The BBC: 100th anniversary

On Saturday 15th October, the BBC will turn 100 years old. A coin has been unveiled by the Royal Mint in celebration of the occasion, as the ‘corporation continues to thrive and innovate.’ The coin will have Queen Elizabeth on one side and an image of the Earth on the other, surrounded by a broadcasting mast and inscribed with the BBC’s original slogan as displayed in 1922: ‘inform, educate, entertain.’

For many it will be a source of nostalgia – both following the cooling of reporting on the Queen’s death and settling of life under Charles III, but also considering the cultural impact of the BBC and public fondness of the corporation. In light of this, it is interesting to consider the history of the BBC, and how this bears upon modern public perception.

With a centenary in 2022, the BBC is the oldest national broadcaster in the world. It was originally established by a royal charter, a tradition that (while contested) dates back to 1066. Many Durham students moving into housing for the new academic year will have paid for a TV license, which constitutes the main form of the corporation’s funding.

In his research into the BBC, Tom Burns argued that the ‘immense potency’ of broadcasting as a means of social, cultural and political influence was recognised from the beginning of its development (Tom Burns, The BBC: Public Institution and Private World). Queen Elizabeth’s death, for example, represents a recent reminder of our passive yet constant consumption of broadcasting, with the BBC providing wall-to-wall coverage around the clock, much of which was played in the background in households, shops and pubs. Much British pride in the BBC, particularly amongst older generations, perhaps stems from its coverage of the Second World War, in which both the British and the Germans recognised and harnessed the power of mass broadcasting. Between September 1939 and March 1944, the number of staff employed by the BBC increased by 138% to 11,663, while the BBC output of programme hours trebled. This coverage was vital to full mobilisation and the preservation of morale as warfare in the 21th century developed into ‘total war.’

At the forefront of the history of broadcasting in Britain was Asa Briggs, who was commissioned by the BBC in 1961 to write a multi-volume account of its own history. He concluded that the corporation both ‘reflected’ and ‘moulded’ culture, and was instrumental to the means of discussion of social and political issues (Asa Briggs, The BBC: The First Fifty Years). As a result, he argues, it is very common and only natural for people to feel a sense of nostalgia towards it.

However, fondness toward a national broadcaster is of course extremely complicated, and even potentially fundamentally flawed. The BBC has always been rightly scrutinised, but in the last decade has been deeply criticised – with Vanessa Thorpe writing for the Guardian that the corporation ‘has never been so vulnerable.’ The impossibility for a broadcaster to be truly impartial has been widely acknowledged (it is written about at length by E. G. Wedell, in Broadcasting and Public Policy), and the BBC has recently come under sustained fire by those on both the left and right of the political spectrum. Its size, structure, and operations are similarly questioned: Malcolm Muggeridge, for example, commented that the BBC came into force ‘silently… invisibly’ – quickly becoming a ‘society with its kings and lords.’ Accusations and findings of sexism, harassment and structural discrimination within the BBC have also perhaps tainted its positive public perception; historian Jane Seaton accused Muggeridge himself, for example, of sexual harassment (Jane Seaton, Pinkoes and Traitors). More recently, the BBC’s 2017 annual financial report showed a significant gender pay gap, with the 7 highest earners all male.


These controversies are only a handful of examples, but perhaps do emphasise that these celebrations of the centenary should be done with taste, caution, and a willingness to celebrate but also to acknowledge and improve. The influence of broadcasting on society and culture emphasises that we should be mindful of what media we access and how we consume it – even a loved national broadcaster.

Image by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden on Unsplash

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