The BBC used the Radio Times and its other magazine publications to exploit its monopoly for commercial gain in the early years of broadcasting, archived documents have revealed.
Dr Julia Taylor from Bournemouth University explored letters and memoranda in the BBC’s Written Archives at Caversham. The documents tell the story of a controversial period where BBC bosses were determined to cash in on advertising revenue and shut other magazines out of the market, even though the BBC was supposed to be free of advertising.
The findings have been published in the journal “Journalism and Media”
Although the BBC was originally set up as a commercial venture in 1922, it became a public service corporation four years later to hold the monopoly of the airwaves. As a public service broadcaster, it would be funded through a licence fee rather than through advertising.
In the early days of transmission, the BBC relied on print media to publish its schedules. However, disappointed with the limited coverage, they launched their own publication, the Radio Times, in 1923.
“The magazine really took off and the BBC soon discovered that they had a powerful model – the combination of the microphone and the printed word – and they did not want rival publications to ruin things,” explained Dr Taylor.
The archived documents reveal that the BBC was treading a very fine line between asserting its right to deliver a public service to the UK public, and unfairly using the advantages of its broadcasting monopoly, funded by the licence fee, to undermine and outstrip all competition.
In one of the documents, John Scott-Taggart, the Editor in Chief of the Radio Press wrote to the BBC bosses to say they were taking advantage of their monopoly to give themselves publicity. “He was afraid that radio manufacturers who advertised in commercial magazines would switch to the BBC’s. And he was not wrong,” said Dr Taylor.
Undeterred, the BBC derided Scott-Taggert’s opposition and gave the Radio Times a new look that made it even more appealing to listeners, readers and advertisers.
Realising they were on to a good thing, the BBC launched other titles including World-Radio. This was focussed on foreign broadcast listings, reflecting a new craze for picking up radio broadcasts from far afield. An internal memo from the BBC’s Director of Publicity, Gladstone Murray to Director General John Reith makes it clear how keen he was to make a power grab for publicising the foreign broadcasts.
The BBC then adopted very aggressive tactics in response to further complaints from their rivals that they were abusing their privileged position. One letter in the archive even shows they threatened Scott-Taggert with legal action if one of his magazine’s continued to use a feature title which would later appear in World-Radio.
Other content in the archive show that BBC bosses were attempting to enter an exclusive deal with Radio International Publicity Services (RIPS) which held the UK rights to foreign broadcast. The BBC was trying to ensure it was the sole publisher of foreign broadcasts and prevent RIPS from negotiating with its competitors.
“What is clear from various memoranda in the archives is that, despite its small circulation, World-Radio defended the commercial interest of the Radio Times by preventing other publishers from producing a rival listing magazine under the guise of a foreign programmes guide,” said Dr Taylor.
“The great paradox is that the BBC would stand at the microphone and say they were free of advertising and yet their publishing arm was raking it in. They even had their own advertising department.
“They were not being open about the interests that they were so determined to protect,” she concluded.