American Culture

The painted kipper (pt. 3): public service vs. the brute force of money

by Michael Tracey

Part 3 in a series.

On 20 July 1925, Reith’s 36th birthday, the British Post-Master General, Mitchell-Thomson, informed the House of Commons that there would be a committee of inquiry into the future of the BBC chaired by the 27th Earl of Crawford and Balcarres. Reith had already raised the question of the Company’s future at a meeting with the Board on 19 March 1925, by now convinced that its status should be changed to a public service.

In November 1925 Reith prepared a memorandum for submission to the Crawford Committee, entitled “Memorandum of Information on the Scope and Conduct of the broadcasting Service,” the only purpose of which was “to show the desirability for the conduct of Broadcasting as a Public Service, for the adoption and maintenance of definite policies and standards in all its activities, and for unity of control.”

The memorandum was in effect a shorter version of “Broadcast Over Britain.” He wrote:

Rightly developed and controlled broadcasting will become a world influence with immense potentialities for good – equally for harm, if its function is wrongly or loosely conceived…It must not be used for entertainment purposes alone…He who provides himself on giving the public what he thinks the public want is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he will then satisfy…

So it is utterly clear that within a matter of months Reith conceived the architecture and purpose of what became the Corporation. His concept rested on those several powerful assumptions outlined in the Preface, which in effect aligned the BBC with that wide and varied critique, from both left and right, of the impact of Modernity, that yearned for a culture defined not by materialism, but other more worthy, human values. It rested on two concepts, one of Culture, one of Man. Its sense of culture was essentially Arnoldian which, as Lionel Trilling has written, “does not signify what the word commonly does, a vague belletristic gentility; it means many things but nothing less than reason experienced as a kind of grace by each citizen, the conscious effort of each man to come to the realization of his complete humanity.” (25 – emphasis added) It also had within it an echo of William von Humboldt’s comment that: “The true end of Man, or that which is prescribed by the immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.”

It is this sense of pursuing “completeness” that is vital because it suggests a process, a pursuit and calls into play the making of judgments that will further the process. It is for this reason that Reith would, for example, surely have agreed with Leavis’ comment in Mass Civilization and Minority Culture about the importance of identifying “the implicit standards that order the finer living of the age, the sense that this is worth more than that, this rather than that is the direction in which to go, that the centre is here rather than there.” (26) He would have concurred with Leavis’ citing of Arnold: “…the mass of the public is without any suspicion that the value of these organs is relative to their being nearer a certain ideal centre of correct information, taste and intelligence, or farther away from it.” (27) He would have applauded the comment that “…there is no longer an informed and cultivated public…” (28) and that “the critically adult public…is very small indeed…” (29)

But there are other points at which one can understand Reith by going back to Leavis. There is a comment by Christopher Ricks that could be readily applied to Reith:

Leavis belongs to the tradition which holds that there is no distinction between literary values and moral and spiritual values; hence he is at one with Dr. Johnson, Mathew Arnold and T.S. Eliot in believing that aesthetic values, or literary values, should not be put into a separate category, since the reasons why we value poems are the same as those by which we evaluate people’s behaviour, the state of society or the state of an individual’s consciousness…He believes, with Arnold, that literature represents the best that’s been known and thought in the world; that literature exists because of consensuses of opinion, amounting to very important agreements about human truth and human wisdom, such as are embodied in a language, and therefore in its literature, which represents that language at its most effective, most vital and most enduring… (30)

Substitute “broadcasting” for “poems” and “literature” and the relationship to Reith’s thinking and intent is utterly clear: great communication can only happen when it is anchored to a larger moral purpose. Leavis also shared with Reith a belief in the potential socio-cultural importance of communication. His doctoral thesis, The Relationship of Journalism to Literature, reflected his belief, as one of his biographers, Edward Greenwood notes, that the medium can both reflect and mold the cultural aspirations of a wider public. (31) And Reith was quick to note that molding could be both benign or malign, depending on the intent of those in control.

One might suggest that what is being called out here are the kind of emotional, moral and intellectual conditions for living well, suggesting that education, in the broad sense and including communication, is not about producing functionaries, but fully formed moral beings, aesthetically, emotionally and intellectually capable, personal qualities that were not debased, rather enriched and enhanced by their having been born and nurtured within an enabling culture. It’s really about “sensibility,” a certain disposition, a certain character defined by Webster’s (the edition used here dates from 1916) as, “mental receptivity; discernment; sensibility of truth; capacity of emotion or feeling; delicacy of feeling; sensibility to pain or praise…able to feel or praise; delicacy of an instrument; sensitiveness.” In other words, whether one is talking about education or communication or both, the concern is that they be employed, separately as well as together, to nurture an evolved, mature populace and social order. What would be brought forth, however, were interior qualities and potentialities. In a sense thinkers, such as those quoted here, did not believe that culture could create a humanistic and moral sensibility, rather that it could properly reveal it. They did, however, believe that impoverished culture could negate such sensibility. It is akin to the idea that the educative process helps reveal certain inherent intellectual possibilities, that in tutoring the mind one is, in a dialectical sense, putting in, better to draw out.


Quite late in life Reith finally found a language which had surely always been there but which, until then, had never been able to break through to the surface, covered as it had been by the slurry of his melancholy. He started employing a mantra that “life’s for living,” a phrase suggested to him by Dawn MacKay, when, in 1960, he asked her advice on what he should say in a talk to boys at the Glasgow Academy. What this meant, it seems clear, was living well, recognizing that even if life wasn’t lived well that did not mean that it couldn’t be, shouldn’t be. In this vein there is a fascinating letter from Oliver Whitley, who was a key figure in the BBC of the 1950s and 1960s, to Reith:

…What do I think of things nowadays? I think thoughts of dismay but not despair at the corrupt misguided society…Government appears nowadays to imagine that its job is done when it seeks material advance and adopts a neutral stance in morals and ethics. Like Goethe’s Faust, it creates by its neutrality between Heaven and Hell, simply a new kind of Hell in the form of a society without meaning for the soul…These things one tries to disseminate atmospherically rather than didactically at BBC management conferences and on other occasions in the BBC, contending against the Faustian thesis that the BBC’s job is to simply inquire, inform, expose without adopting an unequivocal attitude on the side of what humanists and Christians must, if they think hard enough, both recognize as the right if in the long run life is to be worth living. (32)

There is something unusually potent in that phrase “life is to be worth living” and the conjoining of both humanists and Christians to that notion suggests that, from Whitley’s standpoint, the underlying purpose of public service broadcasting – which however subliminal, had always been there in Reith – was not just to be instrumentally involved in educating, entertaining and informing, rather that these are means to an end, that properly engaged they provide for that living well. Broadcasting was not meant, in his worldview, to be used to make life “worse.” It is here again, then, that Reith’s interpretation of the purpose of broadcasting connects to one of the essential themes of much of 19th and 20th century thinking about the nature of society: what does a good, proper, fully human life actually look like and how is it brought into being? In this sense Reith, and Reithianism, were part of a larger narrative engagement with Modernity in those early decades of the century.

In the epigraph to his book After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, (33) Eliot wrote: “But most people are only very little alive…” a phrase which comes within a passage about D. H. Lawrence:

It would seem that for Lawrence any spiritual force was good, and that evil resided only in the absence of spirituality. Most people, no doubt, need to be aroused to the perception of the simple difference between the spiritual and the material; and Lawrence never forgot, and never mistook this distinction. But most people are only very little alive; and to awaken them to the spiritual is a very great responsibility: it is only when they are so awakened that they are capable of real Good, but at the same time they become first capable of Evil.

Eliot was in fact so taken by the notion of living rather than a life of nothingness that he offered what was taken by some to be a scandalous suggestion that it was better to do evil, than to do nothing, because only by being and acting could one transcend the constraints, the inhuman constraints, of Modernity. There is an obvious echo here of a key passage from Marx:

The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc, the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour – your capital. The less you are, the more you have ; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life – the greater is your alienated life – the greater is the store of your estranged being. (34)

One can even, if one is willing to stretch the connective tissue, draw in here Marcuse who in One Dimensional Man, points to the value judgments which lie at the heart of critical social theory including the “judgment that human life is worth living, or rather can be and ought to be made worth living…” (35)

The key to understanding Reith, however, was that he did not believe that living well, of being complete, was for the select few. This is why, once he had transformed the BBC from a company established to sell radios, into a Corporation that would propagate public service values to the whole nation, “making a nation as one man,” as he put it, he set about ensuring that everyone could receive the programmes within which those values would be embedded. The BBC became almost obsessive in its determination that everyone within that nation, even those in the remotest valleys of the Scottish Highlands, would be able to receive the BBC’s signal. He was also determined that news and educational programming would be available to everyman, not just to traditional educated elites. The vital element to understand here is that this was not just the proffering of a broadcast service, but rather a kind of philosophical ambition and a deep faith in humanistic possibility, which is why in his memo to the Beveridge Committee he wrote: “It is in terms of moral effect that the influence of broadcasting will eventually be judged – whether more harm than good. (36)

In Reith’s view, indeed in the view of many commentators, an appropriate aesthetic of life could only be achieved if certain modern tendencies were held at bay. It is for this reason that he was brutal in his denunciation of the idea that economics, profit, materialism should drive broadcasting because of his conviction that not only would they debase standards they would undermine the core project of using broadcasting to better human ends. On 15 June 1952, he wrote an article for The Observer called “The Force of Money,” an attack on the idea of commercial broadcasting in which he declared: “It is the BBC and its friends who are fighting to preserve the freedom of the ether; Lord Wooton, the lord chancellor, Mr. Profumo and his associates surrender to the brute force of money.” Towards the end of 1953 the government had published its proposals for commercial television. In another piece in The Observer, 22 November, 1953, responding to the government’s plans for commercial television, called “The Precedence of England,” he argued that the champions of commercial television were “trying to promote commercial interests under the guise of Miltonic precepts and at the cost of country’s precedence.”

In a House of Lords debate about the introduction of commercial television into Britain he denounced it “as one of the most deplorable, shocking and subversive actions in British political history…” and referred to “the incredible evil…of putting the ether at the power of money…” and seeing it as pestilential threat, compared the introduction of commercial television to the introduction into Britain of “smallpox, the bubonic plague, the Black Death…” (37) This is surely a notion easily within hailing distance of, say, any basic critical social theory, indeed of that great body of 19th century social theory in the writings of Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, Tonnies and, of course, Marx. These authors, even if they varied in what they took to be the essential organizing principles of Modernity, were basically at one with the notion that whatever its characteristics, humanness was negated as economic calculation, materialism and bureaucracy prevailed.

The suggestion then is, that while he himself may not necessarily have identified with other, more overt and self-conscious critiques of Modernity he was, to all intents and purposes, engaged in the selfsame intellectual activity, something that comes as no surprise, given his intellectual and theological origins.


25) Lionel Trilling, “Mathew Arnold,” Columbia University Press, New York, 1949: p.252 – emphasis added)
26) F. R. Leavis, “Mass Civilization and Minority Culture,” St. John’s College, Cambridge 1930, p.5
27) Leavis, ibid, p.5
28) Leavis, ibid, p.14
29) Leavis, ibid, p.26
30) in: Philip French, ed, “Three Honest Men; a critical mosaic – Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling,” 1980, p51
31) Edward Greenwood: “F.R. Leavis,” Longman, London, 1932
32) 20 August, 1963, in, The Reith Diaries, ed. Charles Stuart, Collins, London, 1975, p.509
33) T. S Eliot, “After Strange Gods: a primer of Modern Heresy,” Faber and Faber, London 1934
34) Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts”
35) Herbert Marcuse, “One Dimensional Man, Beacon, Boston,1964.
36) Reith to Beveridge Committee, 21 June 1950: in, The Reith Diaries, ed. Charles Stuart, Collins, London, 1975, p.471
37) Hansard, HL Deb 09 May 1962, vol 240 cc223 – 334

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.