Auntie’s War

Review From User :

For those who aren't aware of why the BBC is, affectionately, called 'Auntie,' it refers to the slightly prim, fussy way it sees its role. Its mission is, "to inform, educate and entertain," and, generally, it does so very well. I would pay my license fee just for BBC4 and, frankly, without it, standards would probably sink pretty low

This is the story of the BBC during the Second World War and planning for this eventually started in the mid-1930's, when it seemed fairly obvious that war was coming. By 1936, a report stated bluntly that, in a serious national emergency, the government control of the BBC was necessary. By the mid-1930's there was a limited television service; although this was confined to London and sets were very expensive. Having decided it would not be necessary to keep this service going, the television service was simply halted - without warning - leaving those who did possess a television set wondering what had gone wrong.

War broadcasting was for radio, which most people had access to. War was, of course, famously declared on radio and it quickly became the focus for information, where people discovered the latest war news. The BBC had always tried to be impartial, fair and honest (claims from a BBC journalist, which were derided by the current President of the USA). However, much of Europe - indeed, much of the world, relied on the BBC for news during those dark days when the difficult decision was made that it was important to tell people the truth, no matter how unpalatable it might be. Aerial attacks on civilians were expected and the BBC engineering staff had undertaken immense plans to maintain uninterrupted coverage, as, "the bomber will always get through."

Although this book has the BBC firmly at its centre, it is also the story of reporting the news in wartime. There is Richard Dimbleby, audaciously making suggestions of how to improve news reporting - giving the 'human angle,' that is taken for granted in modern journalism. This is also not limited to English news - there is much about the 'Murrow Boys;' US correspondents reporting from London during the blitz. There is the beginning of modern news reporting; of immense bravery and going into dangerous situations to tell people what was happening and where. It is a tale of censorship, propaganda, the 'V for Victory,' campaign, the bizarre popularity of 'Lord Haw-Haw' and the decision not to ban him, and Auntie in her best, spinster aunt role; hectoring and lecturing the people of England.

When the endless news programmes began to bore listeners, more 'cheerful,' programmes were suggested - to entertain and improve morale, as Churchill felt the BBC was too pessimistic. This was the BBC in its role as the comforter, during the country's darkest hour. The hugely popular, "It's that man again!" and, "The Brain Trust," where experts were available to answer any question - in true British fashion, the first question was to list all of the Seven Wonders of the World, and nobody on the panel could answer it There were gardening programmes, to help people eke out their meagre rations by growing fruit and vegetables. Even a radio doctor, to answer medical questions. Some at the BBC deeply disliked Vera Lynn, but she was grudgingly given airtime when, to the surprise of those senior staff, she was deemed popular.

Although this is a very entertaining read, it also shows the importance of journalism, which is, currently, so under attack. During wartime, the BBC had the trust of listeners around Europe. There is much about France and De Gaulle in this book, but, undoubtedly, most of Europe seemed to tune into the BBC for news they could trust - even in Germany. Broadcasting was a weapon of war and the BBC could send messages via the radio to those in Occupied Europe, help damage morale in Germany and event contact agents in the field. Other aspects of wartime broadcasting, such as George Orwell's rather dispirited programmes to India, neither had his enthusiasm or, indeed, much impact, as radio had not yet caught on widely in the Indian sub-continent yet (the experience was not wasted, as it inspired, "1984"). Overall, though, this is a fascinating account of the BBC during wartime, with a cast of wonderfully eccentric characters, and a constant battle between the BBC and the government as to what news could be told and how best to tell it.

Edward Stourton’s account of the BBC during World War II.

1. A War Footing
The BBC is a British institution unlike any other, and its story during the Second World War is also the story of Britain’s people.
  Writer and presenter Edward Stourton is a sharp-eyed and affectionate companion on the BBC’s wartime journey, investigating archives, diaries, letters and memoirs to examine what the BBC was and what it stood for.
  In this first episode, Ed describes how the BBC adapted to being on a war footing, the boredom of the Phoney War and the experiences of reporters sent to France.
  These were the years when Auntie (the BBC’s enduring nickname) earned a reputation for bossiness. It was also a period of remarkable voices  –  Churchill’s fighting speeches de Gaulle’s broadcasts from exile, George Orwell, Ed Murrow, Richard Dimbleby and Vera Lynn.
  During these extraordinary times, eyewitness testimonies gave a voice to everyone, securing the BBC’s reputation as a reliable purveyor of the truth.
  Auntie’s War is more than a portrait of an institution at a critical time, it is also a portrayal of the British in wartime and an insight into why we have our broadcast culture today.
  Read by Edward Stourton
  Abridged by Anna Magnusson
  Produced by Pippa Vaughan
  A Loftus production for BBC Radio 4.

2. Wartime Propaganda
In this second episode, Ed investigates propaganda, coded messages sent across Europe, and relaying less than truthful information to the enemy.

3. Remarkable Voices
In episode three, General de Gaulle rallies the French from London and US journalists arrive to report the Blitz.

4. George Orwell
Episode Four  –  Propaganda, truth and lies and the space between. George Orwell joins the BBC.

5. Eyewitness Reports
In this final episode, the BBC’s War Reporting Unit comes into being, and correspondent Guy Byam is parachuted behind enemy lines.

First broadcast: 08 Jan 2018

Aunties War 1. A War Footing

Aunties War 2. Wartime Propaganda

Aunties War 3. Remarkable Voices

Aunties War 4. George Orwell

Aunties War 5. Eyewitness Reports