By Dom Serafini
The BBC is an organization — better yet, an institution — that I love to hate. In this respect, I’m like roughly 95 percent (my estimate) of the British population. Or at least a good percentage of my English relatives who think that the BBC is made up of “lefties,” which is actually ironic since, in its early years, the BBC blocked the Labor Party and the trade unions from its airwaves.
As Dominic Green, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society wrote in The Wall Street Journal on November 12, 2022, “The BBC can be infuriating and inspiring.”
I tend to feel sorry for the people who trained at the BBC. They have no room for improvement, having come up in a perfect professional environment.
Having grown up with a discombobulated state broadcaster like RAI in Italy, the BBC always appeared to be a model of perfection to me. Indeed, there was even a jingle on RAI’s radio network Radio 2 in Italy that repeatedly said: “No, non è la BBC questa è la Rai, la Rai TV” (“No, this is not the BBC, it’s RAI, RAI-TV”). The jingle was even the theme of the 1970s program Alto Gradimento, whose leitmotif was the show’s illogical and chaotic narrative.
The BBC’s in-house historian Robert Seatter is most likely aware of this comparison since he was a teacher in Italy and recently wrote a book about the BBC. His Broadcasting Britain: 100 Years of the BBC is just one of three books that came out recently to commemorate the BBC’s 100th anniversary last month. In addition to Seatter’s tome, there were The BBC: A Century on Air from David Hendy, an emeritus professor of Media and Cultural History at the University of Sussex, and This is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain, 1922-2022 from historian Simon Potter.
The BBC was launched in 1922 with just a single radio station, and today it’s a conglomerate of media companies in the U.K., but also around the world, with BBC America, its World Service, and many other foreign-language services. While the U.K. broadcasting portion is financed by a mandatory licensee fee, the World Service is funded by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. The commercial operations, meanwhile, are financed by advertising, subscriptions, and content rights sale.
It is easy to be addicted to the BBC’s news services, be them BBC World News America (from Washington D.C.), World News, or Outside Source (both from London). The breadth of the BBC’s coverage is unsurpassed. Its topics are varied and interesting, and its visuals are astonishing.
However, listening to BBC World News America can sometimes be frustrating. First because of the sound levels. The reporters seem to alternate between whispers and loud voices — with nothing in between. This requires viewers to constantly adjust the volume.
The second reason is because of the very different British accents of the anchors/newspeople, which vary between clear as day (such as Ross Atkins of Outside Source) to mumbled (like Laura Travelyan of BBC World News America). Katty Kay was another BBC reporter who was easy to understand (perhaps because she also speaks Italian), but a few years back she left the BBC for a brief stint at Ozy Media. She has since rejoined the BBC’s News division.
The third reason the BBC can be frustrating is because it is impossible to ask for news follow-ups or clarifications. Its website is as unclear and unhelpful as a post office would be. Plus there is no way to get someone on the phone.
Pictured above are the covers of the three books mentioned in this article.