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BBC Hierarchies

Amongst John Reith’s first jobs as General Manager of the British Broadcasting Company was the establishment of his leadership team. One aspect was glaringly obvious; this team did not include women. His diaries tell of a constant stream of meetings with suitable and unsuitable men for positions such as station manager, chief engineer and accountant^2 The most significant early appointee was Charles Carpendale, who joined as Reith’s deputy in July 1923. Carpendale, a retired Rear-Admiral, was one of a number of military men recruited to the early BBC; his ‘quarterdeck manner’ and no-nonsense style reassuring to Reith.[1] [2] [3] Reith, who was thirty-three when he took on the BBC job, preferred senior executives who were similar to himself, mature men with military backgrounds^[4] These were the types of men he had grown up amongst, who he felt comfortable with and understood.[5] He was ambivalent at first about young university men, on the one hand appreciating their intellect and creativity, on the other feeling threatened by his own lack of an elite education.[6] It was not until the later 1920s that graduates predominated amongst the salaried staff.

As staff numbers grew, new structures of management were introduced. Reith believed in central control and in early 1924, with employee numbers now nearing 200, he established his Control Board, the inner-circle of his most trusted colleagues. The Control Board (which was reconstituted many times) was the executive decision-making body of the BBC. It met weekly throughout the 1920s and 30s to discuss issues that ranged from alternative wavelengths and the staffing of Children’s Hour, to international broadcasting meetings and the use of critics on programmes.[7] One aspect remained constant; it was always men only. While it was not unknown for women to sit on the boards of management of large companies in the interwar years (for instance, in 1919, Lady Rhondda sat on 33 boards, chairing seven of them) it was comparatively rare.[8] In 1926, the BBC Control Board was formalised with five Assistant Controllers working alongside Reith and Carpendale. In 1933, with the BBC now employing more than 1,500 staff, a major structural change was introduced with the bifurcation of the Corporation into Production and Administration with two Controllers and eight heads of large departments making up the Control Board. When this proved to be unwieldy it was replaced by a new divisional structure in 1936, decision-making and policy was now in the hands of Reith, Carpendale and four divisional Controllers representing Administration, Programmes, Public Relations and Finance. This structure was maintained by Frederick Ogilvie when he took over as Director General in 1938 and was still in operation at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Although immensely powerful, Reith did not have complete autonomy in the running of the BBC. As General Manager/Managing Director of the British Broadcasting Company he was accountable to a Board of Directors who largely let him get on with the job, rubber-stamping his resolutions.[9] However, the Royal Charter which instituted the British Broadcasting Corporation in January 1927 made provision for five Governors, each to serve for five years, who expected much deeper involvement, frequently to Reith’s great frustration.[10] Four out of the 16 governors who served in the interwar years were women: the socialist and political activist Ethel Snowden (1927-32); the novelist and Labour politician Mary Agnes Hamilton (1933-37); the churchwoman and Conservative activist Caroline Bridgeman (1936-39) and the penal reformer and educationalist Margery Fry (1938-39).[11] As Reith’s diaries attest, he loathed Snowden and revered Hamilton and both played a leading part in issues such as the necessity for a staff association (Snowden) and the introduction of the marriage bar (Hamilton). But although the Board of Governors were important for their strategic role in approving policies, Reith and his Control Board retained overall responsibility for the day-to-day running of the BBC.

While the Control Board was significant as the meeting place for those in command, the authority of the BBC was exercised by the Controllers in their individual capacity, the agreed decisions filtering down through various divisional, departmental or section heads. Conversely, questions and issues raised by subordinates were passed up the management chain for approval. One only has to look at a BBC memo that required an answer or clarification to see how many layers of management it passed through. The larger the BBC grew the slower and more ponderous the decision-making process became.

The BBC’s Administrative hierarchy was the most pertinent to women because this was the division with responsibility for all staffing issues including recruitment and pay. The Heads of Administration, including the Women’s Staff Administrator (WSA), agreed annual increments, issued directives on Saturday working and implemented the marriage bar amongst a myriad of other duties. Often derided for petty regulations (for example Ariel reported with glee on the ‘great paper clip war’ of 1938), it was the expansion of administration that in many ways boosted opportunities for women in the BBC.[12] Increased bureaucracy, with its adherent increase in paperwork, generated more duplicating, more filing and more typing, all work for women and mostly for women in the lower grades.

Multifaceted hierarchies also existed within the ranks of women staff. As Chapter 3 will show, the WSA played a pivotal role in the lives of the BBC’s waged female office workers and she had a small administrative team of her own. The female supervisors of the four women-only sections, the General Office, Registry, Duplicating Section and Telephone Exchange, in turn reported to the WSA. Fierce distinctions were also apparent within the secretarial grades with different nomenclatures, such as copy typist, shorthand typist, ‘isolated’ shorthand typist and secretary, denoting seniority. These hierarchies were replicated within Engineering which, apart from secretarial support staff, was an all-male division of the BBC. The convolutions of the varying types of engineers employed by the BBC (which included studio, transmitter, operations, maintenance, research, lines, equipment, installation amongst others), dictated a mind-boggling management system which was constantly in flux.[13] [14] In 1935, an Engineering Establishment Officer was appointed specifically to oversee staffing issues, a role similar to that of the WSA. Yet, whether an engineer or a secretary, the biggest divide at the BBC was between the weekly-waged and monthly-salaried staff, a distinction that was made from the start.

  • [1] Reith, Into the Wind, p. 158.
  • [2] See for example, Reith Diaries, 15 February 1923, ‘A succession of appointments allday ... Saw Douglas Smith, Herd, Graham and McQueen’.
  • [3] Gorham, Sound and Fury, p. 14.
  • [4] Hendy has written about the effect of the war on BBC staff. David Hendy (2014) ‘TheGreat War and British broadcasting: emotional life in the creation of the BBC’, New Formations, 82, 82-99.
  • [5] Annan wrote widely about this attitude. Noel Annan (1985) Our Age: The Generationthat Made Post-War Britain (London: Harper Collins).
  • [6] Reith recorded, ‘an interesting conversation about Etonian benefits and so on, I havingsaid how much I regretted not having been at a real school and Varsity’. Reith Diaries,1 February 1928.
  • [7] BBC/WAC:R3/3/1-14: Control Board Minutes, 12 November 1929, 5 January 1927,9 December 1928, 2 February 1926
  • [8] Angela V. John (2013) Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda (Cardigan: Parthian)p. 15. The journal Time and Tide, established by Rhondda in 1920, had an all-female board.Other women who sat on boards include Sarah Lewis at the John Lewis Partnership andFlorence Sangster at the advertising agency W.S. Crawford Ltd.
  • [9] Asa Briggs (1979) Governing the BBC (London: BBC) pp. 53-5.
  • [10] For Reith’s relationship with his Board of Governors see Briggs, Governing the BBC, pp. 55-66.
  • [11] Reith’s diaries bristle with antagonism towards Snowden. He described her as a ‘trulyterrible creature, ignorant, stupid and horrid’, Reith Diaries, 9 March 1927. When Hamiltonjoined the Board, he noted that he was sure ‘Mrs Hamilton would bring a livelier and morecritical intelligence to bear ... So she did’. Reith, Into the Wind, p. 173.
  • [12] Internal Instruction No. 408 forbade the use of paper clips except for mail, Ariel,March 1938.
  • [13] Edward Pawley (1972) BBC Engineering 1922-1972 (London: BBC Books) pp. 71-8,197-205.
  • [14] Maurice Gorham, Sound and Fury, p. 30.
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