The BBC’s Struggle for Independence

By Gary Bruce Smith

The British Broadcasting Corporation is the largest news coverage enterprise in the world today, with a contingent of over 2,000 journalists broadcasting in more than 40 languages; and comprises a wide range of services including BBC World, BBC News Online and the digital channel BBC News 24.

The BBC was formed in October 1922. The first head of the corporation was John Reith who wished to emulate the American radio industry with its emphasis on broadcasting as a free and independent entity operating within an open and unrestricted market system. One of his main ambitions was to establish the principle of journalistic and editorial independence. This principle has represented the preeminent tone of the BBC over the last few decades. However, the history of the Corporation is also mired in controversy and is a record of a continuous battle against government and other forces to uphold the ideal of independence and non-alliance in the search for journalistic integrity.

In many senses, the BBC is in a very advantageous position and has little competition from within Britain. It is, in effect, a state-licensed monopoly and is funded by a compulsory tax. This also means that—to a certain extent—it is dependent on the government for its survival. It is this tension between political demands and journalistic integrity that has generated much of the controversy associated with the corporation. There are numerous reasons why “from its birth eighty-two years ago, the BBC has never been popular with politicians.” (1)

The first test of integrity for the BBC was the British General Strike of 1926. This strike brought theBBC into direct confrontation with the government of the time over the issue of editorial independence. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that, with no newspapers being published, the BBC was the only source of public information. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, attempted to take over the Corporation. However, Reith succeeded in keeping the BBC independent through negotiations with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. (2)

During the 1930s, the BBC began to broaden its horizons and the scope of its broadcasting and news coverage. In 1932, it opened its Empire Service, and four years later, the world's first television service. In the early years, the company developed a good name for journalistic integrity. This was especially the case during the Second World War, when the first war reporting unit was initiated in 1943. The unit produced journalists of insight and integrity such as Richard Dimbleby and Frank Gillard.

The coverage of the war had a decided effect on establishing the status and professional level of news coverage. “The BBC emerged from the war with an enhanced reputation for honesty and accuracy in its news broadcasts.” (3) Even the Nazi propaganda master Josef Goebbels stated that the BBC 's coverage had been so effective during the war that it had “won the ‘intellectual invasion' of Europe .”(4)

The BBC also made a name for itself in the education arena through its advancement of learning by way of the broadcasting medium. The establishment of the “the University of the Airwaves,” which was the BBC's collaboration with the Open University, was an example of this expansion into the educational field. However, as the BBC became more respected and powerful, there was an increasing pattern of attempts to co-opt and control the organization, especially in times of crisis.

A prime example was the Suez crisis in the 1950s. The BBC conflicted with the government of the time as the country was on the verge of war. This refusal to adhere to its demands was obviously seen by the government as unpatriotic. These events occurred when Gamal Abdul Nasser, the President of Egypt, nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. This led to a crisis in which the British Prime Minster Anthony Eden considered taking military action without the backing of the United Nations. The BBC was not supportive of this direction, and Eden at one stage referred to the corporation as “those Communists at the BBC .” (5)

However, the firm stand taken by the BBC helped to establish its reputation for independence and integrity. There are many similarities between the Suez controversy and the recent crisis with regards to BBC allegations of government “sexing-up” the case for war against Iraq . The Suez incident created a rift between the government and the BBC, and this has been the dominant tone of the relationship between the government and the BBC to this day.

A landmark moment in the history of the BBC was the introduction of television. The first television news broadcast took place on July 5, 1954 , and began with the words, “Here is an illustrated summary of the news.”(6) One of the greatest assets of the BBC, and one of the areas in which it has achieved distinction, is the coverage of major world events.

In the 1980s the BBC stood out above the competition in its innovative and comprehensive depiction of global-interest events such as those that took place in Northern Ireland and Tiananmen Square . Also, the impact that BBC reportage had was seen in the coverage of the Ethiopian crisis, which led to the hugely successful Live Aid concert in 1985, raising more than sixty million pounds.

Coinciding with these and other journalistic and broadcasting achievements during the 1980s was a continuation of pressure on the BBC to undermine its editorial and journalistic integrity. The Thatcher government attempted to privatize the corporation, and this was only narrowly averted. The government also put pressure on the BBC to speak out against the unions. These were controversial years with many internal and external political crises.

However, the greatest threat to the integrity of the BBC was the recent Hutton inquiry. This inquiry resulted from a report on the Today program, which suggested that the government had embellished, or “sexed-up,” the case for war against Iraq. The report received the backing of the governors of the BBC, even in the face of a retraction demand from Prime Minister Tony Blair. The situation was further exacerbated by the death of the government weapons advisor David Kelly.

In the Hutton inquiry, set up to investigate the situation, the government was exonerated and the BBC was accused of “defective” reporting. This resulted in the resignation of the director-general Greg Dyke. The reporter who wrote the initial story, Andrew Gilligan, also resigned. However, many still question the validity of the Hutton inquiry and Gilligan continued to insist, even after his resignation, that “the government did sex-up the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.” Mr. Dyke also accused the British government of “systematically bullying” the BBC over its Iraq coverage.(7)

Many journalists were outraged by the outcome of the Hutton inquiry, some believing the inquiry was one-sided. Interestingly, a public poll taken at the time indicated that three times as many people chose to trust the opinion of the BBC as to that of the government. Yet, the BBC's image as a professional and unbiased news service was severely damaged by the course of these events.

Over the years, the BBC has produced news coverage, entertainment, and educational programs of an exceptionally high standard. However, these achievements are often threatened by the tension of political intervention; for instance, the Hutton inquiry may be a blow to the identity and integrity of the corporation that may be difficult to recover from. However, the BBC has recently attempted to rise above the negative impression created by this event by imposing new editorial guidelines and establishing a journalism college to continually upgrade the skills of its correspondents.

The usurpation of news companies and journalistic standards by political players is an alarming trend that is occurring internationally. As Nicholas Fraser states in an article published in Harper's magazine, vested interests from the government or the private sector display interest in freedom of speech when it is to their benefit.

Everybody loves freedom of speech so long as it happens elsewhere. Governments, like individuals, believe in free expression when their own back yards are not affected. Where their interests are threatened, they will go to some lengths to defend themselves.(8)

Underlying the events of the Hutton inquiry is a long drawn out battle between the British government and the journalistic ideals of the BBC. Tony Blair's government has outspokenly declared that the media is little more than a political tool. "Of course we want to use the media,” an adviser of Blair's once declared, “but the media will be our tools, our servants; we are no longer content to let them be our persecutors.” (9)

This is an attitude that threatens not only the search for excellence and integrity of the BBC, but is problematic for all news services and companies in an age of increasing hype and political distortion of the journalistic search for the truth.

Gary Bruce Smith is a freelance journalist and researcher based in South Africa. His special field of research is the situation in Iraq. You can reach him at

(1) Fraser, Nicholas. To BBC or Not To BBC: Independent Journalism Suffers an Identity Crisis. Harper's Magazine; 5/1/2004 ;

(2) History of the BBC.

(3) Ibid

(4) ibid

(5) KEREVAN, G. Eden's Post-Suez Fall is Warning for Blair. Scotsman.

(6) Broadcasting Landmark: The BBC Celebrates Fifty Years. Birmingham Post; 7/5/2004 .

(7) Mark Rice-Oxley. BBC Facing its Toughest Crisis Yet. CS Monitor.

(8) Fraser, Nicholas. To BBC or not to BBC : Independent Journalism Suffers an Identity Crisis. Harper's Magazine; 5/1/2004 ;

(9) ibid

Bookmark and Share | Home | Daily News | We Are On... |