John Reith, 1st Baron Reith

John Reith, 1st Baron Reith

Infobox Politician
honorific-prefix = The Right Honourable
name = The Lord Reith
honorific-suffix = KT GCVO GBE CB TD PC

birth_name = John Charles Walsham Reith
birth_date = birth date|1889|07|20|df=y
birth_place = Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Scotland
death_date = death date and age|1971|06|16|1889|07|20|df=y
death_place = Edinburgh, Scotland
death_cause =
resting_place = Rothiemurchus chapel, Inverness-shire, Scotland
resting_place_coordinates =
residence =
nationality =
other_names =
known_for =
education =
employer =
occupation = General manager and Chairman of the BBC (1922-1938)
title = 1st Baron Reith
salary =
networth =
height =
weight =
term =
predecessor =
successor =
party =
boards =
religion =
spouse =
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website =
footnotes =

John Charles Walsham Reith, 1st Baron Reith KT GCVO GBE CB TD PC (20 July 1889–16 June 1971) was a Scottish broadcasting executive who established the tradition of independent public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. In 1922 he was employed by the commercial monopoly registered as the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. as its General Manager; in 1923 he became its Managing Director and in 1927 he was employed as the Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation created under a Royal Charter. His concept of broadcasting as a way of educating the masses marked for a long time the BBC and similar organizations around the world.

Early life

Born at Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Reith was the youngest, by ten years, of the seven children of the Revd Dr George Reith, a minister of the United Free Church of Scotland (later amalgamated with Church of Scotland, and not to be confused with the Free Church of Scotland [A point which Reith vehemently corrected John Freeman on in his "Face to Face" interview (see below)] ). He was to carry the strict Presbyterian religious convictions of the Kirk forward into his adult life. Reith was educated at the Glasgow Academy then at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk."I Will Plant Me a Tree: an Illustrated History of Gresham's School" by S.G.G. Benson and Martin Crossley Evans (James & James, London, 2002)] He was an indolent child who had used his intelligence to escape hard work but he was genuinely disappointed when his father refused to support any further education and apprenticed him an engineer at the North British Locomotive Company. Reith had been a keen sportsman at school and only learnt to tolerate his apprenticeship through part-time soldiering in the 1st Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers and 5th Scottish Rifles.

In 1914, Reith left Glasgow for London, largely in pursuit of a 17 year-old schoolboy, Charlie Bowser, on whom he appears to have formed something of a crush.McIntyre, I. (2006) " [ Reith, John Charles Walsham, first Baron Reith (1889–1971)] ", "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", Oxford University Press, online edn, May 2006, accessed 17 Aug 2007 (subscription required)] Though he readily found work at the Royal Albert Dock, his commission in the Cameronians soon found him serving in World War I. He was struck in the cheek by a bullet in October 1915, at which time he was a Lieutenant, and transferred to the Royal Engineers. He spent the next two years in the United States, supervising armament contracts, and became attracted to the country, fantasising of moving there with Bowser after the war. [McIntyre (2006) "op. cit."] He was promoted to Captain in 1917, before transferring to the Royal Marine Engineers in 1918 as a Major. He returned to the Royal Engineers as a Captain in 1919 and resigned his Territorial Army commission in 1921.

On his return to the UK, Reith and Bowser both fell in love with Muriel Odhams. Reith won Muriel's hand but warned her that she "must share me with C." [ Quoted in McIntyre, Ian (1993) "The Expense of Glory: A Life of John Reith", p. 91 HarperCollins ISBN 0-00215963-5] He sought to redress the asymmetry by finding a partner for Bowser but Reith's subsequent jealousy interrupted the men's friendship, much to Reith's pain. Nonetheless, Reith continued to note Bowser's birthday in his diary until the end of his life. [McIntyre (2006) "op. cit."]

However, the end of the war saw a reconciliation, with Reith's return to Glasgow as General Manager of an engineering firm and Bowser becoming his assistant. But the lure of London proved too much for Reith and in 1922, he returned there. Dabbling in politics, despite his family's Liberal Party sympathies, he ended up working as secretary to the London Conservative group of MPs in the United Kingdom general election, 1922. Perhaps prophetically, that election's results were the first to be broadcast on the radio.


:"See also British Broadcasting Company."Reith had no previous broadcasting experience when he replied to the advertisement in "The Morning Post" for a General Manager for an as-yet unformed British Broadcasting Company in 1922. However he later admitted that he felt he possessed the credentials necessary to manage any company. ["Face to Face" interview, BBC-TV, 30 October 1960] He managed to retrieve his original application from the post-box after re-thinking his approach, guessing that his Aberdonian background would curry more favour with Sir William Noble, the Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee. [ibid.]

In his new role, he was, in his own words:

The General Strike

In 1926 Reith famously came into conflict with the Government during the General Strike. The BBC bulletins reported, without comment, all sides in the dispute, including the TUC and other union leaders. Reith attempted to arrange a broadcast by the opposition Labour Party but it was vetoed by the government, and he had to refuse a request to allow a representative Labour or Trade Union leader to put the case for the miners and other workers. He even turned down a direct request from the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald who wanted to deliver a talk. MacDonald complained that the BBC was "biased" and was "misleading the public" and other Labour Party figures were just as critical. Philip Snowden, the former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, was one of those who wrote to the "Radio Times" to complain.

Reith’s reply also appeared in the "Radio Times", admitting the BBC had not had complete liberty to do as it wanted. He recognised that at a time of emergency the government was never going to give the company complete independence, and he appealed to Snowden to understand the constraints he had been under. He wrote:

The Labour leadership was not the only high-profile body denied a chance to comment on the strike. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, wanted to broadcast a "peace appeal" drawn up by church leaders which called for an immediate end to the strike, renewal of government subsidies to the coal industry and no cuts in miners’ wages.

Davidson telephoned Reith about his idea on 7 May, saying he had spoken to the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who had said he would not stop the broadcast, but would prefer it not to happen. [McIntyre, p. 143] Reith later wrote:

Reith asked for the government view and was advised not to allow the broadcast because he suspected if it went ahead it would give the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, an excuse to commandeer the BBC. Churchill had already lobbied Baldwin to that effect. [ [ The BBC Story - The BBC under pressure] accessed 21st April 2007] Reith rang the Archbishop to turn him down and explain that he feared if the talk went ahead, the government might take the company over.

Reith admitted to his staff that he regretted the lack of TUC and Labour voices on the airwaves. Nonetheless, many commentators have seen Reith's stance during that period as pivotal in establishing the state broadcaster's enduring reputation for impartiality. [ibid]

After the strike ended, the BBC’s Programme Correspondence Department analysed the reaction to the coverage. Some 3,696 people complimented the BBC; 176 were critical. [ [ "Governing the BBC"] accessed 21st April 2007]

The British Broadcasting Corporation

The British Broadcasting Company was part-share owned by a committee of members of the wireless industry, including British Thomson-Houston, General Electric, Marconi and Metropolitan-Vickers. However, Reith had been in favour of the company being taken into public ownership, as he felt that despite the boards under which he had served so far allowing him a high degree of latitude on all matters, not all future members might do so. ["Face to Face" interview] Although opposed by some (including in Government), the BBC became a corporation in 1927. Reith was knighted the same year.

Reith's autocratic approach became the stuff of BBC legend. His preferred approach was one of benevolent dictator, but with built-in checks to his power. Throughout his life Reith remained convinced that that approach was the best way to run an organisation. [ibid.] Later Director-General Greg Dyke, profiling Reith in 2007, noted that the term "Reithian" has entered the dictionary to denote a particular style of management, particularly with relation to broadcasting. ["Greg Dyke on Reith", BBC Television (2007)] Reith also bequeathed the BBC's purpose in three words: "educate, inform, entertain", which remains part of the organisation's mission statement to this day. [ [ Mark Thompson, Baird Lecture 2006: "BBC 2.0: why on demand changes everything"] accessed 25th April 2007] [ [ BBC purpose and vision] accessed 25th April 2007] It has also been appropriated by broadcasters throughout the world, notably PBS in the United States.

The Abdication Broadcast

In 1936 Reith personally oversaw the abdication broadcast of Edward VIII. By then his style had become well-established in the public eye. He personally introduced the ex-King (as 'Prince Edward'), before standing aside to allow Edward to take the chair. Doing so, Edward accidentally knocked the table leg with his foot, which was picked up by the microphone. Reith later noted in an interview with Malcolm Muggeridge that the headlines interpreted that as Reith 'slamming the door' in disgust before Edward began broadcasting. ["Lord Reith Looks Back", BBC 1967]


Reith was invited to resign his post at the BBC in 1938 by Neville Chamberlain by being made the offer of the chairmanship of Imperial Airways. Some commentators [Boyle, Andrew (1972) "Only the Wind will Listen", Hutchinson] have suggested a conspiracy amongst the Board of Governors to remove him, but that has never been proved. [McIntyre, p. 238] He left Broadcasting House with no ceremony (at his request) but in tears. That evening he attended a dinner party before driving out to Droitwich to close down a transmitter personally. He signed the visitor's book "J.C.W. Reith, late BBC". [Lord Reith Looks Back, BBC 1967] [McIntyre, p. 242]


'Reithianism' is Reith's legacy in broadcasting. The principles of Reithianism are said to consider all viewers equally and offer high standards in public service, probity, and universality. It is contrary to the free-market approach of broadcasting, this is shown by attracting commercial television viewers from higher social groups and by gaining them attracts advertising revenue.

Criticisms of Reithianism are that it could be Establishment-minded, elitist, and monocultural.

Wartime activities

In 1940 Reith was appointed Minister of Information in Chamberlain's government. So as to perform his full duties he became a Member of Parliament for Southampton. When Chamberlain fell and Churchill became Prime Minister his long running feud with Reith led to the latter being moved to the Ministry of Transport. He was subsequently moved to become First Commissioner of Works which he held for the next two years, through two restructurings of the job, and was also transferred to the House of Lords by being created Baron Reith of Stonehaven.

During that period the city centres of Coventry, Plymouth and Portsmouth were destroyed by German bombing. Reith urged the local authorities to begin planning the postwar reconstruction. He was dismissed from his government post by Churchill, who stated that he found Reith difficult with whom to work. For his part, Reith's animosity towards Churchill continued. Despite being offered the post of Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (one he had long coveted), he could not bring himself to accept it, noting in his diary: "Invitation from that bloody shit Churchill to be Lord High Commissioner." [Quoted in McIntyre, p. 267]

He took a naval commission as a Lieutenant-Commander of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) on the staff of the Rear-Admiral Coastal Services. In 1943 he was promoted to captain (RNVR), and appointed Director of the Combined Operations Material Department at the Admiralty, a post he held until early 1945.


In 1946 he was appointed chairmanship of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board, a post he held until 1950. He was then appointed chairman of the Colonial Development Corporation which he held until 1959. In 1948 he was also appointed the chairman of the National Film Finance Corporation, an office he held until 1951.

The BBC Reith Lectures were instituted in 1948 in his honour. These annual radio talks, with the aim of advancing "public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest" [ [ BBC Reith lectures webpage] ] have been held every year since (with the exception of 1992).

The Independent Television Authority was created on 30 July 1954 ending the BBC's existing broadcasting monopoly. Lord Reith did not approve of its creation. Speaking at the Opposition dispatch box in the Lords, he stated:

In November 1955 Cable & Wireless moved from Electra House, Embankment into its new headquarters in Theobalds Road, London. The building was named Mercury House after the Roman messenger of the gods and was officially opened by Lord Reith in December 1955.

Later years

In 1960 he returned to the BBC for an interview with John Freeman in the television series "Face to Face". When he visited the BBC to record the programme, work was being undertaken, and Reith noticed with dismay the 'girlie' pin-ups of the workmen. However one picture was of a Henry Moore sculpture. "A Third Programme carpenter, forsooth," he growled. [Quoted in McIntyre, p. 348]

In the interview he expressed his disappointment at not being "fully stretched" in his life, especially after leaving the BBC. He claimed that he could have done more than Churchill gave him to do during the war. He also disclosed an abiding dissatisfaction with his life in general. He admitted not realising soon enough that "life is for living," and suggested he perhaps still did not acknowledge that fact. He also stated that since his departure as Director-General, he had watched almost no television and listened to virtually no radio. "When I leave a thing, I leave it," he said. ["Face to Face" interview]

In his later years he also held directorships at the Phoenix Assurance Company, Tube Investments Ltd, the State Building Society (1960–1964) and was the vice-chairman of the British Oxygen Company (1964–1966).

He was also appointed Lord Rector of Glasgow University from 1965 to 1968. In 1967 he finally accepted the much-cherished post of Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. His final television appearance was in a three-part documentary series entitled "Lord Reith Looks Back" in 1967, filmed at Glasgow University.

Reith wrote two autobiographies: "Into The Wind" in 1956 and "Wearing Spurs" in 1966.

He died in Edinburgh aged 81, following a fall. His ashes were buried in accordance with his wishes at the ancient, ruined chapel of Rothiemurchus in Inverness-shire.

"My Father — Reith of the BBC"

A biography, "My Father — Reith of the BBC", written by his daughter Marista Leishman, was published on 29 September 2006. In it she claims that her father was a Nazi sympathiser who abhorred Jews. He banned the playing of jazz music on the BBC, and Leishman says that he wrote in his diary that "Germany has banned hot jazz and I’m sorry that we should be behind in dealing with this filthy product of modernity." Leishman says that on 9 March 1933 Reith wrote "I am certain that the Nazis will clean things up and put Germany on the way to being a real power in Europe again.... They are being ruthless and most determined"; and in March 1939, when Prague was occupied, he wrote: "Hitler continues his magnificent efficiency." [ [,,2090-2372519,00.html Lord Reith revered Hitler, says daughter] , "Sunday Times Scotland", 24 September 2006]

The book also claims that Reith enjoyed extramarital relationships with a series of malleable young women and once, while in his 20s, had a sexual relationship with a man. Leishman says that her mother was distressed at the way he lived his life but soldiered on. He was a distant figure to his daughter who says 'I met my father only occasionally as a small child. And when I did, he was still being a public figure. My role in life was to support his image and to deliver a perfect performance, which I conspicuously failed to do.'

His daughter portrays a man who was both "magnificent and impossible." His contrary character and skills of organisation and oratory enabled him to build public service broadcasting and set the standards for future generations and broadcasters everywhere to aspire to. These same traits resulted in him making controversial statements for their own shock-value and making life at home difficult as the family were at the mercy of his moods. He was estranged with his daughter for several years because she had stated her intention of getting married. Towards her husband he was openly hostile, telling him how much he loathed him and moving him to the top of his 'Hate List' which he constantly updated and revised. Also featuring on the list at various times were Churchill, Montgomery, Earl Mountbatten, Anthony Eden and Hugh Dalton. He died leaving only £75 in his will, testament to his extravagant lifestyle which had at times included eight servants along with nannies. His last years were wrought with depression and contemplations of suicide. At the time of his death, he was living in Edinburgh in a grace-and-favour apartment with the ever-faithful Muriel.

ee Also

* List of United Kingdom MPs with the shortest service


Further reading

*"My Father - Reith of the BBC" by Marista Leishman, published by St Andrew Press 29 September 2006. Illustrated.

External links

* [ Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery]
* [ Extract from "Face to Face" interview]

NAME = Reith, John, Lord Reith,
ALTERNATIVE NAMES = Reith, Sir John Charles Walsham, 1st Baron Reith
SHORT DESCRIPTION = Chairman of the BBC,
DATE OF BIRTH = 1889-07-20
PLACE OF BIRTH = Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Scotland
DATE OF DEATH = 1971-06-16
PLACE OF DEATH = Edinburgh, Scotland

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