American Culture

The painted kipper (pt 2): John Reith, the melancholic optimist

Part 2 in a series.

The original thought in writing this piece was to “resurrect” Reith, better to point to the problems that beset the BBC today – problems that are not just about politics but more importantly about philosophical purpose and the walking away from some fundamental ideas laid down by Reith and his BBC which went far beyond the traditional concept of educating, informing and entertaining, important though these remain. In a sense, though, Reith needs no resurrection since given the lingering presence and dominance of his great creation, the BBC, he never went away. He also remains present through his own writings, the biographies, Andrew Boyles’ Only The Wind Will Listen, (9) Ian McIntyre’s The Expense of Glory (10) and Roger Milner’s curious but amusing and insightful Reith: the BBC Years. (11) His presence looms in the monumental history of the BBC by Asa Briggs. (12) In fact, when it comes to broadcasting in Britain, and therefore many other places, he is, to borrow from C.S. Lewis. “like the sky, spread over everything.” This essay is more properly seen as a reinterpretation, as part of a looking back over almost a century better to understand what he was really about – in ways that perhaps even he himself was unaware – and how we might understand his purpose, his legacy and the acute question of how to judge broadcasting and culture today when set against that purpose.

On first blush, four decades ago, one “saw” Reith through the eyes of youth, slightly baffled by this figure for yesterday, a reactionary, a figure from a certain age long past and no longer relevant. Studying him was part of a fledgling attempt to understand the institution of public service broadcasting, its history, its politics, its personalities, but most of all, to understand its purpose, asking a very basic question: why did it exist in the first place? These many years later one “sees” Reith through older eyes, from within a different moment and what one sees is a kind sad magnificence, depression, an inner pain, his tendency to loathe those of whom he did not approve, his deep sense of being unfulfilled, haunted by the spectre of a gulf between who he could be, should be and who he actually was, his limitless ability and melancholy without end. This is curious given that he created what is surely the singular cultural and journalistic institution of the 20th century. Curious it may be, but real it is, and no flaws of character, vile or eccentric as they might have been, can eradicate his creation, the Corporation, from the historical record.

Perhaps part of the problem of seeing the continued relevance of Reith, of really understanding him is in fact in getting past his personality. In some ways separating judgment about his personality and demeanour from his life’s work is reminiscent of the reactions to Philip Larkin, particularly after the publication in 1993 of Andrew Motion’s book, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, (13) from which emerged a portrait of a misogynistic, racist, tight-fisted, family/children loathing little Englander. In light of his negative image and reputation, the looming and inevitable question is, what then to make of the poems? Can the mind that wrote the poems in “The Less Deceived,” (1955) “The Whitsun Weddings,” (1964) “High Windows,” (1974) and one of the most heart-rending lines in English poetry, the final line to “An Arundel Tomb” (“What will survive of us is love”) be really so awful? That’s not a debate for here, except to say that in a Rachel Cooke piece about Larkin in The Observer, to mark the forthcoming publication in 2010 of Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica (edited by Anthony Thwaites – Monica was his long time mistress, Monica Jones) it becomes clear that the early judgments were either overdone or simply wrong. She also adds a comment that is perhaps helpful in getting past the dark barrier of Reith’s character: “…Two decades on…” from the Motion biography, “it is clear that the poems are safe. In the universities, where he continues to be taught, it is presumably understood that, as John Updike put it, the drama of his greatest poems hinges on the breaking of Larkin’s crustiness, his prejudices, followed by ‘a generous, deep-breathing self-transcendence’; in other words, that the work has everything to do with life, and also nothing at all.” (14)

In this vein, and having revisited Reith’s Diaries and the various biographies, one of the things that one brings away is that whatever one thinks of the character there is a transcendent magnificence in the work. Even that, however, may be unfair because something else that comes to the surface on reflection, and even allowing for the flaws of character, is that the term eccentric is more appropriate than the simple notion of his being an unreconstructed reactionary, or one might see him as cranky. He himself would write, “Men of principle are sometimes apt to be confused with cranks.” (15) As a young man he contemplated a life in politics, first with the Liberal Party, then the Labour Party, and upon finding nothing there, dabbling with the Tories. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that in any party political sense he was conservative; indeed he would, one imagines, believe that really was beneath him.

What comes through is a kind of magnificent madness. On one occasion he praised Hitler for the Night of the Long Knives, when the Brown shirts were decimated, and welcomed the fact that Germany had banned “hot jazz,” which he described as “this filthy product of Modernity.” (16) He seems to have taken something of a shine to Mussolini – though before we get too agitated about this one might point out that so did the sainted FDR. In 1968, when he was asked by some students whether he would stand again for Rector of Glasgow University, he declined but decided to back another candidate, one Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was declared by the press to be the most dangerous and far-left radical in Europe because of this leadership of the May events in Paris in 1968, the student uprising that almost toppled the Fifth republic, and who was universally known as “Danny the Red.”

There was also the curiously emotionally demanding innocent, no better reflected in his early years by passion for Charlie Bowser. He was also very fond of young women, most notably Dawn Mackay, whom he would introduce as his goddaughter, which she, as everyone knew, wasn’t and whom was assumed to be his mistress (his wife Muriel was very much in the background and apparently a seriously tolerant woman.)

He also loved positions that required on occasion, grand occasion, the wearing of flamboyant, even Ruritanian, garb, hence his fantasizing about becoming Viceroy in India, or Governor General in South Africa, or ambassador in Washington, and his obvious delight at all the regal trappings of being Lord High Commissioner, the monarch’s representative in Scotland.

There was also a real tenderness in Reith’s makeup, expressed for example in his relationship with his parents and in his deeply moving account of their deaths.

As a matter of psychology, what Reith wanted was recognition and eminence, not, one suspects, because of his apparent lofty sense of self, even though there were elements of that, but actually because of a certain self-loathing and a child-like need to show off, all the better to quiet an inner turmoil. One possibility that has never really been seriously considered is that Reith was suffering from a mental illness, perhaps along the lines of bipolar disorder. Reith himself told Boyle that “when people ask me how I am, I say – well physically, but ill mentally.” (17) The full meaning of this, however, has never been fully explored.

However, whatever the eccentricities, the curiosities, the childishness, the manic psychology, the confused sexuality, even a hint in McIntyre of a possible pedophilic tendency, the emotional turmoil, the constant sense of defeat and being unfulfilled, the occasional pompous self-regard, there was the other Reith in which the significance of his life lies not only in the creation of the BBC, but in what that represents on the larger canvas of history, and in particular to the 19th and early 20th century debates about the nature of that history and crucially our place within it as human beings.

In the end Reith wasn’t someone who wanted to use broadcasting just to offer a public service, to educate, inform and entertain to cite the famous triptych. Those were more akin to a methodology to achieve a larger purpose based on an underlying sense of human possibility, one that should not be trampled underfoot by the crass, the flat, the shallow, the trivial, the vulgar, the exploitative, who saw that in the end, and if we get it right, we are far more than the sum of our appetites. He was in effect setting his face – and, he hoped, the nation – against what he took to be the darker side of Modernity, particularly in the materialism that lay at its heart, which he clearly viewed as something that would lead to a deadening of the soul. He was, in his own way, asking what Yeats called the “ancient questions…” of which two are surely: what is it to be fully human; what does the “good,” “mature,” society actually look like, and what role can communication play in achieving such ends? Reith, informed by both his theological commitments but also his intellect, was convinced that life could be better, that that it could be elevated and enhanced for everyone. In fact, if one comes at Reith from this perspective it is not difficult to see how he was firmly planted in the soil of the Scottish Enlightenment, that period in the 18th century characterized by a range of thinkers who believed that through force of intellect benign change could be effectuated for the whole populace. Whatever his theological inclinations, Reith was clearly using intellect and reason to forge an institution which through its action, that is its programmes, would itself effectuate benign change for the whole populace.

That his character was optimistic – about the future of the society, if not his own emotional well-being – is, however, curious given that he was of the generation that went through the absurd, stupid slaughter of the first great war.

In 1921 Reith’s contemporary, the poet  T. S. Eliot, suffered a nervous breakdown partly because of living in a difficult marriage (his wife was mentally unstable) but also, it has been suggested, for example by Terry Eagleton, because of the crisis of mood and confidence which afflicted the whole post-First World War culture. From the distance of almost a century it is easy to forget just what a searing impact the war had – particularly on those poor wretches who fought in its trenches. It introduced a new age, a new raw sensibility and finally brought to an end that sense of superiority that had been granted to the aristocracy and the higher echelons of society. Romantic humanism, the sense of hope and possibility, the idea of progress, were all interred, along with the corpses, in the mud of Ypres, the Somme and Paschendale and all the other battles of the so-called “Great War.” But not, it seems, for Reith who did not share, for example, Eliot’s grim understanding of the nature of Modernity as beyond redemption, arid, a desert, “squeezed in the tube-train next to you/The desert is in the heart of your brother.” With the right engineering, Reith clearly believed, even deserts can be reclaimed.

What then did Reith really have in mind in creating the BBC as a public service broadcaster? In the first instance, for a short period of time, he seems actually to not have had anything overt in mind. In his Diaries he writes:

13 December 1922: This morning I had the interview about the BBC. Sir William Noble came out to get me and he was smiling in a confidential sort of way. Present, McKinstry, Binyon and one other (representative of the wireless manufacturers). I put it all before God last night. They didn’t ask me many questions and some they did I didn’t know the meaning of. (The fact is I hadn’t the remotest idea as to what broadcasting was. I hadn’t troubled to find out. If I had tried I should probably have found difficulty in discovering anyone who knew.)

However, given his intellectual roots a notion was inevitably lurking within and it very quickly came to him that broadcasting had more transcendent possibilities than being a mere new form of commerce. It also emerged with extraordinary speed and clarity, carried in the pages of his 1924 book, “Broadcast Over Britain,” (18) while the BBC was still a company, even if one that, as he points out, was not intended to make money.

He writes “that to have exploited so great a scientific invention for the pursuit of ‘entertainment’ alone” – this last word is vital, because he wasn’t against entertainment– “would have been a prostitution of its powers and an insult to the character and intelligence of the people. To have left unexplained the innumerable paths along which might pass influences, other than those normally associated with entertainment, would have stamped as sorry fellows those to whose care the administration of the invention had been committed.” (19) He argues that how different, and worse, things would have been “had we been content with mediocrity”(20) and of the “incalculable harm which might have been done, had different principles guided the conduct of the service in the early days…” (21) In full-blown Arnoldian mode he states that

“our responsibility is to carry into the greatest possible number of homes everything that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement, and to avoid the things which are, or may be, hurtful. It is, occasionally indicated to us that we are apparently setting out to give people what we think they need – and not what they want, but few know what they want, and very few what they need. There is often no difference…In any case it is better to over-estimate the mentality of the public, than to under-estimate it.” (22)

The absolutely key word here is “overestimate,” because it contains his real, if surprising, optimism, that given the chance the individual, and therefore the society, can grow. To achieve this, however, he seems intuitively to have understood the need to create an institution that could keep at bay materialism, economic calculation and easy, distracting, pleasures, even though it is totally clear, if one reads the whole book, that he did not believe that every day of broadcasting should replicate the mood of the Sabbath on a damp Sunday in Glasgow. This was after all a man who liked to leave his wife at home while he went out to dance a jig with admiring young ladies.

He was also a powerful believer in the power of imagination which he called “Reason in her most exalted mode…The divine gift of imagination is an essential characteristic of the broadcaster…it is imagination which turns the mechanic into an inventor, and which contributes the outstanding element of genius.” (23) And he believed profoundly that it could enhance individual and collective life:

Neither by superior individuals, nor by organization can it be dismissed as beyond their ken or interest, or as capable of doing neither harm nor good. The squire may suffer some embarrassment when he finds that his ploughman is better informed on events than he is on events of national significance. Over and above what it may be able to bring to man and woman as individuals, the part which it is destined to play in the life of the community is much too definite and extensive for it to be disregarded. (24)

As already noted, a key element in that relationship to both the individual and the community flowed from the educative potential of broadcasting, well done.


9) Andrew Boyle, “Only The Wind Will Listen: Reith of the BBC,” Hutchinson. London, 1972
10) Andrew McIntyre, “The Expense of Glory: A Life of John Reith,” Harper Collins, London, 1994
11) Roger Milner, “Reith: The BBC Years,” Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1983
12) Asa Briggs, “The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom,” vols 1 – 5, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1961 – 1995
13) Andrew Motion, “Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life,” Faber and Faber, London, 1993
14) Rachel Cooke, The Observer, 27th June, 2010
15) J. C. W. Reith, Broadcast Over Britain, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1924, p. 212
16) McIntyre, op cit, 1993, p.218
17) Boyle, op cit, 1972, p.337
18) Reith, op cit, 1924
19) Reith, ibid, 1924, p.17
20) Reith, ibid, p.25
21) Reith, ibid, p.31
22) Reith, ibid, p.34
23) Reith, ibid, pp.43-44
24) Reith, ibid, 1924, p.79

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.