Pulling the plug on the BBC’s internet history


I read yesterday’s news about the BBC website cuts with alarm. I worked for a decade on the news website, usually sitting at a desk and grumbling at people who were doing real work, and I’m still protective of the old girl, even though we’ve long gone our separate ways.

During that decade, I became more and more frustrated with the BBC’s inability to defend itself – the episode which followed the “sexing up” claim on the Today programme did permanent damage to the organisation’s self-confidence.

Yesterday’s announcement was the latest in a long line of exercises in self-flagellation. Years of work put in by staff dedicated to the cause dismissed with a wave of the arm. And all for an easy headline to keep the BBC’s enemies happy. For now.

As a whole, the BBC’s decision to rationalise what it does online is a wise one – at least in terms of the way it is run.

At the news website, we were lucky to have a dedicated management team who fought for us and alongside us, shielding us from the poisonous internal politics that blighted our broadcast colleagues. (When we were absorbed into broadcast units as part of an earlier round of cuts, I decided to find the exit door.)

But the rest of the website wasn’t run in the same way – with little bits here and there, creating jealousies and turf wars. All it shared was branding – which changed like a bus’s destination board at the whim of marketing departments (“BBC Online”? “BBCi”? “bbc.co.uk”? “BBC”?).

And yes, some right old crap was created in that time – 10 years ago I was briefly seconded to a “yoof” news service to provide a bit of internet experience for a team of largely inexperienced TV types in creating their own site on the news website’s servers.

It should have been a nice bit of career progression, but instead I could only watch powerlessly as two achingly self-conscious broadcast types decided to declare war on my own bosses and, by extension, me, because we pointed out to them that many of their plans were barmy. They would only answer their bosses in TV, they declared, before packing the site out with sub-Popbitch injokes.

The website duly crashed and burned, but not until hundreds of “online-only” video bulletins had been produced and placed online each hour for a dial-up audience which never broke into three figures, and usually struggled to make two figures.

(In context, 853 gets more page views daily than that site ever did.)

But that was a management failing more than a creative failure. Nobody ever innovates in the media without speculating. For every few donkeys, you stumble upon a thoroughbred. And the web’s a far cheaper place to be creative than a television studio will ever be.

Which is why the other part of the announcement – the cull in websites – concerns me. For loads of these websites have already been culled in past cuts, swings of the axe which predate the current world of Twitter and Facebook. These aren’t cuts, it’s not even a simplification – it’s simply freeing up server space.

For example, the Cult site was axed to appease commercial concerns, although the rise of YouTube has rendered those obselete too.

Collective was one of the gems of the BBC online empire, and one that wasn’t shouted about. A den of user-submitted reviews and features, backed up with specially-commissioned video sessions from bands and other artists. Its proudest moment was staging its own gig at 93 Feet East – a BBC website engaging with the real world? Heavens! This was, for me, the BBC at its best – distinctive, engaging, and unique.

But it never got the support of TV or radio, so was quietly binned, and now faces being erased from the web altogether after years of staying up as an online archive.

Other services – like the old music site – also lacked editorial champions, so were rarely promoted on the broadcast stations that could have promoted them. Again, a management failing.

How about People’s War? “The BBC asked the public to contribute their memories of World War Two to a website between June 2003 and January 2006…” and five years later some suit decided to bin them.

The oldest surviving BBC website predates my time there. Politics 97, created to cover the election which ushered in New Labour, then kept on to cover Gordon Brown’s first budget, Tory leadership and devolution issues, and then Princess Diana’s death. Not touched since BBC News Online’s launch in November 1997, it’s easy to see how the BBC fumbled towards finding a style on the web it was comfortable with. Only a handful of people knew of its continued existence – yet its survival is a reminder of how the BBC shaped the web in Britain.

Think back to the late 1990s – in news, only the (Electronic) Telegraph had a website worth speaking of, with the Guardian coming a little later (remember Guardian Unlimited?) The Mail held out for years before the creation of the now-profitable Mail Online.

But it was the BBC, along with a few others, who were among the pioneers and helped define the web in Britain. Without such heavy investment in the web – which, after all, was a logical progression after the creation of Ceefax, the sale of BBC Micros and its dabbling in telesoftware – it’s possible that US giants would have stolen a march, using a shared language to take market share and change the agenda. But the BBC set such a high standard for others to aspire to, the likes of Yahoo! and AOL knew that simply repackaging their US offerings simply would not do.

The BBC should be shouting about its role in creating the British web, not sweeping this history under the carpet for fear of offending ideologically-obsessed blowhards.

Archive these sites somewhere, give them to the British Library, but don’t kill them off – people worked hard on those. The BBC regrets the days it routinely wiped TV shows to save on storage space. It may similarly come to rue the day it deleted all these old websites.

UPDATE 13:20 – Martin Belam, who knows a lot more about the innards and history of both the BBC and Guardian websites than I ever will, has also posted about this“I’m really not sure who benefits from deleting the Politics 97 site from the BBC’s servers in 2011”. There’s also this on radio leaving the iPlayer from James Cridland.

20 comments

  1. I happen to believe that that BBC didn’t see the point of the web until the Save The World Service campaign started. During that campaign – in about 1997, off the top of my head – World Service journalists updated the world on-line every day (I know because I hosted their web pages), and the BBC management had no way of answering them. The BBC management could only watch (as I know, from the access logs) and hope that the World Service journalists did something to justify the management demanding that they be taken off-line. But of course they didn’t – all the “copy” on the web site was written in that recognisable, balanced way that the BBC used to be world-famous for.

  2. My main complaint with the BBC web site in the last 10 years is that they tried to do everything and used their position to undermine local initiatives in a way that was really anti-competitive.

    You want a local community web site? the BBC will create a where-you-are-area, and you can send stuff in (though the BBC will decide what gets published and what doesn’t) and comment.

    You want 360 degree fly-rounds of landmarks and other nice places in your part of the country? the BBC will create those and put them on-line – thus removing an entire income stream from countless hundreds of small businesses. (I didn’t do 360 degree fly-rounds but I know people who did, and the BBC scooped up all the best subjects.)

  3. A great read mate.
    I’m of the understanding that each programme team still has an ex-online journalist working on it or at least some sort of new-media boffin.

    Someone mentioned on twitter yesterday that streaming radio shows on iplayer were going but the downloadable podcasts weren’t. Any news on this?

    I remember my BBC Micro…a very nice piece of kit.

  4. Nice post. Lots of it sounds familiar.

    BTW, it was a while back, but I remember People’s War wasn’t set up to continually be added to, but when submissions were no longer taken, they would be archived, remaining available to all. In what might have been one of the first deals of it’s kind for the BBC, the British Library also archived the stories and pictures (though I don’t know the details.) I’d love to see them remain online on the BBC, and they should have a useful wodge of metadata that could help.

    And yes, I know cos I worked on it 😉

  5. Even now, the BBC still knocks spots off television & media in most other parts of the world. The BBC isn’t the problem. The problem has a name – it’s Rupert.

  6. Surely the Beeb could save a fortune just by abolishing “Have Your Say”, 606 and the various other forums? I dread to think how many people they have to get to moderate all the crap people spout on them.

  7. Hi Darryl

    Heartwarming article. As the producer of the BBC’s Cult website I was never clearly told why it was shut down – it was a site looking primarily at the BBC’s own glorious history, so quite what commercial rivals it threatened were a mystery to me! It does seem fairly harmless (and cheap) to leave a text-based website online – especially as, ironically, Cult was dedicated to preserving gems of the BBC’s archive online. Cult was also the first BBC site to ever do a drama webcast – without it there’d never have been the iPlayer. *sniff*

  8. Thanks James. Just noticed the Cult index links (on about every 20th refresh!) to an 11-year-old feature I did on tribute bands (tying in with the Brit Awards in, argh! 2000!) .

    Now that’s another reason to keep it going…

  9. […] a bit recently – I hope to find out the latest on Frank Dekker’s big scheme soon.) 9. Pulling the plug on the BBC’s internet history (25 January) (I didn’t do much non-SE London stuff in 2011 – but this post about the […]

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