‘She is known in every European capital’: Isa Benzie and the Foreign Department of the BBC, 1927-38

Authors: Murphy, K.

Conference: The Radio Conference, 2016

Dates: 5-8 July 2016


In 1933, Isa Benzie became Foreign Director of the BBC. Previously, she had worked as an Assistant in the Foreign Department, under Major C.F. Atkinson. When he retired as Foreign Director, she took on his role. Benzie, an Oxford graduate, had arrived at the BBC as a secretary in 1927 and was one of a number of women who rose to significant positions within the Corporation in the interwar years. Within two years of joining the BBC, she had been promoted to Assistant status in the Foreign Department, a job that included the organisation of relays from the Continent (the broadcasting of overseas programmes on the BBC) as well as deputising for Atkinson. As Foreign Director Benzie was involved in negotiations at the highest level; for instance she represented the Corporation at International Broadcasting Union meetings, frequently the only woman to take part. She also dealt with the international press, entertained overseas dignitaries and acted as a point of liaison for major events such as the Coronation of George VI. In 1936, the Morning Post marvelled at her ability to ‘ring up New York, Sydney, Calcutta or Cape Town as casually as you and I call a taxi’. When Benzie retired on marriage in 1938, the Foreign Department was absorbed into Home Intelligence; her post re-designated Foreign Liaison Officer. This paper discusses the role of the Foreign Department at the BBC in the interwar years and, in particular, whether Benzie’s gender had any impact on her role.

Source: Manual