University of Sussex

File(s) under embargo

Constitutional niceties: three crucial dates in cold war relations between the BBC external services and the foreign office

journal contribution
posted on 2024-05-14, 11:20 authored by Alban WebbAlban Webb

The experience of the Second World War demonstrated the influence and importance of overseas broadcasting both in its own right and as an adjunct to wider government strategies. It had also shown, in contrast to the German propaganda instrument, the value of building credibility with audiences through, as far as circumstances allowed, objective and truthful reporting. During the war, however, the BBC's External Services had rapidly become a very expensive and big operation, which posed tricky questions about its future management and financing in addition to those of its editorial purpose. Indeed, such was its perceived importance in maintaining Britain's influence overseas that it was even questioned by ministers whether an independently minded BBC was the right home for these overseas services.Footnote1 The BBC did, of course, retain this right but there was a steep learning to curve to be negotiated as the Corporation and the government came to terms with the major forces of change in the world around them and, just as importantly, with how to manage each other.

The tone of this relationship, how they learnt to speak to each other after the Second World War, was instrumental in defining the task of overseas broadcasting from Britain during the subsequent cold war and in establishing the voices with which the BBC spoke to its many audiences around the world. As an ongoing conversation, its pitch was continually modulated to reflect the political, cultural, economic and practical dynamics bearing down on it. The purpose of this paper is to elucidate this fundamental relationship in the context of these pressures in order to identify some of the principles governing it and, by extension, those attending to the job of overseas broadcasting. Accordingly, three turning points will be examined in the early post-war history of the External Services that collectively constitute a shorthand historical narrative, emblematic of the wider context in which they took place.


Publication status

  • Published


Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television




Informa UK Limited





Page range


Department affiliated with

  • Media and Film Publications


University of Sussex