Paddy Barwise heads the London Business School’s Future Media programme and is a perennial commentator on broadcast regulation issues – particularly ownership and quality. He’s usually defending quality thresholds or opposing foreign ownership. He wasn’t speaking at the event but he told me, intriguingly, that beyond the Communications Bill lurks greater peril for British public service media – in particular he?s worried about the next round of the GATT negotiations which will attack the UK Government?s right to ‘protect’ a state broadcaster and fund it via a compulsory licence fee. The worst case could result in the abolition of ownership rules, content quotas, the license fee and much that British people hold dear. I think that radical change is likely in all these areas but it’s obviously vital that we get a public debate going before it’s too late to influence the outcome.
Andrew Graham is an economist and Master of Balliol College. His trenchant and entertaining views on media regulation are well known. He famously said that “if you could measure quality it would just be quantity”. One of his observations in Oxford was that the effect of the Communications Bill and Ofcom’s arrival is that broadcasting has been overrun by economists. Mark Thompson bore this out by basing his keynote presentation on a term obviously borrowed from economics (even if only the Bluffer’s Guide): ‘Merit goods’. Graham predicts that the next wave of colonists will be the lawyers, once they get their teeth into the opportunities created by the new legislation.
I’m off to the Oxford Media Convention tomorrow. The theme of the event is ‘Public Service Communications’. If my luvvie credentials were up to date I could probably tell you what the real purpose of the event is. Media spin doctors are the ultimate control freaks and would never dream of convening in such a high profile way if there weren’t some kind of ‘agenda’. Although I’d be thrilled to learn that the legislators, regulators and media owners present have made progress in redefining ‘public service’ for the networked era, I’m currently struggling to understand Oxford’s ‘Park-and-Ride’ arrangements, so I’ll have to get back to you on that. I’ll write about the event for The Guardian and I’ll post here too. The published programme includes multiple ‘keynotes’ from Mark Thompson (Chief Executive, C4), Lord Currie (Chairman, OFCOM), David Edmonds (Director General, OFTEL) and Tessa Jowell (Minister for Culture).
Azeem’s BPL idea will encounter many obstacles on its way to the mainstream:
1. How far downstream does the BPL go? If you require content and app developers to embed the BPL in all derivitive product (as the pure GPL requires), there is no limit. This will alienate businesses who don’t want their work to inherit the BPL. It would be better to allow developers to use BBC material without publishing their own source a sort of one-way GPL that would permit bigger, more conservative organisations to play.
2. The whole thing is going to be extremely hard to explain to almost anyone, let alone to BBC Governors, management, regulators and media. It’s easy to imagine the project going nowhere if entrenched interests succeed in characterising it as something geeky, something to do with computers or, worse, as some kind of weirdo collectivism, detached from reality “meanwhile, back in the real world.” How would it play in The Daily Mail and the rest of the Conservative media, already hostile to the Beeb?
3. Competitors many badly knocked around by the crash will only approve if the effect of the BPL is to reduce the BBC’s overall share of audience. The scheme should be engineered to achieve this, not to cement the BBC as the sole source of quality content and code in the UK or as the hub of an emerging content network.
4. As a starting project Digital IDs are tricky. Anyone issuing hard IDs like the ones envisaged by Azeem will be perceived as an arm of government. No one would believe for a minute that there were no Government-mandated back doors. It might be better to stop short of hard authentication and start with credentials: ‘I’m over 18’, ‘I live in the UK so I’m entitled to get BBCi content for nothing’, ‘I’m under 14 so I can enter the CBBC Chat Rooms’… These simpler IDs, if widely adopted, would be a trojan horse for the real thing.
Azeem thinks we should try to apply open source thinking to the BBC. He thinks the Beeb?s online content and code should be freely published under the GPL – the radical constitution of the copyleft movement. The effect of this – if it worked – would be to bring into being a thriving new ?creative commons? downstream of the beeb, built on the BBC?s stock of content and application logic. This might just be the boost that UK Online needs to beat the bust and overcome the natural pessimism produced by nearly three years of market misery. More important, it might also represent the first serious attempt to update the definition of ?public service? for the networked era.
So why is this interesting? Isn?t open source just a geek fad? Actually, I think it might help us advance the debate about the BBC in the digital era. Arguments about the BBC?s role – the charter, the license fee, public service vs ratings etc. – are especially dry and boring these days. With Dyke in charge, Labour in power and OfCom barred from regulating the Beeb directly, the corporation is more-or-less bulletproof. Even Rupert Murdoch?s ?untouchable? outburst struck a plaintive note. Open source might short-circuit these old-world arguments and help us get a productive argument about public service in the twenty-first century going again.
Azeem?s idea is focused not on ownership (privatise it, usually – yawn) or on output (cut it back to an explicitly public service core, privatise the rest – double yawn) but on creation. By promising to stimulate the online creative economy in the middle of the nastiest crash in recent history, an Open Source BBCi might bring to life a whole new ecosystem – like the independent TV production sector that rallied around the new Channel 4 in the eighties. If it works, we?ll have ourselves a useful model for the redefinition of public service in other areas of the Beeb?s output and perhaps for Government investment in interactivity – ?Broadband Britain?, UK Online and so on – in general.
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.