Citizen regulators: BBC Trust reaches out through blogs in its review of bbc.co.uk
Attended an event held by the BBC Trust last week which basically took the form of a series of mini-debates among bloggers.
The BBC Trust is the organisation which has taken over this year the role of the BBC governors. If you've not got an eagle eye on politics, the media or the BBC in particular you'd be very much forgiven for not really knowing what that's all about, but as it says on the Trust's website, it:
...works on behalf of licence fee payers: it ensures the BBC provides high quality output and good value for all UK citizens and it protects the independence of the BBC.
In a way I'm glad didn't blog about it straightaway. The time in between has let me filter some of many thoughts that came out of it, mull 'em over...
One point came back to me again and again. I even related the tale in a couple of meetings, and I suspect it will become a favourite illustrative anecdote.
Someone from the Trust opened up the proceedings by asking us not to dwell on two topics of conversation which were outside the remit of the review: (1) the controversial BBC iPlayer and (2) the editorial impartiality of the BBC (especially the news).
Then Mark Rogers from Market Sentinel stood up and gave a brief overview of conversations in the blogosphere. Naturally I took a keen interest in this as researching conversations and communities online is a fairly important part of my business.
Mark very eloquently summarised the main two topics of conversation about bbc.co.uk in the blogosphere as being about... wait for it... the iPlayer and the perceived editorial independence or otherwise of BBC news coverage. He added that these topics were sometimes "proxy discussions" for other topics such as whether the BBC should exist at all, or for parochial political discussions.
It was a brilliant analysis, and it immediately challenged the idea that the Trust could define what subjects it wanted to have a conversation about with its networks.
It's a challenge that are a lot of policy makers, politicians and public sector organisations are going to come against increasingly. You can't set the agenda in a network. You can encourage, initiate, influence and invite, but you can't ignore what's there or you will disqualify yourself from the most important conversations, discount your usefulness, mark down your relevance and even your legitimacy, ultimately.
OK there was a hell of a lot of food for thought in the rest of the evening. Forgive the brevity, but I could - and maybe will - write a Stephen Fry-esque "Blessay" on this and I seriously don't have the time right now...
1. It was a brave experiment to put this may opinionated blogging types in a room together: David Wilcox did a great job in making this happen and was clearly acutely aware of the issues around blogger outreach. Although I'm basically favourably disposed to the BBC as an institution, I'm highly allergic to committees and get nauseous if I catch a whiff of bureaucracy, so I did approach the evening with some trepidation. What I saw was an organisation willing to open up. The openness and by definition unregulated nature of the blogosphere makes it an alien and even hostile space to your average regulator or trustee, I'm sure. So well done them for even going this far.
2. The shift from channels to networks means that the concept of governance must be challenged and reassessed: Power is shifting out (not down, as some condescending types out have it) from large organisations. The BBC Trust needs to understand the nature of this change, of the shift to networks, and be clear (to itself first of all) about what that might mean for its role. The opportunities to involve and engage with the people that pay for and use the BBC and the organisation are increasing - and it's about more than just engaging with the "blogosphere". In short the Trust needs a strategy for responding to the media and social revolution going on around it. Social media is not just another channel for consultation and governance as usual.
3. The BBC Trust needs innovation as much as the BBC does: The Beeb has had some stumbles of late to be sure, but I'm generally admiring of its past efforts at innovation that have been generally helpful to the new media industry in the UK and beyond. The BBC Trust needs to be an innovator too in how it carries out its duties. It needs to innovate around how governance is carried out and, I say again, what governance means in the age of network. These review exercises are, I think, carried out every five years - imagine how much larger and sophisticated online conversation will be in 2012... The techniques of engagement and listening online that the Trust uses now will be far important, perhaps even central, to any kind of meaningful review then...
4. The conversation around BBC.co.uk is vast: Given that a lot of people in the room were politically-minded, and I'd probably all had a deep interest in current affairs, it was always likely that news.bbc.co.uk would be the focus of a lot of discussion. But bbc.co.uk is almost universal in its appeal, its content and connections to online communities covering education, travel,
5. Governance / public consultation needs to be *live* if it is to be relevant today: It's neat and tidy to carry out a one month consultation with stakeholders, but it is limited. People interested in all sorts of aspects of the BBC on and offline are offering their thoughts all the time. To remain relevant, and indeed legitimate, I would say that it was in the Trust's and all our interests that listening and engaging with their publics was something that was happening all the time. The BBC Trust should be thinking about a retainer for Market Sentinel, or developing their listening skills and process networks in-house.
Anyway, there it is. Some thoughts. There are some considered posts and debates happening elsewhere: