Tony Hall takes over as Director-General of the BBC this week. The Observer, like every other newspaper in the land, was keen to offer him advice and Vanessa Thorpe (the paper’s Arts and Media Correspondent) asked various people what they thought Hall should be focussing on. I was one of the people she consulted, and some of what I said is included in her piece. Here, for the record, is the full text of what I said.
In thinking about its future, the BBC ought first to look back to its roots. Lord Reith may have been a crusty old patriarchal bird but in a way his vision for the BBC was startlingly egalitarian. He believed that the corporation’s mission was to bring the best to everyone. And he wanted the things it created to be free from commercial and political manipulation. When considering what the BBC’s role should be in a digital world, Tony Hall and James Purnell could do a lot worse than return to those two aspirations.
Because we’ve all bought into the techno-utopianism of the early Internet, we tend to assume that it’s always going to be open to everyone. But as more and more of the world goes online, it’s clear that we’re heading in a very different direction — towards an online world dominated by huge, primarily foreign-owned, corporations which are creating walled gardens in which internet users will be corralled and treated like captive consumers, much as travellers are in UK airports now. The dream that the Internet would make everything available to everyone on equal terms is fading fast.
For various reasons, including accidents of history, the BBC is the only institution in the world with the resources and the capability to challenge the drift towards commercially-controlled walled gardens. It has a huge archive of cultural treasures — 6 million photographs, 4 million copies of sheet music, a complete record of everything that has ever been broadcast, one of the world’s largest record collections, and national and international news reports for every day for the past 70 years — plus recordings of most of what it has ever created and transmitted. And it sits at the heart of a society endowed not only with the world’s lingua franca, but also with 2,500 museums and galleries, six national libraries, a thousand academic libraries and some of the world’s best universities.
So here’s what the BBC should be doing next: orchestrating the creation of a new kind of unwalled online garden, one which gathers together all of the nation’s cultural heritage in digitised form, together with: the metadata which enables things to be discovered; open access for all; and and permissive licences that allow citizens of Britain — and the world — to access, enjoy, consume, learn from and remix the great things that this society and its people have given to the world.