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Issue 90 - Famous Scots: Sir John Reith

Scotland Magazine Issue 90
December 2016


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Famous Scots: Sir John Reith

Stephen Roberts investigates the life of this famous Scot

I wonder what John Charles Walsham Reith would make of British public service broadcasting today, for it was BBC founder Reith whose concept was to use the medium for ‘educating the masses.’ I’m not sure he would have been overly impressed with how his baby developed – good humour wasn’t his standout quality.

Reith was born on 20 July 1889 on Scotland’s northeast coast, at Stonehaven, deigning to appear on a family holiday from Glasgow, where his father was a minister. John was a latecomer in that his six siblings were born a decade and more before. His father was a remote figure and John was largely brought up by nurses in an environment shorn of affection. He may have been resented by siblings who thought him a ‘Johnny-come-lately,’ taking away from them what little parenting there was.

However, it was Reith’s destiny to become a foremost British statesman and engineer. Educated initially at a girl’s school, then at Glasgow Academy, and finally in the alien environment of Gresham’s in Norfolk. Reith went on to serve an engineering apprenticeship in Glasgow, where rising before 5am and retiring at 11pm grounded him in the gospel of hard work, before entering radio communications. He cut an imposing figure in every sense, growing to a towering 6 feet 6 inches (1.98m) with matching presence.

Not everything went swimmingly. Reith’s first assignment post-apprenticeship proved a dead-end – working on extensions to the Royal Albert Dock dangled the prospect of years of labour for little reward. Reith then served as an officer during WW1 and showed inspiring nonchalance as far as danger was concerned. However, his bravado was nearly his undoing and on one occasion he was shot in the face by a German sniper, leaving a scar that he carried to the end. His war over, Reith moved to the United States for 18 months, working for the Remington Arms Company in Philadelphia.

Returning to the UK, Reith worked with the Royal Marine Engineers in Sussex, before being posted to Salisbury Plain; then it was back to Scotland and a Coatbridge engineering firm. Meanwhile, Reith’s personal life took a new turn, marrying Muriel Odhams near her home in Brighton in July 1921, before settling in Dunblane. The post of British Broadcasting Company (BBC) general manager came up in 1922. Apparently Reith had already posted his application when he discovered that a fellow Scot would make the appointment.

Reith determinedly retrieved his application from the letterbox and re-wrote it; in spite of being clueless as to what broadcasting was, he got the job. Given a free hand, Reith showed his nous and appointed men who knew the things he didn’t. He also had an innate ability to get things done and make the right calls. It was his idea to launch the Radio Times (his title) so the fledgling BBC could publicise its schedules. The new publication was a money-spinner, yet Reith, true to his roots, refused a share of profits. Reith was aware of the influence that came with his position and this seemed more important than money. It wouldn’t be the only example of Reith choosing what he felt was right for BBC and nation, rather than what was best for him. Oh, for more like him today! Having said that, he could be cantankerous and the perceived difficulty in getting on with him may have caused him to miss out on preferments that he felt should have been his.

Another Reith innovation was the conversion to public corporation (British Broadcasting Corporation), run at arm’s length from government and with the intention of putting public interest first. Reith was the new BBC’s first director-general (1 January 1927). He was honoured with a knighthood just as the transformation to public corporation was occurring.

Reith was hands-on in that he broadcast himself, for example, during the 1929 General Election – although some listeners rang in asking that he slow down and speak clearly. Reith was unimpressed when the message was relayed and carried on regardless of the feedback. When the World Service was launched in 1932, Reith delivered the opening address an impressive five times due to different time zones. One of his most famous radio broadcasts was that of King Edward VIII's abdication in 1936, when Reith made the introduction to a statement that was heard across the globe.

Reith was a radio man and detested TV, which he chose to ignore. When he departed the BBC, in 1938, one of his leaving gifts was a television, which he vowed never to watch. The gift was possibly someone’s notion of a jolly jape, which the humourless Reith would not have appreciated. There were possibly challenges ahead at the broadcaster (such as TV) that he didn’t want to face, so Reith’s stint at the BBC
was cut short. Reith moved to Imperial Airways, organising a merger with the other domestic operator, British Airways, and – mirroring the BBC – a state-owned public corporation was born: British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

During WWII he was MP for Southampton and held three ministerial posts. His achievements were recognised by elevation to the baronage in October 1940, as Lord Reith of Stonehaven, and he went on to be intimately involved in D-Day planning. A further accolade was the inauguration of the Reith Lectures in 1948, honouring his unique contribution to broadcasting. He also held various Colonial and Commonwealth positions in the post-war period.

Reith was a fierce advocate of the BBC's independence and steadfastly resisted politicians’ attempts to influence its output. This was first tested during the 1926 General Strike, when the organisation won its reputation for impartiality. His religious instincts also shone through, seeking to protect the Sabbath, and was quoted as desiring “one day in the week clear of jazz and variety.” Long after his tenure at the BBC, he was still spouting forth his opinions in the public sphere; he was disgusted at the screening of greyhound racing, which he described as ‘public depravity,' and he also spoke out against ending the BBC’s monopoly – he said the launch of ITV, which carried adverts, would lower standards.

He wouldn’t have given modern pop-stars much truck either, describing one of the genre’s early manifestations, Juke Box Jury, as ‘evil.’ This was all grist to the mill for Reith, who was noted for his outspokenness and often caused outrage. It was known that he maintained a ‘hate-list’ of people he particularly detested.

Reith’s final years in the public eye were spent back in his native Scotland, where he held various official posts. The big man was not indestructible, however, and Reith developed heart trouble. He later passed away on 16 June 1971, following a fall in which he broke a thigh. He was aged 81.

10 Facts About Sir John Reith

 The girl’s school was next to his father’s Manse, hence John’s attendance there.

 Initially hating school in Norfolk, Reith attempted to abscond on a bicycle.

 John was known as ‘Non’ within
the family.

 The adjective ‘Reithian’ refers to his principles regarding public service broadcasting.

 Reith almost declined his knighthood, believing that he deserved a
higher honour.

 During the famous General Strike of 1926, Reith defied Winston Churchill, at that time the Chancellor under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who wanted a government mouthpiece.

 Reith compared himself to William Caxton (the man thought to have introduced the printing press to England in 1476) on account of his role in introducing a method of mass communication.

 Reith had two children, Christopher (1928) and Marista (1932).

 Reith had a hard-line reputation, even being compared to Mussolini.