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How the BBC made Britain

By Dafydd Rees
18 October 2022

By Dafydd Rees

It began life as a company 100 years ago today. We should celebrate its role providing a platform for communities across the UK. That’s what makes the BBC so special.

A hundred years ago today, the British Broadcasting Company was formed. A month after that, saw the first radio broadcast from a studio just off the Strand in Central London. Five years later the BBC was granted a Royal Charter and became a Corporation.

Over the course of its first 100 years, it’s been an essential guide to the most important and most heated national debates of our times and served as an essential soundtrack to our lives.

Yet I want to share with you three personal experiences which help explain why I think the BBC’s greatest single contribution has been to shape how we understand who we are, and what we stand for as a United Kingdom.  

The Corporation is an organisation close to my heart. It’s where I began my career back in 1989. The BBC gave me a remarkable range of opportunities as a journalist. I had a front row seat to witness the unfolding political dramas at Westminster. I travelled the world from the Balkans to Belfast to cover global conflicts. I investigated sporting scandals and even got to interview the much-missed singing superstar Meatloaf.

It’s hard to convey the cultural and symbolic significance of the BBC for generations of the people of Wales, especially at times when Wales lacked many other key public institutions. Working in the Welsh language newsroom in Cardiff I was conscious of being part of a collective effort to find a new vocabulary for this beautiful but ancient language.

Over the course of the past half century and more, BBC Cymru Wales has been pivotal in developing a collective and inclusive national identity while also serving as a mainstay of the Welsh language.

I spent many years working at BBC Radio Five Live, the UK news and sport network which from the outset in the 1990’s went out of its way to tell stories from and about the whole of the UK.

The metropolitan bias of the UK media has meant, for most of my working life, I’ve worried that UK news coverage does a better job of explaining global affairs than events taking place in our own backyard.

I’m also proud of the role I played in supporting the creation and early development of the BBC Asian Network. From its base in Leicester, I saw first-hand how the BBC sought to knit together a cohesive national network which appealed to a cross-section of diverse South Asian communities across the UK.

I think the greatest service the world’s oldest and largest broadcaster has played over the past century has been to give different communities across the UK a platform to call their own. Thanks to the precipitous collapse of local, independent commercial news over the past decade the BBC’s role here has never been more important.

The BBC’s independence and impartiality, as well as the way its funded have been, and perhaps always will be, a source of endless controversy.

My advice to those who have the responsibility of safeguarding this venerable institution for the next generation is not to forget that the Corporation, more than any other national institution in existence, has been a mirror to our lives, whoever or wherever we may be.

Happy Birthday BBC.

Dafydd Rees worked from 1989 to 2005 at BBC Wales, BBC News, BBC Westminster, BBC Sport, BBC Asian Network, BBC News Channel and BBC Radio Five Live.