The most read story on Media Guardian (online) today is Jemima Kiss’ excellent piece on the ‘relocation’ of Kingswood Warren – the BBC’s main research and development centre – from Surrey to White City.
Apparently the BBC owning a stately mansion in the country is considered wasteful and unnecessary – so the 100-odd-strong R&D team are being moved to White City, with about a third of them moving again up to Salford with the ‘future media department’.
Reading the piece, it’s clear that there’s real concern amongst the team that this is the beginning of the end for their department. Having a special old house away from London created an academic environment that resulted in the development of colour TV, FM and stereo radio, Ceefax, satellite broadcasting, high-definition TV, digital radio and Freeview and ultra-high definition TV. And very soon that will be gone, and all in the name of a bit of very public cutting back.
I was going to write something about why this is a terrible idea – until I realised that I already had, in this column I wrote for the Guardian back in late 2004 when the Salford move was first announced. I was talking specifically about BBC Online, but the point stands for the entire BBC.
In short, wasting money on huge mansions filled with brilliant people is exactly what the BBC is for…
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BBC cuts – another thing I don’t need
The Guardian, Monday December 13 2004
Last week’s big new media news was, without doubt, the BBC’s announcement that they intend to lop off huge chunks of their online services and pack what’s left off to Manchester.
Being a London media type, I have to admit that my first reaction was one of surprise. I mean, do they even have the internet in Manchester? Or computers? Or electricity for that matter? Apparently they do – something which the city’s soon-to-be-even-richer estate agents will be keen to point out to 1,800 displaced BBCers who are due to head north in the next five years.
My second reaction was sadness. Why exactly should the BBC have to close down sites just because they “do not provide sufficient public value”? And who judges what’s valuable anyway? I’ve really cut back on my usage of BBC News Online in recent months – Google News tells me everything I need to know and I can always turn on the radio. Likewise, I never visit the – no doubt very useful – local BBC sites or the sports sites or, God forbid, the BBC religion and ethics site. And yet while they have been spared the axe, the corner of the BBC site that I have visited most regularly has had its oxygen cut off without warning. Its name: “Get Writing”.
If you’re not lucky enough to have visited Get Writing (www.bbc.co.uk/getwriting) then I urge you to do so immediately, while you still can. It’s essentially a virtual writers’ circle and there really is no finer way to spend an hour of your time than by browsing through the work of the would-be writers who have submitted themselves to peer review. Not since the publication of The Best of Victor Lewis-Smith has so much awful writing been brought together in the same place. So awful in fact that a friend of mine likened it to the Vogon Poetry in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (”the third worst poetry in the universe”). And yet its awfulness is also its brilliance.
I love the fact that the BBC is wasting my money encouraging people to write rubbish. I absolutely hate soaps and yet I adore the fact that the BBC built a site called Pure Soap that cost a ton of (my) money to maintain and yet offers absolutely nothing that can’t be found elsewhere. Likewise their fantasy football site and the lifestyle and parenting sites that (in the wake of the Graf report) are being either axed or cut back – I have no interest in them but I’m absolutely delighted that they exist.
The point of the BBC is that it spends my money on things I don’t care about – like the Shipping Forecast and letting Ian Wright present the National Lottery. That’s what it’s for. Likewise, their online raison d’etre should be to pour money into web things that are silly, or unpopular or in competition with a commercial rival, without shame or explanation. Because it’s through this diversity that bbc.co. uk has become the most emotionally satisfying site on the web.
If you don’t know what I mean, just think about the feeling you get when you walk into the wool department of John Lewis. “Just look at all the different wool,” you think. “Who could possibly need all of this wool?” And then you go up the escalator to the toy department and you think “look at all these toys. Why do they bother selling toys? You can buy toys at Toys R Us.” I defy anyone to walk around John Lewis without feeling pride and surprise that such a place still exists in this otherwise bland world – a grand, well-designed, friendly place full of everything you need, and loads of other stuff that you never, ever will. But it’s nice to know it’s there. You won’t catch them closing down departments just because they don’t “provide sufficient public value”.
And that’s exactly the same feeling I get every single time I browse the BBC site. “Just look at all the crap poetry … who could possibly need all this crap poetry? Oooh, soaps, why do they have a soaps site? You can get soaps anywhere? Oooh … news.” Good on them for trying to be all things to all people – good on them for being the only place on the net where you can get everything you want and a whole load of things you’ll never, ever need – all without an advert or a PR-tie-in or a “call to action” in sight. And shame on Philip Graf and Mark Thompson for trying to make them stop.
The fact is, I don’t care how BBC Online spends its share of my licence fee. As long as they keep producing sites that surprise, inform, amuse and occasionally appal, then I’m more than happy. But who cares what I – or any other licence payer – thinks? Graf has spoken and Get Writing and Pure Soap are no more. The web is an infinitely poorer place for their passing.