Reading Ian McIntyre’s new Life of Reith I found myself longing for just one deed, one word, one sentiment from the great man which I could admire. In public office, notably as the architect and first Director-General of the BBC, he may have achieved a number of admirable ends, if fewer than pious legend attributes to him. But the arrogance, bitterness and venom towards others he reveals in his private papers would blister paint. Not for the first time I was forced to wonder if the biographer’s traditional reliance on written, rather than oral or anecdotal evidence, always represents the fairest approach to a subject, especially when the subject is a diarist and letter-writer who scribbles away furiously, insensitively, abusively, and then takes good care to ensure every word – well, nearly every word – is preserved.
In this case the question is compounded by the fact that the diary is the main source of the book. Presumably because Ian McIntyre is himself a former BBC grandee, he was given ‘unrestricted access to the millions of words of Reith’s diary preserved in the BBC archives’. As Controller, in turn, of both Radio 4 and Radio 3, he had dwelt in the house that Reith built and breathed whatever traces of Reithism lingered on in its fabric. He would surely have worked with at least a few veterans from Reith’s day and had the opportunity to meet others. But if he did draw on these sources it doesn’t much show. He depends on the treasure-trove made available to him. And though Reith rewrote and censored and generally tinkered with those millions of words, enough is left of their character to dispose of his, beginning with the Christian rectitude so revered by Mrs Whitehouse and other latter-day moralists.
It was humbug. Reith was a great one for church-going, publicly invoking God’s help and inviting everyone, from his sweethearts to ministers of state, to kneel with him and pray for guidance. Behind their backs, or by letter to their faces, he would meanwhile be referring to them with the most un-Christian rancour. For the offence of failing to give Reith a World War Two appointment of sufficient importance, Churchill was ‘that bloody shit’. For accepting the Viceroyship of India that Reith coveted, Mountbatten was ‘that playboy’. One war back, the nasty bullet wound in Reith’s cheek was incurred while he was taking needless risks merely to upstage a senior officer he despised. But the target of the most sustained and jealous invective was the luckless Charlie Bowser, whose role in Reith’s life has only emerged with this biography.
Bowser’s photograph occurs, full-page, immediately after ones of Reith’s parents and Reith himself as an infant. Charlie gazes at the camera with the podgy assurance of a well-off public schoolboy, which is what he was when Reith fell deeply in love with him at the age of 24. Their affair, if that’s the word, lasted ten years. How far it went can never be established because Reith destroyed letters and rewrote the diary with extra care. Quite possibly it was never more than a manly, Boy’s Own Paper relationship of long walks, gruff embraces, ripping bathes (and baths) together and the exchange of letters by every post. In itself it doesn’t seem particularly heinous. What is nasty is Reith’s behaviour as Charlie discovers the alternative pleasure of girls. For a while they are rivals for the same girl, Reith’s future wife Muriel, but the hysterics only really break out when Charlie meets and marries someone Reith considers unsuitable. In the diaries she is ‘Jezebel’, ‘the Scarlet Woman’ or ‘the Whore of Babylon’. For the rest of his life he goes out of his way to hurt Charlie whenever their paths cross; he spreads ill reports of him, cuts him in public, stirs up trouble in the town where they both have houses and, when all else fails, digs out an old gift or assembles a packet of old photographs and sends them back with a spiteful note.
The son of a distinguished Glasgow minister, Reith loudly professed his allegiance to the Church of Scotland while at the same time toadying to successive Archbishops of Canterbury. McIntyre quotes a letter from an elder brother, Archie, at the time of their mother’s death in 1935. Archie had actually braved their father’s displeasure, and become an Anglican parson. After chiding John for pushing himself into the forefront of all their mother’s obituaries he has a swipe at his famous brother’s double standards:
When I recall Father’s intense dislike of the Church of England and of the English public schools, and your professed affection for him in his lifetime, I wonder where the filial relationship so vaunted in the Press comes in as I think how, deserting your father’s church, you call in dignitaries of the Church of England to baptise your offspring and arrange for public school education.
‘Incredibly beastly,’ Reith notes in the diary. ‘The product of an unbalanced if not a diseased mind; and he a minister, too.’ Despite his craggy Scottishness, Reith was similarly in thrall to the snob English universities. He would lament, after he left the BBC, that the BBC no longer held any interest for Oxford and Cambridge. When Oxford at first declined to give him an honorary degree he was as angry and resentful as Mrs Thatcher’s sponsors were half a century later. He still pulled strings to get his son Christopher accepted there, and wanted to do the same for his daughter Marista. When she preferred to go to St Andrews, instead of taking pride in her decision he was mortified by it.
His own further education had been chosen for him by his parents. He was apprenticed to the North British Locomotive Company works, Glasgow, an altogether less privileged launch into adult life. But was it really so degrading as to earn the hatred he lavished on the experience years later? ‘Even today,’ he wrote, ‘I feel indignant at the affront to one’s intelligence ... at the awful prostitution of intellectual ability.’ In fact Reith qualified as a mechanical engineer with high marks and a glowing commendation from the Locomotive Company. The demarcation between different disciplines was less rigid then, just before the First World War. Reith was taken on by one of the outstanding civil engineers of the day, E.W. Moir. He liked that life well enough to transfer to the Sappers during his war service and eventually enjoy himself enormously on a bizarre project (abandoned as soon as peace came) to fling a barrage across the Straits of Dover. If he had gone back to grand engineering he might well have found the fulfilment and glory he was always yearning for, and his public disdain of the engineering arts might not have done its bit to reinforce the academic snobbery which has reduced Britain to a third-class industrial power.
But he didn’t. Famously, and without knowing what ‘broadcasting’ might be, he posted off his application for the job of General Manager of the nascent British Broadcasting Company. The rest is history, or anyway legend. Without J.C.W. Reith, it is widely held, the BBC would never have become the model of public service broadcasting which is – or was – the envy of the world. I do not think this holds water. Like Montgomery, Reith had a great ability to see the essentials of an undertaking, and reduce it to straightforward, logical steps. He was just the man to be in charge when something was being started from scratch. He recruited programme staff with a commendably open mind, boasting of the eclectics he’d taken on. Once he had established a going concern, though, his energy made him a meddler; he also became bored and querulous. Scarcely had he steered the BBC through its vital translation from company to corporation than he was whingeing about leaving to find something more challenging.
He stood up staunchly to government attempts at interference, notably during the General Strike. When a definition of public service broadcasting was needed for the first of the many committees of inquiry which governments have set up to harass broadcasters, Reith dashed off a very good one, though Hugh Greene put it even better, and more succinctly, thirty years later. On his own initiative, Reith launched the Empire Service and later pushed ahead with foreign-language transmissions. But when we look at what the BBC was dispensing, whether at home or abroad – its raison d’être, the programmes – the DG’s influence was negative to harmful. Like the Radio 4 meddlers today, he wanted news and more news. He despised popular entertainment, and with his ridiculously austere Sabbath schedules put the survival of the BBC at risk. The Sunday audience was deserting in mass to the commercial stations of Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandie. Worse still, favourite performers whom the BBC had created were going there too. Even the disc-jockey Christopher Stone, who these days would be quite at home on Radio 3, was a defector The classic age of radio entertainment my generation remembers – the age of Band Wagon, Monday Night at Eight, ITMA and Much Binding, all the shows that got us through the war – dawned only when Reith at last quit in 1938. As for television, which he hated, would it ever have been allowed to be anything more than a minority hobby while he remained?
The parting was the only way out of the impasse into which Reith had manoeuvred himself. He wanted to go but he needed someone or something, such as being pressed to take on a great office of state, to prompt him to take the final step. If he was pushed, it was probably because Chamberlain and Halifax and Kingsley Wood couldn’t stand his wittering any longer. He was only 49, with 32 years of anti-climax awaiting him. The account of them would make depressing reading were it not for a few hair-cracks which now started to appear in the pillar of rectitude. Reith fell for a succession of attractive young women, often secretaries or personal assistants who moved with him from job to job. He took them out to lunch or dinner, sometimes both, and gave them expensive presents. The relationships were probably as innocuous as the one with Charlie Bowser had been, and without the baths together. The Secretary of State for War in 1943, Sir James Grigg, assumed otherwise when Reith sought to reclaim a former secretary who was by now an ATS officer. Grigg scrawled on the application: ‘I will not have my officers, ATS, shunted about to suit the convenience of John Reith, who somewhat late in life has discovered the art of fucking.’ As McIntyre says of the much worthier quotation from the Times obituary with which he closes, not a bad epitaph.