THE future of the BBC is the obvious topic of the week, on both sides of the Border. It catches me as I’m doing a turn at the corporation’s beating heart — as one of the critics’ panel on Radio Four’s Saturday Review, on tonight.
It’s a fabulous gig, custom-designed to annoy every one of the BBC’s enemies. You get to swan around London seeing hot art and orotund theatre, reading buzzy novels and watching gloomy European movies. Ban this bourgeois-bohemian filth! (Actually, Saturday Review was originally commissioned by oor ain James Boyle, once director of Radio Scotland and then Radio Four. So blame him).
But there is one item we’re covering tonight which— no matter how many saltires and Yes flags I’m happy to see waving outside Pacific Quay — makes me unproblematically defensive of the basic concept of the BBC.
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It’s called Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, a two-parter by historian David Olusoga. The documentaries lay out with patience and precision the extent of slave ownership in the UK at the time of abolition in 1840.
They itemise and contextualise the £17 billion (in today’s money) paid to those owners as “compensation” for loss of their “property”. Proportionately, by the way, Scotland had the most slave owners (it’s not like we don’t need to discuss this, folks).
It’s brilliant, moving, shaming, radicalising TV. It doesn’t shy away from contemporary parallels (the slave economy was “too big to fail”, it gave birth to racial ideologies that persist to this day). The panel gave it a thumbs-up, the full Blue Peter badge. Answering the BBC’s historic brief, the show “informs”, “educates” and even “entertains”, so beautifully is it made.
This BBC — not the BBC of Saville and Hall, of massive Newsnight cock-ups, of bloated fees for “Talent” and management, of cloth-ears and establishment collusion during the indyref — is the one you’d go to the wall for. Or, if you had a mind to found a small new European state, the BBC you’d want to set your own public service broadcasting star by.
As in so many aspects of Scottish experience at the moment, we see the Tory free-market fundamentalisms bearing down on the BBC, and understand it as a distant attack on familiar battlements — knowing that we have an escape route ready, if we can just amass the nerve to attempt it. Like Scotland, the BBC is both on their target list and their neglect list. We might have stuff to learn from each other.
One area of mutual interest may be technological. We often neglect the BBC’s crucial role as an innovator, beyond just TV and radio programming. And some imagine that this role might well be the ultimate saving of it.
Do you remember Ceefax? Launched on September 23, 1974, as the first teletext system in the world, it was effectively the internet before the internet. For a few years, you could even download computer programmes from Ceefax to your BBC Micro — which was itself a stunningly bold intervention.
The BBC Micro was a UK-made open computer, running several programming languages (including BBC Basic). It was the instrument for the Beeb’s island-wide Computer Literacy Project, launched in December 1981.
Generations of geeks pay tribute to the BBC Micro as the inspiration of their coding passions. And they’re still trying to inspire. The BBC Microbit came out last week. This buzzing, blinking little device (free to all 11-12-year-olds) has the same ambition to tech-educate kids — but for a different era.
Part of the current complaint against the BBC, ironically, is that it’s far too digitally literate anyway. There are claims that its massive online news operations — local, national and global — crowd out commercial providers at each of these levels.
At the Edinburgh Television Festival Lecture in 1996, the then director-general John Birt said that, without digitalisation, the BBC would be “history”. With 59 per cent of adults who get their UK news online using primarily BBC sites, the organisation has been a victim of its own roaring success.
Some within the building argue that the best defence is visionary attack. The BBC’s head of archive, Tony Ageh, has for the last few years been saying that the corporation should be the lead developer of something called “digital public space”.
It’s undeniable that commercial interests currently shape and direct our access to network society. Even the most seemingly enduring services could one day financially crash, fall or merge into something different. Can there be a Lord Reith-like assertion of the digital rights of the everyday citizen – backed up not just by law, but by actual content and structures?
The key is open access to the island’s content archive — not just of the BBC’s content, but from cultural institutions, local government, education, and other publicly funded bodies, says Ageh.
We should guarantee access to, and usage of, all the content the British public has paid for over the years. Further, we should corral and regulate a zone of our bandwidth that is truly public; whose platforms and tools evolve at a pace which serves the citizen, not the shareholder.
Ager asks: can all this make up a renewed argument for the licence fee?
I’m not sure whether this “Beebnet” fits, or jars, with current crude Tory visions of a BBC doing less popular programming, and more of a “higher quality”. But I can say to its advocates that the idea of a “digital public space” chimes very well not just with Scottish aspirations, but also actions.
The kailyard of Scottish media broadcasting, as we know, sports many jaggy thistles. The BBC’s own audience surveys identify that only 48 per cent of people in Scotland think the Corporation “represents their life well” in news and current affairs content, compared with 61 per cent in England, 61 per cent in Northern Ireland and 55 per cent in Wales.
Last week’s Ofcom report on public sector broadcasting backs this up, but broadens it out: Scotland has the second highest proportion (21 per cent) of its audience who “feel negatively portrayed” in broadcast media, more than the North of England but less than Northern Ireland.
We know — in fact, if you are reading this on tablet or paper, you are physically holding — the consequences of this degree of Scottish popular alienation from mainstream media.
We know the range of crowd-funded websites and editorial floors that have sustained themselves — and thereby constructed their own “digital public spaces” – through indyref and the last UK General Election.
And while I’m sure all of them treasure their practical (as well as their ideological) independence, I know that all of them would want a national public broadcaster and regulator in Scotland that was genuinely worthy of the name.
But I wonder whether Ageh’s Beebnet vision meshes more with the way that an engaged and enlivened Scots populace might think about their media these days. What might a comparable “ScotNet” be like?
I would have thought there was huge Scottish appetite for a public media system which (to some degree) takes its priorities from its links with community users; and which takes as a major aim the archiving of, and universal access to, the nation’s culture and data.
I’ll leave it to others to argue the usual Caledonian toss for bigger programme budgets, killer franchises, loosened strings from Auntie. I’d rather be inspired by the BBC as the baggy, unpredictable, creative monster that it can be. And wonder, not for the first time, whether this is yet another classic collective British institution that is better defended on Scottish soil.
Pat Kane (www.patkane.today) is a musician and writer. Saturday Review is on tonight, 7.15pm, BBC Radio 4