Where does Web 2.0 leave the BBC?
'You're listening to CB Radio 2.0'
Beeb Week The BBC is in a bind. The changing media landscape means that news and information must increasingly be presented in a provocative or visually stimulating fashion. Very often the easiest way of doing this is to offer it via the perspective of a celebrity reporter.
Next time you’re watching BBC television news, note how little the newsreader says to the camera before switching straight to a dialogue with the big name correspondent or the analyst with all the colourful charts. Witness, too, the surge in stories that begin "...the BBC has learnt that...", making the sources and investigation part of the story.
On the other hand, the world desperately needs whatever remaining bastions of old-fashioned fact-giving it can cling on to. The internet has ushered in a society that is awash with easily findable information, but with very few anchors in amongst all the links.
Wikipedia and blogs certainly extend participation in information gathering and sharing, but they do very little to assist in the authentication of all that information. Along with academics, organisations such as the BBC provide an important service to the world in endorsing news and information, which can then be picked up and linked to in the less professionalised spheres of the web.
The BBC grapples with this dilemma in a recent report, From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel (the title refers to how it sees politics moving from a left-right axis to a broad plurality of opinion), which seeks to update the notion of impartiality for an age in which people not only subscribe to a much broader and fragmented range of views, but have far more autonomy to consume and produce news content.
Everyone's a reporter! Except our reporters...
The most important claim made in the report is that the corporation shouldn’t automatically associate the "middle ground" as the impartial place to stand, for that itself is a political stance. The people who fund the BBC - the license fee payers - have a right to see their various opinions communicated more often, either through prominent public figures from all different points on the wagon wheel of opinion, or through user generated content.
As the report puts it: "Impartiality does not entail equal space for every attitude, but it should involve some space provided that views are rationally and honestly held, and all of them are subject to equal scrutiny."
Less regulation of online forums and greater openness to the diversity of user-generated content is viewed as an important way of doing this, given that "every member of the public now has the potential to be a reporter".
The question is what it means for a view to be "rationally and honestly held". Can one "rationally" hold a racist view, or "rationally" believe in the afterlife? One suspects that racists will never get much access to either the airwaves or cyberspace via the BBC. Christians, on the other hand, are granted a statutory number of hours in the BBC schedule.
What this indicates is the difficulty of redefining what counts as a valid view, in an age in which fact and opinion constantly sit alongside each other. Once upon a time, to hold a view "rationally" meant to seek out information according to certain Western, Enlightenment scientific principles. The question of impartiality didn’t arise; if it was a fact that a certain event had occurred, then little else needed to be said on the matter. People could have their views, and were welcome to communicate these via letter, book, or loudhailer, but these could be entirely separate from the story.
What the BBC is arguing is that this is no longer plausible or desirable. It is no longer plausible because the sheer number of perspectives that can emerge on any incident makes it sometimes impossible for a set of facts to ever be agreed upon. It is no longer desirable because it privileges a dispassionate, liberal view of the world that is politically unrepresentative. This is the criticism of science otherwise known as "postmodernism".
British Venting Corporation?
But given all the blogs and Web 2.0 innovations that the BBC are so conscious of - and so powerless to do anything about - why does the BBC feel that it has to provide further space for this cacophony of opinion-giving? There are more places than ever for people to go to let off steam and vent opinion.
Granted, the BBC should not be promoting left-liberal causes such as Make Poverty History (one of the complaints in the new report). But the solution needn’t lie in simply giving an equal amount of space to a right wing campaign in return. Surely the BBC’s most valuable role lies in sticking to its Enlightenment guns, presenting us with facts and information, then being judged on the professionalism of its journalism. Bloggers and amateur reporters actually benefit from credible shared reference points.
To be fair to it, the report is not so enamoured with "citizen journalism" as to ignore the value of training and traditional journalistic rigour. But waters are being muddied here. Where does the citizen journalist end and the professional one begin?
With ever more specialist correspondents such as John Simpson (many of whom are also vain enough to engage in political punditry and publishing of autobiographies), how can we know where their slant begins and ends? And as far as the BBC’s internet services are concerned, exactly how moderated is "unmoderated"?
The BBC is to be commended for facing up to the dilemma. Its new document suggests that it is hoping to steer a path down the middle, between dull scientific objectivity on one side and cacophonous democratic opinion-airing on the other. But if it is successful in doing this, it may then be credited with the more dubious feat of having brought the two approaches closer together. ®
William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch