An Open Source BBC?

Azeem has kicked off a provocative to-and-fro from some of the big brains about the BBC’s role in the post-crash Internet.

I’m a busy man – I’m nearly forty and I’ve never lit a firework in my life (can that be true?) and this evening I have to light lots of them. So, here are some disconnected thoughts:

1. Has the market failed? There are lot of fancy words – mostly borrowed from economics – in this debate and two of them – ‘market failure’ – make me uncomfortable. It’s much too early to tell that we’re seeing any kind of systematic failure here. A market crash is not the same as a market failure. We mustn’t allow our frustrated and (admit it) utopian geek-longing for better tools, fatter pipes or social transformation to convince us that we’re at the end of anything. Seriously: we probably need at least another decade before we can be sure that the current, messy mix of provision cannot deliver our nirvana of interconnection, participation and empowerment (that’s not an excuse to wait ten years, btw).

2. Politics. The BBC might be the right vehicle for this laudable goal – or it might not. There’s a critical difference between picking the right agency or mix of agencies and levers to deliver a social policy goal and pragmatically making use of a big, powerful, politically bullet-proof institution like the current BBC to do it. Although the latter might make sense now – especially while this kind of thinking is gaining ground within the Beeb – it might just be storing up problems – both practical and political – for future generations of citizens and market players. I happen to think that we should probably seize the opportunity of a pumped-up, inflation-protected BBC to at least make a start on the infrastructure for participation but I think we must be practical and limit our ambitions – the better to realise them fully in the future. Piggy-backing the BBC makes sense right now but not because the market has failed, rather because the market is in the doldrums and we need to make some progress while the Venture Capitalists are still on strike.

3. Government neglect. Since we may have to wait a long time to see how this all pans out, we need to get started now on embedding the goals of the ‘connectivists’ (or whatever we will call people of this general mindset) in the right places: public policy, media, corporate and BBC strategy. For this reason, I’ll link to my alarm from a couple of months ago at the total exclusion of the net from the scope of the new UK Communications Bill and from the super-regulator OfCom. The Government at least has to be paying attention in this crucial phase. Benign neglect has had its day.

4. Long-range thinking needed. Since I’m on record as arguing for seven or eight years now that the BBC is the best-placed agency to pursue some of the goals of the connectivists, it’s interesting to reverse the telescope for a minute and look at this from the BBC’s perspective. I’m ill-qualified to do so but there must a nagging worry in the minds of the more forward-thinking Beebistas that this period of plenty cannot last and that, when it comes to an end, the outlook for a huge, content-focused state broadcaster may not look at all rosy. The BBC needs some good long-range thinking. This is a good start.

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