that can’t help being uncomfortably familiar to contemporary Americans. As it turns out, the kinds of conversations that intelligent people have daily about our media gone to hell have been taking place for quite some time.


It is not difficult to find arguments about the problems facing public service broadcasting in the digital age, of how, over the past two decades, an institution which had previously been relatively stable has been buffeted by new technologies, new politics and new economics which taken together present an existential threat. The essential, if largely unstated, premise behind such arguments is that had it not been for such developments then public broadcasting would be beyond violation. This commentary takes a somewhat different position. It suggests that it is time to admit that the kind of broadcasting, and value, system of which the BBC was deemed to be the exemplar, was, and is, a glorious historical aberration.

The idea behind the BBC, and those others like it, rested on several assumptions which, while laudable, were always out of step with, and in the end unable to resist, larger historical forces. The conceits or assumptions were:

  1. that it could, with the appropriate constitutional and fiscal arrangements, keep at bay the forces and logics, the essential narrative, of industrial and post-industrial capitalism;
  2. that in doing so it could engage an audience without anchoring itself to that audience’s taste and preferences, and thus could provide an environment for creative and journalistic talent to prosper;
  3. it could then enable its fundamental ambition, to allow the public to grow, to drink from the well of the creative and the profound, to realize their full potential as human beings and thus further enable a larger, cultivated, mature social order, one defined by moral and creative intent, not materialism.

In this sense, the BBC, at its founding as a public service corporation, was very much part of a wide and varied critique of the impact that Modernity was having on the human spirit. Much of that thinking was deeply pessimistic, beginning with the Romantics, and in particular Wordsworth’s “Prelude to the Lyrical Ballads.” One also thinks of such figures as Weber and his descent into an essentially deep melancholy as he pondered the hopelessness of it all, or Adorno abandoning any pretense to praxis, throwing his hands up in the face of a history that disgusted him, but about which he knew he could do nothing. There was, however, another mood, one still drawing succor from the promise of the Enlightenment, using Reason to vanquish unreason, believing in the possibility of human progress, in the ability to wrestle capitalism to the ground, optimistic about human potential, if only circumstance could be overcome. That was where Reith and his BBC were located, believing with a passion in their ability to keep the darker forces of Modernity at bay, thus able to offer something better. For a time, the project worked but it is now clear, if one looks at contemporary policies and thinking from within both government and the Corporation, that it couldn’t last, and that while it managed to struggle into the new century, a bit battered and weary and anxious, with a modicum of its character in place, it seems unlikely in the extreme that it will see the next. The BBC, and its sister institutions, is, as was said of the Weimar Republic, by Peter Gay, a corpse on leave, not necessarily as an organizational entity, but as an idea about who we, the public-as-citizen, are and can be because of public service broadcasting. To get at the point necessitates going back to the beginning, to the early years of the BBC’s existence, to consider again Reith and what might be called “original intent.”


It is not clear from his autobiography what the year was, though 1948 seems a decent bet, when Harman Grisewood, the then head of the BBC’s Third Programme, traveling in Scotland at the invitation of several universities, read, as he put it, “some lively correspondence complaining of paint which was sprayed on kippers to give them the right colour…” (A kipper is a salmon or herring that has been cleaned, salted and then dried or smoked.) Grisewood promptly all but abandoned his university visits and instead made a tour of kipper factories in Dundee. He did so because, as he writes, “The painted kipper, I felt, was a sign of cultural degradation.” (1)

When he returned to London he proposed a talk about the painted kipper to the meeting of the Talks Department at the BBC from which Third Programme broadcasts were commissioned. He continues: “The idea was not well received – or understood – except by Miss Kalin (one of his staff) and those who were won over to the Third Programme idea. Nobody could be found to give the talk.” He adds: “This talk to my mind was to be the first of several on sensual subjects which would show the betrayal of culture and would point out to the betrayers what was at stake. In the world of the painted kipper Glyndebourne could not long survive.” (2) Glyndebourne is a 700 year-old country house in East Sussex that since 1934 has been the venue of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. The Festival is one of the highlights of the season for the English upper middle class and is a superb metaphor – as Grisewood is in effect suggesting – of a culture to be celebrated, but whose continued existence – re: the painted kipper – was being fiercely, he believed, challenged by a rising tide of vulgarity.

The Third Programme went on the air on 29 September, 1946, and so Reith was gone from the BBC when Grisewood was pondering the metaphorical implications of the painted kipper, that if one considered it with sufficient attention one would smell the dreadful odor of Modernity. Its official terms of reference were laid down by the then Director General, William Haley, in a memo dated 14 January, 1946:

The Programme is designed to be of artistic and cultural importance. The audience envisaged is one already aware of artistic experience and will include persons of taste, of intelligence, and of education; it is, therefore, selective not casual, and both attentive and critical. The Programme need not cultivate any other audience, and any material that is unlikely to interest such readers should be excluded. (3)

One senses that many will see Grisewood’s metaphor of the painted kipper and the comments of Haley as classically Reithian, with that keen sense of the need to celebrate, preserve, and protect a rarified culture of the upper class from the depredations of the lower orders. Certainly Reith, as is well known, believed in standards – and why shouldn’t he have? But to suggest that the position of the advocates of the Third Programme was also that of Reith is nowhere close to being accurate even if, as will be argued here, the Reithian project was all about confronting the darker aspects, the canker at the heart, of Modernity, but doing so on behalf of the whole of the society, not just its privileged few.

In particular what distinguished Reith from Grisewood and his allies at the BBC is that the latter did not see themselves as having an educational role. Indeed they were suspicious of an educative mission. When asked if they wanted to educate their audience, Etienne Amyot, one of the founders of the Third Programme, replied: “Never. I believe that education is curiosity. I don’t believe it is somebody teaching you something.” (4) In this sense, from within what was clearly, if unknowingly, a deep pessimism, they were the very antithesis of the Reithian project. Grisewood wrote, somewhat gnomically: “The most powerful enemy the highbrow has is the well-educated man… (The Third Programme) conceived strictly in educational terms would lose its vitality and its value as a creative force.” (5) Reith wrote, at the very birth of broadcasting: “It was early realized that there were very great educational possibilities in broadcasting.” (6)

The Third Programme was overtly, indeed aggressively and self-consciously, elitist, believing in hierarchy in cultural production and fearful of “the dislike, that gathered strength during the fifties, of hierarchy in any form, whether social or academic. At the end of my time the mighty wind which was to blow hard against the gradations of refinement was already felt…I was lucky indeed to have left my post before it rose to gale force. I ought to have seen it coming…and guessed at its destructive course. It was getting late on the dial of culture and I failed to notice it. After dark all cats are grey.” (7)

Grisewood’s world was not a place that expected much of “ordinary” people, and it is here that one can begin to see the significant difference with Reith who did believe in larger human possibilities, even if he also knew that it would be a heavy haul. It is for this reason that he, Reith, would in fact argue that the Third Programme was a complete waste of time and that its resources should be moved to the Home Service and the Light Programme, which reached way beyond the audience served by the Third Programme, which in fact reached all those people on whom Grisewood and those of his ilk had given up.

There is a fascinating comment in Reith’s Diaries that references a note he sent to Herbert Morrison, Lord President of the Council in the Atlee government. The context was the recently published report by the Beveridge Committee inquiry into the BBC and its future, and Reith had been asked by Morrison to comment on the report. He did so in a memo, “Notes on Berveridge Committee Report, sent to Mr. Herbert Morrison, 31 January 1951.” In this Reith wrote:

The Third Programme, positively and negatively, is objectionable. It is a waste of a precious wavelength; much of its matter is too limited in appeal; the rest should have a wider audience. When overall programme policy and control was abandoned, the Third Programme was a sop to moral conscience, a sort of safety valve. Odd that this vital issue has been ignored. (8)

That Reith did not approve of the Third Programme set him apart from Haley, who is nevertheless sometimes referred to as “the last Reithian,” reflecting the basic truth perhaps that Haley, like Grisewood, was somewhat singularly focused on preserving a particularly narrow cultural order, and that both were essentially committed to stasis. Reith, who obviously understood their position, was nevertheless committed to something very different and was more concerned with changing a whole social and cultural order so that each and every member of that society could achieve their full potential, intellectually, culturally and morally. In fact, what is being argued here is that the only useful and accurate way to “see” Reith is to understand his role as part of a colossal struggle over the nature and place of Modernity in all our lives and the effort to mitigate its brutish tendencies.


  1. Harman Grisewood, “One Thing at a Time: an Autobiography, Hutchinson, London, 1968, p168
  2. Grisewood, ibid, 1968, 169
  3. in: Humphrey Carpenter, “The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, 1946 – 1996” Phoenix Giant, London1997, pp.11-12
  4. Carpenter, ibid, 1997, p.17
  5. Grisewood, op cit, 1968, 170
  6. J. C. W. Reith, Broadcast Over Britain, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1924, p.147
  7. Grisewood, op cit, 1968, 175
  8. 23 January, 1951: in, The Reith Diaries, ed. Charles Stuart, Collins, London, 1975, p.473

John Reith, the BBC and Modernity: Read the entire series…


Professor Michael Tracey, has been Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Colorado at Boulder since 1988. From 1981 to 1988 he was head of the London based Broadcasting Research Unit, then Britain’s leading think tank dealing with media issues. He received his bachelor’s degree in politics from the University of Exeter in 1971, and his doctorate from the Centre for Mass Communications Research at the University of Leicester in 1975. From 1975 to 1981 he was a Research Fellow at the Leicester Centre. Tracey has written eight books, including his 1983 biography of Sir Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC from 1960 to1969, “A Variety of Lives; a Biography of Sir Hugh Greene” (Bodley Head) and his 1998 book, “The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting” (Oxford University Press.) Tracey has also written scores of articles on many different aspects of media and communication, but most notably dealing with the history, condition and future of public service broadcasting. He has also lectured in many different countries. From 1991 to 1998 he was a Trustee of the International Institute of Communications, and from 1994 to 1999, Visiting Professor and Chair of International Communications at the University of Salford. More recently he has produced documentaries, with his friend and colleague David Mills, and their work has appeared in the UK on Channel Four, ITV, and the American networks CBS, Court TV and A&E. They are developing a documentary series that will profile the lives of successful men who never knew their fathers. In 2008 he published his first e-book on Scholars & Rogues. “From Xmas to August: an Essay on Murder, Media Mayhem and the Condition of the Culture” is about his decade long involvement in the case of JonBenet Ramsey. He is currently working on a book of essays, “Lost in a Haunted Wood: Politics, Culture and the Question of Language in 21st Century America” and writing the authorized biography of the life and times of the legendary British broadcaster Donald Baverstock. He now lives with his wife, Jen, three dogs, Beau, Jess and Babe and his cat Miss Bardot, in a small hamlet at 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains west of Boulder.