Memorandum submitted by Professor John
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 systemonce also the envy
of the world, now in possibly terminal decline as a result of
political indifference followed by political interferenceshould
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).
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)
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 finishedfar 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 issuethe
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" servicewhich
enables listeners to hear radio programmes that they missed on
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 importantin terms of public profile
and audience usageas BBC2, 3 or 4. And this, in turn, raises
an interesting questionwhether 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".
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 technologyat 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 industriesmusic, publishing and moviessee
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.
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".
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 connectionin
the library, the school or even at homeand 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 allbe they young or old,
rich or poor. But then it's not really our contentthe people
of Britain have paid for it and our role should be to help them
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
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
See Lessig, Lawrence, Free Culture: how big media uses technology
and the law to lock down culture and control creativity, Penguin,
Boyle, James, "The Second Enclosure Movement", available
online at www.law.duke.edu/pd/papers/boyle.pdf Back