BBC centenary: how war and the Windsors helped make Corporation the ‘voice of the nation’

Over the past 100 years, the broadcaster has revolutionised the art of delivering the news - but what does the future hold?

BBC radio news announcer Alvar Liddell. He is the man who announced the abdication of King Edward VIII. Getty Images
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For 100 years the BBC has positioned itself as the “voice of the nation” with George Orwell once famously saying: “I heard it on the BBC … I know it must be true.”

But since its inception it has not always been at the forefront of breaking news, with one notorious radio broadcast in 1930 announcing “today, there is no news”. It is a far cry from the BBC we know today, with 24/7 rolling news.

Dr Carole O'Reilly, a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at the BBC’s northern hub in MediaCity in Salford, says the BBC’s reporting of the news has dramatically changed over the past 100 years.

Dinner jackets, anonymous presenters and quintessential English accents

At its inception in October 1922, the announcers were anonymous and wore dinner jackets to work out of respect for the musicians and performers who had to dress up to entertain in the evening.

There were no regional accents and instead presenters spoke with received pronunciation ― far from the diversity shown by the service today.

“In the 1920s, most people got their news from newspapers and radio. Radio was very impactful and its immediacy was very attractive to audiences,” Dr O'Reilly told The National.

“Certainly, there was a more formal style of reporting the news early in the BBC's history. Regional accents were not used and all newsreaders dressed formally and spoke with received pronunciation accents.

“We can certainly say that the BBC did not do a very good job of truly representing the variety of the UK. Indeed, it was not until the decision to move five departments of the BBC to Salford in 2011 that it really began to properly escape London and the South-East.”

A timeline of the BBC – in pictures

BBC was launched in 1922 by a group of wireless manufacturers

The BBC was the brainchild of a group of leading wireless manufacturers, including Guglielmo Marconi who sent the world’s first radio message across open water in 1897, and began daily radio broadcasts from Marconi's London studio, 2LO, in the Strand, on November 14, 1922.

In its infancy, it took time to attract mass audiences until the public first became reliant on it during the 1926 general strike when no newspapers were published.

However, by 1930 every second home in the UK had a radio licence.

Despite the launch of its first television broadcasts in 1929, it was not until after the Second World War that these grew in popularity.

BBC's Second World War coverage changed the organisation

During the war the service was forced to halt its transmissions over fears enemy bombers could use the signals to navigate to London and its engineers were needed to work on the radars.

The power of the BBC came to the fore when millions tuned in at 11.15am on Sunday, September 3, 1939, to hear Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s historic, live, five-minute broadcast announcing: "This country is at war with Germany."

“The importance of news from the BBC during the war cannot be overestimated. For the first 18 years of its life the BBC had been largely kept out of the newsgathering business,” BBC History said.

A BBC cameraman in 1946 explains the technicalities of the television camera to Russian-born US composer Irving Berlin before a programme about the composer.  Getty Images

“The BBC had been obliged to take its news from the newspaper agencies, and it could not put out any bulletins before 6pm. But the war changed everything. This was in part because newsprint was rationed, which meant newspapers were scarce, but it was also because people were so hungry for news.

“Everyone knew someone on the front line, everyone wanted to know how the war was progressing, and they did not want to wait for the newspapers.”

The BBC more than doubled in size during the war, with correspondents sent to cover from the front line, overseas language services expanded and the creation of the Home Service and the Forces Programme.

Nazis tuned in to BBC to hear accurate reports

“Early in the war, the BBC's 'bland offerings' were criticised, and its impartiality questioned. However, as the war progressed, people on the home front and in the forces saw the BBC as a lifeline of information,“ BBC History said.

“Even Hitler's high command are said to have tuned to the BBC, so misleading did they find their own news broadcasts.”

The corporation’s accuracy at war reporting, both the good and the bad news, led Prime Minister Winston Churchill to refer to it as “the enemy within the gates”.

BBC launched first foreign-language service in Arabic

The BBC first launched its World Service in 1932 for English speakers throughout the British Empire and by the end of 1942 it had started broadcasts in all major European languages.

In his Christmas message in 1932, King George V said the service was intended for "men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them".

From a service that was not expected to take off, with director general Sir John Reith warning that the programmes will "neither be very interesting nor very good", it is now the world's largest external broadcaster in terms of reception area, language selection and audience reach.

An Arabic typewriter at 'Radio Babeltown', a BBC radio station broadcasting in various languages during the Second World War, March, 1941. Getty Images

The first foreign language service, Arabic, was launched in 1936 and today the BBC broadcasts in more than 40 languages, reaching 210 million people a week.

In 1955, the World Service adopted its signature tune, Lilliburlero, which was played ahead of the announcement “This is London calling” ― which was later used as the title of a Clash song.

Despite it causing controversy owing to its anti-Catholic connotations, it remains the service’s anthem to this day.

Coverage of queen's coronation made BBC the 'voice of the nation'

Dr O’Reilly says it was the Home Service’s coverage during the war that transformed its reputation and made it an internationally recognised world leader in news, but it was the impact of covering royal events that allowed its television arm to really progress.

“Television only really took off after the Second World War but it was really significant as it added a crucial visual dimension to the news albeit quite basic in its early years). The important issue was that people now had a choice of where to go for their news: newspaper, radio or TV,” she said.

“Early newsreaders were mostly white men and had to have an air of authority. Some elements of this still exist today ― onscreen BBC News presenters are not allowed to wear a hat (however cold their location), for instance. The first woman newsreader was only appointed in 1960.

“While the first and second world wars undoubtedly increased the audience for news, one of the most important events of the 20th century was the decision to televise the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. This drove massive audiences to BBC News and made people think of it as 'the voice of the nation'.

“We can still see echoes of this today in the televising of the queen's funeral recently.”

Princess Elizabeth II's marriage to Lt Philip Mountbatten. PA

The BBC first used an outdoor broadcast van to cover the procession of the coronation of King George VI in 1937.

By the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s marriage in 1947, 400,000 people were tuning in to watch. This figure jumped to 20 million people who watched her coronation in 1953.

The effect of the royals continues to this day with the queen’s funeral last month being watched by 28 million people worldwide while her lying in state was streamed 25 million times.

Campaigning housewife Mary Whitehouse accused BBC of creating a 'permissive society'

The BBC takes pride in being at the forefront of innovation and setting programming trends. It introduced colour television broadcasts to the UK in 1956 and the first teletext service, Ceefax, in 1974.

During this period of transformation, it also met with intense criticism in the form of a housewife from the north of England, Mary Whitehouse, who conducted a 30-year campaign against the BBC from 1963 over what she dubbed its creation of a “permissive society”.

She created the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association to rally against its perceived progressiveness and labelled its director general, Hugh Greene, “the devil incarnate” who she claimed was “responsible for the moral collapse” of the country.

Despite her campaign, the BBC has always endeavoured to uphold values and live by its motto: Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation, which it adopted in 1927, to reflect its ambition and purpose at that time.

It chose various elements of its coat of arms to represent the qualities of it service, with a lion to indicate its British identity, a thunderbolt to represent the transmission of broadcasts, two eagles to depict the speed of broadcasting and a globe to represent the scope and breadth of the BBC's operations.

BBC forced to apologise for 'deceitful' Princess Diana scoop

A recent stain on its high standards occurred when it was forced to apologise for the broadcast it described as “the scoop of a generation” which generated 22.8 million viewers ― a record for a factual show ― in 1995 for a BBC Panorama show.

In 2021, an inquiry found BBC journalist Martin Bashir had acted in a “deceitful” way and faked documents to obtain his world-famous interview with Princess Diana.

Diana, Princess of Wales, during her 1995 interview with Martin Bashir for the BBC. PA

It said the BBC "fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark".

BBC director general Tim Davie was forced to admit it showed "clear failings".

It has also faced criticism for its gender pay gap, when the figures of high earners were revealed in 2017 they showed that just a third of top-earning presenters were women. A recent annual report showed that 45 per cent of women are now in the top bracket.

BBC iPlayer was game-changer for the world of streaming

Earlier this year, Mr Davie spoke of his pride at the innovations of the Home Service, in particular its “trailblazing” breakthroughs in creating the iPlayer streaming service, and vowed to “double down” on its journalism.

In November 1997 it launched BBC News 24 and BBC News Online and the world was offered never-ending news coverage.

Dr O’Reilly said some perceived the BBC to be slow to keep up with changes in technology.

“The way in which news has been defined has changed in the past 100 years,” Dr O’Reilly said.

“24/7 news channels meant that more news was needed and news began to include stories about celebrities, the royals and quirky local news stories that would not have been part of the BBC's original output.

“So, in quantitative terms there is now more news than ever before and more people are receiving it differently. News has had to adapt to brevity to accommodate social media platforms like Twitter and to become even more visual to embrace Instagram and TikTok.

“The BBC was perceived to be a bit slow to react to technological change, such as the internet. BBC News still takes great care to fully verify stories which often makes them later to publish/ broadcast than other news organisations.

“Some would say that this is evidence that the BBC has been too slow to adapt to the contemporary world, but it also illustrates the centrality of the BBC to British public life and its awareness of its national (and indeed international) reputation.

Britain’s King Charles and his wife Camilla listen to BBC director general Tim Davie during a visit to the BBC World Service at BBC Broadcasting House in London.  AP

“It has always exercised great care with regard to its news values and would generally rather be right, than first.”

Mr Davie believes the BBC continues to “take risks” on innovation and has pledged to continue to take the home news service forward in the years to come.

“Our role as an organisation solely serving the public has allowed us to take the risks on which innovation in the market depends ― from the birth of TV and radio, to the first steps into the digital world with Ceefax and BBC Micro, to breakthroughs like iPlayer, which blazed a trail for the global streamers and created a whole new market for video-on-demand,” he told The Sunday Times.

“Today, as we follow in Reith’s footsteps, our focus is again on innovation and reforming the BBC to ensure it can keep delivering value to audiences in this new world.

"This means doubling down on where we are unique and precious: British storytelling, impartial journalism, areas such as education, local news and research and development. These things are made more, not less, relevant by the digital age.

“But it also means reinventing ourselves to keep connected to all. This is why our centenary year will not be spent looking back, but forward."

Updated: November 14, 2022, 9:23 AM