My Father: Reith of the BBC

by Malcolm Baird. Adapted from the book review first published in Edinburgh Review, April 2007, My Father: Reith of the BBC, Marista Leishman, Saint Andrew Press. ISBN 9780715208342. £19.99

It is nearly seventy years since Sir John Reith abruptly ended his sixteen-year reign as Director General of the BBC, but his legend lives on and his glaring figure looms down from an oil-painting in the foyer of Broadcasting House. The BBC’s original mission as set out by Reith was to inform, educate and entertain, in that order. He insisted on standard English pronunciation by his announcers (the BBC accent) and a high moral tone among his staff. He was respected as well as feared - the novel, The Perfect Witch, published in 1935 by one of his young producers, Lance Sieveking, portrays Reith as a benevolent father figure, all-knowing and all-seeing.

Reith had disliked television ever since its appearance in 1926 at the hands of his fellow Scot, John Logie Baird. My father had resented Reith after an unpleasant encounter in their student days at the technical college in Glasgow, as recounted in Television and Me: the memoirs of John Logie Baird, edited by myself and published in 2004, but when the two men met in 1931 to discuss support for television, Reith noted in his diary ‘Of course [Baird] saw my point of view, and when I see him he is always reasonable.’ From 1929 to 1935, the BBC broadcast experimental television programmes using the original Baird system, but Reith left the arrangements to his underlings and he was not even present at the public opening of the higher definition service in 1936. He lived on into the swinging sixties as Baron Reith of Stonehaven and at last he grudgingly agreed to appear on television. The subtle skill of the one-to-one interviewers, John Freeman and later Malcolm Muggeridge, showed for the first time that there were cracks in Reith’s stern façade.

This memoir, by Reith’s daughter Marista, has revealed his personality in alarming detail, far beyond the polite probings of Freeman and Muggeridge. The book is put together in alternating sections which give the public part of Reith’s life in a larger type, and the private life in a smaller typeface which however comprises most of the book. The earnest Reithian ambition, to inform and educate, is most apparent at the end of the book where there are 18 pages of biographical summaries of those named, including even George V and George VI! The pictures, though few in number, are informative, and there is an excellent index.

Marista Reith (born in 1932), her mother and her brother each endured demands and impositions more drastic than any that Reith inflicted on his staff at the BBC. For example, she showed an early talent at the piano and her father forcefully took up the idea that she should become a concert pianist. This created in Marista a phobia of any kind of public performance, even to a small group of guests. It says much for her courage that she later went ahead with her marriage (against frantic opposition by Reith) and succeeded in asserting herself as an independent person. Her book flies in the face of the old Scottish maxim ‘aye keep something tae yoursel…’ and one has the sense that she is driving away the ghosts of an unhappy past by shining a floodlight on them.

Reith’s private life was at odds with his puritanical public image and he was prone to infatuations, from his young manhood into his seventies. This aspect was never even hinted at in his lifetime, but in a documentary shown in April 2007 the BBC went to the trouble to interview one of the objects of his affections, still living quietly in the country. At home, Reith was an unpredictable and dictatorial husband and father. I winced at Marista’s account of her father’s savage beating of the family dog who had committed the offence of keeping him awake the dog fled and was never seen again.

Although this book has been painful to read, I am reluctant to condemn Reith out of hand. My generation benefitted from the BBC’s laid-back and scholarly atmosphere which persisted long after Reith’s departure in 1938. Professionally he stood for something fine that has now almost disappeared from today’s broadcast programming, appealing as it does to the lowest common denominator. It is sad to read of his tortured personality and the torture that he inflicted on those closest to him. Despite his personal shortcomings, we should respect his life’s achievements and mourn the decline of his ideals.