Asa Briggs, author of the monumental five-volume history of the BBC, talks to David Hendy about his thirty-seven year engagement with the story of British broadcasting.
‘I gave him a very good lunch – he had a glass of sherry,’ Asa Briggs recalls of his crucial meeting fifty years ago with that towering egotist, visionary and sternest of Presbyterians, the BBC’s Founding Father John Reith. Briggs, then a young history professor at Leeds, had just accepted a commission from the Director-General, Ian Jacob, to write a history of the Corporation. Reith, just short of his seventieth birthday, had long ago left the BBC. But his personal account of the pre-war years would be invaluable. ‘I’m not in the least wanting to see him,’ Reith wrote in his diary a few weeks before they eventually met in the Oxford and Cambridge Club. He was on especially bad terms with the BBC, firmly believing it had gone to the dogs since his unhappy departure in 1938.
So it was something of a relief when he announced at the end of the meal that he would, as he put it in his diary, ‘give him whatever help I could’. Perhaps the young historian’s recent responsibilities as ‘moral tutor’ to Reith’s son Christopher while a student at Worcester College, Oxford had swayed him. Then, as now, personal networks mattered. But just how delicately balanced Reith’s attitude had been was only revealed to Briggs as they left the club. ‘I stood on the steps and he said to me, looking down at me from his great height: “Briggs, before you invited me to lunch, I wasn’t too sure whether I was going to cooperate with you or not, and now I will cooperate. But, if you had written to me on paper from Broadcasting House, I would have cast it into the flames.”’