PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Aunty blooms, politicians prune...

March 2003

The BBC is an enigma. Please excuse the history lesson ahead, but it’s important to understand the context of the present rumblings from the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) about the role of the BBC in the 21st century – and being encouraged by various by Labour Party supporters from the commercial media. 

The BBC was amongst the first broadcasting organisations on the planet, largely thanks to being in the same country as Marconi’s pioneering broadcast experiments with the innovative 2MT station based at Writtle, on the fringe of Chelmsford in Essex (God’s Own County). The BBC was established with a unique charter that is well worth reading while you still can, the latest edition is posted at

The basic principle was to create a service that was as independent as possible of political and commercial influence, mindful of the experience of the existing commercial “mass media” in the shape of newspapers whose editors had generally set out to manage the content of their papers to reflect the proprietors’ personal and business agendas.  Britain in the 1920’s was facing massive structural change following the disastrous effects of the first World War when the ruling classes were largely wiped out, but those remaining were still driven quite heavily by the concept of noblesse oblige in times of substantial change. There was a major social evolution taking place based on the notion of democracy (remember, Russia has relatively recently undergone a pretty bloody revolution) with an effort to appease and include the working classes. Even equality of the sexes was a relatively novel idea – and with an increasingly hands-off monarchy and less effective House of Lords – these were very interesting times.

Fortunately for the early BBC, the political mixers still hadn’t quite bought into this new fangled technology, and so the medium was set up with a remit to inform and entertain (barely) under the motto of “Nation Shall Speak Peace unto Nation”; the founding father was indisputably Lord Reith, whose standards of probity and discipline were legendary, and very much born of the British Empire and old-school. Latterly the BBC’s agenda has been hijacked by a variety of fringe (and not so fringe) political activists who see the trust that has been built in the BBC as a global “brand” during it’s founding period of total objectivity as a very valuable tool of mass opinion manipulation in their hands.

Now pause for a moment and consider the parallels of the world of early broadcasting with the world of global internet connectivity. (A Brit, Tim Berners-Lee, is widely credited with the breakthrough that “invented” that too, don’t forget). Politicians plainly didn’t “get it” for several years, and when they did, their first instincts were to regulate and tax it in some way. However, 10 million “broadcasters” present a somewhat trickier challenge in terms of control of output, and this battle may never be won, although the politicians will not give up trying.

The BBC has always been trying to work out a role in computing and technology. The Acorn BBC micro was a nice try that became a victim of the BBC’s (frequently justified) policy of “not invented here” when the inevitability of the IBM PC format was overlooked.

But then Aunty quickly spotted that the internet was significant, and after a brief flirtation with it’s won BBC Networking Club, and that unspeakably awful programme “The Net”, it went with the flow and built the best web presence of any broadcaster (or any other organisation) by such a large margin, as to be embarrassing. A key factor in this is the undeniable benefit brought about by the universal use of the English language – something we really should not be ashamed of, even if it is the result of the establishment of an empire based on the most politically incorrect practises imaginable in these more enlighten times. Even the politician’s insatiable efforts to consign areas of the UK to cultural backwaters by pandering to minority language interests cannot spoil this opportunity.

The fickle but accessible nature of the internet means that the best of breed in any category will invariably win in the end. At this time, that means the brands to die for are Google, Amazon, eBay and the BBC. We should be rejoicing in the fact that we (the license payers) own the best information presence on the planet’s new global information highway, and be ready to defend its position as the efforts of the DCMS to dumb it down so that commercial media operators can kid themselves that they will be able to snatch the BBC audience to flog to their advertisers.

The BBC is under pressure to justify the money it spends on the News24 service and BBCi – which encompasses all forms of interactively from the web to the frilly bits around the digital TV platforms, that are generally quite dreadful, as the result of their roots in commercialism aimed at enhancing the opportunities for advertisers.

Broadcasters and website operators who choose to live in the real world of commercial pressure complain with some justification that the BBC is unfair competition. But the old advertising model (sell an audience to advertisers) is about to fall apart as the result of the internet’s ability to empower the consumer to make better educated selections. So now is not the time to try and “commercialise” the BBC in the mould of the rapidly decaying commercial broadcasting model.

With the DCMS minister, the unimpressive Tessa Jowell, recently suggesting that the government might assimilate the National Lottery, it’s not an inappropriate time to review the relationship between government, political patrons and various “national institutions” that live in the margins of commercial reality.  I don’t know about you, I want less government involvement and fewer politically motivated appointees. But using the BBC to spread the UK cultural heritage that is so attractive that most of the world’s disadvantaged people seem to want a piece of it, would seem to be doing everyone a considerable service.

So where is Lord Reith’s successor? Not likely to arise from generally discredited media, political or financial scenes, I suspect.