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The Right Honourable
The Lord Reith
Caricature of Reith, 1939–44
1st Director-General of the BBC

In office
Succeeded by Frederick Ogilvie
Personal details
Born John Charles Walsham Reith
(1889-07-20)20 July 1889
Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Scotland
Died 16 June 1971(1971-06-16) (aged 81)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Resting place Rothiemurchus chapel, Inverness-shire, Scotland
Occupation General manager and Chairman of the BBC (1922–1938)
Religion Presbyterianism

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 BBC (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

6 Barton St, London SW1 Reith's home 1924–30

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[lower-alpha 1]). 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.[1] 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 later the 5th Scottish Rifles.

In 1914, Reith left Glasgow for London, largely in pursuit of a 17-year-old schoolboy, Charlie Bowser, a fast friend.[2] Though he readily found work at the Royal Albert Dock, his commission in the 5th Scottish Rifles 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.[2] 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.

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 broadcasting experience when he replied to an advertisement in The Morning Post for a General Manager for an as-yet unformed British Broadcasting Company in 1922. He later admitted that he felt he possessed the credentials necessary to manage any company.[3] 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.[3]

In his new role, he was, in his own words, "confronted with problems of which I had no experience: Copyright and performing rights; Marconi patents; associations of concert artists, authors, playwrights, composers, music publishers, theatre managers, wireless manufacturers."[2]

The General Strike

In 1926 Reith famously came into conflict with the Government during the 1926 United Kingdom 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.

"We do not believe that any other Government, even one of which Mr Snowden was a member, would have allowed the broadcasting authority under its control greater freedom than was enjoyed by the BBC during the crisis."[4]

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.[5] Reith later wrote: "A nice position for me to be in between Premier and Primate, bound mightily to vex one or other."[5]

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.[6] 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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[3] 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. Later Director-General Greg Dyke, profiling Reith in 2007, noted that the term Reithian has entered the dictionary to denote a style of management, particularly with relation to broadcasting.[8] Reith summarised the BBC's purpose in three words: educate, inform, entertain; this remains part of the organisation's mission statement to this day.[9] It has also been adopted by broadcasters throughout the world, notably the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States.

Reith earned a reputation for prudishness in sexual matters. There is an old BBC legend that he once caught an announcer kissing a secretary and decreed that in future he must not read the late-night religious programme The Epilogue. In fact this may have been inspired by his catching the Chief Engineer, Peter Eckersley, not just kissing but being en flagrante with an actress on a studio table.

He was to be somewhat embarrassed when one of his staff ran off with the quite new wife of the then rising young writer Evelyn Waugh and he also had to deal with Eckersley after he had a rather public affair with a married woman also on the staff. Up to World War II any member of BBC staff involved in a divorce could lose their job though in his biography of Reith Ian McIntyre records that after his BBC days Reith himself may have had an affair with a colleague.

Under Reith, the BBC did not broadcast on Sunday before 12:30 PM to give listeners time to attend church, and for the rest of the day only broadcast religious services, classical music, and other non-frivolous programming. European commercial stations Radio Normandie and Radio Luxembourg successfully competed with the BBC on "Reith Sunday" and other days of the week by broadcasting more popular music.[10]

Abdication Broadcast

In 1936 Reith directly 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.[11]


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[12] have suggested a conspiracy amongst the Board of Governors to remove him, but that has never been proved.[13] 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.[14][15]


The term 'Reithianism' describes certain principles of broadcasting associated with Lord Reith. These include an equal consideration of all viewpoints, probity, universality and a commitment to public service. It can be distinguished from the free-market approach to broadcasting, where programming aims to attract the largest audiences or advertising revenues, ahead of – and, in practice, often contrary to – any artistic merit, impartiality, educative or entertainment values, that a programme may have.

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 (MP) for UK Parliament constituency. 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, because, as he stated, he found Reith difficult to work with.

Understandably, Reith's animosity towards Churchill continued. When 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."[16]

He took a naval commission as a Lieutenant 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"[17] 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 broadcasting monopoly. Lord Reith did not approve of its creation. Speaking at the Opposition dispatch box in the House of Lords, he stated:

Somebody introduced Christianity into England and somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting ... Need we be ashamed of moral values, or of intellectual and ethical objectives? It is these that are here and now at stake.[18]

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.[19]

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.[3]

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 took a personal interest in the preservation of the early 19th-century frigate HMS Unicorn in 1962.[20]

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.

At the age of 81, he died in Edinburgh after a fall. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were buried at the ancient, ruined chapel of Rothiemurchus in Inverness-shire.

Biographical works

Reith wrote two volumes of autobiography: Into The Wind in 1956 and Wearing Spurs in 1966. Two biographical volumes appeared shortly after his death: Only the Wind Will Listen by Andrew Boyle (1972), and an edited volume of his diaries (1975). It was not until The Expense of Glory (1993) by Ian McIntyre that Reith's unexpurgated diaries and letters were published.

Pro-fascist sympathies

In 1975 excerpts from Reith's diary were published which showed he had, during the 1930s, harboured pro-fascist views.[21] On 9 March 1933 he wrote: “I am pretty 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.” [21] After the July 1934 Night of The Long Knives, in which the Nazis ruthlessly exterminated their internal dissidents, Reith wrote: “I really admire the way Hitler has cleaned up what looked like an incipient revolt.” [21] After Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Nazis in 1939 he wrote: “Hitler continues his magnificent efficiency.”[21] Reith also expressed admiration for Mussolini.[21] Reith's daughter, Marista Leishman, revealed how her father in the 1930s did everything possible to keep Winston Churchill and other anti-appeasement Conservatives off the airwaves.[22]

Honours and styles


  • Knight Bachelor (Kt.) (1927 New Year Honours List)[23]
  • Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, Civil Division (GBE) (1934 Birthday Honours List)[24]
  • Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO) (1939 New Year Honours List)[25]
  • Member of His Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council (PC) (January 1940)[26]
  • Baron Reith, of Stonehaven in the County of Kincardine (21 October 1940)[27]
  • Companion of the Order of the Bath, Military Division (CB) (1945 New Year Honours List)[28]
  • Efficiency Decoration (ED; though as a former Territorial Army officer, Lord Reith continued to use the post-nominal of TD) (22 July 1947)[29]
  • Knight of the Order of the Thistle (KT) (18 February 1969)[30]


  • 1889 – March 1911: John Charles Walsham Reith
  • March 1911 – July 1915: Second Lieutenant John Charles Walsham Reith[31]
  • July 1915 – August 1917: Second Lieutenant (Temp. Lieutenant) John Charles Walsham Reith[32]
  • August–October 1917: Lieutenant John Charles Walsham Reith[33]
  • October 1917 – May 1918: Captain John Charles Walsham Reith[34]
  • May 1918 – April 1919: Captain (Temp. Major) John Charles Walsham Reith[35]
  • April 1919 – January 1927: Captain John Charles Walsham Reith,[36][37]
  • January 1927 – June 1934: Captain Sir John Charles Walsham Reith[23]
  • June 1934 – January 1939: Captain Sir John Charles Walsham Reith, GBE[24]
  • January 1939 – January 1940: Captain Sir John Charles Walsham Reith, GCVO, GBE[25]
  • January–February 1940: Captain the Right Honourable Sir John Charles Walsham Reith, PC, GCVO, GBE[26]
  • February–October 1940: Captain the Right Honourable Sir John Charles Walsham Reith, PC, GCVO, GBE, MP
  • October–November 1940: Captain the Right Honourable the Lord Reith, PC, GCVO, GBE, MP[27]
  • November 1940 – June 1942: Captain the Right Honourable the Lord Reith, PC, GCVO, GBE[38]
  • June 1942 – January 1943: Captain (Temp. Lieutenant, RNVR) the Right Honourable the Lord Reith, PC, GCVO, GBE, RNVR[39]
  • January 1943 – January 1945: Captain (Actg. Temp. Captain, RNVR) the Right Honourable the Lord Reith, PC, GCVO, GBE, RNVR
  • January 1945 – July 1947: Captain (Actg. Temp. Captain, RNVR) the Right Honourable the Lord Reith, PC, GCVO, GBE, CB, RNVR[28]
  • July 1947 – February 1969: Major the Right Honourable the Lord Reith, PC, GCVO, GBE, CB, TD[29]
  • February 1969 – June 1971: Major the Right Honourable the Lord Reith, KT, PC, GCVO, GBE, CB, TD[30]

See also

  • List of United Kingdom MPs with the shortest service



  1. A point that Reith vehemently corrected John Freeman on in his Face to Face interview


  1. 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)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 McIntyre, I. (2006). "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 17 August 2007.  (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Face to Face interview, BBC TV, 30 October 1960
  4. Radio Times, 10 May 1926
  5. 5.0 5.1 McIntyre (1993), p. 143
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". BBC. Archived from the original on 28 October 2006. Retrieved 21 April 2007. 
  7. Governing the BBC accessed 21st April 2007
  8. Greg Dyke on Reith, BBC Television (2007)
  9. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". BBC. Retrieved 25 April 2007. 
  10. Crisell (1997), pp. 46–47.
  11. Lord Reith Looks Back, BBC 1967
  12. Boyle, Andrew (1972) Only the Wind will Listen, Hutchinson
  13. McIntyre (1993), p. 238
  14. Lord Reith Looks Back, BBC 1967
  15. McIntyre (1993), p. 242
  16. McIntyre (1993), p. 267
  17. BBC Reith lectures webpage
  18. House of Lords debate on the White Paper on commercial broadcasting in the UK, 1954
  19. McIntyre (1993)
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Paulu (1981), p. 135
  23. 23.0 23.1 London Gazette, 1 January 1927
  24. 24.0 24.1 London Gazette, 4 June 1934
  25. 25.0 25.1 London Gazette, 2 January 1939
  26. 26.0 26.1 London Gazette, 16 January 1940
  27. 27.0 27.1 London Gazette, 29 October 1940
  28. 28.0 28.1 London Gazette, 1 January 1945
  29. 29.0 29.1 London Gazette, 25 July 1947
  30. 30.0 30.1 London Gazette, 21 February 1969
  31. London Gazette, 17 February 1911
  32. London Gazette, 9 November 1915
  33. London Gazette, 30 August 1917
  34. London Gazette, 17 October 1917
  35. London Gazette, 28 May 1918
  36. London Gazette, 11 July 1919
  37. London Gazette, 7 October 1921
  38. London Gazette, 3 December 1940
  39. London Gazette, 24 July 1942


  • Crisell, Andrew (1997). "An Introductory History of British Broadcasting". Routledge isbn=0-415-12802-1. 
  • McIntyre, I. (1993). "The Expense of Glory: Life of John Reith". HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-00-215963-0. 
  • Paulu, Burton (1981). "Television and Radio in the United Kingdom". Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-29346-1. 

Further reading

  • Leishman, Marista (2008). My Father – Reith of the BBC. St Andrew Press. ISBN 978-0-7152-0857-1. 

External links

Media offices
New title
Incorporation of the BBC
Director-General of the BBC
Succeeded by
Frederick Ogilvie
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
William Craven-Ellis
Charles Barrie
Member of Parliament for Southampton
With: William Craven-Ellis
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William Craven-Ellis
William Stanley Russell Thomas
Political offices
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Lord Macmillan
Minister of Information
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Duff Cooper
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Euan Wallace
Minister of Transport
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John Moore-Brabazon
Preceded by
The Lord Tryon
First Commissioner of Works
Office renamed
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and First Commissioner of Works

Office renamed
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The Lord Portal
Academic offices
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Albert Lutuli
Rector of the University of Glasgow
Succeeded by
George MacLeod
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baron Reith
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Christopher Reith

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