G D H Cole in 1927: “Whatever the BBC does is, of course, wrong.”

The Beeb has always been a space for debate on culture, ethics and standards.

Plus ça change. In 1927 the British Broadcasting Company was granted a Royal Charter, elected John Reith as its first Director-General, and set about its mission to “inform, educate and entertain” the largest possible number of Britons. A mere 43 days later, writing in the New Statesman, the historian and theorist G D H Cole was lamenting the BBC’s efforts “to devise programmes suitable and pleasing to [the] standard listener” across its nascent stations. “For,” he writes, “the standard listener does not in reality exist.”

One of many speculative pieces which accompanied the birth of the broadcasting giant, Cole’s piece, originally published in the magazine in 1927, assessed the possibility of “eduction by wireless”, while noting the enduring impossibility of pleasing everyone with this ideal.

The piece is republished here in full, on the 90th anniversary of the BBC’s first broadcast. This evening, a new composition by Damon Albarn will be played simultaneously across 55 BBC radio stations, with a possible listenership of up to 80 million.

Education by Wireless

Whatever the British Broadcasting Corporation does is, of course, wrong. At least, it is bound to appear wrong to a body of listeners large enough to deserve consideration. For broadcasting has hitherto been conducted on the basis of a false and impossible assumption – the assumption of the standard or average listener. The BBC has tried to devise programmes suitable and pleasing to this standard listener, and naturally it has failed. For the standard listener does not in reality exist.

There are listeners and listeners. Some want one thing and some another. All want some variety in the programmes presented to them, but not the same variety. To some extent indeed the possessors of the better receiving sets can achieve the variety they want by tuning in now to one station and now to another. But even so, they encounter the difficulty that nearly all the programmes are compounded to a single recipe, and based on this same erroneous assumption of the standard listener.

There are, indeed, some few things to which the great majority of people want to listen. The very latest news during a really serious crisis is the most obvious case; for people do want to hear such news, even if they have no reasonable assurance that it is likely to be true. The same desire that causes special editions of the papers to sell like hot cakes makes most listeners put on the ear-phones or let their loud-speakers talk. But such cases are relatively rare; for the most part different sorts of people want to hear different things, and the attempt to provide a common programme for all sorts is bound to be a most unsatisfactory kind of compromise. It results in programmes which are a mere hotch-potch, and it sets all sorts of people writing to the BBC or to the papers to offer their advice.

In fact, of course, the problem is insoluble along the lines hitherto followed. There is no way of solving it except by recognising the different demands of different types of listeners. It is intolerable, when the busy man has some free time, to confront him with the alternative of, say, listening to Sir Oliver Lodge or nothing – he may not like listening to Sir Oliver Lodge, or even to any sort of lecture. There ought always to be alternative programmes available, and the alternatives ought to be available to all sorts of listeners and not only to the possessors of expensive sets. But alternative programmes alone, as the owners of such sets well know, will not solve the problem. It is necessary that the alternatives should be devised to appeal, not all to the fabled standard listener, but to listeners of different types and interests.

This point arises most obviously as soon as any attempt is made to put the resources of the wireless to educational use. The BBC, we believe, is at present investigating this problem, and discussing whether it shall undertake to provide an alternative educational programme. Recent attempts to infuse further educational elements into the existing programmes have led to a good deal of public protest; and no wonder, for there are a great many people who have no desire whatever to listen to educational lectures over the wireless, while among those who do want an educational service many are not unnaturally contemptuous of the fare at present provided. An educational programme, broadcasted on the ordinary wavelength, and stuck into the intervals of the ordinary programme, is bound to be a poor affair at best. Lest the standard listener should be unduly outraged, the lectures are carefully made “popular” in their appeal. There are more odd single lectures than consecutive courses; and even consecutive courses have to be treated on the assumption that it is mainly accident whether they are listened to consecutively or not.

Under these conditions, it is neither here nor there to blame the BBC for the poorness of the fare. The conditions themselves are wrong. If the listener who does not must be protected against having either to be educated against his will, or deprived of any programme at all. Some day, it is to be hoped, it will be possible to provide many alternative programmes. Till that can be done, we must be content with less; but a beginning might well be made with a distinct educational programme, based on a separate wave-length of its own.

To some, entirely sceptical of the educational value of the wireless, this may seem an unnecessary innovation. But there is a strong case for the view that broadcasting can profitably be put to educational use. From the standpoint of those interested in the rapidly developing adult educational movement, the case is clear. Broadcasting is no substitute for the work they are doing already; but it may be a very useful supplement, both in reaching isolated and scattered students for whom it is impossibly expensive to provide by the regular means of classes, and for interesting that wider section of the public which is the potential recruiting ground for students in ordinary adult schools, such as those conducted by the WEA. To put the matter more plainly, there are advanced and scattered students for whom, in the subjects they desire to study, help can hardly be afforded by any means other than the wireless; and there is a large public which can be interested in educational work, and to which the wireless provides a valuable means of access. But, if the educationists are to have the chance of using broadcasting for these purposes, the types of listeners who do not want them must be protected against having education crammed into their unwilling ears.

There is another respect in which a separate educational wavelength could be distinctly useful. At present, there are fairly drastic restrictions on the broadcasting of controversial matter. As Mr Bernard Shaw put it the other day, only members of the Government – to whom we must not add Mr Shaw – are allowed to make controversial statements over the wireless. Ordinarily, the lecturer who is invited to broadcast has to submit a manuscript in advance, and is supposed to adhere to the letter of what he has written down and submitted to censorship. Such a condition is obviously, for a very large number of lecturers, fatal to good work. For, apart from the actual conserving of what is said, rigid adherence to a written lecture must have, for many speakers, a tendency to cause dull and mechanical talking. This would not, indeed, afflict all lecturers alike, and some would be suited by the conditions; but it is hardly compatible with getting the best men to do the best work.

Moreover, the exclusion of controversial matter is, in the long run, obviously a futile and impracticable policy. There are many subject which simply cannot be treated except in a controversial way, and the definition of what is controversial plainly varies with the person making it. The BBC’s announcements during last year’s “General Strike” – fair on the whole as the company tried to make them – were certainly not regarded as non-controversial by the main body of the strikers; but Mr Shaw – who has since got more than his own back on the Postmaster-General – was not allowed to be broadcasted some time ago because of his refusal to give a pledge to say nothing controversial. The restriction is absurd on the face of it; and yet there is a case for it, under present conditions. Could not a half-way house be found, for the moment, by removing the ban no controversial matter for educational programmed supervised by responsible educational bodies such as the Universities or the WEA?

In writing this in support of a separate educational wave-length, we do not wish to give an exaggerated impression of our faith in the educational value of the wireless. Broadcasting is in some ways very like the newspaper, which is certainly not in any marked degree an educational instrument. But it need not be, as it is at present, analogous to a world in which the only newspaper obtainable is the Daily Mail. It must continue to provide widely acceptable programmes, and, as long as the alternatives are limited to one or two, it cannot escape altogether from the fallacious assumption of the standard listener. But its responsible controllers can at least begin to think more in terms of the diverse sections of which the potential listening public is composed, and, without sacrifice of majorities, begin to make some effort to meet the needs of articulate minorities as well. This is clearly not to be done by merely multiplying lectures of the existing types, but rather by providing lectures and courses of different kinds. Moreover, it seems important that such work should be developed in the closest possible conjunction with the existing educational bodies. There is a place for the wireless in the world of such bodies as the WEA; but this clearly needs working out in close cooperation with the WEA and the teachers engaged in adult education. There is also an obvious place for the wireless in the school especially in connection with the study of music; and this again needs working out in co-operation with the teachers and the local education authorities. In both spheres, the contribution of the wireless is, we think, likely to be only a minor contribution; but that does not mean that it is not worth a good deal of thought and conscious control, if only to protect us from being flooded by an endless stream of popular lectures of as little value to anyone as of interest to the great majority of listeners. The place of broadcasting in educations needs thinking out; and we are glad that the BBC is taking up the problem. Any solution is bound for the present to be only experimental and provisional; for the wireless is still in an early stage of development, and we are still largely ignorant of its potentialities and limitations. It may have little educational contribution to make; but what it has will certainly be the better if it is made the in the right way.

The above piece was uncovered during ongoing research for The New Statesman Century, available August, 2013.

"Listeners put on the ear-phones or let their loud-speakers talk". Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.