If the BBC Can “ Why Can't We?


Addressing a conference on the purposes and principles of public broadcasting at the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs in November 2003, Head of BBC Television News, Roger Mosey, tackled head-on the ongoing relevance of public broadcasting in the Internet age. The BBC could be regarded, he said,

as the outmoded product of the nanny state broadcasting era: the paternalistic voice of monopoly or duopoly surely these days, anyone can do news? Well, there is no sign of it being done on the scale the BBC can achieve; and the BBC is still unchallenged as the place where the nation comes to debate its big issues

Mosey went on to clearly identify the reason for the ongoing relevance of the BBC in the Internet age: ‘The brilliance of the technology is not matched by the content which it spreads.’ In this online environment, a licence-fee-funded BBC, free of commercial pressure, is able set high standards for online content and delivery which is surely the role of the public broadcaster, regardless of medium.

Indeed, the BBC has succeeded in developing a relevant, respected and world-leading presence online, while Australian public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, are still struggling to justify their funding across the board. And the only Australian who seems to have grasped the potential of the Internet’s ‘great disruptive technology’ is actually an American Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch has been paying close attention to the growing power of the online sphere, and its implications for his media empire. Recognising its potential as a new delivery platform for his already ubiquitous Fox-branded entertainment content, Murdoch parted with a whopping US$620 million to buy teen-focussed social networking site, myspace.com. With an estimated 35 million users and around 9 billion page views per month, myspace.com carries something like 10 per cent of Internet advertising, making it a highly lucrative commercial operation, and another smart and prescient investment for the world’s biggest media mogul.

The kind of social networking enabled by a commercial site such as myspace.com is the most attractive online pursuit for young people, who account for the vast majority of regular online users. Such social network sites, which are able to position advertising in close (virtual) proximity to a specific target audience, are thus the dominant commercial model for Internet business.

No private operator has pretensions of fulfilling a public service role, or actively encouraging democratic engagement and participation through the provision of online networks. In the online world, just as in more traditional media, such lofty goals can only be the province of the public broadcaster.

So far, however, Australia’s public broadcasters have shown little leadership in this regard. A quick glance at SBS Online will reveal ‘latest news’ items that are more than two months out of date, marked divisions between the style and content of sub-sites for radio and television, and a confusing navigation system that deters, rather than encourages, use of the site’s limited interactive features.

Similarly, the ABC site is restricted to companion information for its radio and television programs, and chat rooms and forums related to its more traditional news and current affairs offerings.

There is little evidence of innovation in the online public realm. Australia’s public broadcasters either do not understand, or are unable to fund, the development of online material that expands and enhances their public service role. The creation of a virtual public sphere in the service of democratic society seems to be an impossible dream in Australia.

BBC News Online

In the UK, however, the BBC is leading the way in the provision of online news and information services, and in creating new, technology-driven spaces for the Fourth Estate. By maintaining a clear commitment to public value, and adhering to its charter obligations to ‘inform, educate and entertain,’ the BBC has succeeded in carrying its reputation and expertise into the realm of new media. This commitment is the outstanding feature of the BBC as a media organisation.

Mosey believes strongly that ‘what we have to do is ensure that our values underpin all our journalism, in whatever voice it speaks and [that]the right of our audience to trust what we say, whenever they see or hear the letters BBC, is absolute.’

With this commitment firmly in mind, the BBC in 2003 created an online site with the intention of ‘re-engag[ing]a sceptical audience with the business of politics.’ The first online initiative to result from the BBC’s 2001 review of its political programming, iCan (as in ‘I can do something to make a difference’), was the first real example of a public online service that both embraced the technological potential of the Internet to empower individuals, and maintained the values of traditional public service broadcasting. As such, it was a stunning example of the future of public service Internet production.

Launched in November 2003, the iCan home page clearly set out the purpose behind the site: ‘iCan is designed to help people start taking action on issues they care about.’

Assessing the site’s potential in The Media Guardian, Owen Gibson acknowledged that the potential of the Internet as a ‘tool for democratic good’ had been largely unfulfilled: ‘[U]p to now we’ve seen little real evidence of how it can bind together disparate voices, beyond one-off, single-issue examples.’ iCan was a deliberate attempt to address this:

Those behind the site hope it will emerge as a ‘glue’ to bind together users who have real concerns but are unsure how to make a difference within the strict confined of local and national politics.

iCan can be seen as the first real attempt by a national public broadcaster to harness the power of the Internet and create a hybrid space between unregulated public comment and discussion, and traditional one-way news provision. It has since been superseded by Action Network, a more sophisticated and interactive site with the same objective of enabling citizens to participate directly in the political process, and a direct result of the BBC’s early investment in, and willingness to experiment with, the unique abilities of online technology.

This focus on empowering citizens and broadening the reach of the Fourth Estate must surely be the most innovative, effective and responsible approach to online production available to any public broadcaster ‘the perfect expression of its public service ideals.’ Those ideals were best expressed by Mark Byford, then-acting Director General of the BBC, during his March 2004 Gladstone Lecture to the Foreign Press Association as a ‘clear commitment to tough, rigorous, independent journalism which forms the foundation of any free and fair democracy.’

In the hubbub of multiple voices and unregulated opinions to be found in cyberspace, the need for responsible, accountable and impartial news and journalism is more pressing than ever before. In an age when anyone can state anything, no matter how unsupported, biased or clearly erroneous, and publish it online for millions of people around the world, we need a trusted voice, such as a public broadcaster, to guide the way, to shine the light of truth on the darker corners of the Internet.

As Andrew Shapiro recognised in 1999 in The Control Revolution, the current explosion of communication

requires that we rely more, not less, on certain trusted intermediaries: not superpersonalized news services, but outlets that put a premium on being right instead of being first. We need to demand higher standards from our media middlemen We should, in other words, leverage our new power as news consumers to get better results from the media.

It seems that in the UK, these demands are being met online; we can only hope that Australian public broadcasters learn from the BBC’s example, and soon or else the relevance of their online product may well decline even further.

Select Bibliography
* Byford, Mark, The BBC in a Changing World, transcript of delivered Gladstone Lecture at the Foreign Press Association Conference, 31st March 2004.

* Gibson, Owen, A portal for the people?, 10 November 2003.

* Gibson, Owen, BBC Online,   15 April 2003.

* Mosey, Roger, Purposes and principles in public broadcasting, transcript of delivered lecture at the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs on 13th November 2003

* Naylor, Richard, Driver, Stephen & Cornford, James, The BBC goes Online: Public Service Broadcasting in the New Media Age, in Web Studies: revising media studies for the digital age, David Gauntlett (ed), London: Arnold Publishers, 2000.

* Shapiro, Andrew L., The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know, New York: Century foundation (Perseus Books Group), 1999.


* http://www.abc.net.au  
* http://www.bbc.co.uk  
* http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/actionnetwork/
* http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ican/
* http://www.beeb.com/
* http://www.sbs.com.au

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.