Written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
You know an illustrious legacy has been truly cemented when it’s referenced for perpetuity in the Oxford English Dictionary. Lord John Reith achieved this distinction with the inclusion of Reithian confirming its place in the nation’s lexicon. His vast accomplishments as the first Director-General of the BBC are widely documented while his tenure as a Parliamentarian that lasted three decades remains somewhat forgotten.
In this blog, I shall be focusing on how Reith exchanged the polished corridors of Broadcasting House for Westminster’s halls of power using Hansard debates, his published diaries, and the correspondence he exchanged with Lord Max Beaverbrook.
By 1938 John Reith was one of the country’s most recognisable media figures. Over fifteen years as Head of the BBC he’d meticulously overseen the development of this burgeoning national institution. Many commentators believed he ran this private company as an autocratic personal fiefdom. Thus, it was a huge shock when Reith suddenly announced that he was to leave behind his beloved BBC to assume the chairmanship of Imperial Airways which in accordance with legislation was to be regulated via public ownership.
The offer was initiated by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and it seemed only a matter of time till Reith entered Parliament. At this juncture all eyes were drawn to troubling events in Europe as Britain geared itself for the increasingly inevitable conflict with Nazi Germany. As Chamberlain declared war in September 1939 Reith was on board the Queen Mary returning home from attending New York ‘s World Fair. Ideally, he fancied securing an additional ambassadorial role in Washington, but Chamberlain wanted to utilize his communications expertise in the Ministry of Information. To take up a ministerial position it required an electoral seat, and he achieved this replacing Sir Charles Barrie as an unopposed National Liberal candidate in Southampton.
On entering the Commons Reith sought the advice of his friend Lord Halifax on how to survive its tumults he told him it will require ‘forbearance, humour and visits to the smoking room’. Frustration grew as it became apparent that the Ministry of Information had no footing in the war cabinet as its central responsibilities of press and censorship were under the auspice of a Foreign Office bureau. He’d hope to use his considerable powers of persuasion to convince Chamberlain to fix the situation. However, the Prime Minister resigned in the aftermath of the May 1940 Norway debates to be replaced to Reith’s chagrin by Winston Churchill.
To say both men had history was no exaggeration. Back in the twenties they had publicly locked horns concerning the BBC’s coverage of the highly contentious 1926 General Strike. Regardless of the years passing the bad blood broiled and Reith was dismayed to be informed of an immediate demotion to the Ministry of Transport by a letter left at the desk of the Athenaeum Club. In consolation he made a lauded maiden address in a wartime secret session that saw fervent ex-Trade Unionist Manny Shinwell send a message of congratulations to his fellow Scotsman.
New Towns, Good Attitude
Reith’s move to Transport was predictably short-lived, yet he had the vision to draft a report that recommended future railway nationalization. The Labour ranks of the National Government were supportive in contrast to Churchill’s ally Lord Max Beaverbrook who dismissed it as socialist thinking. Before the year’s end Reith was offered a peerage that he begrudgingly accepted. His diaries highlighted the persecution he felt wholly convinced that the all-encompassing axis of Churchill and Beaverbrook were detrimentally pulling the strings of his career.
Despite these travails, Reith rediscovered his mojo in the House of Lords as he found inspiration in his latest posting at the Ministry of Planning. A detailed speech on post-war reconstruction received great praise in the Architect’s Journal. Still, that held little heed with Churchill who in another cabinet reshuffle unceremoniously relieved him of his duties. Clement Atlee remembered Reith’s sterling work in the field and on forming his 1945 government brought him back into the fold to assist the ground-breaking New Towns Programme. Stimulated by the idealism Reith was a significant influence on policy declaring in a White Paper that they’ll be devoid of ‘drinking saloons and greyhound racing’ a nod to his strident Scottish presbyterian beliefs.
Part of the Reith mythology was his recovery from a deeply traumatic incident in the Great War when he was shot in the face at the Battle of Loos. As World War Two continued Reith decided to enlist in the Royal Navy Volunteer Service as a Special Liaisons Officer. Military supervising succeeded in lifting the despondency he suffered due to various political manoeuvrings. He’d go on to enthusiastically participate in an expedition that visited Normandy after the D Day Landings and was awarded Commander of the Bath in the New Year’s Honours List.
As the new Commonwealth bloc formed, he was appointed to oversee the Colonial Development Corporation. To quote a favourite phrase of Reith he rolled up his sleeves for some serious ‘redding up’ endeavouring to reduce sizeable administration costs and stabilise loan repayments. Fully embracing the independence ethos of those emerging territories in Africa and South Asia and promoting the long-term benefits of assisting them in large-scale industrial initiatives. Like similar men of his social stature Reith’s lifestyle and household expenditure couldn’t be covered by his governmental salary so to keep up with appearances he took up several lucrative directorships ranging from Phoenix Assurance to Cable and Wireless.
Legend has it that Reith had a blacklist of individuals he loathed. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to surmise that Lord Max Beaverbrook was listed as charged. The business-like civility of the correspondence between the pair sometimes was unable to conceal underlying antagonism. In January 1934 Beaverbrook wrote to Reith disparaging the BBC’s reporting on British isolationism accusing them of ‘weighting the scales against us. Using the great monopoly given to you by Parliament to attack our policy, it is a situation which you should put right’. Reith’s reply was mildly sympathetic stating ‘one has often to supress their own opinion – a radical difference to being a newspaper proprietor’.
Thankfully there was a truce to hostilities and by the fifties the tone of the letters bordered on sentimental. Reith now resided at Lambeth’s Lollards Tower and numerous telegrams detailed lunch dates in town with Beaverbrook when the wine was ‘commendable’ and discussion topics included the correct character traits for a prospective Scottish Church Moderator. When Reith had a minor operation in the summer of 1963 his old adversary inscribed gushingly ‘your heritage of good health and splendid character are a credit to the faith of our fathers’.
Politically it was difficult to pigeonhole Reith let’s just say he was the Parliamentary representative for the BBC even if he’d kept a respectful distance from his former employers since departing. That didn’t mean he never leapt to their defence as shown in the Beveridge Committee on the BBC as Reith went toe to toe with any detractors prepared to challenge its hegemony. Market forces prompted proposals for commercialising radio and television leading to the 1954 Television Bill being presented to the House. On his 65th birthday Reith observed the second reading stage nauseated by the ‘American model’ on the table that he felt ‘sold the BBC down the river’.
Eight years on he motioned to debate the same subject making an unwieldly thirty-minute oratory on the evils of commercial TV that The Times remarked was akin to ‘using a bulldozer rather than a shovel’. A tour de force or a last stand either way it was memorable and saw him reconciled with the BBC. Visits to the Palace of Westminster were noticeably rarer though a 1966 diary snippet praised the honey and brandy ice cream served at the Lords Restaurant. He died in Edinburgh in 1971 after a fall.
Reith, 1st Baron, John Charles Walsham (Director-General of the BBC) – Correspondence 1930-1963, BBK/C/273, Parliamentary Archives
Reith Correspondence 1941-1945, SAM/A/155/11, Parliamentary Archives
The Reith Diaries 1889-1971
The Expense of Glory – A Life of John Reith by Ian McInytre
Wearing Spurs, John Reith
Parliamentary Hansard Debates