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1930
Technological changes in the newsroom
By 1930, the BBC was beginning to throw off the shackles of the news agencies.

Reuters and the like were still supplying most of the raw material but the BBC was now taking the lead in the selection and editing of stories for its bulletins. This was made possible following the installation of a full service of news agency tape machines in the newsroom at Savoy Hill.

The editorial staff was doubled - and soon found its hands full.

In addition to the output of the tape machines, information began pouring in, too, from the various arms of government. This was largely in the form of official announcements - such as advice to post early for Christmas, and warnings about heavy traffic. Eventually, the bulletins became so cluttered with these "official notices" that a separate slot had to be created for some of them - leaving the news staff to concentrate on the real news.

But there were indications at the same time of a readiness at government level to try to exploit the real news. In 1930, for example, on the evening before Good Friday, the Home Office was desperate to deny a newspaper account of an interview with the home secretary. It was aware that no newspapers would be published over Easter so it contacted the BBC - to ensure the denial was included in the evening radio news.

Within 24 hours, however, it seems the flood of news - official or otherwise - had dried up. Listeners who tuned in to hear the bulletin on Good Friday itself were informed: "There is no news." Piano music followed.


The newsroom at Savoy Hill
1932
The rise of the news announcer
The BBC did not acquire its first newsman with newspaper experience until 1932. But this is perhaps not too surprising. Radio news was perceived by the BBC from the start as being a very different animal from the monsters created in Fleet Street.

Those in charge of the Talks Department, where News was based, drew a definite distinction between "BBC news values" and "journalistic news values".

It was an absolute rule there should be no "sensationalism". Parliamentary news, not known for its ability to grip the listener, was given special prominence.

Yet the audience continued to grow. One factor, certainly, was the appeal of the newsreaders. Just as in entertainment and drama, appearing on the radio - if only to read the news - was a passport to celebrity. Newsreaders seemed a species apart, who dressed accordingly (since January 1926, announcers had been under orders to wear dinner-jackets in the evening, as a mark of respect to performers also obliged to dress formally).

Also, these readers often imparted facts that must have seemed alien to the lives of many of their listeners. For example: again in 1926, the first bulletin announcing the general strike had also carried the result of "the annual Stock Exchange London to Brighton walk" (victor: "last year's winner, SM Ayles").

Adding to the air of mystery, the BBC insisted that the announcers remained anonymous on air - though the Radio Times did sometimes publish the odd photograph.

However in 1932 the Daily Express gave the names of Stuart Hibberd, TC Farrar, John Snagge, Godfrey Adams and Freddie Grisewood. Clearly, the public held them close to its heart. One chronicler of the BBC observed that: "An announcer could not cough during a broadcast without receiving presents of everything from cough-lozenges to woollen underwear."


Stuart Hibberd reading the news
1932
The birth of BH and global broadcasting
In May 1932 Broadcasting House, near Oxford Circus, became the BBC's London headquarters. Included in the project was "a small apartment necessary for news". In fact, the first broadcast from "BH" had come two months earlier - and the previous BBC headquarters at Savoy Hill were officially dismissed as having become "quite inadequate".

In their new home, the news team enjoyed the advantages of a purpose-built studio. The BBC's annual handbook sang the praises of "an interesting unit", on the fourth floor, "designed specifically for the reading of news bulletins and emergency broadcasts of gramophone records".

Newsreaders sat at "special desks" - helping the BBC in "radiating wholesome entertainment and accurate information".

The same year also brought the start of the BBC's Empire Service, its first venture into overseas broadcasting - and another objective long nurtured by Sir John Reith. The policy for the new service had been enshrined in a BBC memo four years earlier: that it should "consist essentially of news".

In 1931, Sir John Reith had cleared the way for news to be part of the service, in a deal with the agencies and the press. And he was himself present for the first broadcast, on 19 December 1932, from a studio in BH. The first transmission, including a news bulletin, was to be beamed in succession at different parts of the Empire.

Sir John spoke live at half past nine in the morning - extolling radio's "almost incalculable importance in the social and economic life of the community". Then - because the art of recording had not yet been mastered - he read the same script again at half-past two in the afternoon.

He read it for the third time four hours later, again two hours after that - and, for a fifth and final time, at one o'clock the next morning. He confided to his diary that he had been "very bored".


Inside the newsroom at Broadcasting House
1933
Hitler broadcast causes controversy
The tension that simmered so often between broadcasters and government resurfaced in 1933. The conflict this time was prompted by an edition of Newsreel that included a talk by Vernon Bartlett - the man sometimes described as the BBC's first foreign correspondent.

The subject was Hitler's decision to leave the League of Nations and the Disarmament Conference. Bartlett's interpretation was deemed by the authorities to be, in effect, not beastly enough to the Germans.

In fact, the broadcast brought six hundred letters of support for Bartlett - and just eighteen complaints. But one of the eighteen was from the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. The head of the Foreign Office News Department complained later that it had been wrong for the minds of millions of listeners to have been "influenced in one direction" - before the government had had the opportunity to make a statement in the Commons. Bartlett's BBC contract was not renewed.

Also in 1933 the national news was read by a woman for the first time. Ten years earlier one of the BBC's best -known wartime newsreaders had felt able to say that there was no chance of his being replaced by a woman - simply because "she might have to read bad news".

However 1933 experiment did not last long - and Sir John Reith himself still tended to be the voice for the big occasions. Three years later, in January 1936, he read the news of the death of King George V. Eleven months after that, he introduced the abdication broadcast by Edward VIII.


Foreign correspondent Vernon Bartlett
1938
Foreign language services launched
The BBC's first foreign language service began in 1938 with the launch of the Arabic Service. The aim was to use "straightforward information and news". And the immediate hope was to counter the propaganda that Arabs were hearing from a station set up by the Italian leader, Mussolini, after his troops had overrun Abyssinia.

Immediately the BBC found itself in conflict with the Foreign Office. Government officials objected when the very first bulletin included news that a Palestinian Arab had been executed on the orders of a British military court.

The Foreign Office held to the view that "Straight news must not be interpreted as including news which can do us harm with the people we are addressing". But the BBC remained defiant. "The omission of unwelcome facts of news and the consequent suppression of truth runs counter to the corporation's policy laid down by appropriate authority," said a statement.

Two months later, the Spanish and Portuguese Services were in action - in the face of what was said to be a "concerted and highly organised" German propaganda campaign in Latin America.

The Munich crisis, in September 1938, ensured the explosion in international broadcasting would continue. At just a few hours notice, the BBC was asked to provide news bulletins in German, French and Italian - to accompany translations of an address to the nation by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. Reports tell of a German speaker being dragged out of a cocktail party to help. It was soon decided that the new European services should continue indefinitely.

The home audience also heard or even watched Chamberlain's return from Munich. Richard Dimbleby provided a live commentary for both radio and the BBC's new television service - by then approaching its second birthday.

But times were also changing for the BBC in other ways as Sir John Reith moved on to a new job as chairman of Imperial Airways.


Dictating a bulletin in the Arabic newsroom
1939
Broadcasting and listening to the world
"It's war now. Tell the truth - that's our job." This was the message to the BBC's domestic news staff from their editor on 3 September 1939 - the day that marked the start of World War II.

Already, though, the BBC was on a war footing. On 25 August, domestic radio began carrying extra news in mid-morning, and at lunchtime - something new for an audience accustomed to hearing no bulletins until the evening.

The following day brought an invaluable strengthening of the Broadcasting House news operation - with the establishment of the BBC Monitoring Service.

Hundreds of recruits, many of them refugees from Nazism, were given the task of listening in to foreign broadcasters - from a base in the grounds of a country house, at Wood Norton near Evesham in Worcestershire. The monitors were soon covering almost 250 foreign bulletins a day in thirty languages.

The news team also found their own numbers increased - by an influx from television. Just two days before war began, the infant television service had closed down - for fear that enemy aircraft might fasten on to its transmitter.

From the start, there was tension with the government as to how much freedom should be allowed in wartime to the BBC radio news operations and it took time to establish an effective method of working between the BBC and the new Ministry of Information.

BBC staff were seconded to the Ministry - and so-called "vigilants" from the Ministry were on permanent duty in the newsroom, often alongside representatives of the services. An outcry followed the Ministry's announcement that it had appointed a "director of radio".

Against this background, the expansion of broadcasting to listeners overseas continued apace. When the war began, Britain was speaking to the world in English, Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese, German, Italian, French and Afrikaans.

By the end of 1939, the list of target audiences had been expanded to include Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Greece, French Canada, and Turkey.

In another sign of the times, announcers on the new Home Service were no longer required to wear dinner-jackets for the evening shift. There is said to have been a sense that standards were slipping when one of them now took to occasionally wearing shorts.


Monitoring service listening room


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