Reithian Tradition challenges face Director

challenges face Director-General BBC maintain Reithian tradition British public service broadcasting face technological change crises funding content ? Are lessons draw past?

The Reithian tradition comes from John Reith who was the British Broadcasting Corporation’s director general. He created a concept of broadcasting that was centered along educating viewers. He was an autocratic leader which made the approach of educating viewers successful. He built internal checks which helped to control his benevolent style of dictatorship. He was greatly convinced that the strategy of educating viewers would greatly help the organization. He in fact summarized the purpose of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in three words which were to educate, to inform and to entertain. These remain to be a part of the mission statement of the organization to this very day. Other broadcasters around the world such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) which is located in the United States have also adopted this approach of running broadcasting companies.

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In broadcasting, Reithianism became known as the term for the principles that were set out by Lord Reith. They included an equal consideration of all viewpoints that were presented as complete and utter integrity, universality and being committed to serving the public. Reithianism can be distinguished from the free market approach to broadcasting whereby the broadcasting corporations aim to attract as large an audience as possible and generate as much revenue as possible. Reithianism is about artistic merit, educative value and impartiality in broadcasting.

During the time of Lord Reith, the core function served by public service broadcasting was a cultural mission. The BBC had to facilitate efforts to build the nations as well as to build a common culture by providing education, information and entertainment to the citizens. Reithian principles allowed the BBC to assume a prominent role as the government’s mouthpiece to pass information to its citizens. This was because there were several positive characteristics that were held by the public broadcasting service which included geographical availability, independence from state and commercial interests, concern for the nation’s identity and culture, impartiality in programming and substantial financing. The BBC was socially embedded and it had the necessary economic and political conditions to enable it to succeed with implementation of the Reithianism values. This helped the country to nurture a democratic society and grow to what it currently is.

One important thing to note is that though the public broadcasting model was modeled on principles of giving service to the public, it was never intended for it to serve the general interest of the public. This is where Lord Reith came in to change the dominance of public service broadcasters in order to serve the needs of the citizens. Therefore the programming on BBC was planned to take into account the educational needs of the citizens while creating a national identity. It was also used extensively to pass messages on health, education and family planning. Reithianism greatly succeeded because it ignored the drive of profit which was what led the other broadcasters and instead served the needs of the majority.

Challenges faced

Digital inclusion and participation

The Reithian tradition was formed and has been followed by the British Broadcasting Corporation for over 80 years. The BBC has strived to inform, entertain and educate its audience. This has become the principle of public service in broadcasting. However, a new field is emerging which concerns digital inclusion and participation. This means the ability for the audience to understand, participate and influence the broadcast Kumar, 2009()

Audience participation plays a huge role in ensuring there is enough representation and contribution in societal debates on current issues thus bring about empowerment of the members of the audience and bring about participatory democracy. It also helps to attract loyal audiences who will provide long-run viewership rather than just those viewers who watch the broadcast for a short period of time. Audience participation also envisions a different kind of relationship between the broadcaster and the audience since it engages the audience thus bringing about an active audience that is in participation with the broadcaster and not a passive audience. Another important aspect of audience participation is that it presents a new source of revenue for broadcasters. This is because by having an active audience, the broadcaster is able to turn them into customers. Audience participation has also been known to lead to the development of new and innovative formats of media Feintuck & Varney, 2006()

To achieve digital inclusion and participation in today’s public service broadcasting system has been one challenge faced by the BBC which makes it hard to maintain the Reithian values. The BBC is struggling with starting and continuing dialogues between researchers, activists and other policy makers on issues related to research and consumer input. They are trying hard to ensure widespread digital participation of the audience which has proved to be a challenge. The scale of the challenge is that even though the BBC has a large audience, most of them do not have access to digital media with which they can participate in such dialogues and discussions. Therefore, the BBC risks leaving behind this huge population as digital inclusion and participation continues becoming embedded in our , 2009()

Closing up this digital exclusion gap while at the same time continuing in its pivotal role to educate, inform and entertain the public has given the BBC key decision makers a headache. The BBC has, however, worked hard to ensure digital inclusion and participation by encouraging citizens to develop their media skills. This message has been passed through media literacy seminars, websites and other media. This has helped the BBC to continue in its mission to educate and inform the public but to retain the motivational power gives a huge challenge. Though there are opportunities to alleviate digital exclusions there are other challenges to be dealt with which make the BBC’s education strategy difficult to achieve. This magnifies the challenge and impedes on the BBC’s work to educate, inform and entertain the public. However, by the BBC capitalizing on its widespread reach across television, radio and on online platforms, it becomes perfectly positioned to play its role to encourage people to participate in such discussions and dialogues and benefit from what they have to offer Kumar, 2009()


Finance is one major challenge faced by the BBC in maintaining the Reithian tradition. As the BBC strived to achieve public reach, new commercial broadcasters opened shop who worked to keep up their economic viability for the working class people who felt they were rather dissatisfied by the middle class programs that were being shown on the BBC. Therefore, more and more of the audience of the BBC switched to commercial broadcasters who catered for their sophisticated demands. With the BBC working hard towards meeting the needs of all citizens of the country, the broadcaster was hesitant to move towards the general opinion of the public. This was so because the BBC was working towards the general satisfaction of all citizens and not just a segment. This created avenues for commercial broadcasters to come in and gradually invade into the market of the BBC since they were well funded and were able to provide more sophisticated programming.

If the BBC was to fight with competitors to keep ratings high, this meant that it would have to lose its identity as a public broadcaster. This had two major implications. First was that the BBC audience had to settle for lower quality programming in order for the BBC to stand by its own commitment to deliver on its principles of educating, informing and entertaining the public. The second implication was that the BBC could not fetch much from advertisers since their audience was not the preferred audience of advertisers. Therefore the BBC had to struggle with financing its programming from other sources. Recent studies have shown that the BBC has been receiving little income from its advertisers.

At the same time, the BBC had to try hard to keep a few quality programs. If the BBC was being continuously battered in the war for ratings, the broadcaster would not be able to justify their own existence. This gives the BBC an intricate balance of delivering on its commitment to Reithian values and at the same time delivering quality programming that gives them good ratings. The BBC has to do this in the tight budget and with stringent financing situations.

Programming challenges

The programs that typified the Reithian values have over the years slowly faded as the broadcaster tries to adapt to the current times and with the ever-changing programming needs set by competitors and the developing knowledge of the public. The BBC is therefore facing a challenge in making its programming to be top quality for their audience while at the same time ensuring that the programs meet the Reithian values. With the future being digital, the BBC cannot continue being confined to traditional analogue programming and services. This would be akin to the broadcaster signing its death warrant. At the same time embedding the values of education, information and entertainment all into the programming at the BBC has been a challenge for script writers who have to struggle with a wealth of information to be organized in a way that is useful for the end user who is the BBC’s target audience.

At the same time, if the BBC adopts the trend being set by its commercial broadcasting competitors, the organization will not have an impact on the knowledge of the citizens and rather will have a draining effect on the awareness levels of the population. This would have serious ramifications on the BBC as it would lead to erosion of the Reithian values which have been upheld for many years. Distribution of programs with values of current affairs and other educative values is a huge challenge of the BBC and more so in keeping its ratings high.

Digital broadcasting

Digital broadcasting also presents a huge challenge for the BBC as it strives to uphold the Reithian values. As entertainment becomes more flexible, the citizens will be able to subscribe to the shows that they want to watch and watch them when they can. This means that the audience can choose what they want to watch, when they want to watch it and how much they are willing to watch. This flexibility is more reliable for the growing needs of the citizens rather than the traditional broadcasting system.

Digital broadcasting presents a challenge to the BBC since it leads to diminishing of the number of people in the BBC audience as well as swallows up a huge chunk of the market for broadcasting products. Digital broadcasting is also quite expensive to implement and to run. Therefore, the BBC has to struggle with trying to keep its analogue customers satisfied with its programming in their endeavor to continue fulfilling the Reithian values.

Lack of partnership

Strategic partnerships in the media industry have led to flourishing of several media companies. This is because the companies have been able to merge their technical know-how, experience and ideas to come up with an intricate alliance that succeeds in creating great programming for the market and developing new ideas of monetization. Andy Burnham who is a government minister mentioned that strategic partnerships should be added to the Reithian principles which guide the BBC to what it has become today. It would be added as ‘to enable’ meaning that the BBC would work in partnership with other media organization to their overall success. This would bring about endless possibilities for the BBC in terms of improving its programming and monetizing its activities thus enabling it to become a more vibrant broadcaster. It will also help the organization to overcome the challenge of closing the digital exclusion gap by coming up with fresh and imaginative ways of ensuring audience participation Feintuck & Varney, 2006()

Lessons to be learnt from the past

Inaccuracy of coverage

The BBC’s director-general has over 80 years’ worth of lessons to learn from the past of the BBC. There are several events that have occurred from which lessons can be learnt. One important recent event is the inaccuracy in the commentary during the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Even though audience ratings for the coverage were high at an average of 8 points out of a possible 10 points, the inaccuracies should not have been present. The BBC received over 2,000 complaints from its viewers citing that even though the event was beautifully covered, there were shortcomings in the commentary The British Broadcasting Corporation, 2012.

This mishap among other such inaccuracies during other live events had made the BBC lose its reputation for giving comprehensive and authoritative coverage of such events. From this, the BBC can learn that it needs to be extremely careful in all its activities in order to maintain its reputation and to be able to give the audience quality programming and coverage of events.

Lack of impartiality

In covering other events, the BBC has also been accused of taking sides. A good example was the coverage of the Arab Sprint which showed clearly that the BBC favored Bahrain’s opposition. This is because the BBC did not bother to contact the Brits living in Bahrain to get their opinion. Neither did they speak to the Bahrainis who were members of the opposition to the protesters to hear what their side of the story was Moore, 2012.

The BBC has also been accused of political bias whereby it appears to support certain politicians in its coverage of political events. Media corporations should always strive to be independent and fair. This means that the broadcaster should give the story from an and not pick any side. They also need to find as much evidence as possible to support their argument. These are the lessons that the BBC will learn from this shortcoming.

Another important lesson to be learnt here is that the BBC should not ignore the voices of the parties in the situation. They need to give each party involved a chance to voice their side of the story and then let the viewer to make the decision on which side has a better case than the other Wayne, 2007()

Destructive criticism

The BBC can also learn from its past that just because people say something cannot be done; it does not mean that it cannot be done. A good example of this is when critics voiced their concerns over the BBC coming up with programs which the family could watch together. This led to a heated debate with the winning component being that it was impossible to bring back family programs. However, the BBC managed to do this by bringing programs such as Doctor Who and Merlin which have worked out well for both children and parents and have thus become family programs.


The BBC has towered from the time of being a monopoly to the present day of steep competition which has gradually reduced its market share. Lord Reith greatly defended the BBC’s position as a monopoly but over the years with consumer education and reduction of barriers to entry, the BBC now faces many competitors who are giving them a run for their money. With the competition getting stiffer as new channels join the market, the company thus faces impending danger of losing its entire audience share if it does not address the challenges that it faces in maintaining the Reithian tradition. One major challenge is the explosion of digital media which creates a convenience for viewers to watch what they want when they want it. Digital media does not limit the viewer to watch programs as per a prewritten schedule. Many users are switching to this form of broadcasting and letting go of the older analogue broadcasts.

The BBC’s incoming Director General can also learn to use criticism to the advantage of the broadcasting company. BBC’s history comes with a long list of criticism of the company and allegations of bias. The company has been accused of being politically bias, being racist, having religious bias, overstaffing and controversy in its coverage. These are certainly many events which the director general can learn from. The important thing would be to take the positive elements presented by the critics and incorporate them into the future decisions made in the company. By so doing, the director general will ensure that the company prevents such crucial mistakes from happening and thus the broadcaster will be able to give patriotic and neutral coverage which is balanced and unbiased.

The present times are quite complex and they reflect the difficulties being faced by media companies as they try to compete in the stiff competition. The BBC has also faced similar challenges. However, many of its shortcomings that involve overstaffing, and allegations of being biased cannot be masked as part of or being as a result of the difficulties that media companies around the world are facing. The BBC Director General needs to steer the organization to the right direction that brings about a great turnaround for the BBC and that restores its reputation.


Feintuck, M., & Varney, M. (2006). Media Regulation, Public Interest And the Law. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kumar, S. (2009). The BBC and digital inclusion and participation Retrieved August 30th, 2012, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/aboutthebbc/2009/11/the-bbc-digital-inclusion-and.shtml

Moore, C. (2012). It’s time the BBC learnt its lessons. Gulf Daily News Retrieved August 30th, 2012, from http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=333146

The British Broadcasting Corporation. (2012). Jubilee coverage: BBC receives more than 2,000 complaints Retrieved August 30th 2012, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-18337851

Wayne, M. (2007). Failing the Public: The BBC, The War Game and Revisionist History A Reply to James Chapman. Journal of Contemporary History, 42(4), 627-637.

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