The BBC must join the fight for internet freedom: an open letter to the new DG

In an open letter to the BBC's future Director General, Nick Fraser, editor of the internationally renowned documentary series Storyville, calls for an embrace of online resources as the focus for a renewed strategy to defend liberty and assert long term vision. 

Nick Fraser
7 June 2012

Dear DG to be,

DG's can be divided into those who introduce change, and those who are custodians. The latter are underestimated. Your predecessor was a better than good custodian. The BBC had just suffered a train wreck when he took over, but it is now in more than passable shape.

The doom-mongers will say…well, you know what they will say… that the place is doomed, antiquated, etc. (Over-powerful is a word we haven’t heard so much since the end of the Latter Rupert era, but I daresay we will do.) I travel worldwide more or less constantly on behalf of the BBC, finding or commissioning documentaries. No other media organization can guarantee it will still be alive in five years’ time. The world still wants a lot from the BBC. What the world expects – and I hope for, too – is that the BBC, unlike many of its fellow institutions, which are indeed doomed, will find its way onto the internet.

A year ago, speaking at an Oxford conference, Mark Thompson described the internet as a ‘permanent earthquake.’ He added that most old media players had no idea what to do about the internet. At the BBC policy changed from week to week as executives strove to keep abreast. “We have to alter our estimates not of how it ends, because we have no idea, but where it is going next.”

The internet is in the process of engulfing all previous forms of media. This is a process readily understood, despite its speed. It is not a tsunami, or a takeover, but a rational procedure. Within a decade all of what we call broadcasting will be available over the internet. Savvier players – Google, for instance – have already begun to prepare for this. It is time the BBC did so.

I don’t mean that there won’t be channels in ten years’ time. But they will have become, for the most part, shop windows for internet wares. Nostalgics or technophobes will visit them. They will have become like vinyl. The rest of us will be choosing online. And what about the venerable World Service? Surely no-one believes that worldwide audiences will remain loyal to old-style radio. 

A few books do offer some sort of map depicting where we might go. One of them is The Master Switch   by Tim Wu, who teaches at Columbia University. Wu applies the principle of ‘creative destruction’ (it comes from the eccentric but perceptive Austrian 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter) to media. He believes that it is possible to avoid some consequences of the earthquake, but only at a price. 

It’s interesting that the BBC is mentioned only in the context of its founding – as an instance of a grand monopoly which has somehow, against all odds, survived.

I read Wu’s book over a long night coming back from China. In reality he does offer grounds for supposing the BBC can survive. Wu sees the present as a clash between media empires in which those who wish to reinstate some degree of monopoly are pitted against those dedicated to keeping the web open Berners-Lee style.

In a way that could not have been envisaged even five years ago, the BBC surely belongs in the latter camp. If this is a one-off moment in history where the vast, inclusive freedoms implied by the existence of the web are up for grabs – threatened by governments such as the Chinese as well as private monopolists and those who believe their commercial interests are threatened - the BBC had better declare its hand soon.

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the BBC’s commercial obligation to protect the rights secured on behalf of licence fee payers. Less has been said about the BBC’s unique past, and what might become its future mission.

The capability to attract and hold attention is nearly beyond value on the internet. Almost alone nowadays, the BBC can claim to represent globally the old values of truth, objectivity, etc. In this century, it is clear, we’ll see many battles; but among the most important will surely be the struggle over free, and freely available information. I’d like to see the BBC most forcibly represented as the brand of freedoms. I’d also like to see the BBC take its place in a sustained campaign against ignorance.

In my own corner, I’d like to see the BBC using its power and reputation to promote the global showing of documentaries online. But this is only a small portion of what the BBC can do. Where is the BBC going to pitch its tent in the vast ‘public space’ of the internet? With whom will we choose to work? How – and this is the real question, dwarfing others - will we choose to educate the world?

A hero of a French novel remarks that it is great to be condemned to death, because one remembers all the poetry one has forgotten. The BBC hasn’t yet been condemned to death. Nonetheless, in order to survive it has to remember its own poetry.

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