More to do, less to see 

24 January 2011

So the BBC has finally revealed a list of its online services for trimming or closure in order to meet its 25% budget cut, which broadly correlates with a similar list previously revealed but does contain unpleasant surprises that have much greater ramifications for the future of the BBC in general, if the future of broadcasting is indeed online.

The list of closures also gives insight into the workings of BBC management and how they have prioritised certain functions over others, but in doing so I fear that they have basically and perhaps irrecoverably compromised the basic public service principles on which the BBC has been founded. Strong words, perhaps, but with some justification.

For one thing, radio stations 6 Music and 7 (or 4 Extra as it may be known as in future) will no longer have their own websites, which is a pretty damning indictment of digital radio in general from this perspective and easily marks them out separately as being second class citizens in the radio pecking order.

This is a fundamental departure over a previous policy of giving all of the BBC’s services equal attention even to the point of duplicating functionality across platforms unless technical limitations preclude such measures.

And considering that the BBC’s broadcast services are core territory through and through – aside from its basic online activities – to fail to give two basic radio services their own comprehensive websites is akin to disowning two of your children and a dereliction of duty as set out in the corporation’s charter.

Management’s revenge for being denied the closure of 6 music, perhaps?

In the meantime, this BBC blog post gives clarification as to the overall strategy now being employed but still doesn’t address important concerns that are raised by such a fundamental shift in thinking.

Most of the domain closures are just smokescreen because many are historical in nature and largely point to barely-accessed pages that carry a relatively minimal provision cost, though the provided information in some cases still has a degree of public value attached to it and a loss is a loss however you care to view it.

More trimming round the edges as opposed to definitive action, in other words, and more fuel to the fire of the corporation’s critics who have already gleefully pointed out such things, but that of course shouldn’t deter the BBC if there is genuine public value to be obtained from such an action.

There’s also an issue of exactly what else will now be moved north to Salford alongside that supposed “core functionality”, because some staff will still be needed in London in order to provide certain editorial functionality for online services.

It’s also instructive to note the cutbacks directed towards news blogs, and I can’t help but feel that there’s an ideological component at work here on top of a fairly obvious attempt to pacify the newspaper industry by leaving editorial blogging predominantly to the commercial sector despite the basic act of newsgathering being a fundamental overlap.

(Of course there are whole issues relating to biased/unbiased coverage and whether the BBC should choose to associate itself too closely with commercial media operators that are less scrupulous in this regard just because they are the only commercial operator serving a particular regional area.)

Presumably people who work for a public service broadcaster have to behave like robots whilst at work and are discouraged from expressing personal opinions under the BBC banner, because surpressing blog activity helps to reduce any damage limitation reqirements provided by an almost-nonexistent BBC PR machine.

(Leaving management instead to provide the gaffes, but I digress there for a moment.)

Then there’s the hot potato of local and regional news content provision, which has been a perennial moan for the UK’s commercial newspaper industry ever since it failed to spot an internet juggernaut approaching at high speed. So how has the BBC finally elected to deal with this issue?

By stripping local sites of their non-news content.

Yes, you read that correctly. Indeed this is a much bigger deal than first appears to be the case, and also innately includes the definition of what exactly is and isn’t ‘news’. What about weather? Travel updates? Concert details? Art gallery opening times?

We can perhaps safely assume that basic weather and travel updates will be unaffected by the changes since they can be easily classified as news, but there’s certainly a blurring of boundaries between local/regional news and features that hasn’t (yet) been tightly specified and will need to be ringfenced at some stage.

There instead seems to be the expectation that non-news local content will in future be somehow provided by local newspapers via those additional external links. A fine idea as a theory, but what if a particular region happens to be poorly served by commercial websites – here’s the news, and…?

All of these minutiae also helps to obscure one of the major points of the BBC’s online local news operation, notably the sense of social cohesion that is provided from reading one of the BBC’s many existing regional news sites where news is tightly integrated with features that really give a sense of community.

If the BBC’s regional news provision is effectively reduced to no-frills news articles with a list of external links for ‘further reading’, then it essentially turns into a second rate copy of Google, which is most ironic given other stated objectives of actively avoiding the duplication of functions provided by other social networking sites such as Facebook.

Also, removing forums and certain other forms of feedback might risk clashing with impartiality objectives; not only by shutting out public opinion but also relying more heavily on external sites like Facebook that not everybody wants to use. The BBC should supposedly be truly independent when it comes to basic accountability functions.

Compare this move with not allowing television programmes like EastEnders to openly mention sites like Facebook, and you really do have to wonder where the BBC’s editorial priorities now lie, namely it’s not OK to advertise commercial services on TV but OK to make friends with them on the BBC’s website via “social integration features”?

I’m not saying that the BBC should shun Facebook or Twitter, but it ought to certainly think twice before giving undue prominence to third party tools for fundamental services just for the sake of saving a little bit of cash which could and should be saved elsewhere instead. Either do things properly or not at all, and that includes social integration.

What if you have a problem with, say, the iPlayer and wish to check if it’s just your computer or a general fault with the service? With the closure of the iPlayer forum it may become trickier to easily check with an ‘official’ source or ask other users; likewise the iPlayer development team may end up with less feedback relating to potential problems.

Not everyone wishes to sign up to Facebook, and not everyone is willing to impart their knowledge via a non-BBC website regardless of its relevance or worth to the outside world. Social networking is not a panacea or a final solution to everything.

I’m not saying that the BBC’s large website should be immune from being trimmed or adjusted to meet certain requirements, but these cutback proposals essentially just read like a pacification wishlist of various committee meetings as opposed to allocating resources on a dynamic basis whilst simultaneously retaining existing public values.

Because the one thing that the BBC now still needs above everything else is to retain the loyality of its licence fee-payers, and that aforementioned socal cohesion element is a very important and sometimes-overlooked aspect of “It’s your BBC”.

The BBC should feel as integrated to society as public libraries or refuse collection is in everyday life, and reducing news pages to lists of articles and links is a big step towards eroding public confidence in a world where more people are relying on online information sources than ever before, as well as making services easier to privatise in the longer term.