I picked up London Calling: Britain, the BBC World Service and the Cold War by Alban Webb because it had been shortlisted for the 2015 Longman-History Today book prize (which it won about a month ago). The only book on the shortlist that I had read was Mark Harris’s Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, so I was expecting something similarly pitched towards the general reader (these days, that’s me!). Instead, London Calling is a monograph on the evolution of the BBC’s overseas broadcasting (as Webb points out, the term “BBC World Service” wouldn’t officially exist until 1965) in the first decade of the Cold War. Webb’s focus is on the tension between the BBC’s desire for an independent, albeit government-funded editorial line, and the Foreign Office’s efforts to consolidate all overseas public diplomacy under their control.
The book culminates in a discussion of BBC broadcasting during the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Suez Crisis, both of which demonstrated the value of an independent line and the dubious virtues of a close relationship with government policy. The comparison here is to the Voice of Britain, the Foreign Office’s cover psychological warfare radio states in Cyprus, which Webb describes as “a bungled, ineffective and ultimately counterproductive error of judgement.” It also covers how, despite maintaining that independent editorial viewpoint, the BBC overseas services had a close relationship with the government. The BBC took advantage of reporting from British embassies abroad, and it also operated the BBC Monitoring Service. Begun before the Second World War, the Monitoring Service transcribed and distributed foreign radio signals for the BBC and the government – as well as, by extension, the United States.
Neatly covering the interface between government policy and journalistic aims (and, notably, the extent to which the two never diverged that far in the 1950s) London Calling nicely sums up the challenge for the BBC’s broadcasters, as well as for the British government, when it came to the propaganda theatre of the early Cold War.