John Charles Walsham Reith, 1st Baron Reith (July 20, 1889 – June 16, 1971) was a Scottish broadcasting executive. As the general manager of the BBC, he established the tradition of independent public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Lord Reith was a man of high intelligence, great ambition, and rigid moral views. The brilliance of his vision and his ability to implement it are evidenced by the fact that the BBC continues to operate according to the same mission and guidelines that Reith established. However, he had an uncompromising nature and was finally ousted from his position, spending the remainder of his life in a number of less significant positions in government, business, and education. Although his writings revealed that Reith became bitter and frustrated, concluding that his life was a failure, his work at the BBC was remarkably significant. As the voice of the British establishment, at a time when Britain was a major world leader, Reith's BBC informed and educated the public in Britain and worldwide, from its beginning in the 1920s throughout the twentieth century and beyond.
Born July 20, 1889, in Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, in Scotland John Charles Walsham Reith was the youngest, by ten years, of the seven children of the Reverend Dr George Reith, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland. He was to carry the strict Presbyterian religious convictions of the Free Church forward into his adult life. Reith was educated at the Glasgow Academy and then at Gresham's School, Holt in Norfolk, England.
Reith was an indolent child who had used his intelligence to escape hard work, but he was genuinely disappointed when his father refused to support any further education and apprenticed him as an engineer at the North British Locomotive Company. Reith was a keen sportsman and tolerated his apprenticeship through part-time soldiering in the 1st Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers and 5th Scottish Rifles.
In 1914, Reith left Glasgow for London. Though he readily found work at the Royal Albert Dock, his commission in the 5th Scottish Rifles soon found him serving in World War I. He suffered an injury that left his face scarred when he was hit in the cheek by a bullet in October 1915. He was discharged from active duty and spent the next two years in the United States, supervising armament contracts.
Reith returned to Glasgow as General Manager of an engineering firm. The lure of London proved too much for Reith and, in 1922, he returned there. Dabbling in politics, despite his family's Liberal Party sympathies, he worked as secretary to the London Unionist group of MPs in the general election of 1922. Perhaps prophetically, this election's results were the first to be broadcast on the radio.
On December 14, 1922, Reith became the general manager of the British Broadcasting Company, an organization formed by manufacturers to provide broadcasts hoping to foster demand for wireless radio sets. Reith oversaw the vesting of the company in a new organization, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), formed under royal charter and became its first Director-General, serving in that position from January 1, 1927, to June 30, 1938.
Reith had the vision of charging a Post Office license fee of ten shillings (50 pence) half of which went to the BBC, ensuring that the BBC was not financially dependent on the government of the day nor on advertising revenue. "Reith was passionate about public service broadcasting. He was a strictly moral man who believed that radio should offer national coverage and high-quality programs. Furthermore, radio should be publicly funded to avoid commercial dumbing-down, whilst remaining politically independent."
He expounded firm principles of centralized, all-encompassing radio broadcasting, stressing programming standards and moral tone. When asked whether he was going to give the people what they wanted, Reith replied: "No. Something better than that." To this day, the BBC claims to follow the Reithian directive to "inform, educate, and entertain."
In 1922, Reith suggested that King George V should use the new medium of radio to speak to the nation as one family. The King declined as he felt that radio was still too experimental to be used for a royal message. The King was asked again in 1932, by which time the BBC has begun its overseas service and the King had the opportunity to talk to his subjects around the world. At 3:00pm on December 25, 1932, the King made the first broadcast live from the royal house at Sandringham. Since then, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II continued the tradition. In 1957, the broadcast moved to the medium of television.
In 1926 a general strike broke out across Britain. When the value of broadcasting as a governmental and political instrument became apparent, Winston Churchill and others in the Government wanted to commandeer the organization for the emergency. Reith refused to comply, maintaining the BBC's independence. He won the argument but made an enemy of Churchill for years to come. This enmity was enhanced when the BBC refused Churchill air time to outline his controversial views on Indian policy and rearmament during the 1930s. Regardless of his personal disagreements with Churchill over editorial control during the general strike, Reith regarded the BBC as a tool of the British parliament, and allowed the broadcasting of material unfavorable to the strikers. Workers’ representatives were not allowed to broadcast their side of the dispute and the BBC came to be labeled the "British Falsehood Corporation."
In 1927, the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation under Reith when it was granted its first royal charter. Reith was subsequently knighted.
Reith introduced the BBC's "Empire Service"—later renamed the BBC's "World Service"—in 1932. He was less than enthusiastic about its launch, as he declared "I doubt that the Empire Service will be either very good or very interesting." Regardless of his opinion, Reith was correct when he remarked in the inaugural Empire Service broadcast:
This occasion is as significant as any in the ten years of British broadcasting. It is a significant occasion in the history of the British Empire; there must be few in any civilized country who have yet to realize that broadcasting is a development with which the future must reckon and reckon seriously.
In 2002 the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, described the World Service as the greatest gift Britain had given the world in the twentieth century. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the World Service broadcast in 43 languages to a worldwide audience of 160-170 million.
Reith's stubborn beliefs drew the ire of the board of governors as he was slow to adopt television, which be believed would reduce media standards, and to relax his standards for high-minded programming. The first regular television broadcasts (November 1936 to September 1939) started under Reith's stewardship, but this service initially ground to a halt at the outbreak of the Second World War. When the television service resumed in 1945, it was to be very different due to the impact of the war and to the departure of Reith, who was fired in 1938.
After leaving the BBC in 1938, Reith became chairman of Imperial Airways. In 1940, he was appointed Minister of Information in the government of Neville Chamberlain. So as to perform his full duties he became a Member of Parliament for Southampton, representing for the Nationalist Party. When Churchill became Prime Minister his long running feud with Reith led to the latter being moved to the Ministry of Transport. He was subsequently moved to become First Commissioner of Works, a position he held for the next two years, through two restructurings of the job. He was also transferred to the House of Lords, becoming Baron Reith of Stonehaven.
During this period, the town centers of Coventry, Plymouth, and Portsmouth were destroyed by German bombing. Reith urged the local authorities to begin planning the post-war reconstruction. However, he was dismissed from his government post by Churchill who stated that he found Reith difficult to work with.
The remainder of Reith's life was rather disappointing. He held several minor political and corporate positions, but was not able to find another role for himself with the challenge and value of his initial time at the BBC. His strong convictions and difficult personality no doubt contributed to his lack of success in a time of many changes.
He took a naval commission as a Lieutenant-Commander of the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve (RNVR) on the staff of the Rear-Admiral Coastal Services. In 1943 was promoted to Captain (RNVR), and appointed Director of the Combined Operations Material Department at the Admiralty, a post he held until early 1945.
In 1946, he was appointed chairmanship of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board, a post he held until 1950. He was then appointed chairman of the Colonial Development Corporation which he held until 1959. In 1948, he was also appointed the chairman of the National Film Finance Corporation, an office he held until 1951.
Lord Reith also held directorships at the Phoenix Assurance Company, Tube Investments Ltd, the State Building Society (1960-1964), and was the vice-chairman of the British Oxygen Company (1964-1966). He was Lord Rector of Glasgow University (1965-1968). In 1967, he was appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The Independent Television Authority was created on July 30, 1954, ending the BBC's existing broadcasting monopoly. Lord Reith did not approve of its creation:
Somebody introduced Christianity into England and somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague, and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting... Need we be ashamed of moral values, or of intellectual and ethical objectives? It is these that are here and now at stake.
In December 1955, Lord Reith officially opened the new home of the Cable and Wireless telecommunications company in Mercury House.
In 1960, he returned to the BBC for an interview with John Freeman in the television series Face to Face.
Lord Reith died on June 16, 1971, in Edinburgh.
The BBC "Reith Lectures" were instituted in 1948, in commemoration of Lord Reith.
The BBC has continued operating according to Reith's directive and vision, providing much high-minded programming while remaining independent of politics. Despite this independence, Reith set a delicate precedent of close working relationships between politicians and the BBC while still having autonomy over content. This balance is sought, and sometimes upset, by news media the world over. Reith's "World Service" also set the precedent for later global networks such as CNN and Al Jazeera.
Despite his success in founding the BBC, and his enduring legacy there, the rest of Reith's life, including his personal life, was much less successful and rather controversial.
In her biography of her father, My Father—Reith of the BBC, Reith's daughter Marista Leishman claimed that her father was a Nazi sympathizer who abhorred Jews. Leishman said he banned the playing of jazz music on the BBC, and that he wrote in his diary that "Germany has banned hot jazz and I’m sorry that we should be behind in dealing with this filthy product of modernity." Leishman claimed that on March 9, 1933, her father wrote "I am certain that the Nazis will clean things up and put Germany on the way to being a real power in Europe again… They are being ruthless and most determined"; and in March 1939, when Prague was occupied, he wrote: "Hitler continues his magnificent efficiency."
It has been speculated that Reith initially left Scotland in pursuit of his friend Charlie Bowser, with whom Reith is rumored to have had an affair. Supposedly, Reith warned his wife that she must share him with Charlie. He sought to redress the asymmetry by finding a partner for Bowser, but Reith's subsequent jealousy interrupted the men's friendship, much to Reith's pain. A play was written about the suspected affair by Michael Hastings titled The Reith Affair.
Reith wrote two autobiographies: Into The Wind in 1956 and Wearing Spurs in 1966. In these writings he revealed that he felt his life to have been a failure, and that he had never been "fully stretched." The diaries that he kept all his life were published in 1975, showing him to be "a man with strong convictions, powerful hatreds, considerable frustration, and an immense ego."
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