Steve Bowbrick, the BBC’s critical friend

For the past seven months, Steve Bowbrick has been exploring the BBC from the inside. Last night, Nick Reynolds (Editor, internet blog) invited Steve to share his findings.

Steve Bowbrick

First, Steve’s short lecture in which he described openness as

An uncomplicated, generous use of license fee funding to generate content and code, as well as sharing the way we make it

He quickly rejected the commonly held notion that because the license fee paid for the BBC’s output it therefore it should all be freely available in all formats as “an unimaginative heat death for the economic value of the BBC”.

In describing why openness should be important to us, Steve pointed out that public value is a big deal at the BBC

“the BBC is not a business, it is a machine for the production of public value … Open organisations make more effecient use of resources … while businesses are typically good at concentrating capital and talent but inefficient at maximising public value.

It’s partly about “liberating the archive for the nation’s benefit” but while “this is not about raiding the content library … I think the conclusion will be that we can liberate access to some content for free, or at trivial cost.”

“Since Ross/Brand, there are catastrophic levels of caution at the BBC”

On the same day that the Guardian had announced their Open Platform Steve was concerned that Backstage, the BBC’s developer network, needs more love.

Steve concluded with some challenges, including the question of what to put at http://open.bbc.co.uk.

Next, a panel session. Joining Steve on the panel were

  • Emily Bell (Guardian)
  • Ian Douglas (Telegraph)
  • Jim Killock (Open Rights Group)
  • Tony Ageh (BBC)

It was lively, with some fascinating insights and opinions expressed.

Emily Bell – The BBC is so big that it’s very easy for it to roll over in its sleep and kill a few people with its tail.

Nick Reynolds – When there’s no consensus, we don’t want to talk about it at all. All big institutions avoid disagreeing in public.

From the floor (Michael.. missed his surname) – “people talk about ‘new media’, ‘future media’, but it’s just digital media. Having a department called future media is an open sore, and it’s embarrassing. Digital is open. You talk about openness, but when it’s digital you need to build relationships, not try to control your content.”

Steve – I’m also a school governor, and you’re told you have to be a critical friend. The BBC needs lots of critical friends.

Tony, talking about middle management – the bit in the middle is the problem. It’s the bit that won’t thaw. But they’re also the ones who actually get fired, who get criticised and who get the blame for perceived failings.

I was watching the openbbc tag on Twitter, as other people took live notes, so I noticed Tom Dolan when he expressed a view that “entertainment and comedy suffer really badly if you increase the openness”. And to underline his point, wondered whether “It’s time to start each episode of EastEnders with the doofdoofers, and then show that none of the sets join up in real life.”. Since Tom wasn’t in the room, I lobbed his point at the panel for him. Steve thought that the richness of just what’s in filing cabinets alone would make it worthwhile to do something. It doesn’t have to be everything. while Emily pointed out that it’s theatre – when you’re putting on a play you don’t want to see the guy putting the set together. Openness doesn’t mean you have to involve the audience at every point in the creative process. For what it’s worth, I agree with Emily.

One of my favourite quotes, which had my typing frantically, came from the ever thoughtful Tony Ageh:

We’ve never involved ourselves in the DRM issue, which we should have done. We don’t own much of the iPlayer code, but the bits we do own we should open. We don’t have significant contribution to the technical space which produces our media in the way that previous generations did. … Not just TV episodes. Content, information, millions of BBC Copyright still images, histories of localities … our brands could be made available for certain audiences in certain ways … all of which can allow self actualisation and stimulate a creative nation.

A useful and thought-provoking session.

4 Comments

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  1. Alan Patrick made this highly-interesting comment:

    “Take the ‘Its public data in the BBC, so give us the keys to the kingdom’ lobby. True it is public data – but then, if you build a business that profits from it, isn’t much of that wealth gained also the public’s? In other words, shouldn’t the public have a large stake in any company that uses public assets for private gain? Otherwise its just tantamount to scraping the commons for personal gain, surely”

    The question is how you ensure that releasing what the BBC has (to borrow Tony’s phrase) “in its archives” is used to add *public* value rather than *private* value.

    Case in point. Who would benefit most from the BBC freely-licensing its archives of images? The answer – big business, including the media, who would realise an immediate cost-saving on buying and using images. Who would lose out? Image libraries, which would lose revenue – and in the current economic climate, that means shedding jobs.

    So, you can argue, more “public value” is created by keeping that treasure trove securely under lock and key than by releasing it.

    This, unfortunately, is where Steve’s argument that the BBC is “a machine for the production of public value” falls down. There is no coherent notion of what “public value” is. Is it measured by economic impact? Is it measured by cultural impact? Or what?

    And almost all of the problems the BBC faces can actually be ascribed to the fact that there is no agreed measurement criteria for its success or failure. If its audience gets too high in any sector, it gets slammed for stifling the commercial sector. If it produces stuff which is too niche, it’s not “offering value” (whatever that means).

    The BBC, in management speak, needs roles, goals and values coupled to a strong mission statement which gives it a clear idea of what “success” means for it. I’m afraid that nebulous statements about offering public value won’t cut it, until we all agree what “public value” means.

    Comment by Ian Betteridge — March 11, 2009 #

  2. Great points, Ian.

    “The BBC … needs roles, goals and values coupled to a strong mission statement which gives it a clear idea of what “success” means for it.”

    Since reading your comment, I’ve been wondering how that happens.

    The Guardian has the Scott Trust (more properly now ‘The Scott Trust Limited’) which has a clear remit for the Guardian (which I didn’t know until Mike Bracken pointed it out at the Open Platform announcement yesterday)…

    The international audience delivered by Guardian.co.uk has brought a new goal within reach: for the Guardian to become the world’s leading liberal voice.

    The BBC, of course, has the BBC Trust. Based on its purpose and its remits, would you say that the Trust is the way the BBC gets things like its goals, values and mission statement(s)?

    Comment by Roo — March 11, 2009 #

  3. There’s a very easy answer to Ian’s example of what would happen if the BBC freely licenced its images: simply release them under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike) licence that enables distribution and reuse for non-commercial purposes only.

    If that were the case then the BBC would not be unfairly distorting competition, undercutting the image libraries and causing people to lose their jobs, since the media and any other commercial users would still have to pay to use the images, and it would in fact add huge public value because all licence-fee payers would have access to this fantastic archive to view, share, remix, etc. as long as they don’t make money out of it. (Of course in reality it would be anyone in the world; the Internet is global and geographical restrictions like those in the Creative Archive Licence were never really going to work in practice.)

    Comment by AndrewM — March 31, 2009 #

  4. nick reynolds has damaged the bbc he has destroyed the bbc online and one can only hjope that the senior management at the bbc take time to see what this rude arrogant fellow is up to x

    Comment by nickspal — July 19, 2011 #

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