Guardian column: Open-source BBC

Why the doors of the BBC must stay open for all

Jeff Jarvis
Monday May 22, 2006
The Guardian

Dear Mark Thompson: Helluva speech you gave proposing the BBC’s Creative Future. I wish I could find an American media executive half as gutsy. But I think you skipped over one important aspect of the BBC’s unique destiny: its relationship to other media. I keep hearing your counterparts in broadcast and print, in Britain and abroad, fret and sweat about you using your generous licence fees to compete with them. News International, Associated Newspapers and the Telegraph Group have now ganged up on your “digital empire building”, arguing to the government that the licence fee must not subsidise the BBC’s competitive growth in new media.

But I wonder, why should you compete at all? If the BBC is, indeed, a public trust, shouldn’t you make it your mission to support quality journalism and media from any source? In the present media universe – made diffuse and confusing by the internet, unlimited choice, and customer control – shouldn’t your role be to guide viewers/listeners/readers/users/us to the best information and programmes you can help us find? You said in your speech that your audiences “won’t simply be audiences anymore, but also participants and partners”. Well, if you’re going to give bloggers and podcasters a boost by accepting their “user-generated content” (a clumsy phrase, don’t you agree?) and by promoting them and letting them remix your archives and even redesign your home page, then why not also help the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, and, yes, even Sky when they do well? Why not make them partners, too? When I’ve suggested this to BBC executives at the kinds of conferences where we media people whittle away our hours, they say they do link to outside sources. And that’s good. But I think this is about more than boxes of links. This is about your singular role in the future of news and media.

The BBC can become the grand laboratory of media. For because of those licence fees, you are in a better position than any organisation anywhere to think generously, to share knowledge and audience – and thus revenue and support – with your media confreres. More important, you can afford to make mistakes. You can try to figure out how to let the people pass around your shows, how to distribute information and entertainment to new devices, and how to gather and share content from the public in new ways, and you can stumble along the way without risking shareholder revolts. The problem is, of course, that you are now facing a revolt of media moguls, instead. So you need to demonstrate that Auntie comes in peace, that you will involve them in your Creative Future, understanding their needs and sharing your answers. For the truth is that the news and media industries desperately need reinvention, they need to benefit from your experimentation and innovation, so long as you are open with your lessons.

This is not to say that this new world is all cookies and milk for you. I recognise that selling disruptive change to a culture as diamond-dense as the BBC’s is a challenge. I also believe that you face a real problem – which, ironically, you share with formerly monopolistic, one-size-fits-all US news organisations – in trying to maintain an aura of impartiality and objectivity in a world that demands openness and transparency.

I also understand that you could be facing the possible eventual loss of the licence fees that make all this possible. But at the same time, you are growing around the world – competing with my US media colleagues via BBC America and show licensing – earning £706m in sales in 2004/05 and seeing your news audience reach 240 million people a week. (And they say that we Americans are the cultural imperialists.) That revenue and profit, made possible by global distribution, may soon support the BBC’s grand ambitions without, dare I say it, licence fees. And what should you do with the money you have? Innovate, I say. Invest. Why not incubate new-media ventures? Why not open schools for citizen journalists, who can do more than shoot phone-photos of disasters? Why not bring together your industry counterparts to create the future of media?

When I had the privilege of meeting some of your impressive staff after a conference in London, one of them asked me whether there should be any limit to what the BBC should do. I’m just a naive American with little sense of the subtleties of licence fees and British media, but I replied that there should be no limits, because this is a unique time of volcanic change in media, and the BBC has a historic opportunity to help. So don’t just build BBC 2.0. Build the open-source BBC, please.

· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at