Reith of the BBC
"That Wuthering Height," said Churchill of his Broadcasting House nemesis, the towering Scot who dominated British radio in its most crucial years. And of WSC Reith wrote, "I absolutely hate him."
BY RON CYNEWULF ROBBINS
Mr. Robbins, a journalist, was a founding director of the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a regular contributor to Finest Hour and resides in Victoria, B.C., FH82
Churchill was at his alliterative best when he condemned Hitler and Mussolini as: "these men of the microphone and murder." The dictators, combining vile propaganda with incessant lying, made radio a servant of totalitarianism.
Out of government office in the middle 1930s, Churchill had few opportunities to broadcast He felt frustrated because he could not talk regularly and directly to the people of Britain about the ever-increasing menace to peace and freedom posed by Germany and Italy. He also felt his criticism of the British group that sought to appease the dictators was being muted.
John Reith, an unusually tall Scot who was head of the British Broadcasting Corporation, relished the power he had to exclude Churchill from Broadcasting House in London. Radio at that time was the monopoly of the publicly-owned Corporation, so it is easy to understand how Reith incurred Churchill’s displeasure. Churchill claimed that for eight years Reith barred him from radio but this, with good reason, is generally dismissed as Churchillian hyperbole.
The mutual antipathy of the two men is a strange and somewhat sad chapter in British politics. However, it is clear that the fault lies heavily on Reith’s side despite the tendency of certain authors to sum it up as a collision between one big ego and another. Impishly and memorably, Churchill stylized Reith as: "That Wuthering Height." The paths of the two men crisscrossed frequently in the years preceding the Second World War and fate decreed that Reith would spend a period in the war cabinet.
Reith was endowed with many talents but lacked genius; he never forgave himself for that, and irrationally developed the hideous habit of blaming his inner deficiency on those who held any office higher than his own. To Churchill, he seems to have been an irritant slightly akin to another giant of a man, General de Gaulle.
Ebullient, and driving himself and everyone else hard on to victory, Churchill was not to be diverted from his central purpose by irritants. For Reith, it was vastly different. A dark-minded introvert, he was incapable of establishing a rapport with a thunder and lightning extrovert of Churchill’s historic stature.
Reith’s spleen is written large in his diaries, which run to over two million words. His criticism of Churchill often dribbles on quite absurdly and finally he descends to this: "I absolutely hate him." But it has to be said that Reith had a remarkably long hate list dating from his early days. Churchill’s genius and magnanimity were beyond Reith’s reach and comprehension. Reith was handicapped by an off-putting, austere nature that contrasted too starkly with Churchill’s warm friendships which had the hallmark of loyalty.
There was no primrose way to the top for Reith, who was born in 1889. His father, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, had charge of a church in Glasgow but never had much money. A large family drained his small resources. John in his boyhood was extremely bad-tempered and failed to show his parents proper respect. When he was fifteen he was sent to Gresham’s School, in the hope that his conduct would improve. He was unhappy at first, but soon settled down to his studies. He out-distanced his classmates in the schoolroom, and on the playing field shone at rugby. When he became seventeen, family finances were insufficient for him to remain at the school and, to his unending disappointment, he lost the chance of receiving a university education. A five-year apprenticeship was arranged for him at a locomotive company. Before embarking on that, he spent some time at Glasgow Technical College and later reinforced this by attending night classes which enabled him to gain certificates to· launch him on his career with a London company. He served in the First World War in the front line and was wounded. Having proved his courage and displ~yed engineering expertise, he discovered he had a well-spring of determination along with a capacity for leadership. His organizing and administrative qualities were strongly apparent. Nevertheless, his fatal flaw could not be hidden: he confessed to "intense hatred" for a couple of the officers above him.
Leaving hospital after recovering from his serious wounds, he had the ingenuity to take advantage of his prewar engineering contacts to get an official British appointment at an arms production plant close to Philadelphia. His American experience was a crucial factor in shaping a future that was to be crowned with a peerage.
From 1916 to 1917 he was a tremendously effective supervisor of arms inspection. He spared time to speak publicly on the war and attracted attentive crowds. He found Americans outgoing and sympathetic. He could fire unwanted employees while continuing to hold the allegiance of the remainder of tb~e staff. Wealthy and influential industrialists opened their doors to him and he learned to walk beside them with an extraneous show of ease that was to convert him into acceptable company for kings and bishops. He believed that, at last, he had come face to face with his true self. Imbued with a sense that he was destined to achieve great things, he realized his resolution and ambition were now twin strengths. Eventually he was replaced by Americans and headed hox~e convinced he was more rounded, more confident, more the man he dearly wished to be. But he failed to take several of his important American lessons permanently to heart and paid the penalty psychologically. Hostile circumstances of his own making might have engulfed him without the therapeutic support of his diary.
Peace, and his impending marriage, emphasized the necessity for him to make his mark quickly. Compelled to lower his sights, he became general manager of a provincial factory. He was outstanding at his job but the firm’s defects, and the renewed stirring of his political aspirations brought disenchantment. Privately, he designated the firm "filthy" and labelled head office executives "skunks." He was glad to leave and yield to his yearning to be in London.
At no period of his life was Reith hesitant about writing to, or approaching, anyone of leading rank who might favour him with advancement. Resorting to his customary technique, he steadily probed a variety of possibilities and was rewarded by proving himself a first-class general election aide to a key Coalition Conservative unlikely to forget Reith’s role in working all-out for party interests. Reith was elated at his entre6 into political circles where he rubbed shoulders with Lloyd George and other statesmen. A seat in the House of Commons was his goal.
What happened next was totally at variance with anything he had foreseen for himself. That scientific infant named radio ("wireless" in Britain) was squalling into existence. Reith saw an advertisement for a general manager of the British Broadcasting Company (forerunner of the British Broadcasting Corporation) and applied. Undoubtedly, he was given what the English term "a nod and a wink" that his candidacy was well-timed. He was appointed and thus won a power base with ramifications that escaped his immediate notice because of his complete ignorance of radio. He did not attribute his appointment to political pull. His intensely held Christian beliefs had prompted him to pray before he was interviewed. Obviously, this would not be very remarkable in his generation and, indeed, he is justly credited with ensuring that the Christian ethic was not neglected by the new medium.
The upheaval of the 1926 General Strike consolidated an alliance consisting of Stanley Baldwin, who was Prime Minister; Neville Chamberlain, Minister of Health; and Reith. They were a triumvirate of future appeasers already suspicious of Churchill’s bold and restless temperament, Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer and the post was his for two major reasons:
Chamberlain had rejected it and Baldwin was shrewd enough to prefer Churchill inside the boat rather than outside where he would be free to sink it — and then build and steer his own vessel.
The ultra-cautious Baldwin had the cooperation of Chamberlain and Reith in keeping Churchill in check and off the air during the strike. Churchill, drafted to the British Gazette — an official paper deemed necessary in the crisis — exhibited his life-long mastery of journalism and thoroughly enjoyed his editing and publishing duties. It would be simplistic in the extreme to conclude he was unaware that the triumvirate had connived to fill his days with anything but a radio speech.
Although the British Gazette was too robust for some cabinet members, Chamberlain confirmed in private the worth of its contribution. H~added that the advantage of its publication was more than doubled by the ability to control the radio outlet through which Baldwin had spoken soothingly to sixteen million listeners.
Reith preened himself on what he considered to be radio’s part in warding off downright panic, but had to concede that the independence of the growing network had been dented by the government’s backstage control.
The pioneer British Broadcasting Company was owned by manufacturers of radio equipment. In 1927 there was no noisy accompaniment of controversy when it was transformed into the British Broadcasting Corporation, with reliance on public funds from licences for radio sets. Reith was its director general, the seal was set on its monopoly and headline writers dubbed it "The People’s Network." Later on there were critics who complained Reith was treating it as his feudal estate.
The impact of radio, especially before the advent of television, was dominant. Britain had a fresh and exciting form of entertainment interspersed with knowledgeable broadcasts on the arts, and lessons by experts relayed to schools. Reith’s programming was coated with religion, and this endeared him to ecclesiastics.
Politicians had rapidly recognized the significance of radio in molding public opinion. Rei~h stood in the centre of an arena where (given his disposition) sword-play with Churchill was inevitable.
The pervasiveness of radio, and his impressive contribution to the structure and constitution of the BBC, turned Reith into a powerful figure. He was at the side of monarchs, prime ministers and church leaders advising them about their radio speeches. The splendour and pageantry of national occasions saw him carefully orchestrating every broadcast and doing his utmost to avoid a slip-up or a flop. The participants were grateful. He was the recipient of a knighthood and honorary degrees, but that did not stop him being peevish. He thought he deserved higher recognition than a knighthood. At a formal ceremony, he glanced at decorations worn by his companions and afterwards egotistically recorded his comparison: he was convinced he had striven harder than they had for the same type of medal. Disgust overwhelmed him.
As the years passed, Reith continued to block Churchill’s access to the BBC whenever he could. Rarely was Churchill allowed on the air to talk about India, a subject of enduring concern to him. He was not keen on rushing Home Rule for India. His prescient fear was that the subcontinent would be plunged into bloodshed; he also foresaw the aftermath of a river territory doomed to be fertile breeding ground for recurring problems. The issue widened the gap between Churchill and Reith.
The two had contrasting roles in the 1936 Abdication crisis. Reith, depressed and bewildered, joined the ranks of pessimists in wrongly assuming that chaos —not a monarch — would reign in Britain. Churchill blazed with defiant loyalty for King Edward VIII, who preferred the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, to his throne. Reith stage-managed the Abdication broadcast for the King, whose new title, Duke of Windsor, was granted by his more worthy successor and brother, George VI. Edward’s farewell speech was embellished by Churchill; no Sherlock Holmes was needed to detect his inimitable style.
Since admiration for Hitler was Reith’s blind spot, he was contemptuous of Churchill’s early rallying cry urging Britain to prepare itself to meet the coming assault by the Nazis on free countries. His diaries express his approval of Germany. He was positive the Nazis "would clean things up." It is not surprising that he went on to extend his admiration to include Mussolini. Chamberlain had taken office as Prime Minister in 1937 and Reith eagerly obeyed him by denying Churchill adequate opportunity to rouse the British by speaking to them over the radio as they sat in the threatened security of their peaceful homes.
By 1938 Reith was weary of his workload. In-fighting at bureaucratic meetings, as well as entrepreneurial sniping at the BBC monopoly, were demeaning in his eyes. Chamberlain manouevred him into the chairmanship of Imperial Airways. It was a desert far removed from the political sphere and his super-ego did not welcome the readjustment. Of greater moment was his rude and late awakening to the tyrannical intentions of Hitler. His patriotism, never in question, went to the fore with the sturdiness that had characterized him in the First World War. The trouble was that his shining peacetime accomplishments gave him a grandiose notion of the place he should occupy to help defeat the enemy.
He floundered for a while following the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, but when 1940 dawned he was Minister of Information under Chamberlain. In the House of Common~ he represented Southampton; the seat was uncontested when he decided to seek it. Churchill was already in the government as First Lord of the Admiralty, a portfolio he had also held from 1911 to 1915.
In May Germany invaded the Low Countries and France. The British had had enough (cynics said: "too much’9 of Chamberlain; Churchill succeeded him as Prime Minister. Emerging from his wilderness years, Churchill could now broadcast without hindrance. From Reith’s standpoint, the irony was that the radio ban had the effect of lending extra force to Churchill’s message: his magnificently inspiring voice, hitherto unfamiliar to listeners, was commanding and refreshing compared with Chamberlain’s dreary tones.
Unfaltering determination and abiding faith in victory were Churchill’s clarion calls. The British responded instantly and heroically. Because of his broadcasts, the English language had become part of the armoury of freedom.
Reith’s rage at Churchill’s premiership bordered on apoplexy. "Heaven help us" was his verdict on learning that Churchill would also be Defence Minister. It was "awful" that Churchill would be empowered to have direct dealings with the chiefs of staff. His animosity was mingled with apprehension that he would be downgraded or tossed aside. It ~annot be overlooked that no less an authority than Sir John Colville, private secretary to Churchill, has listed Reith as a failure in the Ministry of Information.
After France fell, Germans on the French coast were visible from Dover. Britain was an island fortress, pounded night and day by guns and planes. Anyone brilliant and courageous was sure to be recruited at once by Churchill. Reith had ample qualifications. Churchill, ever averse to harbouring a grievance, appointed him Minister of Transport. His apologists maintain that the short space of time Reith spent in the information and transport ministries impeded him. In October 1940 he was appointed Minister of Works and elevated to the House of Lords. Churchill’s hand in this is scarcely indicative of deep-rooted prejudice against him.
Reith ceased to be a minister in February 1942. Genuine departmental success had eluded him. Attracted by planning reconstruction he did much that was useful but nothing to justify retaining him in government.
Men who come late to politics in Britain are apt to leave early. The parliamentary fray baffles them and they get lost in the Whitehall civil service maze. Reith was a classic example. The word compromise did not fit comfortably into his vocabulary and that completed his undoing. His behaviour in office was most curious. He gloated over the fact that he declined to attend a meeting of ministers summoned by Churchill. Yet, he stopped by 10 Downing Street to walk to the Commons with the great man. At night, his diary vituperation was indulged in to the grossest extremity. Churchill was "essentially rotten," a ~~swine,~~ a ~ unfit to govern. Conversely, it is necessary to recall that R. V. Jones, the noted British scientist, has said his meetings with Churchill produced in him the feeling of "being recharged by contact with a source of living power."
Churchill was not cold towards Reith. In chats, and on the phone, he attempted to jolly him along, as the English would put it. But memoranda from Churchill, or an inquiry from a Downing Street assistant asking for news of progress, upset Reith, whose description of such routine was that it amounted to Gestapo methods.
Reith dithered on being offered excellent opportunities by Churchill and his associates to employ his gifts in various areas in the wake of his dismissal from government. He thrashed about in limbo until he hit on his own solution. He joined the Royal Navy and discovered the Admiralty could use him at full stretch. He attained the rank of captain and handsomely redeemed himself by his dazzling organization of the supply of materials for D-Day and beyond.
Churchill’s gratitude manifested itself in the form of a decoration: Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (Military). Admirals, not captains, are the more likely recipients of that award. Any gleaner of Reith’s diary would be forgiven for standing up and cheering on reading he was very pleased with Churchill’s action.
Reith had injudiciously strayed from the confines of diary pages in his attacks on Churchill. He did not disparage him in print but poured his diatribe into every ready, or half-ready, ear. It was odd of him to think he could re-enter government burdened with that tactless propensity.
Attlee’s Labour Government in 1945 were not in a hurry to single him out to assist them. But the postwar years brought him honour after honour and rewarding company and public corporation work. In the field of Commonwealth and Empire telecommunications and development he was preeminent. Intractable to the end, he refused to let the sunshine of praise dissipate his innate gloom. His theme was that Churchill had ruined him — demonstrably untrue. Reith’s misfortune was that a cankerworm of hate deep within him destroyed his peace of mind. It is appropriate to cite by contrast what Sir John Colville has stressed. Churchill told him during the Second World War: "I hate nobody except Hitler — and that is professional."
Sir Edward Grey (Foreign Secretary, 1905 to 1916) declared that Churchill was a genius whose faults would be forgotten in his achievements. Let us hope Reith’s achievements will not be forgotten in his faults. It is a hope Churchill, in his infinitely generous heart, would surely have shared.