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MyBBC: the problem with one to one news

The BBC’s vision of a ‘personalised’ news service, allowing the user to filter bulletins according to their interests, is at odds with the corporation’s public purpose.  

Lis Howell
6 August 2015
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Image: Flickr / Linus Follert

MyBBC: “You’ll be able to create a BBC experience that you control, [which] recognises you as an individual, and brings you the best of our content based on what we know you’ll love.” I tried it with news and it works. I picked the areas I was interested in and I now get alerts every time a woman gets a top job (only joking). You can choose weather for you area, for example, or your local radio station website, and it’s all very neat.

Which brings us to the potential controversies of myBBC. Number one: is it destined to one day take over from the current channels? The BBC emphatically rejects this idea, but at least one BBC executive thinks it might happen... So if BBC production is to become competitive and separately managed (Lord Hall, 10 July 2015) and then on top of this, the channel structure disappears, what is left?

Secondly, this has implications for funding, as they say in all of the most alarmist emails. There is no link between being a subscriber to myBBC and being a licence-fee payer. If myBBC achieves the popularity the BBC expects (though it is impossible to find out how much money is earmarked to develop myBBC) then it means millions of people can access BBC material – maybe all the BBC material they want or need – without paying….

And where does the World Service come into this? You might think this is going really off-piste, but the World Service is already the subject of a quiet but rumbling controversy which must be addressed in the next Royal Charter. It used to be funded by the Foreign Office and run by the BBC with guaranteed editorial independence. It is now funded by the BBC through the licence fee, and of course it still has guaranteed editorial independence.

Or does it? As Lord Birt has pointed out in the Guardian, and at a City University debate, the Foreign Office still has a say in the shape of the service. For example, if the BBC decided that the Lilliput language service should close, could the government insist otherwise, if it has an interest in reaching the citizens of Lilliput? Regardless of how costly the Lilliput service is, or what has to go to pay for it? It isn’t very transparent currently, but what is clear is that the government retains some interest in the World Service structure.

So what has this to do with myBBC? Two things: first, if myBBC does become the ‘build your own channel’ of the future, does this apply to overseas users as well? And secondly, if that is the case, where does the famous BBC fairness and balance come in?

If I live in Lilliput and I only want to hear about the Lilliput liberation army, can I blank out the news I don’t want to hear? And where will the Foreign Office stand on this? It would seem to me that a myBBC for World Service users is not what the Foreign Office wants at all. Of course, the simple answer is to make myBBC available only to UK subscribers. But a BBC spokesman said “We will look to extend myBBC to these sites also.” 

Fairness and balance is in fact the biggest controversy of all, as far as I am concerned, for all myBBC users. My News is great on the face of it. For me, no more boring football stuff! But the inevitable result will be that the user does not get an even-handed presentation, and that fairness and objectivity (however chimerical and hard to achieve) go out of the window.

I walked through this with one of my students. She paused on the BBC News homepage and saw the words Greece, Heathrow protesters and Wimbledon. She didn’t stop to read any of these stories and within three seconds she was on myNews, which is her chosen way of getting all the news. I tried the same thing with a colleague. Her phone layout meant she only got one story – Greece – before going into myNews. So myNews is not balanced impartial BBC News although it consists of BBC News stories.

It’s the dilemma embedded in Lord Hall’s speech – the personal versus the public concern. Sometimes, I would contend, it does have to be one to everyone, not one to one. That is what news is. The issue of the personal curation of the news items which we want, but not the news items we need, is something which is an issue for all modern news providers. But currently only the BBC is paid by the public to get it right.

Most of the potential problems I have raised can be solved by one development – the enshrining of plurality of near-equally resourced and respected voices in our broadcasting environment. I don’t mean the BBC in the middle with a lot of little niche news channels or special interest voices clustered around, like small planets around the sun. I mean a choice for viewers between two or three big national players. If other public service, balanced and objective news and events broadcasters are encouraged, perhaps even supported, then the BBC can do all of these things knowing it is in an environment where it is challenged. This would be good for us, good for business and good for the BBC.

Take BBC News at Ten. It is watched by about four million people. ITV News at Ten only gets about half as many viewers despite being much more than half as good – as the Royal Television Society awards system proves. But for the last ten years ITV, and ITN, have seen audiences eroded by three things – weaker programmes around ITV News; declining revenues; and the constant promotion of the BBC, with its guaranteed income, as the “pre-eminent provider of trusted news and information” (see Lord Hall’s quote above).

But trusting only one major source is not healthy for the BBC and it certainly isn’t healthy for the viewers. The myBBC development could well add to this danger, giving the viewer a faux sense of objectivity with a personalised news service, which is in fact so ‘one-to-one’ that all sense of context has gone. 

This is an edited extract of a chapter from the forthcoming book: 

The BBC Today: Future Uncertain. Ed. John Mair, Professor Richard Tait and Professor Richard Lance Keeble. Abramis Bury St Edmunds: 5 September 2015

Isbn: 9781845496562

(Copies available from mid august from Richard@arimapublishing.co.uk and on Amazon)

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