By the Seaside in 1950; or, On Being Bureaucratic

Although there has been a broadcasting union in Europe for a quarter of a century the work that it has done has received little publicity, and there is considerable misunderstanding about what a broadcasting union actually is.

(R. D’A. Marriott, ‘The European Broadcasting Union’ (1950))

It’s the innocuous word, the filler, the throwaway adverb that so often reveals a person’s point. How that ‘actually’ must have stung! But stung whom? The fact is – actually – R. D’A. Marriott’s message on 23 February 1950 might have applied to any number of people in the vicinity of a microphone or a wireless. That’s the broad constituency he had in mind that day – which we know because ‘The European Broadcasting Union’ was published in The Listener, the BBC’s house magazine – and he had good cause to suspect that many had misunderstood the news. When, for instance, the story of ‘a broadcasting union’ had made page 6 of The Nottingham Evening Post on 14 February 1950, the anonymous reporter in question had perhaps been a little too swift to decide on the best way to frame it:

                                   ENGLISHMAN HEADS NEW RADIO UNION

The first meetings were held at Torquay to-day of the administrative council and technical committee of the newly-formed European Broadcasting Union.

Major-General Sir Ian Jacob, director of the B.B.C.’s Overseas Service, who presided at the administrative council’s meeting, is the first Englishman to be chief of an international broadcasting organisation, after his unanimous election yesterday as president of the union by 44 delegates, from more than 20 nations, attending the conference.

All the countries represented at the talks have joined the union with the exception of Finland.

The headline says it all, or almost all; the closing remark is telling, too. With a little over a week to go before the General Election, Prime Minister Clement Atlee must have been glad of some straightforwardly positive news in the sphere of foreign affairs – an Englishman at the head of an international organisation – and perhaps the same was strangely true for Juho Kusti Paasikivi and Urho Kekkonen, recent rivals for the Finnish Presidency: a studied mode of non-involvement on the European stage would become a hallmark of Finland’s foreign policy, and of the so-called Paasikivi-Kekkonen doctrine in particular. Looking back, you could be forgiven for mistaking the formation of this ‘union’ for a neat illustration of Cold War geopolitics in action.

A view across contemporary Torbay. The Imperial Hotel – which played host to the founding meeting of the EBU – can be glimpsed on the headland (left-hand side of the picture).

But it would be a mistake; it was a mistake. Because what the reporter at The Nottingham Evening Post had failed to grasp – he or she wasn’t alone – was the founding principle of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Whatever flag-waving narratives would appear to have been whipped up amidst all those negotiations in the seaside town of Torquay, the EBU was never intended to map exactly on to recognised nation states. Which is why R. D’A. Marriott was compelled a week later, on 23 February 1950 – the day of the General Election, as it happens – to use the word ‘actually’. ‘It is not a union of governments,’ he went on,

and it is not a body having any responsibility for the allocation of wavelengths, though it has considerable interest in this matter and can be of great assistance in ensuring that any wavelength plan operates smoothly. […]

A broadcasting union […] such as the one which has just been formed in Europe, is an association of broadcasting organisations. It is the B.B.C., and not the Government, which accepts membership of it, and though in several countries in Europe the broadcasting services are operated by the government, they take part in the union in their capacity of broadcasting organisations.

Then, as now, the significance of this seemingly fine distinction – a national broadcaster, not a national government – would depend on where you live and what you listen to. And there’s no doubt Marriott’s piece makes for dry reading in places. But he was writing in February 1950 as a radio man – as the Head of the BBC’s European Liaison Office – and not as some government stooge. ‘[B]roadcasting has its own special interests,’ he argues in this same piece, ‘which are also the listener’s interests, and it is only broadcasting organisations which are fully aware of all the problems of broadcasting in the international field and which can be relied on to keep those interests to the forefront’.

So what became of Marriott? And what of the EBU? Richard D’Arcy Marriott, to give him his full name, appears often to have played a part in administrating politically-sensitive issues. In an interesting piece about comedy and censorship, Christie Davies (1996) singles him out as the guy who tried to suppress satirical responses to the Profumo affair in July 1963 by issuing a decree to regional broadcasters; the whole debacle, Marriott said, ‘is not thought publicly to be funny’, a conviction as humourless as it was untrue. Others, not entirely by contrast, but more generously – Laura Johnson (2013), Richard Witts (2021), Chris Greenway (2022) – would have us remember Marriott as a transformative influence at the BBC, thanks to his wartime work at the Monitoring Service, and in his subsequent capacity as a musical policy-maker.

Witts provides a balanced and brilliantly detailed insight into Marriott’s bureaucratic skills in this latter regard, and it should be of more than passing interest that Marriott’s influence on popular music can still be felt today, subtle and indirect though it may be. In making a case, as he did, for the European Broadcasting Union in February 1950, Marriott was also making a case for the organisation that brings us the Eurovision Song Contest every year. 12 points to Richard Marriott!

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