LONDON (AFP) – The BBC marked the 90th anniversary of its first ever transmission on Wednesday, beset by doubts about its future after a series of scandals surrounding the way it has reported child sex abuse allegations.
A composition by Damon Albarn, frontman of the pop group Blur, will be played simultaneously on all the British Broadcasting Corporation’s domestic radio stations and parts of the World Service to celebrate the milestone.
What was then known as the British Broadcasting Company crackled into life on November 14, 1922, with a radio news bulletin featuring stories about a train robbery, a “rowdy meeting” involving Winston Churchill, and billiards scores.
But 90 years later the BBC, now the world’s largest broadcasting organisation, faces one of the most serious crises in its history as it seeks to defend its reputation and the public funding that sustains it.
The BBC was first hit by scandal last month over a decision by its flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight, to shelve an investigation into claims of paedophilia surrounding its late television star Jimmy Savile.
Savile died in 2011 and police now believe he abused hundreds of children.
Weeks later Newsnight was forced to retract false allegations that a senior Conservative politician from the era of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher abused children at a care home in Wales in the 1970s.
The BBC’s director-general George Entwistle resigned on Saturday after 54 days in the job and the corporation has launched a series of investigations into both of the scandals, while it searches for a new leader.
The corporation faces further pressure over Entwistle’s £450,000 (565,000-euro, $715,000) payoff — the equivalent of a year’s salary.
The magnitude of the scandal reflects the extent to which the BBC — nicknamed “the Beeb” or “Auntie” in Britain — has become part of the fabric of British national life over the past 90 years.
The BBC is also part of British families’ budgets, with all households with a television obliged to pay an annual “licence fee” of £145.50, the equivalent of just under 40p per day.
The first BBC broadcast, at 6:00 pm on November 14, 1922, was by its then director of programmes Arthur Burrows, who was one of only four staff of a company set up a few weeks earlier by early radio manufacturers.
His groundbreaking news bulletin, which also covered one of the “peasouper” fogs that used to afflict London, was read out twice — once quickly and once slowly — and he asked listeners to say which they preferred.
Albarn’s composition is named “2LO Calling”, after the original 2LO transmitter used for the 1922 broadcast, which was installed on the roof of London’s Selfridges department store.
It will feature on a live broadcast from London’s Science Museum, according to the BBC, at 1733 GMT.
The three-minute piece features commentary from an election in Cameroon, the chimes of parliament’s Big Ben clock, the famed BBC time signal known as the “pips” and birdsong.
It will be broadcast on more than 55 radio stations.
“I don’t know what the various audiences will make of it, but I tried to get at least a flavour of all the stuff I was trying to give them,” Albarn said.
“You can’t make it too Radio 4 (domestic current affairs), but I can’t make it particularly Radio 1 (pop music), but in Nigeria neither of those apply, or in Afghanistan.”
Publicly funded under a royal charter, the BBC has nearly 23,000 employees and a global audience of around 239 million people, according to the corporation’s own figures.
Meanwhile a former BBC presenter was on Tuesday charged with sexually abusing children, although it was not related to the ongoing Savile investigations, police said.
Michael Souter, a former presenter for BBC Radio Norfolk in eastern England, had been charged with 18 offences against boys, one offence against a man and one against a woman. The alleged offences date back to between 1979 and 1999.