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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Show that sparked a riot

By Raymond Snoddy
Presenter, NewsWatch

NewsWatch on News 24 exists to take up audience complaints about BBC news and current affairs and to explain why BBC executives take the decisions they do.

Yet many of the modern-day issues investigated by the programme seem tame compared to the row that broke out after the BBC transmitted a most unusual programme - Broadcasting The Barricades - on 16 January 1926, in the very early days of radio.

Newspaper headlines
How the broadcast was reported
In the broadcast - itself now the subject of a new BBC programme - the BBC interrupted an academic lecture from Oxford to announce that rioters were gathering in Trafalgar Square.

Then in a series of progressively dramatic announcements, complete with sound effects, the BBC reported that the transport minister had been hanged from a lamppost, the Savoy Hotel destroyed and Big Ben blown up.

Coming months before the General Strike - and amid fears of a Communist takeover, fanned by newspapers such as the Daily Mail - the effect of the broadcast was electric.

Emergency plans

Women fainted, mayors dusted off their emergency plans and one angry listener called the Admiralty and demanded that the Navy be dispatched up the Thames to quell the riot.

It was of course all a spoof - the first of its kind to be broadcast- and was the work of a colourful Oxford Catholic priest and crime novelist, Father Ronald Knox.

Knox produced his imaginative effort 12 years before Orson Welles terrified America with his War Of The Worlds broadcast. In fact Welles could have been influenced by the Knox effort.

The structure of the programme was the same and the row over the BBC's broadcast had been widely reported in the US newspapers.

The New York Times even sneered at the na´ve British for being taken in by such an obvious spoof.

Hostile

The BBC was widely condemned for creating such a panic by the self-interested press, obviously hostile to the new competing medium. And there were complaints from 249 listeners.

BBC managing director John Reith
John Reith: Ordered more of the same
Naturally the BBC defended itself, pointing out that there had been a warning at the beginning of the programme and that the events depicted were self-evidently ludicrous.

When John Reith, founder of the British Broadcasting Company, reported back to directors on reactions to the programme he noted that 2,307 listeners had got in touch expressing their appreciation.

As a result Reith, rather like the modern BBC anxious to keep up ratings, ordered more of the same.

The Riot That Never Was, which tells the story of the 1926 programme, has been reconstructed from the original transcript and includes a rare recording of Father Knox, the mischievous cleric, in an Oxford Union debate in 1939.

The transcript of Broadcasting the Barricades and some associated historic material can be seen on a special website,

The Riot That Never Was, presented by Raymond Snoddy, is on Radio 4 at 1130 BST on Thursday, 16 June.




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