Baron Reith of Stonehaven, the first and very influential manager of the British Broadcasting Company (later Corporation - BBC), died 40 years ago today. His diaries, when they were published posthumously, revealed a man rather admiring of Hitler policies in the pre-war years, and one with a very strong and long-lasting antipathy to Winston Churchill.
John Charles Walsham Reith was born in 1889 into a religious family at Stonehaven in Scotland, the youngest of seven children. He studied at Glasgow Academy and at Gresham’s School in Norfolk. He was commissioned into the 5th Scottish Rifles and served in the First World War until he was invalided out in 1915. He spent two years in the US, supervising armament contracts before returning to work for an engineering firm in Glasgow. In 1921, he married Muriel Katharine and they had two children.
Unsatisfied with his lot, Reith moved to London and became secretary to the London Unionist group of MPs in advance of the 1922 general election. Looking around for more ambitious work, he chanced on an advertisement in The Morning Post for a general manager of the British Broadcasting Company, being set up by a consortium of radio manufacturers to produce programmes to be heard on their wireless sets. In time, Reith oversaw the organisation’s transformation under a Royal Charter to the British Broadcasting Corporation; and he became its first Director-General in 1927. Regular television broadcasts began in 1936 just before Reith left the BBC in 1938. In terms of his legacy, he is given considerable credit for having established the tradition of independent public service broadcasting.
After leaving the BBC, Reith served a term as chairman of Imperial Airways. In 1940, he was created Baron Reith of Stonehaven. The same year he was given a government appointment as Minister of Information; and, subsequently, he was elected MP for Southampton. Under Churchill, Reith also served as Minister of Transport and then as First Commissioner of Works. Later, though, he claimed Churchill had not given him enough to do during the war.
In 1946, he was appointed chair of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board, and other chairmanships followed (Colonial Development Corporation and the National Film Finance Corporation). In later years, Reith held various directorships, was Lord Rector of Glasgow University, and, from 1967, was Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He died on 16 June 1971. Further biographical information is available from the BBC, The Museum of Broadcast Communications, or Wikipedia.
Reith kept a diary for most of his life, amounting to some 4,000 pages, and two million words. Extracts were chosen and edited by Charles Stuart and published in 1975 as The Reith Diaries by Collins.
The book created some media attention at the time because it revealed precisely how Reith, in the 1930s, had been an admirer of the German way of doing things. Stuart says, in his introductory notes, that all Reith’s inclinations were in favour of Germany. On 9 March 1933, for example, Reith wrote: ‘I am pretty certain . . . that the Nazis will clean things up and put Germany on the way to being a real power in Europe again. They are being ruthless and most determined.’ And after the July 1934 Night of The Long Knives, in which the Nazis ruthlessly exterminated their internal dissidents, Reith wrote: ‘I really admire the way Hitler has cleaned up what looked like an incipient revolt.’ After Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Nazis in 1939, he wrote: ‘Hitler continues his magnificent efficiency.’
Stuart, however, suggests that this aspect of Reith’s character was only typical of the times: ‘. . . he combined great self-confidence in the correctness of his opinions with very little sign that he had much knowledge or understanding of the realities of foreign affairs. It was a posture he shared with other leading figures and his attitudes are of more interest as symptoms of the times than illustrative of any great originality on his part.’
The diaries also drew attention to the extraordinary depth of Reith’s hatred for some people, especially Winston Churchill. An article by Ron Robbins, available at The Churchill Centre website, calls the ‘mutual antipathy’ of the two men ‘a strange and somewhat sad chapter in British politics’. He says: ‘Reith’s spleen is written large in his diaries . . . 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.’
Here are a few extracts from The Reith Diaries. In the first few, Reith records his involvement in the very earliest days of the BBC; and, in the last two, he reveals how his passion for the very organisation he had nurtured has turned bitter.
13 December 1922
‘This morning I had the interview about the BBC. Sir William Noble [head of the committee selecting a candidate to manage the BBC] came out to get me and he was smiling in a confidential sort of way. Present, McKinistry, Binyon and one other [representatives of the wireless manufacturers]. I put it all before God last night. They didn’t ask me many questions and some they did I didn’t know the meaning of.’ [Note inserted later: ‘The fact is I hadn’t the remotest idea as to what broadcasting was. I hadn’t troubled to find out. If I had tried I should probably have found difficulty in discovering anyone who knew.’] ‘I think they had more or less made up their minds that I was the man before they saw me and that it was chiefly a matter of confirmation. . . They asked what salary I wanted and I said £2,000. Noble came to the door with me and almost winked as if to say it was all right.’
14 December 1922
‘. . . At 3:45 Sir William Noble phoned to ask if I would come along to see him at once, so took a taxi and went. He received me very nicely, . . The Committee had unanimously recommended that I be offered the general managership of the British Broadcasting Co. He said he had tried hard to get the salary of £2,000 but some of the others didn’t want it to start over £1,500, but that if things went OK I should get a rise soon. Later he recommended me to take £1,750 as he thought he could get that approved. After a cup of tea and a general talk, I departed. I am profoundly thankful to God in this matter. It is all His doing. There were six on the short list.’
29 December 1922
‘Newcastle at 12:30. Here I really began my BBC responsibility. Saw transmitting station and studio place and landlords. It was very interesting. Away at 4:28, London at 10:10, bed at 12:00. I am trying to keep in close touch with Christ in all I do and I pray he may keep close to me. I have a great work to do.’
10 September 1923
‘Everything is now in shape for the BBC magazine and from various alternatives I chose Radio Times for the title.’
28 September 1923
‘The first issue of the Radio Times appeared and was sold out.’
19 April 1924
‘Opening of the Wembley Exhibition [British Empire Exhibition]. Everything went most successfully, including the broadcast which went out all over the country, and was the biggest thing we have done yet.’
And 40 years on . . .
30 March 1964
‘I feel immensely sad (and more than that) at the eclipse, or rather complete overthrow and destruction, of all my work in the BBC. It was my being prepared to lead, and to withstand modern laxities and vulgarities and immorality and irreligion and all. No-one was ever in such a position as I; I did what my father and mother would have wished - to universal amazement. All gone. Feeling most melancholy.’
2 April 1964
‘The Dean of Westminster wrote asking me to come to a service on the 19th to signalize the start of the Number Two television BBC. I wouldn’t on any account go to that, nor to anything associated with the BBC.’