BBC Online under the microscope

A long overdue enquiry into the BBC’s investment online should be a good thing for all parties but it must strike a delicate balance. If it turns into a mugging for the corporation orchestrated by its competitors it will not serve the interests of industry or citizens. Likewise, a whitewash that leaves the BBC’s hugely out-of-proportion investment unexamined will not answer vital questions about the proper role of a public service broadcaster in the networked era. If this enquiry is real, it presents an unlikely-to-be-repeated opportunity to straighten out the regulatory and funding context for BBC Online and to set some goals:

  • Hub for a new online content industry. The BBC’s massive investment in online content and infrastructure should stimulate a new downstream ecology of content and application creators – an online ‘indie’ sector like the one brought into being by Channel 4 in the 80s would be a good thing.
  • An engine for participation. BBC Online should invest in a new generation of content and applications that promote participation, connection and creativity amongst wired citizens – not just programme support material and one-way content.
  • Public service online. If BBC Online is to assume a statutory public service obligation (as it should), then the burden should be shared by other online businesses – and until the funding climate for private sector net businesses recovers, Government money may have to be made available to support them.

BBC Online should not fear the inquisition. It’s likely to be critical and may close off some of the department’s activities but the current uncertainty is more damaging. Lambert’s report on News 24 is hardly flattering but, by taking the project seriously, it has secured the channel’s future nonetheless. A close examination of BBC Online should have the same effect.

Expanding on the three goals:

  • Hub for a new online content industry. Azeem Azhar thinks he knows how to jump start this downstream ecology. He’s proposed the application of the GNU General Public License to BBC Online’s content and code. This is fresh thinking from the Internet’s intellectual property laboratory and I hope it’ll be a part of any serious inquiry into BBC Online’s future. To learn about Azeem’s idea, start here. I blogged the idea here and here.You could probably achieve the goal of opening up a secondary content industry around BBC Online using established methods like commissioning quotas but Azeem’s idea cleverly exploits one of the net’s efficiencies.
  • An engine for participation. An ambitious cadre within BBC Online is already working on applications like this. This serious-minded group could do the job if required to. I think a benefit of an enquiry would be to throw the spotlight on good work already being done by the corporation.
  • Public service online. I get more grumpy by the day about the way the Government continues to evade its obligation to help define what a ‘public service’ BBC Online should look like. The latest evasion is going to be embodied in law – the Communications Bill, now at second reading stage, explicitly forbids Ofcom to regulate the Internet, thus making it almost impossible for Ofcom to make a useful contribution to the debate. I’ve blogged this before here, here and here.