Here's a story about how the BBC is developing new local multi-media services, its Charter remit for "sustaining citizenship and civil society", the closure of BBC Action network, development of citizen (or networked) journalism, and how the BBC Trust consults us on what the BBC is for. These developments and issues may be related ... I don't know .... but I think we should be told. But by whom? Maybe on the BBC Internet blog where they are exploring Digital Democracy.
My interest in these issues was re-awakened by a couple of e-mails in the UK and Ireland E-Democracy Exchange. E-democracy guru Steven Clift asked whether anyone has an update on the BBC Action Network, which has been hailed as a civic media success story, but as I had noted earlier is due to close soon. Steven wondered if future developments related to a Press Gazette story about Regional newspapers’ fury at BBC local web plan.
Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication and Co-Director, Centre for Digital Citizenship, responded:
The BBC is dropping/has dropped the Action Network. It plans to do a number of other exciting things along these lines in the coming months. The Action network (previously iCan) was always meant to be an experiment. The BBC is right to learn from experiments and change course if that's what seems right.
I'm interested on the e-democracy and civil society front, but also also because, with colleagues, I did some work last year for the BBC Trust when it was carrying out a review of BBC online services, and exploring how blow blogging could assist in its consultation. Here's my review of developments over the past year, which I've referenced in some detail in the hope that others closer to the action may pick up the threads.
The year-old BBC Charter sets out as a key public purpose for the Corporation "sustaining citizenship and civil society", but until recently it hasn't been clear how that might be fulfilled. There have been speeches by senior figures but no practical details. At the same time there has been a lot of discussion about the changing role of journalists, audiences and citizen content-contributors in a more networked world. See references below on both.
Then a couple of weeks back Controller of BBC English Regions Andy Griffee told students at Coventry University about a planned £20 million BBC Local website, which "features a map with direct links to content such as articles, radio and video for each region". The Coventry site Through the Looking Glass reported:
Topics covered with this new site will be news, sport, travel, and weather, bringing each element down to a local level. Commenting on the service, Griffee said that it will be available “anytime, any place, anywhere”, and later confirmed that regular exclusive news bulletins will also become a major part of it. While the service hasn’t been properly decided on by the BBC Trust yet, the reaction amongst the audience was largely positive.
The other speaker was Alan Kirby, Editor of The Coventry Telegraph, who described how they were planning their own web site with ultra-local sites divided by post codes. The focus of these sites will be user-created content that is relevant to more local people.
Griffee, sensing that Kirby was a little disturbed by the BBC’s plans, offered some words of reassurance, stating that the service is not designed to “compete with newspapers”, and later broke it down to the fact there are only 5 radio stations but there is 66 newspapers in the West Midlands.
Then, says the report, visitors both went on to explain that nearly all of their journalists are being trained in more skills, highlighting the importance of online as a catalyst for obtaining larger audience coverage.
However, the response from regional newspaper representatives, quoted by the Press Gazette, and picked up by Steven Clift, was less restrained. In Regional newspapers' fury at BBC local web plan the Gazette reported that while previous plans for ultra-local TV were dropped in October, this was a new "unprecedented attack". Ian Davies, development director of regional media business Archant, added:
The new websites will have hyper-local capabilities using geo tagging of content and mapping interfaces. What the BBC gives with one hand, it takes away with a huge skip on the other.
What a strange approach to public service media. Look at what the community-leading local press is doing in reinventing itself to provide local content and ‘connectivity’ beyond print; then take a huge publicly funded stick and swing hard to cause as much damage as possible to this vital organ of local comment and democracy.
This is not competition. This is BBC, full-bodied, unfair, damaging to existing emerging services, competition. It seems that attempted demolition is the sincerest form of flattery.
As if the charges of unfair competition challenge aren't enough, there are those who feel the BBC shouldn't be in the sustainable citizenship and civil society business anyway. Janet Daly, writing in the Telegraph last December attacks the vision of the chairman of the BBC Trust Sir Michael Lyons. Janet writes:
As Sir Michael put it in a speech last month, the BBC is being "challenged to play its part in reinforcing social cohesion in an increasingly diverse society". He went on to give his personal commitment to that objective in these terms: "All of my previous work has convinced me that diversity both within and between local communities is a source of strength rather than weakness - and that the UK will become stronger the more it recognises and builds on that diversity. The BBC can and should help with this."
Whether you agree with those sentiments is neither here nor there. Who precisely is Sir Michael, not to say all those hundreds of faceless programme producers, writers and editors, to decide that the UK will become stronger if it embraces diversity? Who elected them?
Sir Michael's account of the BBC's mission is explicitly, tendentiously and presumptuously political. Whether licence fee payers believe that their country will become stronger "the more it recognises and builds on" diversity is a matter between them and their mandated government. It is entirely inappropriate for the BBC to enforce a particular systematic view of how society should develop and how, as Sir Michael himself notes, its rapidly changing structure should be addressed.
Engaging in a clash of overtly political objectives is properly the business of political parties or opposing lobby groups, not a supposedly neutral, publicly subsidised broadcaster.
I hope you'll see from all this that the BBC Charter public service remit for "Sustaining citizenship and civil society" - and how it is fulfilled - is potentially relevant to all aspects of democracy, local and national. It could also influence the way that journalists, bloggers and anyone aiming to publish content of public interest is able to do so, and get a wide audience.
The BBC Trust, who act on our behalf, don't currently provide us with anywhere to discuss these issues, except through rather formal consultation processes ... which aren't online. I believe they are considering doing more following earlier explorations with bloggers. Meanwhile the BBC managers and journalists, through a widening range of blogs, including The Editors and BBC Internet, are engaging directly with the rest of us ... but are understandably tentative in dealing with policy issues.
I think that the plans for local news sites, trailed by Andy Griffee, provide a great opportunity for the BBC and BBC Trust to engage with license payers on just what "sustaining citizenship and civil society" really means. But who will help convene that engagement? I wonder if Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, might be tempted. He gave a cracking keynote at the 2006 e-edemocracy conference, and is following through strongly in promoting RSA Networks for civic innovation.
Anyway, I'll be interested to see whether my modest attempt here at agenda-setting-by-blogging raises any interest. I'll have to email a few of those quoted ... because the problem with this citizen journalism stuff is few people know you are doing it. Of course, that may change.
Here's some background
The BBC Charter, Charter Review site, BBC Trust consultations, and the BBC governors archive site.
About the BBC: Purpose and values, sets out how the BBC creates public value in six ways, of which the first is "Sustaining citizenship and civil society: the BBC supports civic life and national debate by providing trusted and impartial news and information that helps citizens make sense of the world and encourages them to engage with it."
The BBC and Civil Society: address to the NCVO by then BBC chairman Michael Grade. October 2006.
The challenge for e-democratisers: deliberation as well as demands. Matthew Taylor reported on this blog Nov 17 2006
Audience isn't audience any more. It's online. How TV audiences are now contributors, and what this means for consultation about BBC development. This blog, July 30 2007.
Reaching out to bloggers? Admit limited transliteracy. How the BBC Trust engaged with bloggers in its bbc.co.uk review consultation, on this blog. Oct 23 2007
Citizen regulators: BBC Trust reaches out through blogs in its review of bbc.co.uk. Anthony Mayfield on the BBC Trust process. Oct 28 2007
Networked journalism: For the people and with the people: Charlie Beckett in the Press Gazette says the idea of the professional journalist and amateur working to create a new kind of news is the future.... Networked journalism is where the people formerly known as the audience contribute to the whole editorial process. The public write blogs, take pictures, gather information and comment as part of newsgathering and publishing. The professional journalists become filters, connectors, facilitators and editors. Oct 18 2007.
The pro-am approach to news gathering. Jeff Jarvis: As news organisations inexorably shrink along with their audiences, revenue and staffs, I believe that one way for journalism itself to expand is through collaboration with the communities it covers. Oct 22 2007
A civic media success story: examining the BBC Action Network. MIT Center for Future Civic Media Nov 3 2007
What the BBC is for. Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, Royal Television Society Fleming Memorial Lecture. The BBC has to develop better ways of covering the issues that resonate with those of its audiences who do not necessarily see the traditional institutions as fully reflecting and representing their concerns. Nov 1 2008
What's the role of trustees now we are networked? How the new BBC Internet blog give us a direct connection with those developing BBC services, and issues this raises about the role of BBC trustees. This blog, Nov 11 2007.
TV voting scandals and poor e-democracy both destroy trust. Interview with Professor Stephen Coleman, this blog, November 12 2007
BBC should not decide how society develops. Janet Day, Telegraph.co.uk. Dec 17 2007.
BBC News: The Editors. Mark Thompson, Director General: We want to take our coverage of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament, as well as local councils up and down the land and turn them into the most engaging, the most creative multimedia portal for democracy in the world, using BBC Parliament and our other television, networks, radio, the web and mobile. Direct access to information about your MP or representative: how they vote, what they stand for, how you can contact them. Survival guides and in-depth analysis of current debates and current legislation. Easy ways, for anyone who wants to, to plug into and take part in the debate. And all of it available to every secondary school in the UK as part of a strengthened commitment by BBC Learning to supporting citizenship and modern media literacy.
We don’t want to do all this on our own, but in partnership with some of the existing sites which are pioneering web democracy – and with the democratic institutions themselves. Parliament and its sister institutions already have powerful forms of scrutiny and accountability that, to be honest, very few people outside their walls know anything about. We want to work with them to change that. Jan 15 2008.
Regional newspapers' fury at BBC local web plan: Press Gazette: The BBC has prompted a new rift with the regional press by planning a network of 60 ultra-local websites. Jan 28 2008
"Local is still important" say Andy Griffee and Alan Kirby. Report at Through the Looking Glass of Coventy Conservation where BBC Local website was showcased. Feb 10 2008
BBC Internet blog - Digital Democracy: Pete Clifton: The BBC's public purpose around informed citizenship means it must play a vital role in this area. We already offer more day-to-day coverage of our institutions than anybody else, but a dynamic portal that brings together the best of what we have in audio, video and text, the best that others are doing, something that is easy to find, searchable, personalisable and sharable, feels like a fantastic goal. Feb 11 2008