Watch with Auntie

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Laurence Alster reviews the history of public service broadcasting and considers the case for scrapping the licence fee

Earlier this year, BBC Radio 1 broadcast a review of today's street language. Explosive lyrics, mainly from rap artists, were played during a discussion of the offensiveness of such expletives as "slag", "shit", "bugger", "fuck" ("an extremely versatile word; it can be an adjective, a noun, an adverb and a verb") and, pronounced the worst by far, "cunt".

Listen with Motherfucker was rounded off with a Top of the Pops-type countdown of today's favourite: " 'Arsehole' is a non-mover at number nine." "It stands tall; it's your penis. 'Prick' holds firm at number seven."

How times change. In 1948, the BBC Variety Programme policy guide for writers and producers reminded employees of the boundaries never to be crossed: "The obvious governing considerations," it observed, were "decency and good taste." Then, some helpful details. "Jokes about lavatories, effeminacy in men and immorality of any kind" were out, as were "suggestive references to honeymoon couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, prostitution, ladies' underwear, animal habits, lodgers and commercial travellers."

Founding father knows best

John Reith, first director-general of the BBC (1927-1938) was the founding father of public service broadcasting, basing it on the core principles of public benefit and freedom from government influence. Sternly religious and ceaselessly vigilant, Reith thought of radio as a kind of "national church". He wrote in his memoirs: "We believe that a new national asset has been createdIJof the moral and not the material order - that which, down the years, brings the compound interest of happier homes, broader culture and truer citizenship." This was a clear dig at the American profit-driven system of broadcasting and, for Reith, its consequent crudities. Radio, he decreed, must improve more than amuse. Or, as the 1930 BBC Yearbook put it:

"The listener must recognise that a definite obligation rests on him to choose intelligently from the programmes offered to him."

In the early years, listeners were fed serious music so they would learn to prefer it to popular tunes; to discourage laziness, programmes were scheduled at different times every week, making the audience search for them.

Four to five minutes of silence were inserted between programmes so that listeners could ponder on what they had heard. Variety and comedy programmes were presented in middle-class tones - "BBC English," as it came to be known. And radio newsreaders (no females) were obliged to address the nation in formal dress.

Despite a smattering of variety programmes, such as The White Coons'

Concert Party (with a theme tune that began "Come and listen to the gay white coons" - then thought entirely inoffensive), those running broadcasting gave the audience what they thought it needed rather than what it wanted. It was a policy made possible by the BBC's monopoly position.

Reith was proud of his achievement.

Rebellion in the ratings

But the public rebelled. Even before the Second World War, BBC research showed that people were tuning in to more upbeat continental stations such as Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandie for such treats as the Feenamint Laxatives Show that were closer to the US-style of radio programme so detested by Reith. When war came in 1939, the BBC decided to introduce morale-boosting shows such as ITMA (It's That Man Again) and Workers'

Playtime, alongside a slightly reduced diet of Shakespeare, Beethoven and Bach.

It was the beginning of the end of Reithian-style public service broadcasting and the start of what is now generally called the "golden age" of radio when, in the 1950s and early 1960s, programmes such as The Goon Show, Round the Horne and Hancock's Half-Hour attracted listeners in their millions. These and other comedy programmes showed a more healthy regard for an audience whose notion of public service included a regular chuckle at mildly risque material.

Television was different. The BBC was so sniffy about the new medium that William Haley, director-general from 1944 to 1952, declined to have a TV in his house. "Fight against too many hours (of broadcasting). Fight against lowering of standards. Television must remain civilised and adult. You are fighting great issues," he urged his staff in 1952.

Just as it had with radio, the BBC's initial approach to television suggested it was trying to teach the nation how best to think, speak and feel - and raise its children. Imagine, today, programmes being shut down from 6pm to 7pm so that children might be put to bed without nagging to watch more telly. In 1956, this "toddlers' truce" was official BBC policy.

On Sundays in the early 1950s, only adult programmes were shown from 2pm to 4pm, when children were assumed to be at Sunday school. It was a continuation of Reith's vision - Jprogramming that was priggish, preachy and plodding. Around that time, one of television's most popular attractions was What's My Line?, a quiz show in which a panel of four toffs tried to work out what a challenger did for a living. Winning contestants were awarded, not money but certificates.

Let's turn over

ITV arrived in 1955. It, too, had a public service remit, though nowhere near as demanding as the BBC's. For the first time, the BBC faced competition, and it came from a service that drew its income not from the licence fee but by selling audiences - the bigger the better - to advertisers. This was done largely through brash American-style game shows such as Take Your Pick, imported horse operas such as Wagon Train and variety shows such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Viewers could ask, "What's on the other side?" Audience figures soon made it clear that they were, overwhelmingly, choosing ITV.

All of which meant that the BBC had to spruce up its act, and quickly. It did so under Hugh Carleton Greene, director-general from 1960 to 1969, by re-defining its public service role from moral mentor to promoter of all-round broadcasting excellence. It was a venture as bold as it was successful. The 1960s is now regarded as one of television's most enterprising periods, with programmes to suit an ever-widening range of tastes. If everybody had to pay a licence fee then everybody had to feel it was worth it. That was the reasoning behind programmes as diverse and as daring as That Was The Week That Was, The Ascent of Man, Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Civilisation and Z Cars.

Swinging Sixties

Radio also needed radical surgery. In 1964, as the "swinging Sixties" dawned, the pirate station Radio Caroline began illegally broadcasting pop music between American-style advertisements. It was an exhilaratingly different format from that of the meagre diet of pop from the BBC's Light Programme. The nation's youth switched over en masse to pirate radio. The Labour government came to the rescue, banning the pirates and authorising the BBC to provide "a continuous popular music programme".

The BBC learned valuable lessons, and recruited most of the star buccaneers - including Kenny Everett, John Peel, Emperor Rosko and Dave Lee Travis - for Radio 1, launched by former pirate DJ Tony Blackburn in September 1967.

Once more, the BBC had responded to competition by modifying its definition of quality and by recruiting talented broadcasters.

In the 1980s, advances in satellite and cable technology meant the increasing availability of multiple television channels. Suddenly, there was increased competition, not only welcomed but encouraged by the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. A firm believer in the benefits of the free market, Mrs Thatcher felt the BBC had been spoiled by its guaranteed income from the licence fee and needed shaking up. Having once observed that "there is no such thing as society," she had little time for the argument that the BBC was an essential thread in the fabric of national life.

And her view of the BBC as largely hostile was scarcely improved by an encounter on BBC television in 1983 with a well-informed viewer, who questioned crucial military decisions during the Falklands war. And she was livid when, in 1985, the BBC documentary Real Lives: At the Edge of the Union granted what she called "the oxygen of publicity" to the IRA.

War of words

As with the recent row between the government and the BBC over the reported "sexing up" of the case for war against Iraq, these and other quarrels highlighted a central BBC dilemma: can an organisation which depends on the government for funding, let alone its very right to broadcast, be truly independent of government influence? Mrs Thatcher thought not. Unimpressed by protests that controversial issues should be openly explored as part of the BBC's public service duty, her ministers decreed that the licence fee be raised at a rate lower than inflation. That jobs would be lost and programme quality threatened was of no obvious concern to Mrs Thatcher's government.

The BBC was not the only casualty. The prime minister's disregard forJthe importance of quality broadcasting was shown by the announcement in June 1989 that the franchises for the ITV system were to be auctioned at the end of 1992. Among the threatened companies was Granada Television, creator of such television classics as Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown and long seen as the best example of how public service ideals can flourish in a commercial setting. Protests from all quarters led to a "quality threshold" - a guarantee that a set proportion of programmes would meet certain standards - being asked of bidders. But there was still the feeling that the very idea of public service broadcasting was under serious and sustained threat.

Extra terrestrial

Recent developments have increased this unease. Hundreds of television channels, the internet, digital radio and television have led to increased questioning of the need for and feasibility of a large and powerful public service broadcaster. The acknowledged high standards of such commercial channels as Sky News makes the question more urgent. Critics ask why, with so much choice available, the BBC should be supported by the licence fee, a tax both universal and compulsory to all except the elderly.

For some, the case against the BBC is strengthened by the fact that recent measures to stave off competition have been less than successful. The BBC can point to the recent launch of digital channels such as CBBC, BBC3 and BBC4 as evidence of greater choice, but critics can answer that non-digital viewers must pay for a set-top box to watch them. And why should those who subscribe to myriad other channels still be expected to pay for a few they scarcely watch?

It is a hard question, as much as anything because the licence fee is a regressive tax, with poorer people paying a higher proportion of their income. The BBC's claim that those with lower incomes watch more television and so get better value is hardly a good argument. And some feel that, desperate to win back audiences, the BBChas started to look increasingly like rivals whose standards it criticises.

Perhaps the merit of the BBC's case for continued public subsidy is best assessed by looking at the evidence. Is the service so exceptional that it merits compulsory taxpayer support? Would the scrapping of the licence fee mean the end of an institution that helps sustain a common national culture? Or one that properly belongs to an age when you had to wait for the telly to warm up?

The case for BBC radio is perhaps stronger than that for television. Here is as wide a choice of programmes as any listener could possibly wish for: non-stop pop and rock on Radio 1, music and documentaries - recently, for example, one on Billie Holiday and another on the lowlife origins of jazz and blues - on Radio 2, and on Radio 3 a far more elevated mixture of talks and serious music. Then, among the regulars on Radio 4, The Archers, Today, In Touch, a matchless news service plus excellent current affairs programmes, plays and talks. Radio 5 Live offers first-class coverage of sports and current affairs, while BBC local radio is invariably of a standard far higher than that of the commercial sector.

House room

Critics ask many more questions of BBC television, maintaining that the proportion of undisputably excellent, enterprising programmes has dropped since those great years when cutting-edge arts and drama productions - Monitor, The Boys from the Blackstuff, Play for Today and so on - seemed the norm rather than the exception. BBC television news is often thought to have "dumbed down" in search of improved ratings, and recent efforts, such as In Search of Shakespeare, The History of a House and Leonardo, impress mainly by comparison with a surfeit of programmes that show viewers how to cook, garden, decorate or tidy their homes.

Again, the BBC has ready answers. Now more than ever, it has to make programmes that sell overseas. And anyway, without scheduling more populist programmes it could never serve up more minority-interest fare to those who demand it. In this way, more accessible and popular programmes underwrite the specialist few. Critics maintain that the proportion of high quality as against mediocre programmes has declined over the years.

For them, BBC television is in a downward spiral, increasingly screening items unbecoming to a great institution that once succeeded in enlightening, amusing and instructing - serving the nation - through quality programmes.

Not so long ago, a large section of the national audience used to swear by the BBC, regarding its channels as the automatic choice for anything from comedy to current affairs. Things are different now, with younger consumers in particular seeing the BBC as just one of many media outlets. The more the BBC courts these viewers with such television programmes as Fame Academy and radio programmes like Listen with Motherfucker, the more some may feel it has lowered its standards to the point where it has made itself unnecessary. Were he to witness its output today, even Lord Reith might agree.


Ask students to design a questionnaire that will assess people's opinion of the licence fee. They should choose as wide a sample as possible of the population according to age and class and try to assess the extent to which opinions vary according to these two criteria. They should also pay special attention to the opinions of satellitecable subscribers as opposed to those with only terrestrial television.

Huw Wheldon, an eminent producer of arts programmes, once said that the BBC should always aim to "make good programmes popular and popular programmes good". Ask students to explain this statement and, with reference to specific television programmes, to say whether or not they feel the BBC does this.

Some people think that the increased spread of television channels has also increased viewer choice. Others think not. Split a class into two groups and, using the listings in Radio Times, ask one group to argue for the first and another for the second claim. Finally, ask all the students to summarise the debate in an essay.

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