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Required reading: The BBC

The world's oldest national broadcaster is in crisis: so what can a selection of the best reading on the BBC reveal about its past, and its future?


The British Broadcasting Corporation is in crisis. Earlier this month, its flagship news programme, Newsnight, ran a storythat caused the British peer Lord McAlpine to be accused, wrongly, of child abuse. A week later, Newsnight broadcast an apology.

Then there is the fallout from the Jimmy Savile child sexual abuse scandal. The recently appointed director general, George Entwistle, stepped down after just 54 days on the job and his successor Tony Hall faces a crisis that has gone international, even making the cover of this week's Time magazine. So, can the BBC still claim to be the world's most prestigious broadcaster? Time to hit the books.

Rewind to the birth of radio in 1922 with Andrew Crisell's An Introductory History of British Broadcasting. At its inception, the BBC had four employees and broadcast for a few hours a day. Read Ian McIntyre's The Expense of Glory: A Life of John Reith for more on the BBC's iron-willed first director general, John Reith. Reith's insistence on personal morality is still legendary: he once sacked an employee who got a divorce.

Continued radio broadcasts during the Second World War cemented the role of the BBC in daily British life. Today, about seven million people tune in to its flagship news radio programme The Today Programme on Radio 4. Read David Hendy's Life on Air: A History of Radio Four for a history of arguably the world's best-loved radio station. The BBC currently operates 10 television channels, 10 national and 40 local radio stations and one of the world's largest news websites. Uncertain Vision by Georgina Born tells the recent history of the corporation, including the crisis that erupted in 2003 when a BBC journalist accused Tony Blair's government of "sexing up" a dossier on the threat posed to the UK by Iraq.

So, the BBC has survived crises before and no doubt can do it again. And anyone who doubts the value of publicly funded broadcasting must read Life on Air (BBC Book) by David Attenborough. Attenborough - surely the world's greatest broadcaster on natural history - was also the first head of BBC 2. Will the BBC's commercial TV competitors ever give rise to a broadcaster of similar stature? So far, they've managed Simon Cowell.

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