Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor John Naughton


  1.  The BBC is a remarkable organisation. It is central to our cultural life and remains one of the few British institutions that are still universally known and admired throughout the world. In this context its only parallels are the UK armed forces and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. A paradoxical testimony to the BBC's standing is the extent and concern of the media coverage across the globe of the Corporation's difficulties in relation to the Hutton Inquiry. To draw attention to the BBC's reputation is, in one sense, a statement of the obvious. But I am sure that the Committee is aware that, in considering the future of the Corporation, we are dealing with something very precious. And we should remember the old engineer's maxim: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". The story of what has happened to Britain's public university system—once also the envy of the world, now in possibly terminal decline as a result of political indifference followed by political interference—should stand as a salutary warning of what can happen if public policy gets it wrong.

  2.  The three objectives of public policy in relation to the BBC ought to be:

    —  To ensure the continuation of Britain's rich tradition of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB)[1]. This implies a more rigorous definition of what constitutes PSB than we have had to date. The de-facto position seems to have been that PSB is whatever the BBC decided to do. This is untenable and needs to be changed. PSB should be defined by a public authority separate from the BBC, in ways that are accountable and transparent.

    —  To strengthen the BBC so that it plays a positive and creative role in the new media ecology emerging under the pressure of digital technology.

    —  To strengthen the creative community in Britain which produces media products that entertain, inform or instruct their audiences.

  3.  In considering our communications environment, we need to think not of "markets" but of ecologies. An ecosystem is defined as "the system of interactions between living organisms and their environment". Although the term arises primarily in the biological sciences, it provides a useful way of thinking about media, which are dynamic entities in a constant state of flux and perpetual interaction with one another. For most of our lives, the media ecosystem has been dominated by broadcast television, which explains why most discussion about the future of BBC or ITV is couched in terms of the future of BBC (or ITV) television.

  4.  But our media ecosystem is changing under the pressure of technology and the new economics of information goods. The biggest change is the gradual erosion of the dominance of broadcast (ie one-to-many) television. There are two main reasons for this. The first is the dilution of the broadcast model by the narrowcasting possibilities offered by digital transmission technology (satellites and cable). The second is the inexorable rise of the Internet, and especially the World Wide Web.

  5.  This does not mean that broadcast television is finished—far from it. There will always be occasions, spectacles, events for which the one-to-many model is the most appropriate. But the overwhelming dominance of the broadcast medium will erode, to be replaced by narrowcasting technologies of which the Internet is the most important.

  6.  This change in the ecology is significant because it means a shift from "push" media to "pull" media. Television is the quintessential push medium: a small group of content providers decides what kinds of content is to be offered, creates it, and then pushes it at passive consumers down whatever transmission channels are available. The consumer's freedom of choice is effectively limited to the menu of pushed items. Although that freedom is apparently increased by digital television, with its multiplicity of channels (up to 500), the range of offerings is still narrow compared to the enormous diversity of human appetites and interests. And narrowcast television is still a push medium.

  7.  The Web, in contrast, is a quintessential "pull" medium. Nothing comes to a Web user unless he or she selects it and pulls it down from a server across the Net. This is profoundly different from what happens in the broadcast model. The distinction was once captured by Elizabeth Murdoch when she described television as a "sit back" medium, and the Web as a "sit up" medium.

  8.  One implication of this is that we need to consider whether Public Service Broadcasting is the right flag under which to sail as we move into the next decade. I would suggest that something like "Public Service Content Creation" may be a more appropriate description for the activities of an organisation like the BBC.

  9.  Another implication of the changing ecology and the diminishing role of broadcasting in it is whether the Licence Fee is an appropriate sole method of funding the BBC in a fragmented world of digitally-enabled pull media. This is a subject on which I do not have any special expertise, and I leave it to others to debate except in relation to one specific issue—the funding of technological innovation, which is discussed later (see para 12 below).

  10.  In the light of these earlier observations, one of the most important aspects of the BBC's operations is its online presence. The Corporation was an early adopter of the Web and now runs some of the world's largest and most admired online news and other services. Several factors have combined to give it its current dominant position:

    —  The amount of resources it was able to commit to the task.

    —  The way it was able to leverage its brand, news-gathering and other assets to feed high-quality material into its online offerings.

    —  The technical ingenuity shown by its staff. A good example is the way the BBC harnessed streaming audio technology to provide its "Listen Again" service—which enables listeners to hear radio programmes that they missed on transmission.

  11.  Partly because of the public and political (not to mention the industry's) obsession with broadcast television, the importance of BBC Online has up to now been underestimated. It is perceived by most commentators (and even by parts of BBC senior management) as a sideshow. Yet if our media ecology evolves in the manner suggested earlier, the BBC's online activities will become considerably more prominent (and dominant) than they are at present. My conjecture is that in the next decade BBC Online will come to be as important—in terms of public profile and audience usage—as BBC2, 3 or 4. And this, in turn, raises an interesting question—whether the funding mechanisms which would be appropriate for supporting public service broadcasting in the future would also be appropriate for what one might call "public service webcasting".

  12.  My tentative answer to this question is "no". Different funding mechanisms are needed for the provision of high quality public service online offerings. The weakness of most of the proposed alternatives to the Licence Fee is that they are geared only towards funding the creation of material for broad- or narrow-cast television. But creating, maintaining and developing the world-class online assets now owned by the BBC requires investment in technological innovation as well as in content. And everything we know about the funding of radical technological innovation in universities and industry tells us that it requires stable funding over long periods with few demands in terms of "deliverables".[2] This is how the most innovative research labs have been run in industry. And it explains why the BBC has consistently led the rest of the industry in the online field. Even in the relatively innocuous area of digital radio, the commercial sector recognises that BBC innovation and investment is essential in order to push consumer adoption of DAB over the tipping point which will make it an economic proposition for advertisers and independent radio stations. Commercial radio needs the BBC, in other words. And without BBC intervention, digital terrestrial television would likewise be a stalled technology—at least as far as consumer take-up is concerned.

  13.  Finally, I would like to turn to the question of "content". We live in a world increasingly dominated by a maniacal obsession with "intellectual property". The copyright industries—music, publishing and movies—see digital technology as an unprecedented opportunity to extend control over how copyrighted material can be used to a degree that was inconceivable in an analogue world.[3] They have persuaded legislators in the US and in Europe that their view of intellectual property is the one that should prevail. The result is what the American legal scholar James Boyle calls "The Second Enclosure Movement".[4] In this (disturbing) context, the most significant development in recent years came in a speech made by Greg Dyke, then Director-General of the BBC, on 24 August 2003. I hope you will not mind me quoting the relevant passage. It reads:

    "The BBC probably has the best television library in the world. For many years we have had an obligation to make our archive available to the public, it was even in the terms of the last charter. But what have we done about it? Well, you all know the problem. Up until now, this huge resource has remained locked up, inaccessible to the public because there hasn't been an effective mechanism for distribution.

    But the digital revolution and broadband are changing all that. For the first time, there is an easy and affordable way of making this treasure trove of BBC content available to all. Let me explain with an easy example. Just imagine your child comes home from school with homework to make a presentation to the class on lions, or dinosaurs, or Argentina or on the industrial revolution. He or she goes to the nearest broadband connection—in the library, the school or even at home—and logs onto the BBC library. They search for real moving pictures which would turn their project into an exciting multi-media presentation. They download them and, hey presto, they are able to use the BBC material in their presentation for free.

    Now that is a dream which we will soon be able to turn into reality. We intend to allow parts of our programmes, where we own the rights, to be available to anyone in the UK to download so long as they don't use them for commercial purposes. Under a simple licensing system, we will allow users to adapt BBC content for their own use. We are calling this the BBC Creative Archive. When complete, the BBC will have taken a massive step forward in opening our content to all—be they young or old, rich or poor. But then it's not really our content—the people of Britain have paid for it and our role should be to help them use it."

  The BBC "Creative Archive" initiative is an excellent example of what public service means in an online context. I would hope that, whatever is decided about the future of the BBC, this commitment of Mr Dyke will be honoured in full.

25 May 2004

1   I have some reservations about the term "broadcasting"-see later. Back

2   See Naughton, John and Taylor, Robert W, "Zen and the Art of Research Management", in Andrew Herbert and Karen Sparck-Jones (Eds): Computer Systems: Theory, Technology and Applications, Springer-Verlag, 2004. Back

3   See Lessig, Lawrence, Free Culture: how big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity, Penguin, 2004. Back

4   Boyle, James, "The Second Enclosure Movement", available online at Back

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Prepared 16 December 2004