Freeing content at the BBC

I had a bit of a whinge over at Speechification earlier on about the BBC’s content archiving policy. I find it frustrating to say the least that Heather Couper’s epic history of astronomy, Cosmic Quest, which has been running on Radio 4 since May, will now be withdrawn from the public domain all together.

The BBC’s standard line here—and it’s not an unreasonable one—is that the Corporation can only afford to buy ‘first run’ or otherwise limited rights to shows like Cosmic Quest and that if it was obliged to pay for ‘in perpetuity’ rights the additional cost would block the purchase of other good stuff and thus ultimately limit the choice provided to licence-fee payers.

This is undoubtedly true but also defeatist and essentially an inadequate response to the changing imperatives of the network era. The BBC needs to be braver and more committed to change. Here are a few things that could and should be done to unlock more good content for public use:

The BBC should free access to content that has limited (or zero) secondary value. That’s not to say content that’s no good: just stuff that can’t easily be sold on or exploited after it’s been transmitted. Lionel Kellaway’s brilliant Radio 4 programme about Rooks (a favourite of mine) is an asset of great beauty and immeasurable value to its listeners but, let’s face it, hardly any value in an open marketplace for audio content.

The BBC should be a rights innovator: hybrid methods of preserving public access to assets and commercial value to creators and license-holders should be developed and tested on real content. Not easy and not possible without compromise on both sides but the Corporation is uniquely placed to drive innovation that’s beneficial to UK licence fee-payers.

The BBC should be a copyright activist. Legislators should be lobbied to help redesign copyright law to preserve access to orphaned assets: content that’s not being exploited but can’t be freed because it still has a nominal owner. The Corporation should fund work to design use-it-or-lose-it laws and other innovative devices that emphasise access and public benefit over predatory and unfair protection.

The BBC should set targets for freeing content. By defining and prioritising categories of assets that should be freed, the BBC could drive the accumulation of a big pool of useful material held in the public domain permanently. Announcing in advance that certain content categories—perhaps whole channels or strands—are in future going to be purchased for permanent public access would encourage creators to get on with it and adjust their pricing and commercial terms for the new climate.

The goal should be to define and then grow the pool of free-to-use, public domain content archived at and not to apologise for the inflexibility and intransigence of rights-holders and exploiters. The potential gain for UK Plc and UK citizens could be enormous. The “there’s nothing we can do about it , guv” response must be made a thing of the past.

Access to government information

Tom Watson, cabinet office minister and actual blogger, has paddled downstream from his Whitehall digs under cover of darkness (most likely wearing a balaclava) and come away with approximately half a Loosemore. The fraction of Ofcom’s Public Service Web supremo Tom Loosemore he came away with has been busy pushing the laudable idea of open access to government data. This week he launched a competition whose goal is to encourage you and me to make beneficial use of that data. The whole thing is so simple and so persuasive that you’re just going to have to enter. Government data is one vitally important plank of the common platform I’ve been going on about lately. Tomorrow I’m going down to ULU for the geek village fete they call Open Tech at which the cabinet office team will be making a presentation. See you there…

Coming to tonight’s Common Platform debate?

First of all, it’s sold out, so if you’ve not got a confirmed seat I’m afraid you’ll just have to fight your way past three rows of braided Commissionaires (mostly veterans of the Desert Rats) at Broadcasting House to get to the Council Chamber (like that brilliant scene in Extras where Stephen Merchant tries to vault the security screens to get into a BBC building). If you do have a confirmed seat, on the other hand, please show up at Broadcasting House reception (Portland Place) for a prompt start at 19:00.

Second, the confirmed panel is as follows:

  • Tony Ageh, Controller, BBC Internet
  • Jem Stone, Portfolio Executive, Social Media for Future Media & Technology, BBC
  • James Cridland, Head of Future Media & Technology, BBC Audio & Music
  • Tom Loosemore, Ofcom and The Cabinet Office
  • Jon Gisby, Director of New Media, Channel 4
  • Azeem Azhar

Third, here’s the briefing I sent to panelists yesterday. For those of you who’ve been bugging Mike and myself for tickets, I really am sorry. Next time we’ll book Wembley Arena.

Fourth, if you’ve got a question you think really ought to be asked of this panel, drop me a line and I’ll try to squeeze it in.

Watch this space (and TechCrunch UK) for the outcome of what I expect will be a fascinating debate. I think Mike himself will be live blogging so TechCrunch might be a good place to start.

What’s the difference between the common platform and the web?

James Cherkoff wonders (in a comment) if my common platform isn’t really just… well… the web. It’s a good question because the web, of course, is the mother-and-father of all platforms, a place with such a richness of tools and outlets that it might seem as if it has no need of an additional layer like a common platform. But I think the answer to James’ question really is ‘no’.

The Common Platform (see, it’s already acquired a ‘The’ and Capital Letters like it’s a real thing!) is a designed overlay for the web, an elaboration. The sort of secondary functionality that all platforms sooner-or-later acquire. That’s not to say that it’s separate from or outside the web proper (not a walled garden or a locked-down proprietary thing). In fact it’s strength will lie in the fact that it is profoundly of the web.

Trying to be as ‘web-like’ as possible here I can imagine a common platform, at its simplest, as barely more than a commissioning model plus a tag-cloud. At its largest and most monolithic… It shouldn’t really be large or monolithic.

Expanding on this slightly, the Common Platform should be an organisational device plus some commissioning logic plus some kind of resource discovery gubbins and a wafer of UI to point all the different stakeholders at what they need. Bob’s Your Uncle. Job done. Public service media transformed. Next!

A common platform?

What does the future of public service media look like? What comes after the current crop of public service entities, which are all essentially channels? Could it be a kind of platform?

We already have lots of platforms: Playstation, the web, Windows, Ubuntu, Series 60 mobiles. Systems that live low down in the stack, providing a bunch of services and data for applications that run on top. We’re familiar with how they work. They make life easier by eliminating duplication and they make possible all sorts of creative and useful work that wouldn’t happen otherwise.

So what I’m talking about is building a big, generous, accommodating public platform that runs code and community and content – making life easier for creators and communities in Britain. A kind of giant shared computer that exposes useful assets like public data, educational content, archives and library catalogues, health data and democratic and community tools… The whole range of useful and enabling content and services that comes from state providers like the BBC, the Ordnance Survey and the Public Records Office and also the good stuff that comes from the commercial and third sectors.

A national public service platform like this would be a public good, a freely accessible toolset, meeting place and notice-board. People would use it tell stories about all the big issues: the drama about free content and software, health service reform, access to public data, surveillance and health records, copyright, immigration, educational standards, content ratings for kids’ media, community access, capacity building for excluded groups and all the rest.

A platform like this would be open to all: individuals, businesses, clubs and schools. A rich and open toolset that people and groups could use to represent themselves, communicate their values, publish cool and useful content (and make money), but also to make mischief, dissent and pure entertainment—nothing worthy about this platform. Could something like this be a legitimate replacement or supplement for the industrial era public service outlets (the terrestrial TV channels, essentially) we now treasure but recognise are really struggling for relevance?

This is not a new idea. I first wrote about it over ten years ago. Lots of others have done so too. Ofcom even came up with a name for it (before they lost interest): the Public Service Publisher. Tessa Jowell, when she was Minister of Culture, advanced a similar idea with more of an economic edge: she called the BBC ‘venture capital for the UK’ in speeches like this one made all over the place. Jem Stone alerts me to the fact that senior managers at the Beeb seem to have picked the idea up again. Caroline Thompson, the most senior BBC Executive you’ve never heard of, was recently heard testing it on a Manchester audience (James Cherkoff points out that Peter Bazalgette’s Boggle is close to the Common Platform idea too).

I’m going to suggest that we call this new public service vehicle our Common Platform.

Next Wednesday evening I’m chairing a debate about the BBC’s role in the subtly different world after the Trust’s review of The debate’s a response to the fairly robust debate that’s been going on at since Mike Butcher put the boot into the Beeb after the report came out. We’ve got several important BBC people booked to participate plus Ofcom’s Tom Loosemore. Sadly the event is already a full house but watch this space for more news and a summary of the debate once we’ve had it.

Mark Thompson at The Oxford Media Convention

Mark Thompson is Chief Exective of Channel 4. His speech at the Convention was outstanding. His principle point was that the old, Reithian language of public service means little to contemporary audiences and that a new language is now required – one that acknowledges the ‘second order’ benefits of public service ‘merit goods’. These second order benefits are the indirect ones that ripple through society, making use of network effects as they go. For an example he used Jamie’s Kitchen, whose direct public service benefits may be uncertain but which, he claims, has created a new attitude to unemployment, apprenticeship and the obligations of employers.

Ed Richards at the Oxford Media Convention

Ed Richards is The Prime Minister’s priniciple adviser on media matters. He’s a famously shadowy figure (he actually tried to dodge out of the frame as I took his picture!). His presentation was a fairly robust defense of the Government’s record on new services and particularly its attitude to applications from the BBC.

Critics accuse the Government of being too soft on Dyke’s BBC and too quick to grant the corporation entry to new sectors already well catered for by the private sector.

He was one of the few speakers to actually mention the Internet (or at least ‘broadband’ which seems to be the respectable way to say ‘Internet’ these days) but when I cornered him about the exclusion of the net from Ofcom’s scope he held his hands up in the now rather tired attitude of “hey, the net’s too big and complex for regulation…”

Lord David Currie at the Oxford Media Convention

Lord Currie is the first Chair of Ofcom. He’s building his rag-tag team (rumoured to be at least 600 strong) and setting terms of reference now in readiness for the green light once the Communications Bill hits the statute books. Perhaps understandably he remained resolutely vague about the direction and tone of the super-regulator and when I asked him why he thought the net was explicitly excluded from its scope, he literally shrugged his shoulders as if to say “nothing to do with me, guv”. I hope he’s able to form an opinion by the time Ofcom is formally in operation.

A convention… How grand…

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 types 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’ behind the 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 (what is a ‘keynote’ anyway?) from Mark Thompson (Chief Executive, C4), Lord Currie (Chairman, OFCOM), David Edmonds (Director General, OFTEL) and Tessa Jowell (Minister for Culture).

Government content? exciting, huh?

Mike Butcher blogs a deal between the UK Government and MSN to offer Government content to MSN users. Mike draws out an analogy with the recent discussion of Azeem Azhar’s BPL idea. I think the comparison is valuable but the big difference it that so much Government content is paralysingly boring so it’s unlikely that the content industry will throng to repurpose it. Most interesting is the potential for MSN (or anyone really – preferably Google) to offer a better interface to Government content than the Government currently seems able to do. See my whinge about NHS Direct’s dire interface to its own extremely important and useful content.