The BBC World War One at Home Project: Reflections

by DR HELEN B. McCARTNEY

The BBC World War One at Home project began with an ambitious aim – to produce over 1400 local stories that illustrated the diversity of experience on the British home front during the First World War. The BBC English Regions and Nations were tasked with each providing 100 stories that had a strong sense of locality, and explained how different individuals and places influenced and were affected by the British war effort from 1914.

The first stories were broadcast across radio, television, and online in February 2014 with further stories released in June and August. The final tranche of stories have been released this week, with a few kept in reserve to be broadcast later in 2015.

The project was a collaborative initiative between the BBC, the Imperial War Museums, and researchers funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Supporting World War One at Home is one of the key ways in which the AHRC is marking the centenary of the First World War. Through funding researchers to work with broadcasters, they aimed to facilitate the input of new historical ideas and broader national and international contexts into the project.

As one of the researchers on the project, working alongside Professor Ian Beckett and the broadcast journalists of BBC South, I want to offer a few reflections on what academics were able to contribute and what I, in particular, have taken away from the experience.

It is important to remember that this was an experimental project. Collaboration between AHRC academic researchers and broadcasters had not previously been attempted on this scale and this necessarily meant that roles had to be defined and refined as the project took shape. A key player in this was our broadcast controller, Joanne Babbage, who expertly managed the interface between the journalists researching the stories and academics providing advice.

We all had to recognize that journalism and academic cultures are different. I had to learn the hard lesson that although one of my primary functions was to add context, there was a limit to the amount of context that can be provided in a 5 -10 minute story. Inserting context concisely is, indeed, an art form. However, the broad selection of stories, presented collectively, also helped in the quest to highlight a wider view of the war experience. Charles Booth, one of the researchers in the South West, has pointed out how many of the stories illustrated the global dimensions of the conflict. Across the UK, there were stories about the interaction between local people and those of other nationalities – troops from undivided India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, as well as Yemeni sailors and men of the Chinese Labour Corps. All these stories helped to emphasize the international character of the war. Nor were the darker stories of wartime glossed over. For example, while Belgian refugees were welcomed by many British people at the start of the war, there were clearly tensions between some refugees and their communities by its end and stories detailing anti-German riots featured in a number of regions.

There is also the journalistic imperative to find the unique, out-of–the ordinary stories that engage audiences. These stories were crucial to the project, but so were the stories that looked at everyday life and experience. For example, we were able to cover not only the experience of conscientious objectors but also the experience of the many men who faced military service tribunals seeking exemption from military service for more mundane but no less fascinating reasons.

Finally, I was impressed with the way in which the journalists with whom I worked were prepared to discuss and amend parts of their programming to accommodate alternative views or tighten up terminology. The fact that there was room for ongoing discussion before the final production of the stories was a very positive part of the relationship and added greater depth and complexity to some of the stories presented.

The overall result has been, I hope, a rich variety of stories that reflect the experience of different regions and nations with different characteristics, different economic outlooks and different populations with different skills. The United Kingdom in 1914 was decentralized, both administratively and culturally. Most people lived their entire lives at the local level with their expectations and connections tied to their local communities and the project admirably reflects these realities. It does more than this, however. One of its real strengths is the way in which the stories have been archived both by locality and by theme. The thematic approach is significant because it also allows for people to engage with the stories more broadly, permitting comparison of how the war was experienced across the UK.

The other key strength of the project was that it was not simply about the production of stories but also about engaging with the public through a series of roadshows held around the country. These roadshows provided academics with an opportunity to highlight some of their own recent research to more diverse audiences than traditionally encountered. Talking to audiences in a BBC roadshow tent at Weymouth carnival was a new experience for me. It made me think carefully about what was essential to my argument as well as what might hold the attention of an audience with a wide demographic against the backdrop of potentially more interesting attractions. This was an audience that could vote with its feet.

The whole experience of working on the World War One at Home project has been incredibly valuable to my own research project that looks at the British soldier in the First World War and how different public narratives have become prominent in the UK over the last century. It has provided insight into how to engage a wide range of people from disparate backgrounds, allowed me to study the construction of narratives within a media organization, and afforded me the opportunity to influence those narratives by suggesting alternative perspectives from which to view the First World War. I hope that the collective experience of this collaborative project will be viewed as positively and will help to shape engagement between academics and the BBC in the future.

 Image: BBC World War One at Home ‘Battle Bus’ at the Weymouth roadshow, 20 August 2014. © Robert T. Foley

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