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16 April 2015updated 17 Apr 2015 10:37am

From the archive: E M Forster defends the freedom of the BBC

The world is large and the opinions in it conflicting.

By E M Forster

First pubished in the New Statesman on 4 April 1931.

Until recently, criticisms of the BBC were helpful, and attacks upon it harmless. Indeed it provided, among other blessings, a happy grumbling ground for the sedentary, where they could release their superfluous force. Old ladies who disagreed with what they heard could remove their earphones and shout “rubbish” into them, under the impression that the comment was
transmitted to Savoy Hill. Old gentlemen, more conversant with the laws of science, could switch off the loud-speaker in the middle of a bar, rush for a postcard and scrawl upon it, “Is this music? If so, I or it are mad.” The postcards arrived, they were acknowledged suitably (the usual formula being “We are sorry the programme does not meet with your approval, and hope you may find something more to your liking next week”), and if not much good was done there was anyhow no harm. Grumbling is more helpful than silence. It shows the producer that his consumers are awake, and assists him to classify his markets. All old ladies are not alike, nor are old gentlemen; they seek different irritants, and the young have their preferences also. Every item in every day’s programme pleases someone, and either bores or annoys someone else. This is a fundamental law of broadcasting. And anyone who is bored or annoyed can discontinue his licence. That is an inalienable right.

This law, and that right, formed until lately a sufficient basis for the system, and the results were so good that we forgot it was the best system in the world. With the possible exception of Germany, no country could approach us. France and the United States are rotten with commercialism. “You have just heard Lamond playing Beethoven by courtesy of ——’s Face Foam, the cream that makes the cuticle glad,” runs a typical transatlantic announcement; the French favour lingerie; Italy and Russia advertise their respective bureaucracies. Great Britain alone kept her ether comparatively free and decent and encouraged the formation of opinion. The public grumbled or made suggestion in their capacity of individual listeners. The officials, enlightened and independent, did not attempt to conciliate—only a fool would do that—but they catered for opposing needs, and they maintained, apart from their catering, a belief in education. Their educational policy has been admirable. We were given facts, we were trained to interpret them, and thirdly—and this was the most important of all—we were asked to tolerate the interpretations of others. This last is not an easy task, but unless it is achieved all education remains dangerous. When the “ban on controversy” was lifted, a victory was won for enlightenment. The public were treated like grown-up people, who are capable of hearing both sides of a question, and consequently there was a chance of the public growing up. Our country was doing a great work not only for itself but for humanity, and the motto on the cover of the Radio Times, “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation,” was not an empty promise.

Perhaps we grumbled too often. If we did, Nemesis has descended, bringing all the powers of darkness in her train. For the easy days are over, brightness falls from the air, and the conflict has begun. The BBC, because of its success and growing importance, is being constantly attacked, in the pulpit, in Parliament, in the Press, and the attack is on new and dangerous lines. The aim is suppression. When suppression has been achieved, control may be attempted, but suppression is the immediate objective. The cry is not for fuller programmes but for feebler. The critics say, not “put this in”, but “miss that out”. One of these critics, the Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh, expresses this attitude in its simplest form. He is complaining that certain speakers with whom he disagrees have been allowed and even invited to give their views, and he goes on to say, “It will probably be replied that sound Christianity is also broadcast, but this is no reply.” Of course, the Cardinal’s attitude is not typical of all his co-religionists—of Father Martindale, for instance—but it is typical of all critics, whatever their views, who adopt the new method of attack. They are outraged because somebody else has been allowed to speak. They would rather no opinions were expressed if their own are to be challenged. They are the old ladies and gentlemen of the past, but embittered beyond belief, and organised to kill.

The storm centre of the moment is, of course, Russia. Anyone who troubles to read through the programmes will see that talks on Russia are infrequent, and that conservative opinions have been amply represented as they are amply represented on all topics. But this is not enough for the critics. They want suppression. Lord Radnor, who sounds like an old gentleman but is in years a youngish one, denounces broadcasting in the House of Lords because Mr Harold Nicolson says a good as well as a bad word for the Soviets, and because Mr Maurice Dobb has lectured on the Five Years Plan. The Morning Post borrows a policeman’s whistle, and blows it every few days, or hires a pavement artist to do a cartoon entitled “Moscow calling”. Letters are published, written by retired colonels or signed “Bournemouth”. And the burden of them all is that we must be told less about Russia, not more, and that except for a reiteration of atrocities, all events in a great country are to be ignored.

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The obvious retort to such rubbish is to ignore it, and this is what the BBC still professes to do. Officially it is too grand to take much notice of the Morning Post, and it would probably deprecate rather than welcome an article such as the present one, which suggests that it is in need of help. “I am responsible only to God and the Postmaster General, and I can well look after myself,” is its attitude when challenged. Unfortunately its dignity is only superficial. It does yield to criticism, and to bad criticism, and it yields in advance—the most pernicious of surrenders. The episode of Krassin saves Italia is the most recent example of such a surrender. Krassin saves Italia is a German radio play, which deals with General Nobile’s Polar expedition, and with the rescue of his crew by a Russian ice-breaker. The facts are historical, and the theme is the triumph of science, transcending national barriers in the hour of danger, and enabling men to save the lives of men. The play was passed by the BBC authorities some months ago, and was in full rehearsal. Then, two days before production, it was withdrawn. The officials, in a communication to the Times, explained that it would be given later on, when Mr Cecil Lewis, the English producer, had completed some other work on which he was engaged, and they implied that the change had been made to meet his convenience. But, unfortunately, the Times published in the same number a letter from Mr Lewis himself. He seemed far from grateful. Indeed, he accused the BBC of having no policy but expediency, and of withdrawing the play because of political pressure.

If the barometer of public opinion is fair, they take risks; if it is stormy, they beat a retreat. The officials, hounded by governors, foreign ambassadors, Government departments, Press, and public, are engaged in a constant guerrilla warfare. One of their ablest men is employed solely in countering, coaxing or coddling the unruly elements of public opinion into silence or acceptance of a police which has no more stability than our climate.

The play was evidently withdrawn because certain fanatics objected to the ice-breaker being Russian, and bullied the authorities into reversing their decision. Probably a press campaign was threatened, or further questions in the House. The episode is not in itself important, but it gives us a sinister little peep behind the scenes. We can imagine the pressure that is brought to bear on any controversial subject, and, as Mr Lewis points out, everything that rouses interest is controversial. And if we admire the BBC for the work that it has done and is still trying to do, we may well ask ourselves what is its best way out of its difficulties, and whether we, in our humble individual capacities, can be of help to it.

There would seem to be two roads of escape. The first is to turn the programmes into an eternal Children’s Hour, where nothing that rouses adult emotions shall be admitted. All is relative; and here, too, there may be controversy, for some listeners will prefer Jack Bones and his Band, and others clamour for the Pilkington Quartet. But the pressure from neither side will be severe. Classical music is a riskier proposition, for the Pilkingtonians and Bones’s [sic] will combine against it, and the fact that so much of it has been composed by foreigners will further weaken its appeal. Education must cease, for it leads to the formation of opinions, and of contrary opinions. The News Bulletin must also be stopped, because news must be selected before it is announced, and selection is the most potent form of comment. Perhaps an occasional reading from Mrs Gaskell—but no, that is going too far; she contains within her the germs of Industrial Unrest. A little music for a very long time is the best, and why, while we are about it, should not this music be performed by the courtesy of somebody’s Face Foam?

The other road of escape lies through many difficulties, and the BBC cannot be expected to take it unless they have the active support of their well-wishers. It is not easy to resist bullies and naggers even when, constitutionally, your position is a strong one, and there is always a tendency to listen to the critic who makes most noise, and to feel that he represents the thousands who are silent. There is no reason to suppose that he does. A large body of decent opinion is probably on the side of the Corporation, and now is the moment for it to express itself, and to demand that the activities of the last few years shall be continued. As Mr Lewis puts it, “If your job is holding a balance, you can keep the pointer steady by putting a ton in either scale,” and an audience of adult listeners ought to vote for the heavier weights. Unless they do so, the talks in particular will become flimsy and tend to disappear. And the talks, although they may not be listened to widely, and although they may not leave much that is definite behind, do promote tolerance, which is education’s crown; they do, by their very variety, remind listeners that the world is large and the opinions in it conflicting, and they make the differences vivid and real to him, because their medium is the human voice and not the printed page.

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