British Broadcasting Corporation Is Chartered Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The British Broadcasting Corporation, a public institution rather than a privately owned company, set the world’s standards for quality production in radio and television.

Summary of Event

After several years of evolution and development, the British Broadcasting Company, Ltd., a private company, was rechartered in late 1926 as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). On January 1, 1927, the new entity officially came into being. The new BBC, however, was not a radical departure from what had previously existed. Rather, the new public corporation was a logical outcome of various social, cultural, institutional, and political developments established long before the founding of the private company in 1922. [kw]British Broadcasting Corporation Is Chartered (Jan. 1, 1927) [kw]Broadcasting Corporation Is Chartered, British (Jan. 1, 1927) British Broadcasting Corporation Radio;networks [g]England;Jan. 1, 1927: British Broadcasting Corporation Is Chartered[06820] [c]Radio and television;Jan. 1, 1927: British Broadcasting Corporation Is Chartered[06820] [c]Communications and media;Jan. 1, 1927: British Broadcasting Corporation Is Chartered[06820] [c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 1, 1927: British Broadcasting Corporation Is Chartered[06820] Reith, John Charles Walsham Baldwin, Stanley Isaacs, Godfrey Eckersley, Peter Pease, Joseph Albert

The development of the transmission of sound by “wireless” broadcasting instead of through telegraphic wire methods began in the nineteenth century. Numerous scientists and inventors, particularly Guglielmo Marconi, provided the theory and the technology. Electronic wave transmission also coincided with other fundamental changes in media communication. In Great Britain, Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) revolutionized print journalism with his newspaper the Daily Mail, a development paralleled by the accomplishments of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the United States, and motion pictures started to affect society as early as the 1890’s. Even the possibility of television was predicted before the end of the century. Wireless development was not unique.

World War I added to the interest and application of wireless technology. When the war ended in 1918, however, the wireless, or radio, was still primarily a technology pursued on an amateur level. In Great Britain, the General Post Office had been given responsibility for transmitting telegrams in 1869 and for licensing various wireless stations in 1904. Unlike in the United States, where government involvement in influencing the direction and content of radio broadcasting was initially minimal, in the United Kingdom the government played a much larger role. The leading British radio company was the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company headed by its managing director, Godfrey Isaacs, who was not alone in seeing the possibilities inherent in radio. On June 15, 1920, Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail sponsored a radio concert by the famous singer Dame Nellie Melba, and the concert was heard all over Europe. Nothing in radio history up to that time had so captured the public’s attention.

The Marconi Company was the largest but not the only private radio company in Great Britain. In many quarters, however, there was a fear of excessive competition and chaotic rivalry, and in May, 1922, the General Post Office took the lead in bringing together the Marconi Company and the other wireless companies in an attempt to bring order and comprehensiveness to radio service in Great Britain. The Marconi Company probably could have provided adequate service itself, but both its business rivals and most politicians, fearful of a private monopoly, were opposed to such a development. On the other hand, Post Office officials were reluctant to assume day-to-day operational control of the new technology. The result, after long negotiations, was the establishment of the British Broadcasting Company, Ltd., in October, 1922. The new company represented two potentially conflicting aspects of radio broadcasting: The interests of private business were essentially economic, but it was also argued that there was a broader public interest that had to be served. The company’s shares were owned by the British manufacturers of wireless equipment. No advertising would be accepted as a means of financing radio; instead, a small fee would be collected by the Post Office from each individual owning a wireless receiver, or radio. Half of such fees would then be given to the company.

There were issues other than advertising that had to be resolved. Newspaper proprietors feared the wireless as a news competitor; thus, initially, the BBC was forbidden to have its own news service. Also, despite discussion of a second broadcasting company during the negotiations, the decision in 1922 was to give the British Broadcasting Company a monopoly. Finally, there was a concern that the BBC might present shows that were too controversial, particularly in regard to political, social, and economic issues such as birth control and socialism.

The first chairman of the BBC was Joseph Albert Pease, First Baron Gainford, who remained on the BBC’s board until 1932. The key figure in the years that followed was John Charles Walsham Reith, a Scotsman who had been injured and disfigured in the war; Reith had had business experience, but he had not worked in radio. Nevertheless, in late 1922 he applied for the position of the BBC’s general manager and was accepted. By the following November, he had become managing director, and by the end of 1923, he was the recognized head of the BBC. Reith, whose father was a Presbyterian minister, believed that the function of the BBC should be primarily to educate rather than to entertain the public. In his official capacity, he gave the BBC both the substance and image of quality and public service, a reputation that continued long after he left the BBC.

The company grew rapidly. When the BBC was founded, it had only four employees; by December, 1923, the staff numbered almost four hundred. By the end of 1923, there were more than half a million privately owned receiver sets, and a year later the number had increased to more than a million. Such growth would undoubtedly have occurred even if Reith had not been the driving force of the BBC, but it was Reith more than anyone else who transformed the private company operating through a Post Office license into a public corporation. Of course, he was not the only figure committed to the public possibilities of the wireless, but it was his vision and leadership that led the way. In May, 1925, Great Britain’s postmaster general announced the appointment of a committee to examine the status of the BBC. Chaired by Lord Crawford, the committee ultimately accepted Reith’s argument that broadcasting must be for public service and should not merely be the province of private business interests. In Reith’s opinion, the British Broadcasting Company was a threat to the fulfillment of what the wireless could and should accomplish for the betterment of society. The Post Office had already arrived at a similar conclusion. In July, 1926, the postmaster general accepted the recommendations of the Crawford Committee and announced that a public corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation, established by royal charter, would supersede the private British Broadcasting Company. In spite of dire predictions of socialism, bureaucracy, and monopoly, on January 1, 1927, the era of the British Broadcasting Corporation officially began.


The first chairman of the newly constituted BBC was Lord Clarendon, whose selection did not meet with Reith’s approval; he preferred Gainford. Reith was given a knighthood and named director-general. The corporation was chartered for ten years, and the chairman and the other four governors, including Gainford, served five-year terms. During Reith’s reign, his influence was paramount; he generally got his way with the chairman and the other governors, and it was his vision of the BBC that continued to govern the direction of radio broadcasting in Great Britain.

Wireless in the United Kingdom had been strongly influenced by the development of radio in the United States in the years after World War I. In 1919, the private Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was created under the leadership of David Sarnoff. Sarnoff, David A competitor, Westinghouse, led the way in regular broadcasting beginning in 1921. By 1924, there were more than five hundred radio stations in the United States, and in spite of opposition to the practice, the American stations accepted advertising. British observers, including Godfrey Isaacs and Frank James Brown, an assistant secretary at the Post Office, although impressed by the business acuity of the American radio industry, predicted chaos in Great Britain if the same unregulated growth transpired. There was also agreement that advertising had no place on British radio. Monopoly rather than competition and licensing fees instead of advertising had been adopted when the British Broadcasting Company was founded in 1922, and the policy continued after the British Broadcasting Corporation began operation in 1927. Because licensing fees were paid through the General Post Office, the British government retained its ultimate hold on the BBC. Governmental oversight of, and possible interference with, radio broadcasts thus always existed.

The early restrictions on discussing controversial issues on the radio and on the BBC’s having its own news service were only gradually relaxed. Reith attempted to have the BBC provide live coverage of parliamentary debates, but he was rebuffed by the politicians of the day. The company did, however, broadcast a speech by King George V in April, 1924, that was heard by ten million people. Reith’s emphasis on public service saw him establish a number of advisory committees on religion, music, and education in order to give the proper tone and substance to radio programs. When newspaper publishers threatened to charge the BBC a fee for printing program announcements, Reith established Radio Times, Radio Times (newspaper) which provided information on programs and developments. Founded in 1923, by the end of 1927 Radio Times was selling more than a million copies an issue; by the eve of World War II in 1939, it had a circulation of three million. By 1935, 98 percent of the British population had access to the programs of the BBC.

One of the challenges for the BBC both before and after the creation of the public corporation in 1927 was the difficulty of being relevant and significant and yet at the same time noncontroversial. Reith hoped to have political issues seriously discussed on the radio by major politicians, but most only very reluctantly made use of the new technology. The 1920’s leaders of both the Liberal and Labour Parties, David Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald, were failures in the use of radio. The most successful politician to use the wireless in the 1920’s was Stanley Baldwin, prime minister in 1923 and then again from 1924 to 1929. Baldwin’s relaxed and conversational style in his 1924 campaign address anticipated the “fireside chats” of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930’s.

Baldwin was the central figure in the most severe challenge to the BBC’s educative objectivity during the interwar years. In May, 1926, a general strike broke out in Great Britain, and the subsequent walkout by most British union workers seemed to some to threaten both representative government and the capitalist economic system. General Strike (1926) Winston Churchill, Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;British Broadcasting Corporation Baldwin’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, wished the BBC to become a mouthpiece for the government, but Reith refused, arguing that the BBC should remain objective in its reporting of events. A number of leading politicians spoke on the radio during the days of the strike, but none more effectively than Baldwin, whose calming words were widely credited with keeping the strike both peaceful and short. Years later, during World War II, Churchill’s own oratory, often carried on the BBC, inspired Great Britain and the world against the evils of Nazism.

Reith and the BBC’s attempt to uplift, to educate, and to be objective was generally, but not universally, approved. Churchill was not the only dissenter from Reith’s approach to broadcasting. From the founding of the company through the establishment of the corporation and beyond, many listeners desired more entertainment and less education, more popular and dance music and less classical music, more humor and less serious discussion. Some objected to the domination of the BBC by London, demanding more programs reflecting the various regions of Great Britain. Although compromises were made and more entertainment programs were presented, the belief and practice that the BBC should level society up rather than down predominated. Both speech and dress standards were imposed on announcers, who were not identifiable personalities, as in American radio, but simply gentlemen of culture. The BBC’s standard speaking style, sometimes called “BBC English,” perhaps did help break down some of the regional and class divisions among the British. Announcers were required to wear formal dress, including dinner jackets, when speaking over the radio. Moral uplift was even carried over to the private lives of BBC employees; Peter Eckersley, an important radio figure even before the company was founded in 1922 and the BBC’s chief engineer from 1923 until 1929, was forced to resign because of his involvement in a divorce.

Nevertheless, the path established by the early founders of the BBC continued even after Reith’s own resignation in 1938. Pure entertainment was secondary to education and societal improvement, quality was paramount, and the primary goal remained public service. The BBC retained its monopoly position in British broadcasting until long after World War II ended, still financed by licensing fees rather than through advertising. The precedents set during the early radio era were carried over when the BBC began television transmission in 1936. The monument created in the 1920’s by Reith and others continued to cast its influential shadow over Great Britain and the world decades later. British Broadcasting Corporation Radio;networks

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyle, Andrew. Only the Wind Will Listen: Reith of the BBC. London: Hutchinson, 1972. Unconventional biography focuses only on Reith’s years at the BBC. Adopts a psychological approach, emphasizing the puritanical and depressive side of Reith’s personality. Fascinating reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Briggs, Asa. The BBC: The First Fifty Years. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985. Excellent introduction to the BBC by a distinguished British scholar. Includes useful list of significant dates and a fine bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Birth of Broadcasting, 1896-1927. Vol. 1 in The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. 1961. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Presents the story of the beginnings of the BBC, up to its transformation into a public corporation in 1927. Features illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cain, John. The BBC: Seventy Years of Broadcasting. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1996. Lively, entertaining, and informative volume provides an ideal introduction to the history of BBC radio and television. Includes numerous photographs, including some depicting early television sets and transmitting apparatus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crisell, Andrew. An Introductory History of British Broadcasting. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Comprehensive history of British radio and television discusses the beginnings of BBC television in chapter 4. Includes time line, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middlemas, Keith, and John Barnes. Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Excellent study of Baldwin and his times. Includes an informative discussion of the General Strike of 1926 and provides insights into why Baldwin was so successful at communicating on the radio.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paulu, Burton. Television and Radio in the United Kingdom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981. Scholarly work by a noted authority on European television details the structure of the BBC, including finances, personnel, programming, and legal status.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Anthony, ed. Television: An International History. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Collection of essays on the history of television around the world includes discussion of the BBC and its impacts. Features a list of television museums and archives.

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Categories: History