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The day BBC had no News!

by Aadarsh Jain

The day BBC had no News!

May 17, 2021

In our news-saturated culture, it seems strange to think that a day could pass without news. Yet, on April 18, 1930, the BBC's news narrator had little to say. The script for the 20:45 news bulletin read, "There is no news."

Can you imagine waking up one day, opening your phone and finding no news at all? Or turning on the television for the evening bulletin and be greeted with music instead? It seems odd to imagine that a day could go by without news in our news-obsessed world. But, listeners who tuned in to the BBC’s 8:45 p.m. news bulletin on April 18, 1930, were told that “there is no news tonight.”

The BBC broadcasted piano music for fifteen minutes before sending listeners to a live broadcast from the Queen’s Hall of the Wagner opera Parsifal.

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Was there really no news?

There was lots of news for the BBC on that day, including a noteworthy death, a crash, and a car accident—the sort of stuff that makes up local news bread and butter these days, as eagerly noted by one National paper. 

The day of the 18th had not been uneventful. The assault on the army base in Chittagong, British India, by Indian nationalist rebels led by Surya Sen was most severe for the British. Even if it had wanted to, the BBC would not have been able to report on the raid because the rebels had destroyed the telecommunications and telegraph wires.

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The Reason behind it

The decision to announce that there was “no news” then, had less to do with the news, and more to do with the BBC’s principles, structure and standards, at the time.

In 1930, the BBC had only a rudimentary news service. A separate News Department hadn’t materialized until then. The British press saw the new medium as a threat to their circulation and tried their best to limit the production capabilities of the broadcast medium. 

Before 1927, the BBC did not have the permission to transmit news before 7:00 p.m. By this time, most of the people would have already read their evening newspaper. BBC’s news staff in 1930 consisted only of two editors and two sub-editors. These editors compiled bulletins from information sent by the British news agencies. Announcers then read the reports over the air. By this time there was very little new left to the news that reached the people.

Other than these limitations was the BBC’s self-image and its values. What started as a private company, in 1927, later became a chartered public corporation that was neither a state-run nor a commercial broadcaster.

John Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC was committed to the idea of broadcasting as a public service and wanted to transform the BBC into a respected national institution. This meant emphasizing quality over quantity and giving the listeners what they really needed—classical music, opera, drama, and literary talks and not necessarily what it wanted.

The BBC had the freedom to broadcast whatever it wanted because it wasn’t a commercial enterprise. Rather it was supported by the fees paid by all radio set owners.
BBC wasn’t answerable to the advertisers, which is why they could hold up great standards of what was newsworthy and not what their advertisers would deem capable of attracting larger audience.

Some Food for Thought

Most news organizations these days function as profit generating enterprises. The “if it bleeds it leads” approach to news manages to attract eyeballs and generate revenue, but isn’t this approach distorting our understanding of reality, impacting our mental well-being and making us pessimistic? Shouldn’t it be more facts and less sensationalizing?

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