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14 November 1922
The BBC takes to the airwaves
"For the first time in history, news was broadcast in England last night by the British Broadcasting Company". So said the Daily News after the first two bulletins had gone out, the previous evening, from Marconi House, in the Strand.

The total staff of the broadcasting company at that stage was just four people. It had been set up only a few weeks earlier by the manufacturers of wireless sets, mindful that the public needed something to listen to.

The task of reading those first bulletins on 14 November, at six o'clock and nine o'clock, fell to the director of programmes, Arthur Burrows. He read each bulletin twice - once quickly and once slowly - and asked listeners to say what they preferred.

It was apparently a daunting experience. A couple of years later, he wrote: "I am prepared to assert that there is no more exacting test of physical fitness and nervous condition than the reading of a news bulletin night after night to the British Isles."

Just imagine, he said, having to read an item about, say, a political crisis in Czechoslovakia - littered with "place names strange to the eye, and looking as though they had fallen accidentally from a child's alphabet box".

The first bulletins included details of the opening of the Old Bailey sessions, a speech by the Conservative leader Bonar Law, the aftermath of a "rowdy meeting" involving Winston Churchill, a train robbery, the sale of a Shakespearean first folio, fog in London - and "the latest billiards scores".

The second day of news broadcasts brought the first results of the 1922 general election. The Times reported the following morning that, with no more than thirty thousand people holding wireless licences, perhaps the most interesting feature of election night "was the phenomenon of "listening-in parties".

Arthur Burrows, the first BBC News reader
23 December 1922
Daytime bulletins banned
The rapidly growing BBC radio audience tuning in for a six o'clock bulletin on the evening of 23 December 1922 would have been disappointed. As a result of a deal with the press and the news agencies, it had been agreed that no news would be broadcast before seven o'clock at night.

"I do not think there is much demand for an earlier bulletin," said John Reith - who, aged 33, took over as the BBC's general manager exactly a week after the transmission of this first so-called "General News Bulletin".

"We want to work smoothly with the newspapers," said the BBC's Sir William Noble. The hope, he said, was that broadcasting would serve as "an incentive to the public to buy more newspapers".

As for the collection of news: Sir William Noble insisted, as early as October 1922, that the company did not contemplate getting involved. That was to be left to the agencies. After all, as Reith pointed out in his autobiography, collecting news was a "very costly business".

There were other restrictions, too, in these early days. Bulletins had to begin with the words: "Copyright news from Reuters, Press Association, Exchange Telegraph and Central News".

Also, there was to be no coverage of controversial subjects - just as there were to be no live commentaries on sports events.

The absurdity of the restrictions was underlined in 1926 when BBC radio was able to broadcast live from the Derby. Listeners could thrill to the thunder of hooves, and the shouts of the crowd. But there was no commentary - and the audience had to wait until seven o'clock to find out who had won.

The first BBC outside broadcast van
30 April 1926
Daytime bulletins banned
The general strike of 1926 was to change forever the public perception of broadcast news.

The drama began on 30 April, when the voice of John Reith interrupted a music programme to inform the nation of a strike by Britain's miners.

The escalation into a general strike four days later led to the ban on news before seven o'clock being lifted and BBC radio began putting out five bulletins a day. Because little other news was available, listeners were openly encouraged to spread the content of the bulletins "in every possible way".

However, several government ministers - Churchill among them - were by all accounts in favour of taking over the BBC as an instrument of government policy. The government was fully entitled to do this.

The BBC avoided that fate - but there was criticism that Reith was far too compliant towards the authorities, and that the strike bulletins failed to reflect the views of the labour movement, both inside and outside parliament.

He came under fire especially for giving way to government pressure, and delaying the broadcast of an appeal for a settlement from the Archbishop of Canterbury and other churchmen. It finally went out on 11 May - the day before the strike ended.

One of the team behind the hugely expanded news service conceded that "in some quarters" the BBC had been nicknamed the "BFC" - the "British Falsehood Company". And a Labour MP complained in the Radio Times about widespread "pain and indignation" among listeners.

Other correspondents, though, wrote of the BBC's "triumph" and the nation's "gratitude". And a Radio Times editorial stressed the part played by bulletins in "tracking down and slaying false and dangerous rumours" - as well as the obligation to act as a channel for "official announcements".

A confidential internal document from Reith, three days after the strike ended, said the BBC had been obliged to support the government "in general", because "the strike had been declared illegal in the High Court". Significantly, perhaps, he received a letter from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, praising the BBC for "loyal service."

John Reith, the first BBC Director General
1 January 1927
Bulletins given new reporting freedom
On 1 January 1927 the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The birth of the new BBC also brought a new freedom "to collect news of and information relating to current events in any part of the world".

The charter granted to the corporation also opened the door to news before seven o'clock in the evening. And a bulletin at half past six was introduced, after further negotiations between the agencies, the newspapers and John Reith - now honoured with a knighthood, and given a new job title as the first director general of the BBC.

Over a period of two years, the amount of time devoted to news bulletins doubled. Alongside the expansion in news came an expansion in sports commentaries - another result of the change from company to corporation. Highlights in 1927 included the Derby, the Boat Race and the FA Cup Final.

What the charter had not done, however, was to end the ban on broadcasts about controversial topics - to Sir John Reith's great disappointment. But he continued to press the case, and took care to offer safeguards: for example, that there would be no expression of views contrary to the interests of the state.

In March 1928 the government agreed that - while the BBC could still not express an editorial opinion - it was now free to broadcast on "matters of political, industrial or religious controversy".

In August 1929, after the close of radio programmes, the BBC started transmitting experimental television pictures - although the start of a television news service was still many years away.

The BBC Coat of Arms

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