Sir John Reith
Reith, John Charles Walsham, 1st Baron First director-general of the BBC.
There he stalks, that wuthering height. —Winston Churchill
Sir John Reith is the man single-handedly responsible for establishing the moral tone and direction in the broadcast policies of the BBC. He began at the fledgling radio operation, initially a commercial venture, in 1922. He knew nothing about radio, but had a solid practical background as an engineer and experience managing an engineering firm. Within a year he was the BBC’s managing director. With the BBC’s public incorporation in 1927, he ascended to the position of Director-general. He was knighted Sir John Reith that same year. He held the directorship until 1938. The BBC was his life and passion, and although he held positions of respect and influence, he felt he never achieved the success of his early years.
Sir John Reith was born in Stonehaven, Grampian, Scotland, 1889, the fifth son of Scottish minister. He trained as an engineer in Glasgow. Standing six-foot, seven-inches, Reith was an impressive physical presence. His dour Calvinist mien was all the more severe for the facial scars he bore as a result of wounds received during World War I.
Reith developed strong ideas about the educational and cultural responsibilities of the national radio service. He saw its potential as “contributing consistently and cumulatively to the intellectual and moral happiness of the community.” Under Reith’s direction, public service broadcasting was defined as having four elements:
- operation on a public service rather than commercial motive,
- national coverage,
- centralized control and operation,
- high quality standards of programming.
He furthermore insisted on BBC operational independence from any political pressures.
Although his strong, even self-righteous, convictions served the BBC well in its early days, it rendered him incapable of dealing gracefully with inevitable change as the broadcast organization matured. By the late 1930s the system he had built was running smoothly. In a managerial coup in mid-1938 Reith was eased out as director general by the BBC’s Board of Governors. After 16 years, Reith left the BBC with considerable bitterness that he harbored the rest of his life.
In the following years, Reith was chairman of Imperial Airways, the ancestor of British Airways, held a number of minor cabinet posts in wartime and post-war governments, and served as chairman of several companies.
Sir John Reith was created Baron Reith of Stonehaven in 1940.
The highly prestigious Reith Lectures, broadcast annually, were established by the BBC in 1947 in his honor.
Reith published the first volume of autobiography in 1949, titled Into the Wind; the second volume, Wearing Spurs, was published in 1966.
Although he was, in the words of the New York Times, “the single most dominating influence on British broadcasting,” Sir John Reith ultimately died a bitter disappointed man, in 1971. Excerpts from his diaries were published posthumously in 1975.
Sources: Who’s Who in the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, © Market House Books Ltd, 1999
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