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Auntie's War: The BBC during the Second World War
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Moderator's Choice > Auntie's War by Edward Stourton (September 2018)

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message 1: by Susan (last edited Jul 16, 2018 08:35AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Susan | 10646 comments Mod
Sub-titled, "The BBC During the Second World War," this is our September Mod-Led Read.

BBC RADIO 4 'BOOK OF THE WEEK'
The British Broadcasting Corporation is a British institution unlike any other, and its story during the Second World War is also our story. This was Britain’s first total war, engaging the whole nation, and the wireless played a crucial role in it. For the first time, news of the conflict reached every living room – sometimes almost as it happened; and at key moments – Chamberlain’s announcement of war, the Blitz, the D-Day landings – the BBC was there, defining how these events would pass into our collective memory.

Auntie’s War is a love letter to radio. While these were the years when 'Auntie' – the BBC's enduring nickname - earnt her reputation for bossiness, they were also a period of truly remarkable voices: Churchill’s fighting speeches, de Gaulle’s broadcasts from exile, J. B. Priestley, Ed Murrow, George Orwell, Richard Dimbleby and Vera Lynn. Radio offered an incomparable tool for propaganda; it was how coded messages, both political and personal, were sent across Europe, and it was a means of sending less than truthful information to the enemy. At the same time, eyewitness testimonies gave a voice to everyone, securing the BBC’s reputation as reliable purveyor of the truth.

Edward Stourton is a sharp-eyed, wry and affectionate companion on the BBC’s wartime journey, investigating archives, diaries, letters and memoirs to examine what the BBC was and what it stood for. Full of astonishing, little-known incidents, battles with Whitehall warriors and Churchill himself, and with a cast of brilliant characters, Auntie’s War is much more than a portrait of a beloved institution at a critical time. It is also a unique portrayal of the British in wartime and an incomparable insight into why we have the broadcast culture we do today.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/re...

This book is an excellent accompaniment to our main read, Human Voices Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
I really enjoyed this book about the BBC in wartime. Although this, and Human Voices, mainly features Broadcasting House, but the BBC was also linked to Alexandra Palace, in the early days.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc...

I live fairly close to Alexandra Palace and often drive past. There is a road just in front of the building and you can look down on all of London as you go past. I often think it must have been a great place to get a signal!


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
https://www.bbc.com/timelines/zqbfyrd

Here are some interesting links of the history of the BBC.


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/11/t...

Also, a review of the book if you are wavering about reading it...


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
I've just started this and am still in the introduction - I think it will be a fascinating read.

This was a great snippet:

"It did not help that Churchill was initially sceptial about the BBC, which he felt had denied him the airtime he deserved during his wilderness years. He hated the tall and craggy Scotsman Lord Reith (whom he nicknamed the 'Wuthering Height) ..."


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
Thank you for the links about the book, Susan. How appropriate that this was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week!


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
Yes, I knew we would be reading it, but, sadly, the iPlayer link is not working now. I think it was read in January.

Lord Reith was a fascinating man, who appeared quite often in a biography of Graham Greene that I read.


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
https://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc...

Here is a picture of Lord Reith, the 'Wuthering Height!'


message 9: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10399 comments Mod
Danny Baker's email address for his Saturday morning BBC radio five live show is....

lordreith@bbc.co.uk


message 10: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1709 comments Judy wrote: "I've just started this and am still in the introduction - I think it will be a fascinating read.

This was a great snippet:

"It did not help that Churchill was initially sceptical about the BBC, which he felt had denied him the airtime he deserved during his wilderness years. He hated the tall and craggy Scotsman Lord Reith (whom he nicknamed the 'Wuthering Height) ...""


I have only read the introduction so far and that bit made me smile as well. (Churchill was just one amongst many other backbench MPs at the time.)


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
Nigeyb wrote: "Danny Baker's email address for his Saturday morning BBC radio five live show is....

lordreith@bbc.co.uk"


Is that affectionate, or not, do you think?


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
This is from a book, Live From Downing Street Live From Downing Street by Nick Robinson

"John Reith, the BBC’s founding father, had always disliked Winston Churchill and ended up loathing him. After the war, he remarked: “A whole lot of people could have done it better and more cheaply.”

Even when Churchill was dead, Reith refused to walk past his commemorative plaque in the floor of Westminster Abbey. The feeling had been mutual. Churchill referred to the puritanical Scot who towered over him as “that Wuthering Height”, and wrote: “I absolutely hate him.”

This is the article: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/t...


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
https://www.theguardian.com/uk/1999/m...

I also found this fascinating article about Reith, which suggests he was a very difficult man!


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
Having read this, I am intrigued to read, This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC This New Noise The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC by Charlotte Higgins

Has anyone read it? If I recall, it was nominated for this vote?


message 15: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10399 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "Is that affectionate, or not, do you think?"


Absolutely. Danny's humour.


message 16: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1709 comments Susan wrote: "Having read this, I am intrigued to read, This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC
Has anyone read it? If I recall, it was nominated for this vote?"


I nominated it based on reviews of various 'History of the BBC' books I found, but have not read it yet.


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
The reviews are a bit mixed and it seems short-ish, at about 225 pages. Let me know if you read it, as I trust your judgement, as you know!


message 18: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1709 comments Thank you Susan.
Its brevity was one of the plus qualities, some of the others seem more like text books for media studies students.
I will let you and the group know when I get to it.


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
I also came across this book: The BBC: Myth of a Public Service The BBC Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills

The blurb says: The BBC: The mouthpiece of the Establishment?

The BBC is one of the most important institutions in Britain; it is also one of the most misunderstood. Despite its claim to be independent and impartial, and the constant accusations of a liberal bias, the BBC has always sided with the elite. As Tom Mills demonstrates, we are only getting the news that the Establishment wants aired in public.

Throughout its existence, the BBC has been in thrall to those in power. This was true in 1926 when it stood against the workers during the General Strike, and since then the Corporation has continued to mute the voices of those who oppose the status quo: miners in 1984; anti-war protesters in 2003; those who offer alternatives to austerity economics since 2008. From the outset much of its activity has been scrutinised by the secret services at the invitation of those in charge. Since the 1990s the BBC has been integrated into the market, while its independence from government and big business has been steadily eroded. The BBC is an important and timely examination of a crucial public institution that is constantly under threat.

Do we think it is the mouthpiece of the establishment? Is it unbiased? Does it matter?


message 20: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10399 comments Mod
Interesting questions Susan, it certainly has a perspective, if only based on the cultural values and norms of our society. I think it goes to more effort than many broadcasters to present a range of opinion, but then perhaps I am blinkered and am unaware of it?


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
I do think it makes an effort to be unbiased and it certainly did so during the war, which is when this book is set. The sensible view seemed to be that, should they make the news too palatable at the beginning, then people would distrust it. I think the govt really would have liked a better spin on things, but, to their credit, did not push too hard. Indeed, during this book, you see that often journalists were annoyed that they could not tell the story of battles, or acts of bravery, as the govt were obsessed with the fact that naming places, or names, could be used by the enemy and, as such, attempted to censor even good news stories!


message 22: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
Yes, interesting. I think sometimes unconscious biases probably become clearer in retrospect?

I'm not very far into Auntie's War yet, but I think it makes it clear that it didn't try to be unbiased during the war but was openly supportive of the British in the war, not surprisingly. Hoping to get further into this book now.


message 23: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5693 comments Mod
I'm not reading any of the broadcasting books but think there's an interesting tension within the BBC which to some extent was set up to be the voice of the Establishment but which employs journalists whose professional standards (and sometimes personal values) make them push against this kind of implicit censorship. Just look at the extent to which right-wing groups today consistently complain about the left-liberal bias of the beeb.

The press here has generally moved further to the right with almost all papers other than The Guardian and, to some extent, The Independent pushing a right-wing agenda. The sale of The Express to Richard Desmond back in the '90s closed the tabloid market to the left. Even the Evening Standard has 'come out' and is now so rightist that I refuse to read it on the tube anymore. In comparison with the papers, the beeb at least self-consciously tries to offer a range of opinions and viewpoints.


message 24: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10399 comments Mod
Good points RC. One question your post raised in my mind.....


Doesn't the Daily Mirror still have a more left-leaning, Labour supporting agenda?

Or has that changed now too?


message 25: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 5693 comments Mod
I guess things have become more complicated now than just party politics... my understanding is that The Mirror supports Labour but enjoys taking a pop at Jeremy Corbyn. It's also pro-Brexit and enjoys anti-immigration stories.


message 26: by Val (last edited Sep 05, 2018 05:11AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1709 comments I agree that the BBC tries to be independent and unbiased, although it does tend to reflect mainstream tastes and cultural values in its programme scheduling.
Whether it is the voice of the establishment rather depends on how the author is defining the establishment. The BBC is not party-political and scrupulously gives a balance of all the major parties' views on an issue. It is also far more independent of big business than any medium dependent on advertising.
Looking at BBC News reporting of the examples given: in 1926 the BBC used Reuters bulletins and so was dependent on what they decided to report but was almost certainly more balanced than much of the reporting at the time, coverage of the miner's strike was more sympathetic than ITNs or pretty much every newspaper except The Socialist Worker (which does not claim to be unbiased) and I think it always included a NUM spokesperson, it certainly reported the anti-war protests and has a list of how MPs voted on the issue (which is the easiest way to check how yours did, if you want to know), there are also plenty of reports on the effects of austerity measures and on the implications of leaving the EU. In depth coverage of news stories in reports, debates, etc. gives alternative views on the question, which far from toeing any 'establishment' line, may actually give undue prominence to fringe or minority views.
How much coverage a story gets may sometimes reflect an unconscious bias, but I see little evidence of a conscious one.
As Judy points out, the BBC was not unbiased during the war, but it did have a commitment to report the truth and was less controlled by government than some in government thought it should be.

P.S. I have just been reading the chapter on the Ministry of Information. It is just as well the BBC had a policy of their own, since the MofI seems singularly incompetent and disorganised.


message 27: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10399 comments Mod
Roman Clodia wrote: "I guess things have become more complicated now than just party politics... my understanding is that The Mirror supports Labour but enjoys taking a pop at Jeremy Corbyn. It's also pro-Brexit and enjoys anti-immigration stories."

How depressing.

John Pilger must be appalled


message 28: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
On a lighter note, I just got on to the bit about the famous broadcast in the early 1930s which began, "Good evening, today is Good Friday. There is no news." I can't somehow see that happening nowadays!


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
I loved that, Judy :) Sometimes you do feel that they are really dredging for a story, but, obviously, back then, they were REALLY truthful!


message 30: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
I was fascinated by the bit about Richard Dimbleby writing a letter to the news editor suggesting they should have reporters to go to the scenes of accidents etc and find eye-witnesses - and also by the description of him covering the floods in the Fens.


message 31: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
Re the television service shutting down without warning at the start of the war, anyone who had just invested the equivalent of thousands of pounds in a set must have had a shock, though I suppose they would have had far more important things to worry about!


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
Yes, that was the beginning of modern broadcasting, wasn't it?


message 33: by Judy (last edited Sep 06, 2018 02:46PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
I've just been giggling at the description of a musician called Sandy MacPherson playing the organ for hours on the radio after they cancelled most of their programmes - but yes, I think modern broadcasting soon did start to take shape.

This reminds me that at the start of the first Gulf War the BBC cancelled most of their TV programmes and for a couple of weeks showed nothing but wildlife documentaries and news, apart from the soap EastEnders, which was sacrosanct! I used to edit the TV section of a local newspaper and was frantically changing all the listings!

Anyway, the other stations kept their normal programmes as far as I recall, and after a while Auntie put its normal shows back on too.


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
It did seem ridiculous to just have either news (bound to depress everyone, at the beginning of the war, when invasion was imminent) or organ music (which drove everyone crazy). Thankfully, Lord Haw-Haw came to the rescue and gave everyone something to talk about!


message 35: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
If anyone wants to hear Sandy at the organ, here's a clip:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dN1Ka...

And also there is a short Pathe newsreel, from 1939, where he explains how the organ could sound like various other instruments. Might be a good idea to join the plummy-voiced announcer at the bar before listening to too much of this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKkMN...


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
It might make air raids more appealing, I suppose? Or just silence and a good book :)


message 37: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1709 comments I felt a bit sorry for Sandy Macpherson, made to play hours and hours of the stuff few people wanted to listen to.


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
Yes, that's true. It wasn't Sandy's fault, was it?


message 39: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
Yes, not his fault. Hopefully he got plenty of overtime!


message 40: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1709 comments There is a lot of detail in this book so I have been reading it a few chapters at a time. I have just been reading about J. B. Priestley's broadcasts. Here is the Dunkirk one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYNv4...


message 41: by Susan (last edited Sep 08, 2018 11:16PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Susan | 10646 comments Mod
Val wrote: "There is a lot of detail in this book so I have been reading it a few chapters at a time. I have just been reading about J. B. Priestley's broadcasts. Here is the Dunkirk one: https://www.youtube.c..."

Thanks for posting, Val. His voice was, indeed, quite comforting, wasn't it? Very slow, simple speech, calming. He sounds dependable.


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
My son has just had to write an essay on J.B. Priestley for school and got great kudos from his teacher for doing some 'research' which nobody else had done - that was the chapter about him from this book, which I gave to him, so reading this book had a positive outcome!


message 43: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
I've just read the first section about Priestley, which covered his Dunkirk broadcast, so will listen to that today - thanks for the link, Val.

I hadn't realised that Priestley was such a popular broadcaster during the war - he has certainly gone out of fashion to some extent in recent years.

I may hopefully read one or two of his books over the coming year or so - I remember reading The Good Companions and Angel Pavement when I was a kid, but don't remember much about them now. Hope your son is enjoying reading him, Susan.


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
He thinks the idea that everyone is responsible for killing the girl in An Inspector Calls is ridiculous - I think he is firmly on the side of the Capitalists! :)


message 45: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
In that same chapter, I was very surprised to read that Churchill never gave his Dunkirk speech on the radio at the time, and that the recording we know now was made in 1949 for a collection of his great speeches!

Also surprised to read that the "their finest hour" speech didn't go down well on the radio when originally broadcast (after he had already given the speech very successfully in the Commons) because apparently some listeners thought he sounded either tired or drunk! I'm wondering if the version we have of that now is also a later recording?


message 46: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "He thinks the idea that everyone is responsible for killing the girl in An Inspector Calls is ridiculous - I think he is firmly on the side of the Capitalists! :)"

Oh dear! :)


message 47: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
I can't believe Arthur Askey was told off for making a joke about the weather in Manchester!


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
'Careless talk costs lives', Judy - those parachutists could have landed anywhere :)


message 49: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4675 comments Mod
I'm really enjoying the part about Churchill and de Gaulle - makes me think I'd like to read more about both of them. I love the fact that, when de Gaulle was asked to test the level for recording, he just said, "La France."


Susan | 10646 comments Mod
I have read quite a few Churchill biographies, but none on de Gaulle. I agree it was a very interesting time and de Gaulle a fascinating man. I believe (I may be wrong) that Nancy Mitford was in love with one of de Gaulle's top aides? I am sure someone here can remind me of the true facts.


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