John Reith

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John Charles Walsham Reith, 1st Baron Reith, Template:Small KT GCVO GBE CB TD PC (20 July 1889 – 16 June 1971) was a Scottish broadcasting executive who established the tradition of independent public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. In 1922 he was employed by the BBC (British Broadcasting Company Ltd.) as its general manager; in 1923 he became its managing director and in 1927 he was employed as the Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation created under a Royal Charter. His concept of broadcasting as a way of educating the masses marked for a long time the BBC and similar organisations around the world.

BBC Career

Received a knighthood in the 1927 New Year Honours List.

1934 press attack

In March 1934 there was a 'sustained' attack on the BBC in the press, "very much on personal issues".[1] "It seemed to be as much against me personally," Reith wrote, "as against the BBC".[2]

At the height of the criticism, Reith paid a visit to the House of Commons to address the Conservative 1922 Committee, following this up a few weeks later with a similar address to the Parliamentary Labour Party. On both occasions he spoke briefly for five minutes, and went on to answer a battery of questions, never flinching. The following day, the press "executed an incredible volte-face".[3]

On public service

Reith believed everyone who worked for the BBC was a public servant and they did not require the incentive of making money to keep them motivated: "To the right kind of man, a dividend motive is unnecessary. More than this, the serving of public interest and the serving of financial interest are not normally fully compatible."[4] Reith himself had turned down opportunities to make far larger sums of money in other organisations, including other branches of 'mass communication', and many of his staff could have done likewise, especially given the relatively poor pay and working hours associated with BBC jobs.[5]. This concept of 'duty' was firmly rooted in Reith's own Christian upbringing.

In 1933 he wrote in his diary: "I should be very sorry to leave the BBC and... there are very few jobs indeed that would interest me at all."[6]

Reith reiterated time and again that public service in a public corporation was quite different from public service in the Civil Service. He and his colleagues were not government servants: they were managing their own business themselves, free from bureaucratic and political interference.

On public corporations

However, Reith considered that the kind of 'public corporation' he had created was "a precedent for similar advances towards a better world in other domains where great services are handicapped by too definite State control or where the public is handicapped by there being too little State control".[7] He mentioned as possible candidates for 'nationalised rationalisation' the railways, coal-mining and the steel industry.[8][9]

The idea of a public corporation was not, of course, a monopoly of Reith. Many writers and politicians dwelt on the advantages of 'public corporations' in the 1930s; other examples including the Central Electricity Board and the London Passenger Transport Board.

Departure from the BBC

Sir John Reith left the BBC on 30 June 1938 to become whole-time chairman of Imperial Airways.


  1. Reith, Diary, 19 March 1934.
  2. Into the Wind, 184.
  3. Briggs, 387.
  4. Address to the Royal Institution, 13 May 1932.
  5. Briggs, 383-4.
  6. Reith, Diary, 19 September 1933.
  7. Address to the Royal Institution, 13 May 1932.
  8. J. C. W. Reith, 'Broadcasting and a Better World', Spectator, 22 November 1930.
  9. Briggs, 386.