American Culture

The painted kipper (pt. 4): "measuring culture" and the Orwellian trifecta

Part 4 in a series.

One way to get the measure of a person – their temper, as in mood, their dispositions, both emotional and intellectual, what they glean from life, how they “see” the world this way rather than that way – is by understanding those other voices to whom they listen, about whom they think, and from whom they draw.

Most immediately and obviously for Reith his father, George Reith, a minister in the Free Church of Scotland, was a powerful influence. Reith told Boyle that from beyond the grave his father had had a profound effect on public service broadcasting. (38)

There were other influences, though – or put somewhat differently, two individuals with whom Reith identified, in one case somewhat paradoxically. In 1929 Reith was asked by the former Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin – who had been elected Rector of St. Andrew’s University in Scotland – if he had any ideas that he might use in his inaugural address. Reith recommended Tyndall’s 1874 address to the British Association, and urged him to study the ideas of Dr. Thomas Chalmers, “in his view one of the greatest Scotsmen who ever lived…” Also Proverbs and the Book of Job. (39) What McIntyre doesn’t do – nor indeed has anyone else – is explain what it was about Chalmers’ and Tyndall’s work and thought that appealed to Reith?

Thomas Chalmers, a Church of Scotland minister and social reformer, was born on 17 March 1780 in Anstruther, Fife, and his birth occurred towards the end of what historians have termed the Scottish Enlightenment, the core concerns of which were moral theology, history, economics and the question of whether the acquisitive ethics of capitalism were, or could ever, be compatible with traditional virtues of sociability, sympathy and justice.

His biographer, Stewart J. Brown, writes in an essay in the Dictionary of National Biography (40), which draws on his 1982 biography, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth in Scotland, that for Chalmers a key conviction was that a fundamental problem in Scotland was the breakdown of communal spirit and so he took his ministry into the poorest parts of Glasgow and other Scottish cities. He also set out to eradicate poverty by understanding it, encouraging “self-sufficiency and appealing to neighbourhood charity.” (41) In other words, he sought to confront both the material and, vitally, the spiritual depravations wrought by industrial capitalism. It is not difficult to see how this aspect of his thinking and work would have appealed to Reith. Both were also superb organizers, creators of systems, highly capable in marrying organizations to their moral ambitions. Both also, as Brown writes of Chalmers, “betrayed an Enlightenment optimism concerning human nature: a belief that through religious and moral instruction or social engineering human character could be improved.” (42) And both believed that there was a necessary correlation between achieving these ends of moral elevation, of perfecting the human condition, and the creation of powerful “establishments” – in Chalmers’ case defined by the Kirk, in Reith’s case by the BBC.

Chalmers writes, these

establishments were by necessity supported by endowments and it was incumbent on the state to protect those endowments. Because of the weakness of human nature, religion and education could not be left to the laws of the market place. People had no natural desire for religion or education, as they had for such goods as wine or tobacco; on the contrary, the more irreligious or ignorant a person was, the less he or she would value religion or education. Nor could religion and education be left to the voluntary exertions of individuals, which would always prove inadequate because of the frailty of human nature. Only endowed national establishments, under the protection of the state, would have the power to break through corrupt human nature and reach the individual conscience with religious and moral truth. Only the establishments would have the permanent influence needed to preserve Christian civilization. (43 – emphasis added)

Chalmers had another biographer, John Reith. There is a brief footnote in Stuart’s edition of the Diaries that mentions that Reith had written about Chalmers, but says nothing of what Reith had said about his iconic countryman. He is referring, in fact, to an undated, untitled 94-page essay (a comment in the text suggests that it was written in 1958). It becomes clear from the essay that Reith’s admiration for Chalmers was in the first instance Chalmers’ extraordinary presence – the crowds he drew for his sermons would be numbered in the tens of thousands – but also because of his utter determination that the Church, and its teachings and practices, would be independent of, and uninfluenced by, the state and that it would function as an all-embracing entity, better to do its work. The parallels with the BBC and the way in which Reith thought of it, created it and organized it are obvious.

One of the themes which clearly appealed to Reith were Chalmers’ views on the purpose of education:

…It is not to turn an operative (a labourer) into a capitalist; it is to turn an ignorant operative into a learned operative; to stamp upon him the worth and respectability of which I contend he is fully susceptible, though he rise not by a single inch above the sphere of life in which he now moves; to transform him into a reflective and accomplished individual; not to hoist, as it were, the great ponderous mass of society up into the air…(but) to diffuse through it the light both of common and Christian intelligence. (44)

It is when one gets to John Tyndall and his famous address to the British Association (45) that something really interesting about Reith emerges – assuming that Reith was recommending the address because he thought that Tyndall had something to say.

Tyndall was born on 2 August, 1820, in Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, Ireland. By the time of his death in 1893 he was recognized as one of the key scientific figures of the 19th century and in particular as one of the key exponents of the belief that science had, and should have, triumphed over theology. He challenged the idea of miracles and the efficacy of prayer. He was, in fact, a scientific materialist of the first order.

His address to the British Association annual meeting in Belfast in 1874 is a long, learned and profound defense of reason and the scientific method as being superior to religious belief and values. Early on in the talk he speaks of how in its early history in ancient Greece in particular “the sciences were being born, being nurtured and developed by free-thinking and courageous men…” who embodied “a desire and determination to sweep from the field of theory this mob of gods and demons, and to place natural phenomena on a basis more congruent with themselves.”

He spends a good deal of time espousing the enormous scientific developments of ancient Greece, which “had already cleared the world of the fantastic images of divinities operating capriciously through natural phenomena…” He then asks a profound question, the answer to which makes Reith’s apparent admiration all the more curious. He asks: “What, then, stopped its victorious advance? Why was the scientific intellect compelled, like an exhausted soil, to lie fallow for nearly two millenniums before it could regather the elements necessary to its fertility and strength?” The answer is blunt and unequivocal, if laid out in great detail: the rise of Christianity.

If we then go back to Reith, the obvious question is what was it about Tyndall that appealed? Perhaps it was that since Reith was by training an engineer, he simply understood and agreed with the place of science. How, though, to square his overt Christian beliefs with Tyndall’s intense scientific materialism? A small clue might lie in a brief and, on the face of it, relatively inconsequential comment in his Diary.

Reith may have been a person of deep religious conviction; he was, however, drawn to religion that had an intellectual orientation, in sermons, for example. After attending a Quaker meeting he wrote in his Diary: “The silent part of it I quite liked; but however snobbish it may appear I prefer to be spoken to by people in whom I can recognize some intellectuality; spirituality, no matter how deep, does not make up to me for lack of the other thing.” (46) It is in here perhaps that lies the explanation for his great belief that it was vital that broadcasting engage issues of societal importance, no matter how controversial. His biographer, Andrew Boyle, writes, “Matters of controversy, he believed were the very stuff of broadcasting, no matter how delicate or dangerous: ‘Give both sides,’ was his brief, illuminating doodle (in his diary entry).” (47) Reith himself celebrated Arnold’s “significant passage on the search for truth. ‘To try to approach truth on one side after another; not to strive or cry, not to persist in pressing forward on one side with violence and self-will; it is only thus, it seems to me, that mortals may hope to gain any vision of the mysterious goddess whom we shall never see except in outline, but only thus even in outline.’ He that believeth shall not make haste.” (48)

Perhaps Reith was, in the end, not quite as religious as has been understood. In fact, Boyle suggests that he was “not strictly a religious man by conviction, and his Christian attitudes had been mostly borrowed from his dead father.” (49) Perhaps what appealed about Tyndall, in fact, was that he had a powerful intellect and that in the great debate about life and its meaning he was a profound proponent of the “other” side in his powerful defence of scientific materialism, and Reith simply respected that.


What lay at the heart of Reith’s view of not just communication but the purpose of communication for the individual as well as national life, was something very basic: the idea that the forces of materialism, as articulated within a market economy, would have a deleterious effect on the human condition, on the ability to be human. And we would do well to remember that this wasn’t necessarily because of his theological bent; his view was simply at one with other critics of Modernity, none of whom seem to have had some kind of closet theology. They were humanists who also believed in human possibility, that idea of life being lived well and to the full.

What we have seen in recent times, in the UK and elsewhere, are a series of developments which open up communication and culture to precisely those forces he sought to keep at bay:

  • The Cable and Broadcasting Act, 1984;
  • the Broadcasting Act of 1990, which implemented proposals in the Conservative Government’s White Paper, “Broadcasting in the 1990s: Competition, Choice and Quality” (the Orwellian trifecta – we could have it all, market values and cultural values);
  • the 2003 Communications Act, which established OfCom and prepared the way for ITVplc, the new rampantly populist, commercial broadcaster with no meaningful vestige of public service values remaining, all bringing in a dramatic shift in thinking about the place and purpose of broadcasting in society.

What we have also witnessed is the rise to prominence of a generation of politicians and broadcasters who were palpably less committed to the ideas and values, to the humanistic underpinning, of public broadcasting. Theirs was much more a world of trimming budgets, fiscal efficiency, organizational rationalization, the importing of market values, the quest for new markets, the rise of a new populism in the kinds of programmes made, perhaps no more better represented than in the grim rise of reality television, the chasing of particular demographics, such as 18 to 34 year-old men, “lads,” all these and more have become the hallmark of the BBC, and all appear to be more or less welcomed by those who now run the organization.

An example: In a speech to the Oxford Media Convention in January 2003, Mark Thompson, who was then chief executive at Channel Four and who would become Director General of the BBC in 2004, asked whether the old song that had traditionally sung the virtues of public service broadcasting would be able to “work its magic again?” In answering his own question, he said:

…regulators and policy-makers are increasingly finding themselves having to weigh the benefits and disbenefits (sic) of public service provision quite forensically, almost numerically, against the interests – and pressures – of the private sector.

This is an interesting, though troubling, point. He is suggesting that what is happening is that an institution which everyone accepts is imbued with values that are hard, if not impossible, to pin down in language, let alone in an algorithm, is nevertheless faced with the need to articulate itself numerically. Would it be a stretch to suggest that the logic which is unfolding here is that if there is something – a value, a principle, a moral commitment, a creative moment – that cannot be represented numerically, it is doomed?

Thompson continued in his address:

The problem with the traditional public service song is that, no matter how much passion and conviction you bring to the performance, it’s just too woolly and abstract to be measured against anything else. And if it can’t be weighed properly, in the end it won’t be valued properly. The dominant language of the new regulators is going to be the language of economics, competition and public policy rather than the historic language of public service broadcasting, which is the language of culture and high culture at that. If we want to develop public service broadcasting as a cultural force in this environment, we have to find arguments and evidence which make sense in this new language. (The language of Hugh Greene was “high culture”? Not exactly.)

When one reads this comment what immediately springs to mind was the fact the central concern of the great 19th century social theorists was precisely about intrusiveness of the calculative nature of capital in human affairs. Indeed, reading Thompson, it is impossible not to recall the famous observation by Simmel that eventually, under capitalist Modernity, everything – all facets of life – would be reduced to one basic question: “How much?” (50) One is also reminded of a comment by Theodore Adorno in response to a failed effort to work with Paul Lazarsfeld on a quantitative study of American popular culture: “When I was confronted with the demands to ‘measure culture,’ I reflected that culture might be precisely that condition that excludes a mentality capable of measuring it.” (51)

One is also drawn to another comment, written only a couple of decades after Simmel:

In almost all other lines of business it is possible to tell pretty accurately whether one’s efforts are meeting with success or not. There is usually some unit of measurement available. It may be tonnage output per week, or comparative weekly costs, or a dozen other equally satisfactory tests, around which one can build one’s comments, complimentary or otherwise, at the weekly staff conference. I should be grateful to anyone who would suggest a really reliable criterion for this business. I cannot find one.

That would be John Reith. (52)


38) Andrew Boyle, “Only The Wind Will Listen: Reith of the BBC,” Hutchinson. London, 1972, p.330
39) Andrew McIntyre, “The Expense of Glory: A Life of John Reith,” Harper Collins, London, 1994 (p.177 – McIntyre incorrectly puts the date of Tyndall’s address as 1870)
40) Thomas Chalmers: “On the Use and Abuse of Literary and Ecclesiastical Endowments,” 1827.
41) ibid, 5
42) ibid, 5
43) Chalmers, emphasis added
44) Reith, 1958, unpublished ms, p.30
45) Tyndal, address to the British Association, Belfast, 1874
46) 23 January, 1951: in, The Reith Diaries, ed. Charles Stuart, Collins, London, 1975, p.55
47) Boyle, op cit, 1972,187
48) Reith, op cit, 1924, 208
49) Boyle, 1972, 122-123)
50) Simmel, George: “Metropolis and Mental Life,” in: The Sociology of George Simmel, Collier-Macmillan,1950, orig. pub, 1903.
51) Theodore Adorno, “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America” in: Bernard Bailyn and Donald Fleming, eds, Intellectual Migration, Harvard University Press, 1969, pp.343
52) Reith, op cit, 1924, 205

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.