Clogging the machinery: the BBC's experiment in science coordination, 1949–1953

Jones, Allan (2013). Clogging the machinery: the BBC's experiment in science coordination, 1949–1953. Media History, 19(4) pp. 436–449.



In 1949, physicist Mark Oliphant criticised the BBC’s handling of science in a letter to the Director General William Haley. It initiated a chain of events which led to the experimental appointment of a science adviser, Henry Dale, to improve the ‘coordination’ of science broadcasts. The experiment failed, but the episode revealed conflicting views of the BBC’s responsibility towards science held by scientists and BBC staff. For the scientists, science had a special status, both as knowledge and as an activity, which in their view obligated the BBC to make special arrangements for it. BBC staff, however, had their own professional procedures which they were unwilling to abandon. The events unfolded within a few years of the end of the Second World War, when social attitudes to science had been coloured by the recent conflict, and when the BBC itself was under scrutiny from the William Beveridge’s Committee. The BBC was also embarking on new initiatives, notably the revival of adult education. These contextual factors bear on the story, which is about the relationship between a public service broadcaster and the external constituencies it relies on, but must appear to remain independent from. The article therefore extends earlier studies showing how external bodies have attempted to manipulate the inner workings of the BBC to their own advantage (e.g. those by Doctor and Karpf) by looking at the little-researched area of science broadcasting. The article is largely based on unpublished archive documents.

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