Is BBCi out of control?

The BBC’s admirable web site sets the standard for the rest of the UK media. In adding a web search feature and pitching it as an improvement on the commercial search engines, has the beeb gone too far ‘off-charter’?

BBCi Search has the makings of a decent-sized punch up. If anything deserves the full Paxman/Humphrys treatment, questions in the house, a swathe of broadsheet leaders and two pages in The Economist, this is it. That it’s not getting this treatment – that the story’s barely broken through from the trades – suggests the whole area lacks proper scrutiny – and this could actually get worse in the future with OFCOM expressly excluded from scrutinising the net.

– The BBC’s role is vital and not static – knee-jerk rejection of new ventures is not clever. A mature response to BBCi et al, will acknowledge the passionate commitment of Beeb people to their ‘mission to inform’ and the importance of continually updating the meaning of public service provision…

– The BBC should at least be able to make a case for all sorts of interesting new off-charter activities – there should be no list of ‘forbidden’ activities and no commercial veto – but the beeb should not have carte blanche to wade in wherever they feel like it without being held to account. Contrast the care being taken to ensure the planned digital BBC3 doesn’t snuff out Youth Telly competition with the almost unremarked launch of BBCi Search.

– OFCOM will only partially regulate the Beeb and the net not at all. We’re entering the era of the Communications Act with no good forum for the scrutiny of BBCi – the DCMS Select Committee is not a good proxy for an engaged regulator.

– The BBC should properly think through the likely reaction to ventures like this. The BBCi Search advertising attacks – if obliquely – the commercial sites and aggressively claims web search for the public domain. This is not a trivial gesture and represents, at the very least, a departure from the status quo – one that rightly enrages the private sector players. When the BBC parks its tank on your lawn you have a right to worry! This is a potentially very mischievous venture which could damage businesses and jobs directly while delivering only questionable license-payer benefits.

– The whole adventure smacks of a more aggressive, Dyke-era buccaneering spirit. This is all very refreshing and exciting but the stakes are very high – many are already arguing for the BBC’s privatisation (see The Economist’s response (may require registration) to the draft Bill and the Tories’ emerging broadcast policy) and this kind of adventure might just help to take the clamour mainstream.