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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser