The Ullswater Committee was appointed by Postmaster General, Sir Kingsley Wood, in 1935 to consider the future of the BBC, whose first 10-year Charter was due to expire at the end of 1936. Chaired by Lord Ullswater, an ex-Speaker of the House of Commons who was then 79 years of age, it was the third official scrutiny into the Corporation's affairs. The Committee's recommendations laid down the conditions under which the BBC was to operate until Beveridge took up the charge again after the Second World War.
Historian Asa Briggs wrote: "The Ullswater Report suggested no drastic changes to the life of the BBC, but it hinted, for those who had eyes to read and ears to hear, that one day drastic changes might come."
The committee's recommendations contained nothing specifically of relevance to Scotland, other than that the BBC's present policy of decentralisation and of including a good proportion of regional programme material should be continued. A recommendation there should be a general Advisory Committee in each Region does not appear to have been implemented.
After its appointment was announced in the House of Commons on 17 April 1935, the Committee quickly got down to work. It decided to hold its sittings in private and not to publish its evidence, something which severely circumscribes the work of the historian. The Ullswater Report was published on 16 March 1936, and was hailed at once as a further tribute to the BBC. The Times noted that the fact that the Ullswater Committee took the BBC's existence so much for granted was the highest tribute that could be paid.
The inquiry cost £564 10s.
Terms of reference
"To consider the management, control and finance of the broadcasting service in this country and advise generally on the conditions under which the service, including broadcasting to the Empire, television broadcasting and the system of wireless exchanges, should be conducted after 31 December 1936."
The chairmanship was offered in late 1934 to James Lowther, 1st Viscount Ullswater, a former Conservative MP and Speaker of the House of Commons from 1905 to 1921. Despite being 79 years of age when he was appointed, the Postmaster General, Kingsley Wood, felt he had the right kind of "judicial or quasi-judicial status". The BBC, however, had little respect for Ullswater. "He is over eighty," Reith wrote in his diary, "and I think it extraordinary that they should appoint a man of this age to be Chairman of the Committee. He seemed quite friendly, but the whole affair is quite outside his comprehension, I am afraid."
The other members of the Committee were:
- Major the Hon. J J Astor, MP (Conservative, member of the original 1923 Skyes Committee)
- Major the Right Hon. C R Atlee MP (Labour; former Postmaster-General)
- Edward Clement Davies, KC, MP (National Liberal and a Welshman)
- Lord Elton (an Oxford Don and National Labour peer)
- Sir William McLintock, Bart, GBE, CVO (Glasgow-born accountant)
- The Marchioness of Reading
- The Right Hon. The Lord Selsdon, KBE (former Postmaster-General)
- Henry Graham White MP (Liberal; former Assistant Postmaster-General)
The politicians taking part represented all three political parties, following the precedent set by the Crawford Committee in 1925. Reith was very angry about the choice of Selsdon, who had just produced his Report on Television, and was particularly unwelcome for the part that he had played in 1926 and 1927. "Everything that bothers us in the Charter and Licence he is responsible for," wrote Reith. Nor did he have sympathy with the view that the committee should be representative enough to cover Welsh interests as such. (After all, there was no representative for Scotland.) More seriously, he was concerned at the over-weighting, as he saw it, of Post Office experience.
The Committee held 35 meetings and 79 witnesses gave oral evidence, almost four times the number giving evidence before the Crawford Committee. Scottish witnesses included the BBC's Scottish Regional Director, Melville Dinwiddie, his predecessor David Cleghorn Thomson (who submitted written evidence) and James Wallace Peck, permanent secretary at the Scottish Education Department.
The BBC was formally asked to give its own evidence early in May 1935 and it duly submitted a brief but comprehensive memorandum setting out its views.
Reith preferred control over the BBC's operations — limited though it was in practice — to be exercised not by the Postmaster-General but by a senior Minister, like the Lord President of the Council, who would also be a member of the Cabinet. He did not like major decisions to be taken by Post Office officials, who might be well equipped to deal with technical matters but knew little of the problems of programme building. He welcomed ultimate parliamentary control, however, as a check not only on the BBC but on the Post Office.
Attention was also directed to the basic question of the share of the Post Office and the Treasury in gross revenue from wireless licences. The moral was clear. If the BBC was to develop Empire work and television, then far greater financial provision was absolutely necessary.
Evidence on Regional policy
Reith himself gave oral evidence for the first time on 8 May. At two further interviews during the following week it was agreed that Regional Directors and chief officials from Broadcasting House should also give evidence. They included Melville Dinwiddie, the Scottish Regional Director. Reith had no objection to this, although he believed that Selsdon expected "to find some criticism of me within the organisation". However, Dinwiddie and the other directors vigorously defended the Regional system as it operated at the time.
Ullswater told Dr Adrian Boult from the BBC: "Some of us feel that there should be a great deal more de-centralisation than there is... We have rather been snubbed about that and damped down and told that the thing is not possible, and so on, but we cannot help thinking that it is possible."
In a memorandum which he used in giving oral evidence, Reith stressed three points: (1) That central control and supervision were quite essential as part of a "nation-wide responsibility"; (2) That the Corporation had "taken full cognisance of the desirability of developing Regional activities" and had "conferred as great a degree of independence as is possible or desirable upon its Regional Directors with a view to this being done"; and (3) That "the process of Regional devolution has in fact proceeded, and is proceeding, as quickly and as comprehensively as is compatible with efficiency in the broadest sense of the term".
He admitted that there had been far more centralisation "in the early days" than there was in 1935, for many reasons, not least the need to establish "a settled policy and the beginnings of a tradition of public service". Within the previous year however, Regional programme staffs had been practically doubled and "the quality of personnel" considerably improved. A new post of Director of Regional Relations had been appointed "to develop the policy of independence between the Regions and London". (Siepmann did not give evidence.)
The recommendations of the Committee included:
- That the Charter of the British Broadcasting Corporation should be extended for a term of ten years from the 1st of January, 1937 (paragraphs 7 and 8).
- That the Governors should not be specialist or representatives of particular interests or localities (11); and that the outlook of the younger generation should be reflected in some of the appointments made (12);
- That the number of Governors should be increased to seven; that they should be nominated by the Crown, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister ; that the normal term of office should be five years, and a retiring Governor should not be re-nominated (13); that the salary of the Chairman should be £3,000, and of each other member £1,000 (15).
- That the present policy of decentralisation (21) and of including a good proportion of regional programme material (25) should be continued;
- That Wales should, as soon as possible, be constituted as a distinct broadcasting region.
- That major staff vacancies should be advertised and appointments made on the recommendation of a specially constituted selection board (35);
- That all facilities should be given for any representative organisation which the staff may wish to set up (37 and 38);
- That the programme staff should abstain from any prominent part in public controversy, but that the private lives of the staff should in other respects be free from control by the BBC (39);
- That a critic of the BBC should not be disqualified from broadcasting (40).
Advisory Council and Committees
- That the General Advisory Council should continue and there should be a general Advisory Committee in each Region as well as a full system of central and regional specialist Advisory Committees (44);
- That the term of appointment should be four years but there should be no bar against re-appointment (45);
- That the Committees should be as widely representative of varied interests as possible, so that not only experts but the listening public also and the younger generation in particular should find a place on them (46).
- That minor issues, measures of domestic policy, and matters of day-to-day management should be left to the free judgment of the Corporation (49 and 51) ;
- That the Minister responsible in respect of broad questions of policy and culture should be a selected Cabinet Minister in the House of Commons, free from heavy Departmental responsibilities and preferably a senior member of the Government ; that this Minister should have the right of veto over programmes, [...]
- No change in the licence fee of 10s.
- 75% of the new licence revenue should be allocated to the BBC for services to include television and Empire broadcasting.
- Both Empire broadcasting and television broadcasting are specifically authorised.
- Government control during national emergencies
- No funding by advertising
- More Schools broadcasting
Reaction and government response
When the Ullswater Report was published on 16 March 1936 it was hailed at once as a further tribute to the BBC. The Times, for example, noted that the fact that the Ullswater Committee took the BBC's existence so much for granted was the highest tribute that could be paid.
The BBC issued a statement to the press a quarter of an hour after the Report came out. It noted the Committee's endorsement of the constitution and work of the BBC and its approval of "all the major points" in the BBC's recommendations, but nonetheless laid out fifteen specific objections. Among them, it felt ten years was too short a period of Charter extension; there was no need to have more Governors — "Collective wisdom does not grow with numbers, and a small Board is generally more efficient than a large one"; and on advisory committees, the BBC was doubtful whether it was necessary to extend the system throughout all the Regions.
The House of Commons discussed the Report on 29 April 1936, albeit with no government statement yet to guide them.
It was not until June 1936 that the government's White Paper was issued. Most of the recommendations of the Ullswater Committee were accepted. The Postmaster-General, Major G C Tryon, announced that the Charter would be extended for 10 years, that the number of governors should be increased from five to seven, that the licence fee should remain at 10 shillings (50p) with the BBC receiving a greater share of the revenue and that both television and Empire radio broadcasting should be developed. But there were a few recommendations that were not accepted, and a few minor alternations:
- The proposal that Wireless Exchanges should be taken over technically by the Post Office and executively by the BBC was shelved.
- The proposal that a senior minister, such as the Lord President, should be responsible for policy matters concerning the BBC which were raised in Parliament, was also turned down. This proposal had had a poor press: many newspapers, unaware of the fact that it was the BBC itself which had made the proposal initially, claimed that it would tie the BBC politically and make it seem more like a government department.
- The ban on 'editorialising' was to be applied to publications as well as to programmes, and 'sponsored' programmes as well as direct advertising were to be excluded.
After a further debate in the House of Commons in July 1936, the Government and the BBC set to work on the final draft of the Charter and Licence.
- Briggs, Vol.II, 467.
- Reith, Diary, 28 March 1935.
- Briggs, Vol.II, 444.
- Briggs, 390.
- Briggs, Vol.II, 448.
- Briggs, Vol.II, 450.
- Briggs, 451-4.
- The Times, 17 March 1936.
- Observations by the Board of Governors of the BBC on the Report of the Broadcasting Committee; Briggs, 468-9
- Cmd. 5207 (1936), Broadcasting: Memorandum by the Postmaster-General on the Report of the Broadcasting Committee.
- Briggs, 473-4.