The BBC is to remove recipes from its website, responding to pressure from the Government. It will also remove a number of other web only services. The news is symbolic of a larger issue, and the outcome of a much longer story. It’s a signal that the current government will actively reduce public sector activity on the web for fear of upsetting or displacing the private sector. This is not just a feature of the current Conservative government, the Blair administration treated the BBC in the same way. The idea is that by reducing the public sector a thousand commercial flowers will bloom, that competition will drive variety and quality, and that a vibrant commercial digital sector will create high skill jobs. Never mind that the web is already controlled by a handful of giant US monopolies, mostly employing people thousands of miles away. Ideology trumps pragmatism.
In the specific case of the BBC, the Government has won. The BBC’s entire digital presence is dependent on its TV and Radio operations. iPlayer can only exist when it’s making TV and Radio shows, the news website is relies on the news gathering operation it inherits from TV and radio. TV (and possibly radio) are destined to have fewer viewers and listeners as we increasingly turn to digital. So, as licence fee payers disappear, the output will become less and of lower quality, the BBC’s presence in the national debate will diminish and it’s ability to argue for funding will be decreased. When it comes time to switch funding from a license fee for owning a television to a system that works on broadband connections, the BBC will already have lost. An outmoded organisation that has failed to adapt, a footnote rather than a source of national pride.
Put simply, the BBC has failed to make the case that it should exist in a digital era. Instead it’s chosen to remain a broadcast operation that happens to put some of it’s content on a website. When TV finally dies, the BBC could be left in a position similar to NPR in the US, of interest to a minority of left-wing intellectuals, dwarfed by bombastic polarising media channels owned by two or three billionaires. That’s why it’s so critical that the BBC made a web offer separate from TV, but it hasn’t. The Government has been extremely successful at making the BBC embrace the principle that all web output must be linked to TV or Radio, which is why, for example, the BBC will be reducing commissions specifically for iPlayer too, and closing its online magazine.
The story has been evolving for a long time. I was working on the BBC’s website in 2009. It just been through a multi-year Public Value Test to prove to the Board it wasn’t being anti-competitive by providing video content online; at least the public were allowed iPlayer in the end. BBC Jam, which was a £150 million digital educational platform to support the national curriculum was cancelled in 2007 because of competition law. Don’t forget, at this point, they’d already built most of it. Millions of pounds of educational material were thrown in the bin because it would be ‘anti competitive’. Of course, no commercial alternative has ever been built.
When I arrived there was endless talk of restructuring, and optimism we’d get a clear set of rules dictating what projects would not be considered anti competitive. It never came. The project I worked on, about mass participation science experiments, was cancelled, I presume because it wasn’t directly connected to a TV program. All kinds of other bits of digital offers were closed. H2G2, which pre-dated, and could (maybe?) have become, Wikipedia was shuttered. The Celebdaq revamp was another proposition which was entirely built and then cancelled before it ever went live.
The BBC will now offer recipes that are shown on TV programs, but only for 30 days after. That’s how hysterical the desire to prevent public service on the web is: you can create content, at considerable cost, but not leave on the web, which would cost virtually nothing.
The has BBC focused it’s digital R&D budget on it’s gigantic archive, looking at new ways of searching, ordering and displaying the millions of hours of audio and video it’s collected. Which is a weird decision, because it’s a certain fact that the BBC will never get copyright clearance to make public anything but the tiniest fraction of that archive. I speculate the reason it has done this is because it saves the management from having to worry about a competitive analysis. Projects that can never go public don’t pose a problem.
If we shift our focus from the BBC to society as a whole, it’s disappointing to see how we’ve abandoned the notion of digital public space. The web has opened up a whole new realm for creativity, interaction, education and debate. As a society we’ve decided that almost nothing in that realm should be publicly provided – which is absolutely perverse because the web intrinsically lends itself to what economists would think of as a public goods.
Look across the activities of the state and you’ll see than none have a significant presence in the digital realm. We think the state should provide education – but it does nothing online. Local governments provide public spaces, from parks to town halls – but never online. We think the state should provide libraries – but never online. We love the state broadcaster, but we’re not allowed it online. We expect the state to provide healthcare – but the NHS offers only a rudimentary and fragmentary online presence. You can apply the formula to any sector of government activity. Want career guidance? Not online. Want to know how to make a Shepherd’s Pie? Better hope it appeared on a TV cooking show in the last 30 days.