Is the BBC transliterate?

bbccouk.gif I'd always thought the BBC was pretty transliterate but recent events are making me wonder about that.
This post is the result of a recent invitation from Lizzie Jackson and David Wilcox, both veteran online community people, to attend a meeting with the BBC Trust. On Monday night I went along to meet members of the Trust plus a small group of people who had been identified as 'seed bloggers' who they hoped would cascade the conversation across to other bloggers – clearly we represented a tiny (and very London-centric) selection of UK blog writers. The idea is that our conversations will be tracked by a marketing company employed for that very purpose and the results relayed back to the Trust. Other bloggers at the meeting included Charlie Beckett, Lloyd Davis, Simon Dickson, Mick Fealty, Sunny Hundal, Nico Macdonald, Ed Mitchell, and JP Rangaswami – all much more active and more widely-read than me, that's for sure. I'm something of a slow blogger, but I do have connections to a network of readers, writers and producers interested in transliteracy and new media, so this post is an invitation to you, dear colleagues, to use this platform to respond and, as a result, we are told, to be directly heard. Of course, since that meeting the BBC-related blogosphere has been alive with discussion about Thursday's long-expected job cuts announcement, a decision which will have huge repercussions throughout the complex culture of the organisation and impact on everyone who uses the BBC – all of which makes the notion of being directly listened-to rather more problematic.
But here's the thing. In the midst of all of that, or rather just before it exploded, our small group was invited to Greek wine and titbits at the Hellenic Centre on Monday night to discuss one specific arm of the BBC – bbc.co.uk. I have to say that in all honesty I hardly use it (and am very put off by that sickly pale blue), and often when I do land there it's by chance via a link from a programme or news site, so I'm going to have to do some homework before I can usefully comment on how far it is meeting the Six Public Purposes as drawn up by the Trust, namely:


1 Sustaining citizenship and civil society
2 Promoting education and learning
3 Reflecting the UK’s nations, regions and communities
4 Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence
5 Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK
6 Emerging communications
All of these are interesting but what interests me the most is the widely-held belief that bbc.co.uk may be stifling commercial opportunity by producing so much free content in so many areas. I agree this is a problem. In the early days of the web, the mid 90s, it was touch and go as to whether the BBC would embrace digital technology or turn its back on it. It chose to embrace it, and often in a very exciting and open way, with the result that now it has developed an enormous empire of user-generated content, much of it intertwined with the BBC’s massive back catalogue and archives. (I especially enjoyed it when they featured computer classes in The Archers. The programme was originally designed to teach good farming practice but since then it’s been used for many other pedagogical purposes, and Bert Fry’s obsession with learning how to use the internet was a great example!)
But now perhaps there are just too many message boards and way too much UGC – all of which have to be managed. Ironically, the message board moderators get paid whilst the content producers often don’t. Sure, content wants to be free, but new media writers and producers also need to make a living. The BBC offers myriad opportunities for writers working in new media to publish their work online but for zero payment. In a community which is urgently seeking to monetise itself this can be very frustrating – especially when those who work for TV and radio are still getting paid via the old model. This has to be sorted out.
So my questions to you as creators and consumers, both in the UK and internationally, are:
1 Where is bbc.co.uk succeeding and failing in meeting any or all of its six purposes?
2 More generally, how can bbc.co.uk serve you as a professional writer/artist/producer/creator and/or as a user/audience member?
3 And I’m curious to know whether you think the BBC is transliterate and to what degree?
[[ You might also want to comment, as I frequently do, about the appallingly London-centric nature of the BBC. The list of bloggers invited to this event was an unfortunate reflection of that. ]]
Respond in comments here or via your own blog using the tag bbctrust and a trackback to this post. Thanks.

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13 thoughts on “Is the BBC transliterate?

  1. A few random responses, Sue.
    I’ve always loved bbc.co.uk in a fairly undiscriminating way. I had it as my home browser page for a long time, partly for the weather forecasts when I was travelling a great deal. A kind of comfort zone that was interesting and useful.
    Is it transliterate? depends on what you mean… There is certainly ugc and well-moderated discussion groups (btw good moderation is worth paying for, Sue, when you see the effect of no moderation, and the skills and commitment that good moderation demands). There are different modes of communicating there (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/communicate/)
    I have never seen it as ‘stifling commercial opportunity by producing so much free content in so many areas,’ any more than a public library does.
    I’ve found the bbc ‘writers room’ extremely useful as a writer.
    As for the aims, I’d say ‘a good pass’ except for perhaps numbers 1 and 6 which would get a straight pass from me.
    I’m not sure how truly responsive the BBC is to user feedback. Judging from producers’ responses on the Radio 4 ‘Feedback’ programme, not at all. So it is probably still in a ‘push’ rather than a ‘pull’ style. To meet the Web 2 and 3 trends, I guess it would be good to see more of an observable response from bbc.co.uk.

  2. Hi Jo, thanks for commenting. For the record, I agree that good moderation is certainly worth paying for and am not objecting to that – it’s the lack of a system to pay contributors that concerns me. I too have heard many good things about the Writers’ Room.

  3. You say you land on the BBC site by chance via a news story or programme – and presumably that’s how most of us do. I go to the Radio 4 page all the time to listen to the radio. It’s impossible for most users to judge the site as a whole and infact they need to make their 6 values evident in every page somehow, so a tone of voice – reliable, intelligent and accessible, thorough research and good links in and out of every page which show a concern for the international dimension.. it’s those things that matter most now that users don’t visit websites so much as google their way between pages.

  4. Sue – thanks for joining us at the workshop, and for encouraging reflections on bbc.co.uk. Invitations went to bloggers interested in the BBC and public service media, and/or likely to promote wider discussion because of their reach. It was a pilot, and other suggestions for follow up would I’m sure be welcomed by the Trust. There was undoubtedly a majority of London-based people, but also others invited from Dorset, Berkshire, Cambridge, Bristol and Brighton, as well as yourself. So, for the record, maybe southern rather than London-centric:-)
    I guess it could be argued on the one hand it isn’t where people live that matters but what they write … on the other hand that real world proximity, social networking and shared values produce a particular perspective.
    I have to admit I’m struggling a bit to understand transliteracy. Can you please expand a little on what it means in this context?

  5. Thanks very much, Sue, for extending this information, and I think the degree to which one appreciates bbc.co.uk depends very greatly on the quality of one’s access to, and the time available for browsing of, high-quality information in the multitude of fields essential to citizenship (local, regional, national and global) that bbc.co.uk provides. Those of us in universities, in particular, but also those who belong to supportive communties interested in creativity, music, writing, etc.(whatever their gross income) probably find it very hard indeed to understand just what a valuable resource bbc.co.uk is to those who who don’t belong to such communities, and whose access to even basic, in-depth information is limited by income, geographical location, family or community cultures, and so on.
    Finally, what, really, is the difference between bbc.co.uk providing free content, and anyone else, individual or collective, providing free content? Is every blogger out there, everyone who maintains a web site or forum on his or her obsession, also stifling commercial opportunity. And is the stifling of profiteering by the gifting of information to others anything but a good thing for the well-being of all citizens in a society?
    Anyone who provides free content does so, at base, from a belief in the sharing of ideas as a good. As a scholar and a citizen, I also believe that access to high-quality “content” in a multitude of fields is essential to an effective particpatory democracy, and that a public broadcasting organization such as the BBC is obliged to provide that material as effecitively as possible to as wide a range of individuals as possible.
    Also, remember that free in one context can frequently lead to a number of advantages for content-providers, only one of which is the earning of money (although that is very, very nice) – community, contacts, sometimes those very pleasant offers of money for what one is happy to provide freely which say something like, “I saw you piece and would you mind doing x…”
    Public good is not a good quantifiable in hard cash (nor should it be) – it’s a vocation, an obsession, a duty and a pleasure, and it works when it’s allowed to do so.
    On a personal note, as someone who lives abroad, even in a vibrant, first-world society like the USA, bbc.co.uk is a lifeline – I can listen to bbc radio whenever I like, I can draw on its resources for my students’ learning and my own. The reference archive of audio, primarily, but also some video, is a fundamental teaching tool for teaching global awareness and understanding. And so on…

  6. 1 Where is bbc.co.uk succeeding and failing in meeting any or all of its six purposes?
    4, 5 & 6 I would give a 6 out of 10 for. 1 a 1 out of 10 for but then I’m not sure that should be any part at all of the BBC’s remit. Producers are individuals who have to work within specified programme requirements and standards, but as to promoting an ethos or ‘civil society’, Fahrenheit 451.
    The BBC’s idea of ‘regional’ seems to be Woman’s Hour out of Manchester and the odd programme out of Bristol. It is not where the programme is produced, it is the focus of the content that counts. They don’t seem to quite get this. There are rare exceptions like the food programme that runs before PM.If they had a network of individual producers all around the country, which is very easy to achieve now, this could be redressed significantly and within a short time.
    2 More generally, how can bbc.co.uk serve you as a professional writer/artist/producer/creator and/or as a user/audience member?
    I’d have to say that bbc.co.uk is a very useful adjunct to BBC media in both radio and television. I am concerned that UGC content will become ever more dominant because even though it is easy to generate, it is expensive to manage and to maintain quality standards. It may also slightly depreciate, in the BBC’s eyes, content from more traditional writers and producers.
    This brings up remuneration which is always a sore point for those who are not staffers and with the cuts this week there are going to be fewer and fewer of those. Even those under contract now have to re-apply for their positions. The NUJ is right to stand very firm in their criticism of what is going on. The BBC, and indeed all the monopoly publishers, newspapers, and programme producers increasingly buy ALL rights from individual, non-staff producers/creators, not the first time or one-off rights with negotiated options for more as used to be the case. This new umbrella also tends to include all platforms and owns your work in perpetuity, often stitching the writer up without any earnings from unanticipated discrete royalties. It is extremely annoying when you write and publish a book or produce a programme, for example, only to discover the X Publishing House or Y Broadcasting company even owns the database contained in the work, even though the work contract was negotiated and signed for the book in print, the programme in final production, just that, long before such issues were being hotly debated and even before people understood the full implications of then yet unknown possibilities such as Web 2.0. The net result is, to my way of thinking, that the path is open for elements from within a creative work to be pulled out and maximized separately to the advantage of the buyer rather than in keeping with the intent of the artist/writer/producer. Which artist could ever take on legal challenges in an unprecedented and very expensive lawsuit? Could anyone ever sue the BBC or similar in the High Court and win?
    3 And I’m curious to know whether you think the BBC is transliterate and to what degree? Yes, it is ‘transliterate’ to some degree but for the sake of being so, not the usefulness. It should enhance not debase original content to the point where the fact of this transliteracy becomes more important than the original relationship between the viewer/listener and individual programmes.

  7. Hi Sue,
    We shouldn’t forget BBC World – http://www.bbcworld.com
    As it says: “BBC World is the BBC’s commercially funded, international 24-hour news and information channel, broadcast in English in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. Its estimated weekly audience reach of 76 million makes it the BBC’s biggest television service.”
    It comes complete with pop-up adverts.
    My point is that this is the way in which objective 5 is being met as far as much of the rest of the world is concerned, yet it seems somewhat less web 2.0, or transliterate, than bbc.co.uk

  8. i don’t think that it stiffles commercial opportunity – in fact it can be a useful resource for the comercial sector in lots of ways
    many pieces on the site have several different elements – texts – video – sound – interactivity – and so might be viewed as examples of transliteracy but the pieces rarely invite reading in the gaps across media or between the links – that link and shift that i associate with transliteracy – they invite a multiliterate reading rather than a transliterate reading although inevitably there will be transliteracy taking place to some extent…
    The so called blogs of the presenters etc seem not really top be in the spirit of real blogging – more like ‘opinion’ collumns in newspapers than real blogs and they feel editorialised too often
    perhaps the overuse of email and text contact marginalises those who don’t want to email or text or can’t
    just thoughts quickly written and not well formed after a sunday evening meal

  9. David, thanks for your comment. Yes, southern-ness does tend to be a problem at the BBC! Re transliteracy, this blog’s domain name is http://www.transliteracy.com and it’s where my colleagues and I are working to develop a notion of literacy which encompasses many different media. Our current definition reads ‘Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.’ This seems very pertinent to the work of the BBC and I thought it would be useful to post the questions here and elicit a response from blog readers who are already thinking about transliteracy.
    Lesley, thanks for your points about free content. I agree there are certainly spin-off benefits from it, but I am also very interested in how new media sits alongside traditional media in terms of how creators and producers get paid – not least because I’d like the students from the MA in Creative Writing and New Media to get jobs at the end of their degree.
    Claudia, leading on from that, you make an interesting point related to the ease with which UGC can be collected but the difficulties of maintaining and managing it. I don’t think anyone has that sussed yet.
    Andy, BBC World is an interesting example of the Corporation’s commercial arm and you make a good point about its level of transliteracy. I’d like to see a breakdown of the different kinds of content between the two. Maybe one of the difference lies in bbc.co.uk’s sense that it is serving a community which is co.uk whereas BBC World probably has a different view of its audience.
    Paul, without going into a lot of detail, the stifling commercial opportunity issue arises, I believe, from the BBC creating free content for schools in direct competition with commercial companies who have to charge for it. This certainly attracted a lot of discussion in the last year or so. Perhaps someone else can provide us with more detail?

  10. sue – i can see how for instance BBC BiteSize revision (which is really good by the way)would cut across some comercial outlets as would some other content – but someone has to write the stuff and they get paid for that – and some outside providers – independants – are used to create material in the same way that indie production companies make schools and other TV/Radio content – it could be argued that the bbc provides more opportunities than it stiffles – following on from this it also provides the challenge to companies to come up with something better something that the bbc doesn’t provide – to be creative – the bbc for instance i think would never come up with something as interactive, innovative and good as Planet Jemma – which did go out free to use – but was still not used by as many schools as good have in pointing students towards it – a possible problem arises when its just so easy to go to the bbc website and find stuff to use that some teachers and others look no further and perhaps finish up with a totally bbccentric approach – much of the bbc web youth content smacks too much of ‘yoof programing’ – trying too hard perhaps at times – just thoughts – paul

  11. Reaching out to bloggers? Admit limited transliteracy

    I wrote recently about how large organisations may be able to reach out to bloggers to promote conversations in the public interest, and the sensitivites involved. Here’s some news of a project along those lines that I and colleagues been

  12. Just listening to Today on Radio 4 discussing a new map that I missed the details of, but someone who sounds like Andy Kershaw says that Leicester is now in the South – I’ve become a Southerner overnight!

  13. Yes – interestingly the “north/south” divide is in fact a wobbly diagonal line drawn across from west to east starting at the Severn and ending at the Humber. Leicester falls just south.
    Personally, I’ve always felt there is more of an east/west divide than north/south. Glasgow/Edinburgh. Liverpool/York. Bristol/London. etc.
    Anyway, the general Leicester view is summarised here http://www.guardian.co.uk/northsouth/article/0,,2200782,00.html

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