An unrivalled reputation for speaking the truth 

14 November 2022

The story of the External Services



Ariel 60 BBC Years masthead

From Ariel special edition for August 1982

Fifty years ago on December 19 J.H. Whitley, the former Speaker of the House of Commons who had become Chairman of the Board of Governors, introduced the first regular broadcast of the BBC Empire Service.

Intended primarily for British expatriates and for the English-speaking population of the white Commonwealth, it was the brain child of Sir John Reith, the Corporation’s first Director-General. Reith fought hard in the late 20s and early 30s to win government support for his imaginative project.

Gerard Mansell

Gerard Mansell, Managing Director of External Broadcasting until he retired in 1980, is the author of a history of the service — Let Truth Be Told — to be published by Weidenfeld in November.

Undeterred by Whitehall’s negative response he decided to go it alone, using licence revenue to finance the new service. Soon London broadcasts, live and “bottled” — as the first pre-recorded programmes were described — were being heard throughout the English-speaking world, bringing great imperial events like the Jubilee of King George V to audiences in the remotest territories.

With the clouds of war gathering over Europe, Reith persuaded the Ullswater Committee in 1936 that the BBC should go in for foreign language broadcasting in response to the growing radio propaganda efforts of the Axis powers.

The first broadcast in Arabic to the Middle East went out in January 1938 and was followed in March the same year by the start of broadcasting in Spanish and Portuguese to Latin-America. News bulletins in French, German and Italian were introduced at the height of the Munich crisis the following September.

The start of World War Two saw a rapid expansion of BBC broadcasts in foreign languages, particularly in Europe, and by the end of the war the BBC was broadcasting in more languages and for more hours than any other country.

More important, it had established an unrivalled reputation for speaking the truth, which enabled it to defeat Dr Goebbels’s propaganda machine and to bring comfort and hope to the enslaved peoples of occupied Europe.

It was the voice of freedom to countless millions and played a key role in proclaiming the resolve of the allies to fight on to victory and propagating the values of democracy even in the darkest years of the war, raising morale and encouraging resistance to the enemy.

Though the External Service lost their lead as international broadcasters at the start of the 50s and were overtaken, in terms of hours of broadcasting and numbers of languages, by the United States, the Soviet bloc, China and the Federal German Republic, they maintained in the post-war period their undisputed command of the largest worldwide following, reaching out, from the 60s onward, to growing audiences in Africa and Asia, brought within reach of the voice of London by the transistor revolution and the building of overseas relay stations.



Jacques Brunius

Jacques Brunius broadcasting for the French Service from Piccadilly Circus on VE Day in 1945.

Today, with a regular following of over 100 million listeners all over the world, not including China, the External Services enjoy an unchallenged reputation for accurate news and for honest, well informed interpretation of the significance of world events.

Through the BBC’s broadcasts the values of freedom, tolerance and the rule of law are disseminated all over the world, and listeners receive a comprehensive picture of British achievements in such fields as literature, the arts, science and technology.

With over 100 hours of broadcasting each day, despite the recent loss of the services in Italian, Spanish and Maltese as a result of decisions by the British Government, the External Services are widely recognised by friends and foes alike as a respected, authoritative voice amidst the Babel of propaganda which crowds the short wave bands. As a distinguished American foreign correspondent once put it, they are to the free mind what OXFAM is to the hungry.


Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Friday 17 May 2024