I was asked to take part in a Guardian debate last week as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The venue was the Guardian Spiegeltent on Charlotte Square, and the topic was the future of our state broadcaster, the BBC. I joined Daily Telegraph Media Commentator Neil Midgley on stage in the debate chaired by Ruth Wishart. The debate was billed as follows:
The BBC has always aimed to deliver high-quality, impartial news. But despite enjoying huge acclaim internationally, in recent years domestic newspapers and some angry licence fee payers have called its impartiality and efficiency into question. With the internet revolutionising the way news is delivered, and with British press regulation imminent, can a state-run broadcaster still provide the benchmark? Join our panel of Media Commentator for the Daily Telegraph, Neil Midgley, and Grant Gibson who is a digital designer, web and app programmer and technology writer for The Herald, to debate this political hot potato. Chaired by Ruth Wishart.
To kick off the debate, Neil and I were both asked to present a short blueprint for the future of the BBC. I didn’t write down my blueprint verbatim, but below is roughly my take, reconstructed from my notes.
My name is Grant Gibson. I’m the Digital Innovation Manager for the Herald & Times group. Among other things, I’m responsible for the digital incarnations of The Herald, Sunday Herald and Evening Times newspapers.
A central part of my remit is developing and monetising heraldscotland.com, the online home of The Herald and Sunday Herald.
In 2011 HeraldScotland was the first Scottish news site to introduce paid subscriptions – a move that both staff and media pundits had long predicted would be inevitable: “we’ve been crazy to give our content away for free online” was the journalists’ credo.
Our strategy has been successful – gaining a loyal following of paying subscribers, while at the same time nearly doubling our overall audience. But charging online consumers was a tricky step to take in the face of so much free content, particularly content provided by the BBC.
A love letter
I love the BBC. I love its output. And as a consumer, I love that it is free from advertising.
But most of all, I love the contribution that the BBC has made to British society over the decades. The Greenwich Time Signal pips, the unique sounds of the Radiophonic Workshop, shows like Dr Who and technologies like Teletext all helped define 20th century Britain.
More significantly, the BBC Microcomputer inspired and trained the first generation of ‘digital natives’ – primary school kids, like me, who were learning to write in English and program in BASIC simultaneously.
R&D is a huge part of the BBC’s remit. Technologies we take for granted like the original high-definition television standard, outside broadcasting, video recording, and digital radio were all pioneered, funded, or in some cases directly invented by BBC engineers, helping to put Britain at the forefront of broadcasting technology and defining standards that are used around the world.
The new innovators
But in recent years, especially since the invention of the World Wide Web, I believe the BBC has lost its way as a global pioneer
These days we see far more technological innovation being gifted to the world by private companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google through their contributions to so-called “Open Source” technology. Comparatively, the BBC has become insular in its research.
The BBC is in a difficult position. It is encouraged – and sometimes required – to innovate by committee, participating in national partnerships like the Internet TV service Project Kangaroo. While these schemes are well-intentioned, they’re often caught up in disputes and red tape, outpaced by more nimble private sector rivals.
But leave the BBC to innovate in isolation and it still does so very well. While rivals struggled to find a practical way to deliver broadcast quality video online, the BBC quietly developed and refined their iPlayer platform.
It wasn’t cheap – reports suggest development costs of close to Ł10 million and running costs of around Ł4m per year, but it is the gold standard of video on demand. Indeed, many people now use the word iPlayer as a synonym for TV On Demand – much like Hoover is to vacuum and Google is to web search – forgetting that it’s a proprietary, closed system.
That, however, brings with it some problems. Consumers shop for a TV that has iPlayer built-in, often unaware that their shiny new set does not – and perhaps never will – support non-BBC services like Demand 5 and Channel 4’s 4OD.
For clarity, the BBC iPlayer website does show listings for rival services – much like the Radio Times includes listings for non-BBC channels – but click any of those listings and you’re diverted to the rival service. That’s not a hardship on the desktop web, but access iPlayer on an iPad or through a Smart TV and you’ll find you are restricted to BBC channels only.
A blueprint for the future
My blueprint for the future starts with a transparently funded BBC. And that means either funding it through the tax system, paid by everyone, or by subscription, with access controlled by smart cards or passwords.
The current position, as a pseudo-tax, is unsustainable. The rules for whether a consumer needs a TV licence is defined by increasingly tortured definitions and legalese.
When a student can go from law abiding citizen to criminal based solely on the current battery level of their iPad – a charging iPad requires a TV licence, while one running on battery power may not – and when non-licence payers can legally watch some BBC shows online before some of their licence-paying neighbours, then the underlying method of funding the BBC is clearly broken.
Next, we need the BBC to open their platforms. I’m not arguing that they should innovate by committee – history shows that to be relatively fruitless. But when the BBC develops a successful, proprietary platform – like iPlayer – they should be required by law to open that platform up to rival media.
Finally, we need the BBC to open their source code. As I touched on earlier, the BBC has an impressive history of pioneering R&D – and of sharing its innovations with the wider world. In the digital age that has been lost – BBC staff regularly blog about using open source technology developed by others, but very rarely does the BBC share anything of real value with the wider community.
As a brief aside, one notable exception is the small division within the BBC news department known as Responsive News. They regularly blog and share both insights and code examples – a model that the rest of the organisation could easily follow.
For the Olympics, the BBC made a great deal about the fact that they’d used free, open technologies – HTML5, CSS and Apache Cordova – to develop the BBC Olympics app for multiple mobile devices in record time. The publicity for those open technologies was welcome, but simply knowing that the BBC had used those technologies – without any access to the code or examples – was worthless to the wider development community.
The Guardian, Financial Times and countless profit-driven Silicon Valley companies make significant amounts of proprietary code available for free – indeed, most of the internet is built on free and open software gifted to the world in this way. The BBC’s contribution to Open Source surprisingly small.
To the BBC, last year’s Olympics app has no residual value. But to a small app development team in Somerset, or a local newspaper in Edinburgh the code behind that app could be a springboard to develop something new, reach new audiences, create jobs and compete in a world where their rival is no longer the company down the street – it’s global giants like Microsoft, Google and Facebook.
I’m not suggesting the BBC should simply give everything away. Continue to monetise content rights, sell DVD box sets and keep making money through advertising to international audiences.
But that source code that they developed with our tax money? We’d like it back please.
As I see it, those three principles — transparent funding, Open APIs and Open Source code — will be central to keeping the BBC relevant, and a force for the common good, well into the 21st century.
- October 28, 2013: Andrew McKie makes a similar case in his column titled “Future of the BBC hinges on technology, not politics“