When it comes to news corporations, there are very few with a legacy to match that of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Better known as the BBC, it has dominated British culture with documentaries, radio shows, movies, miniseries, and more. But of course, a company this old and powerful will have some skeletons in their closet. Find out more about the scandals, controversies, and criticisms of the BBC below.
Worldwide, a whopping one in sixteen adults make use of BBC News.
The BBC does not rely on shareholders, advertising revenue, nor does it live or die by ratings. Some will say this gives the BBC an unfair advantage over other TV stations, while others would point out that this preserves the network’s integrity and allows it freedom to pursue topics that others would avoid.
In 1926, the General Strike was launched by unions across the UK. The BBC attempted to stay neutral and report all sides of the issue in equal measure. However, the government blocked the BBC’s efforts to broadcast statements made by the Labour Party and union leaders. In retaliation, the BBC refused to air a statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Their efforts received some criticism, particularly from Winston Churchill, but the majority of people supported the BBC’s actions.
Predictably for such a well-known organization, the BBC has acquired several nicknames. Among them are “the Beeb” and more affectionately, “Auntie.”
While the British were involved in World War Two, television broadcasting was suspended completely. In June 1946, when television broadcasting could resume, the BBC came back on a humorous note. Jasmine Bligh began the first program in six years with “Good afternoon, everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh…?” A popular myth emerged that Bligh said “As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted…” but this is sadly untrue.
Not only is the BBC the world’s largest broadcaster by the number of people employed, but it is also the world’s oldest national broadcasting organization. It turned 98 years old in 2020!
From the 1930s up to the Cold War’s end, any applicants trying to work for or with the BBC had to go through a secret screening process. The spy agency MI5 would assign an officer with the BBC to vet people. Anyone suspected of being a “subversive” was banned from the BBC.
The BBC was first formed on the 18th of October 1922 in response to the British government trying to figure out how to manage the widespread technology of radio. The BBC immediately began broadcasting from London on the 14th of November that same year. Just a day later, the BBC also began broadcasting from Birmingham (not the one in Alabama!) and Manchester.
John Reith was appointed as the BBC’s first General Manager in December 1922. His policy of “inform, educate, and entertain” is now known as the “Reithian directive” to which the BBC still claims to adhere. But not everyone agrees that the BBC lives up to those goals...
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Members of the Margaret Thatcher government had more than a few derogatory nicknames for the BBC, such as the “Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation.” As you can imagine, they regularly accused the BBC of not just leftist leanings, but also impartial news reporting.
Ironically, the Thatcher government also accused the BBC of being impartial as well! During the Falklands War, the BBC maintained a neutral stance, refusing to use condemnatory language against the Argentines. Thatcher angrily said that Britain's enemies were “being treated almost as equals” with the Sun newspaper accused the BBC of treason. In response, The Daily Mirror remarked that “The Sun today is to journalism what Dr. Joseph Goebbels was to truth.”
Despite the accusations of leftist bias, the BBC actually gave far more of its airtime to the Conservative Party rather than the Labour Party by a wide margin.
One of the biggest criticisms levelled towards the BBC over the years has been the mandatory license fee from which the corporation regularly drew its budget. This, in turn, led to accusations that the BBC is wasteful with money and is overstaffed. You just can’t please some people.
In one of the darkest moments of the BBC’s long history, longtime TV host and national treasure Jimmy Saville was revealed to have used his position as a BBC media personality to abuse children as young as five years old. Over the course of 50 years as an entertainer, Saville had had access to youths through his TV and charity work, making the revelation especially horrific. Unfortunately, Saville had died before he could be made to answer for his crimes.
Sadly, Saville was not the only, or first, case of a British celebrity with close BBC connections being convicted of sexual assault against minors. Musician Jonathan King’s diverse career led him to produce or perform several hit songs, discover the band Genesis, and be one of the first people to invest in the production called Rocky Horror Picture Show. All of this would be tainted by a trial in 2007 which resulted in his being sentenced to seven years in jail for child abuse.
Here's a brighter fact: As early as 1923, the BBC employed women, though these early years mostly saw them working as typists or caterers. Despite that, women did appear as BBC personalities. Ella Fitzgerald produced the original Women’s Hour in 1923 and Cecil Dixon provided voice and musical talents for Children’s Hour. Rare for the time, the BBC offered equal pay and equal promotion opportunities for women (on paper, at least).
One area in which the BBC’s legacy continues to endure is through its comedy series. Among the many hilarious shows which the BBC brought to the world are Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster, Red Dwarf, Fawlty Towers, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Recently, a poll was done across 14 different countries, asking which TV station was the best overall. Out of 66 channels, the BBC took the number one spot!
One of the more heart-warming achievements of the BBC is their long-running charity called Children in Need. Focusing on raising money “for disadvantaged children and young people in the UK,” the charity has raised nearly £1 billion since 1980! The late Sir Terry Wogan, one of the UK’s national treasures, hosted Children in Need for 35 years.
Despite the BBC’s support of multiculturalism and their legal requirement to be an equal-opportunities employer, the BBC has not been exempted from accusations of racism. Former BBC war correspondent Rageh Omaar declared that racism and classism were serious issues within the BBC, even calling the organization a “white man’s club.”
One of the most successful BBC shows of all time is the sci-fi series Doctor Who. Beginning in 1963, the show follows an alien travelling across time and space with multiple companions of different age, gender, and home planet. In a stroke of creative (and marketing) genius, the Doctor, has the ability to regenerate his body at the moment of death.
This has allowed multiple actors (such as David Tennant, Tom Baker, and Matt Smith) to portray the different variations of the Doctor. The series ran until 1989 but came back in 2005 and continues on to this day. Doctor Who recently broke new ground by having Jodie Whittaker portray the first female incarnation of the Doctor.
With such a popular and long-running show as Doctor Who, you probably won’t be surprised to know that several spinoff series were planned to capitalize on Doctor Who’s success. However, the attempts didn’t really work out for the first run of the show. It wasn’t until the revival series took off that spinoff shows gained real traction on their own. The most successful of these were undoubtedly the dramatic series Torchwood, and the more light-hearted The Sarah Jane Adventures.
As most of you know, the Second World War oversaw a massive influx of women entering the workforce while millions of men left it. This was also the case with the BBC. Hundreds of women were trained to work as engineers, Audrey Russell became the BBC’s first female war correspondent in 1944, and Una Marson became the first black female producer for the BBC in 1941.
Sadly, the BBC regressed from their initially positive stance on women during the 1950s. By 1973, deep-rooted misogyny was reported to be the norm within the BBC. Only 6% of all senior posts were occupied by women. Things didn’t start to improve until an Equal Opportunities Officer was appointed for the first time in the 1980s. By 2008, the number of senior management posts held by women had risen to 40%.
In its early years, the BBC took a heavy-handed and moralistic stance compared to the American model of letting money and advertising dictate the content of a radio station. This alienated many, as did the BBC’s decision to not cover cricket or football (soccer) due to the limited airtime that they got.
One popular brand of BBC television is the panel show. These shows are formatted like a game or quiz show, but who ends up winning or losing is almost unimportant compared to the guests’ ability to crack jokes and make the audiences laugh with their simple interactions. The quiz show format is used mostly to provide comedy material for said guests. Notable examples of panel shows on the BBC include Mock the Week, Qi, and Would I Lie to You?
In recent years, the BBC scored a huge hit with their dramatic series Sherlock Holmes. Making stars out of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the series reimagined Arthur Conan Doyle's classic characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. It was so popular that the third season became the highest-watched show in the history of the BBC!
One of the people who was continually blocked from the BBC was Michael Rosen. While the BBC was initially interested in hiring him, Rosen made no secret of his left-wing views and had to go freelance instead. You might be wondering what this dangerous subversive ended up doing with his life. Rosen is a highly acclaimed children’s author whose book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, is one of the most successful books for children of all time. Such a danger indeed!
BBC Films was founded in 1990 to produce around eight feature films per year in yet another effort to contribute to British culture. Many films produced by the BBC have become critical and commercial successes, like Notes on a Scandal, Fish Tank, Saving Mr. Banks, Brooklyn, and In the Loop.
Top Gear, a popular TV show for car lovers everywhere, managed to incur a number of complaints over the years. This was largely due to the blokey style of humor used by the show’s hosts. In 2011, their derogatory comments about Mexicans infuriated many, including the Mexican ambassador to the UK. The BBC made a formal apology, which they must have been used to doing by that point.
Aside from radio, television, and film, the BBC also has a branch which focuses on books and magazines. Owned by Random House, BBC Books has published several books over the years, many of which are tie-ins to the BBC’s shows (ex. Doctor Who). There is also BBC Magazines, which produces such diverse titles as Radio Times and Gardens Illustrated.
In 2015, Top Gear got into even more trouble. The program came under fire when it was revealed that Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson had assaulted one of the show’s producers during a catering disagreement. After Clarkson’s many past gaffes and controversies (which could honestly fill up a Factinate article), this display of childish temper led the BBC to suspend Clarkson from the show and decline to renew his contract.
A petition to reinstate Clarkson failed to change the BBC’s mind. Instead, Clarkson left, taking his co-hosts with him to start a new show elsewhere.
One of the biggest names associated with BBC is the great David Attenborough. Throughout his very long career, he previously served as a senior manager for the BBC during the 1960s and 1970s. However, most of you will probably know him more for the many nature documentaries which he has hosted and narrated. Among the many award-winning shows that Attenborough’s done are the Planet Earth documentary series, Blue Planet, and the Life collection.
In 1999, the BBC released Walking with Dinosaurs. This six-part documentary series used CGI and the narration of Kenneth Branagh to depict dinosaurs as they might have lived all those millions of years ago. The series took the world by storm, inspiring several follow-up series like the sequel Walking with Beasts and the prequel series Walking with Monsters. Branagh returned to narrate these series, presumably trying to make up for Wild Wild West.
In total, 96% of the U.K.’s population either listens to or watches programs by the BBC. This includes two thirds of all adults in the U.K. who listen to BBC radio stations.
The BBC is “the biggest commissioner of new music in the world.” More than £125 million is spent by the BBC on music alone.
In 2006, a study by the University of Leeds examined how the BBC portrayed the LGBTQ community. The findings weren’t flattering; LGBTQ-themed topics only accounted for 0.4% of the BBC’s output, and 80% of it was negative towards LGBTQ people. It was one of the worst records for any broadcaster which had been similarly studied.
In the final year of 2016/2017, the BBC’s total revenue was £4.954 billion! For those of you who don’t have the conversion rate memorized (yes, we see you there), that would translate to just under 6.5 billion U.S. dollars!
In the mid-1960s, the BBC faced unwanted competition from pirate radio stations who would push their way onto the air. The British government were forced to allow radio services that were financed by advertising fees, something which they’d tried to restrict and avoid in the past.
Following the changes made in the wake of pirate radio’s prominence, BBC Radio underwent a major restructuring. Among other changes, BBC Radio was divided into four stations which focused on specific audiences. Radio 1 would play strictly pop music, Radio 2 played music which fell under the term “easy listening,” and Radio 3 focused on classical and cultural music. Radio 4 avoided music and instead reported the news while also providing “quiz shows, readings, dramas, and plays.”
In 1990, BBC Radio launched Radio 5, which was mainly concerned with sports and education. However, just four years later, Radio 5 was reformed to become Radio 5 Live. We’re lucky that a juice company of the 1990s didn’t buy out the BBC or else we might have gotten Radio 5 Alive! Heh.
The main source of the BBC’s income is an annual television license fee. This fee is charged to any organization, household, or company in the U.K. which uses “any type of equipment to receive or record live television broadcast and iPlayer catch-up.”
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