How the BBC invented the sound of the nation

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THERE IS A spooky, unreal element in these debates about the BBC. Of course it is in trouble, and of course a clique of Thatcherite placemen is trying to sell its gates to the enemy. But in discussing the BBC as a mere artefact we avoid the real intellectual difficulty. Did we, as a society, invent this Beeb thing? Or did it invent us? For the BBC formed so much of our consciousness that it is remarkably difficult to think about it objectively.

I remember the first time I entered a BBC studio. Down the steps we went, through subterranean burrows until we came to one of those studios where a huge octagonal microphone of bronze hung from a chain. Into this, it seemed probable, the announcer in 1935 had murmured over and over again, in his black-crepe voice: 'The King's life is drawing peacefully to its close.'

As we slipped into the studio, somebody was ending a talk in the contemporary Eng Lit jargon of F R Leavis: '. . . The moral centrality of D H Lawrence's work here lies in its profound seriousness.' A young man named Stuart Hall collected his pages and stood up. This was the African Service. In the late 1950s it was the dominion of a funny and resourceful young woman called Dorothy Grenfell-Williams, who employed all her clever friends in need of a few bob to broadcast intellectual subversion to what was still colonial Africa.

Socialists, existentialists, Leavisite literary critics and welfare economists preached into the ionosphere. Was anybody listening? After George Orwell had become a wartime talks producer for the India Section of the Empire Service, it was discovered that most of the target audience were too poor to afford radios and that anyway the signal was too weak and at the wrong time of day. I expect the same was true for us. But although the hearers and seers matter most to the BBC achievement, the talkers matter too.

Orwell saw both these points. He wrote that 'I believe that the BBC, in spite of the stupidity of its foreign propaganda and the unbearable voices of its announcers, is very truthful'. But he also pointed out that the BBC was one of several outlets for intellectuals the state loathed but on whose talents it was obliged to rely. 'The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain amount of autonomy.'

This raises the question of what the real function of the BBC has been. Function is not the same as achievement, and not quite the same as importance. The central achievement of the BBC is simply this: that the corporation is held to be the most truthful source of information in the world. That matters a million times more than viewer ratings for Panorama or whether the BBC drops quiz shows. And that is why the World Service and the other external services - underfunded, ill-equipped, scarcely mentioned in these current debates - are infinitely the most significant part of the BBC. The external services, moreover, have come to form a reserve where old values, like like seriousness and fullness of coverage, are protected while they are being trapped on the corporation prairies outside.

The importance of the BBC - what it signifies, rather than what it produces - is that it is a model for public service. Abroad, it is perceived as an old but still enormously successful statement that communication should be neither a government responsibility nor a commercial enterprise (in spite of Sir Michael Checkland's infamous statement that the BBC is 'a billion-pound business'). All public service broadcasting in the world has made at least some effort to copy the BBC's ideal of independence, and to learn from the Charter as a sort of non-aggression treaty between the state and the interests of free communication. In Britain, we are much more aware of the political world's violations of that treaty, especially during the Thatcher years. For us, the BBC is one of the last surviving examples of a national institution that is neither an organ of state nor a private business, but a public agency whose duty takes priority over profit or loss.

The function of the BBC, in contrast, is its influence on British society. It is an influence so overwhelming and pervasive that it is hard to think oneself out of its embrace. In the half-century when it held the monopoly of broadcasting, the BBC did not merely 'enrich' the national culture but to a large extent created it.

Radio, after all, became a mass medium in the late 1920s, an age of violent and intensifying nation-state competition. Not only broadcasting but economic and artistic life became instruments of state propaganda: statistics about pig-iron production and the output of symphonies were written upon flags and waved. The BBC, in its own 'civilised' way, built a similar connection between culture and patriotism.

The BBC's function was to make millions of people feel not simply uplifted but patriotic about the Halle Orchestra or the voice of Laurence Olivier or the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Such sounds merged with other, more formally national noises: a king fighting his stammer to make his Christmas broadcast, a roar of engines passing overhead at an air show, a broadcast Cup Final. To this emotional conglomerate were added the radio comics and even the music for Children's Hour.

So the BBC's function was to invent the sound of Britain. It invented a 'national culture' which made its listeners from Wick to Penzance identify with one another in a new and much closer way. In Wick, you knew nothing of the Penzance listeners. But you knew that they were there, because you knew that they were feeling what you felt.

Try an experiment. Try to imagine a marvellous orchestra in, say Norwich, which is known throughout the world and yet is not on the list of British things to feel proud of. Once that was a natural thought: there is a marvellous orchestra in Norwich but so what? British society was looser then. Today we live in a tightly integrated 'national culture' of which the BBC is the chief architect. Benedict Anderson, in his book, Imagined Communities, described how the spread of printed books helped to create the myth of modern nationalism. In the 20th century radio, followed by television, carried that process much further.

But that age is dying, as the nation-state itself begins to die. Culture no longer integrates, but divides its consumers into many self-regarding ghettos. Broadcasting - television above all - is growing less 'national' in content and is made increasingly for the international market. That single Royal British culture, as sovereign and distinctive as the Royal Navy, is passing away.

This means the BBC is losing its function. A tragedy? No, a liberation] The fact is that the BBC's function as warden of the national culture has been a burden as well as a privilege. It is the self-important sense of being the priesthood of national unity which still preserves the crippling bureaucracy of the BBC. Without that function and bureaucracy, the BBC would be free to concentrate on its two other glories: its achievement and its importance - the power of truth and the ideal of independent public broadcasting. I believe we would then see the corporation revive and flourish. As Michael Grade, Channel 4's chief executive, said at the Edinburgh Television Festival, 'it is the BBC that keeps us all honest'.