Public service broadcasting – in 1949 

23 January 2017

From the 1949 BBC Year Book.

olympics48 5Broadcasting in Britain is we say — correctly, but sometimes with a touch of self-righteousness when talking to American and other visitors — conducted as a public service. By this we mean that it is not governed by the making of private profit or run in the interests of advertisers, but solely in the public interest and without having to pay regard to purely commercial standards.

Now there are clearly certain things which a broadcasting system operated as a public service is prohibited by the nature of its constitution from doing. On the whole we are all fairly clear in our minds as to what those things are and, I think, fairly much in agreement also that the BBC conforms in this respect to the standard set.

But the administration of a public service system of broadcasting carries with it more positive responsibilities also, and it is with one particular and highly relevant responsibility that I am here concerned. This is the responsibility of a public service to undertake public service broadcasting. What is meant by this? It is necessary to define the term because in a sense — and a not unimportant sense — all broadcasting that meets a public need or satisfies a listening hunger is a public service.

To provide entertainment in great variety is a public service; certainly to make available a reliable and impartial service of domestic and international news is. To bring to listeners good music and great drama and contact with minds deeply imbued with knowledge and understanding of the cultural heritage of our nation and the world is not less so. And all these things it seems to me the BBC does: nearly always adequately and on some occasions superbly and with an average level of achievement not surpassed, except in some fields of light entertainment, by any broadcasting service in the world and seldom reached by most.

But by public service broadcasting in the strict sense I mean something narrower than this. I mean that responsibility which the BBC shares with newspapers to inform its listeners on issues of great public importance, and particularly on issues which are the subject of deep and genuine controversy, in order that these listeners — who are also members of a democracy — may be in a position to assess the facts so far as they are able and attempt to reach reasonable judgments on them.

Now because the BBC is a public service and a monopoly, its responsibility in this matter, although it is akin to that of a newspaper, differs from it in one important respect. At the same time the size of the listening public imposes upon it both opportunities and limitations such as affect no single paper.

London: The unveiling of the Roosevelt Memorial, April 1948

London: The unveiling of the Roosevelt Memorial, April 1948

The difference in responsibility arises from the fact that it has always been the accepted function of great newspapers not only to inform but to advise readers on public questions — the instrument of advice or persuasion being the leading article. The function of a newspaper is to state an issue plainly, to provide its readers with all the relevant evidence concerning it, to assess honestly the weight of views on one side and the other, and having done so to form its own judgment and to seek to persuade its readers with all the art and lucidity it can command that this judgment is sound.

The responsibility of the BBC is confined to the first half of this function of a newspaper — it is indeed specifically and properly prohibited under its charter from having views of its own or from broadcasting anything in the nature of a leading article.

But the BBC is subject not only to a restriction of function such as does not affect the newspaper; the nature of its service also imposes upon it at one and the same time opportunities and limitations which do not arise for any single newspaper. All newspapers appeal to a particular audience whose tastes, interests, expert knowledge of affairs, and ability to comprehend difficult and often complex issues can be judged with reasonable certainty. It may in the case of one of the popular newspapers be an audience running, when family readership is taken into account, into perhaps ten million readers. In the case of a serious newspaper it may be one of half a million or even less. But it is in each case a fairly defined audience the common denominator of whose interests and comprehension is on the whole known.

The editorial staff, if it is experienced and competent, can judge with a fair degree of accuracy the degree of sophistication that an article on an issue of public importance must possess to appeal to and be understood by the majority of their readers. They are in no danger of offering to readers of the Daily Express an article better suited to the more informed public of The Times, or of affronting the readers of the Manchester Guardian with one which would serve excellently in the Daily Mail.

How much more complex is the problem that faces the BBC when it comes to deal with public issues. Its potential audience is not half a million or even ten million, but almost the whole of the forty million or so people above the age of fourteen — and since it is a public service monopoly it must have some regard for all of them, for they are all members of the public. The common denominator which it must have in mind is one based on an assessment of almost the entire adult community — although in practice it cannot of course hope, for it would be humanly impossible, to treat any issue in such a way as to be equally interesting to and equally comprehensible by all.

The extent of the listening public and the fact that the BBC as a public service monopoly has the sole broadcasting access to it provides a dazzling opportunity to undertake the responsibility of informing the public on great issues. But with the opportunity goes the limitation imposed by all systems of mass communication — the limitation of non-selectivity. Even the most popular newspaper may well be satisfied if an article it publishes will hold the attention of a million readers. But a million listeners to a BBC talk means that radio sets have been switched off wholesale over the country. A serious analysis of current affairs published in a serious weekly review will have had a most notable and worth while success if it is read by 50,000 readers. But a mere 50,000 listeners to a radio programme in a good listening hour means a colossal flop.

This problem of non-selectivity has to some extent, of course, been met by the three alternative national programmes and the regional programmes; but even on the Third Programme the size of the audience whose interest must be held by a serious talk if it is to be successful is colossal by any non-broadcasting standard.

One further difficulty, moreover, arises out of the nature of the listening audience. This is the problem of the half-attentive listener. The vast majority of radio listening, certainly to the Light and Home Programmes although probably not to the Third, is family or group listening. In a vast number of cases the radio is turned on as a companionable accompaniment to other activities of a more or less distracting character. Now this may fit in admirably with a background of light music, with a group programme such as ‘Have a Go’ or a ‘Quiz’ in which the listening group can feel that it is participating with another group, or with a popular variety show or play; but it does not provide anything like so satisfactory a framework for a serious talk which requires a fair amount of concentration on the part of the listener.

And finally there is the problem which faces all those who would communicate ideas or information to the public. This is the problem not only of holding attention but of attracting it in the first place. Here the newspaper has two inherent advantages over the BBC, and one which, while not inherent, tends to exist because broadcasting is a monopoly public service. The first two arise from the fact that a newspaper is making a specific appeal to a particular audience and from the attention it can secure from typographical display.

The third advantage arises from a freedom which is, in part at any rate, denied to the BBC, or which it has denied itself out of a sense of responsibility to its monopoly position, and the freedom to build up stars who can attract an audience on their own account on whatever subject, within at any rate a certain range, they are writing or speaking.

By trial and error newspapers have discovered that with rare exceptions the expert in a particular subject is not necessarily or indeed usually the person most likely to possess those gifts of lucid and pleasing exposition which will attract and hold the public interest. They have found that skill in communication — what we call style and presentation — are of paramount importance, and that readers can be persuaded to read what would otherwise appear to them a dull or difficult subject if it is handled by a professional writer whose previous writings on other subjects they know, and whose personality and style they find attractive. The American radio companies have made great use of this same fact in building up star commentators.

The BBC to a very large extent denies itself this means of attracting listeners in the field of public service broadcasting, although it has employed it, of course, very successfully in the realm of entertainment and in that field has established many commentators with a large personal following. But in public service broadcasting it has been shy — perhaps too shy although one sees the hazards — of doing so because of the fear on the one hand that a regular professional commentator on public affairs may come to be regarded as expressing the views of the BBC itself and thus as an infringement of its obligation not to hold or express a view of its own or that alternatively he may by the accident of being a good broadcaster be built up into a political and public figure to an extent that would justify criticism.

I have set out the limits within which, as it seems to me, the BBC has to function in its public service broadcasting because it is only against such a background that one can either properly assess what is already being done or consider what might be done. Of course not all the disadvantages are on the BBC’s side. It has the immense advantage that comes from being an instrument of the spoken word which very many people find much easier and more attractive than the written word, and the advantage also that it can present the actual living clash of ideas in debate and bring, when need be, greater actuality to the jspoken word by a dramatic illustration.

Yet the limitations remain. They are important. They provide the framework within which public service broadcasting must operate, and the BBC is not justly to be criticized, as it sometimes is, for failing to do things which such a framework does not allow.

But has it carried out its responsibilities within the realm of public service broadcasting as efficiently and imaginatively as this framework allows? I think that a year or two ago the answer would have been ‘no’. Now I think it ‘yes’ though with some qualifications.

I would say that on the Third Programme this responsibility has been accepted with courage, imagination, and a most welcome respect for the listener’s intelligence — although I suspect, without being sure, that more attention needs to be paid to the technique of presenting serious issues even to a serious-minded and attentive audience, and that the audience for such talks and discussions even on the Third Programme may not be rising as it should and may even be declining. This is not an argument for lowering the quality and content of such programmes, but for more careful coaching of speakers and also for considering perhaps whether many of them would not hold attention better if their talks were somewhat shorter.

On the Home Programme ‘Questions of the Hour’ and ‘Friday Forum’ have, I think, maintained on the whole an excellent standard. The old fear of controversy has almost gone. It is sometimes indeed in danger of being replaced by a naive passion for controversy for controversy’s sake. ‘Friday Forum’ in particular seems to me on occasion to have suffered from the belief that it was necessary to have sharply opposed political speakers on every issue. As a result listeners were often provided with an amusing display of conflicting prejudices rather than a serious attempt to examine important principles.

What is surely necessary in all such discussion programmes is that those taking part should have both knowledge and a degree of open mindedness: the discussion should be an inquiry beginning from different points of view and not a platform on which spokesmen, chosen almost entirely for their balancing political affiliations are required to demonstrate the inflexibility of their loyalty to a party point of view and their fervid inaccessibility to argument. The statement of party viewpoints can be left to the official Party Political Broadcasts, which have been an excellent innovation.

Progress Report also seems to me to have been a praiseworthy if not altogether successful attempt to present the manifestly enormously important public issue of the need for production in an understandable way.

But I do not feel that the BBC has yet begun to tackle, or perhaps even seriously to think about, the major problem of incorporating some public service broadcasting in the Light Programme, and of finding techniques by which information on public issues can be presented at once intelligently and attractively to the vast audience this programme commands and in the conditions of family listening in which it very largely operates.

I do not pretend the problem is easy. But it seems to me that in the field of public service broadcasting, the responsibility of the BBC does not end with making available a certain number of programmes to which those who are interested in public issues can turn of deliberate choice. It has a responsibility also to find means whereby the general interest can be attracted and held. For public issues today increasingly concern everyone and can in many cases only be solved by a very wide understanding of their significance.

Clearly talks or even radio discussions do not provide an entirely adequate technique for this purpose, although, if the difficulties in the way of building up a team of attractive professional broadcasters capable of attracting listeners in their own right could be overcome—as I believe they might be—that would help. But more is needed and a combined operation by the talks and entertainments staffs is required even to begin to solve it.

Yet in the general field of public service broadcasting much has been accomplished and the BBC deserves praise for what has been done. It cannot hope to escape criticism from time to time on the grounds of partiality and bias — but I think there has in truth been very little of either. Let it never be afraid of controversy which is the life blood of public service broadcasting. Although it must have no corporate opinion of its own, it has both the right and the obligation to let every other substantial opinion be known. The more courageous it is the more truly will it serve the public interest.


  • Edward Francis Williams, Baron Francis-Williams, CBE (10 March 1903 – 5 June 1970) was a former editor of the Daily Herald, an official at the Ministry of Information and an advisor to Clement Attlee. He served as a Governor of the BBC from 1952-1953. He was ennobled in 1962.

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