When Edward R. Murrow broadcast live from a rooftop in London during a Nazi air raid in September 1940, it was a revolutionary step forward for journalism. The American audience back home on CBS and KIRO Radio heard the booms of anti-aircraft guns firing on the enemy bombers high over head, and the honking of impatient London traffic below.
They also heard Murrow’s unscripted commentary, describing what was taking place, as it was taking place.
Though we may take this kind of reporting for granted now, says BBC History Manager John Escolme, it was unheard of in 1940.
“Normally, if there were outside broadcasts at the scene of an incident or a scene of news, as it were, even that would be scripted and read — so very safe, never off-script,” Escolme said.
“So, Ed Murrow with his famous descriptions of air battles really changed everything and pushed the boundaries,” Escolme said.
These and other history-making wartime broadcasts from London made Ed Murrow’s career. Some say Murrow’s depictions of Londoners bouncing back from repeated air raids even helped sway public opinion in the United States about getting more involved in the war against the Nazis. And, non insignificantly, many examples of Murrow’s work survive only because KIRO Radio recorded and saved them.
Either way, Escolme says, the broadcasts by Murrow had an immediate impact on other journalists working in London at the time, and changed the way the concept of “reporting” was understood by BBC staff.
“Some of the BBC correspondents started to adopt some of his style, daring to come off script and really speak about what they were really seeing,” Escolme said. “And that was kind of revolutionary.”
Late last month on a sunny and chilly morning not far from Oxford Circus, Escolme gave this reporter a tour of the place where Ed Murrow made history — the ornate BBC “Broadcasting House” that was built in central London in the early 1930s, and which still houses part of the BBC today.
The building looks like something like a cross between a wedding cake and a battleship. When it first opened, Escolme says, there was controversy over the appearance of a statue positioned right above the main entrance depicting Prospero and Ariel, two characters from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
“It caused quite a bit of scandal at the time,” Escolme said. “Comments in the press were ‘maidens are said to blush and youth to pass disparaging remarks regarding the statue of Ariel and Prospero,’ largely because of Ariel’s genitalia, which were rather large.”
Murrow was employed by CBS to arrange talks and musical performances for the American audience and CBS had arranged with the BBC to use their studios and transmitting facilities to relay reports from Europe back to the United States via shortwave.
It was during one of these broadcasts says Escolme, that Ed Murrow took a risk by standing atop a building during an air raid.
“There is a balcony there … about one, two, three, four, five floors up where he famously did some of his commentary, so he was really looking at the Blitz,” said Escolme, standing across the street from Broadcasting House on the corner of Portland Place and Wigmore Street and pointing to near the top of the building, where Murrow stood in 1940 and near where the Irish rock band U2 played live back in 2009.
“This was not by any means a safe area,” Escolme said. “We’re right in the center of London, and one of the wings of Broadcasting House was actually bombed in 1940. And a large chunk of the building was taken out. So this was on the target list, it was not immune, by any means, so he was taking some risks by broadcasting from up there.”
World War II ended more than 70 years ago, and Ed Murrow has been dead for half a century. Journalists and the media have been the focus of vitriol from politicians, elected officials, and the general public. With all these changes, does anyone at the BBC or anywhere in London even remember who Ed Murrow was or remember those famous “This … is London!” broadcasts?
John Escombe says probably very few do remember, but he also says countless people have benefited from what he calls a “cultural shift to more honest and real broadcasting” brought about by Murrow’s work.
He also says there actually is at least one tangible tribute to Ed Murrow that was dedicated in 2006.
“There is a plaque to him in nearby Hallam Street where he lived from 1938 to 1946,” Escolme said.
“A blue plaque is not something goes up lightly. There are a few of them around London, so you have to somebody to be remembered,” he said.