An Alternative Proposal for the BBC

BBC archive centre entrance

by Douglas Carter

I want to pay more money for product from the BBC. 

That’s not an intentionally incendiary sentiment. In terms, it’s exactly the correct phrase. I wish to go on paying the licence fee and augment my subscription for additional product the BBC already owns. Product of which, in fact, the BBC has custodianship for decades before I was even born.

In that, I do not wish any reader here to be paying extra for the BBC in an involuntary manner. In fact I’m in full agreement with those who will be reading if they can’t justify to themselves paying for a product they are likely to at least not use. Or very possibly in terms of broadcast product, despise; and to whom the notion an individual can be legally hounded for non-payment for a licence linked to a product they don’t use is an affront.

I’m going to suggest something the BBC will resist with energy. However in principle this should be looked at as ‘difficult’, but not ‘insurmountable’.

The BBC will operate on the principle of ‘insurmountable’. 

I’m talking about the BBC archive.

The BBC has an archive of records which aren’t just pre-broadcast recordings. They have many tens of millions of celluloid stills and unused and unedited materials of all kinds. Nobody can see them. Or use them. Even previously broadcast programmes they retain but cannot release for subsequent access. 

At this stage when I first discussed this with my friend, and Blog custodian, Sam Hooper, I gave him a link to a thirty-five year old YouTube BBC News bulletin. A particularly mundane and unremarkable one. I do not link it here since I feel confident that somebody linked to the BBC, somewhere, will feel under an obligation to strive to have YouTube take it down.

I have no idea why somebody would have uploaded it to YouTube – it was an unexeptional day’s news and of no particular interest to myself. But they obviously cared sufficiently about it to do so. However, the recording in terms is not strictly legal. It’s not really supposed to exist and whilst I can watch it illegally, the BBC would block me attempting to buy a copy of this news bulletin from them.

In context, in your own mind, name yourself a personal enthusiasm – Sam here might choose an orchestral rendition of a piece of which he is immeasurably fond. YouTube it, and see how many pieces are from BBC recordings. It won’t take you long, whether art, sport, news, even weather forecasts. Few of which you can buy from the BBC. Recordings in the archive but forever immune to access by the Licence Fee payer.

The subjects listed were associated with a BBC broadcast will have had BBC photographers in attendance taking reels of celluloid film of the events. These will have been taken in cameras funded by the licence fee payer, the reels of film funded by the same source, and those lucky people also paying for the development of those reels. However, that’s as far as their participation is welcome. No ordinary licence fee payer can access those photos. To reiterate, I don’t know why somebody would wish to access those photos. But if they exist, I see no logical reason the BBC should act to prevent a paying enthusiast securing photographs via this method?

Neither should such an enthusiast nor researcher be under any obligation to give justification or reason for such access.

Under the current terms, these celluloid films will be digitized for future prosperity. So, whilst nobody today can see them, they will be perfectly preserved so in two hundred years time, nobody can see them then either. For the life of me I cannot explain to me the logic of that. (I’m talking about BBC-originated product and staff – not material from contracted-out sources who will usually be quite happy to have people purchase matter from their historic archives).

The restrictions the BBC – and other broadcasters – must follow are subjectively logical and historic. Very frequently they act to protect intellectual property for brief showings of – for example – film clips or music videos, the copyright for which the BBC does not own. However, it’s quite simple to demonstrate those restrictions have been definitively breached. Jericho’s walls are tumbling down. The BBC cannot police the internet to remove recordings – and if they attempted to do so, their efforts would be just a drop in the ocean. It would also be a waste of resources.

Instead I would wish the BBC to be directed, compelled, by Government to recognise the collossal cultural and historic wealth at hand in the Archive and make use of it. I want the government to tell the BBC to sell me what I want, if they already have it. I want the government to tell the BBC to take my money, whether they like it or not. So, not only am I not complaining about paying the licence fee, I want to pay more. I’m not trying to take it illicitly, I’m happy to pay for it. Whilst the BBC makes ‘some’ of its archive available, it’s via very narrow terms of reference. Step outside them, and they will not attempt to assist.

Other restrictions, in a very small and limited example in a vast minefield, relate to royalty payments for programming staff and broadcasters who can no longer be contacted. There is a precedent. Gordon Brown permitted the Treasury to take funds from UK bank accounts which had been inactive for a specified period. I understand those funds can be returned to the legitimate custodian with relevant supporting evidence. I suggest income from accessing the archive be put in trust – say – with the support of ‘Equity’, the performers Union, so the relevant funding can be suitably and fairly accounted for, and disbursed. Just one simplistic aspect of a complex problem.

But the BBC can take a lead on this. It has, as a corporation, as a brand, taken long-pride in describing itself as a ‘world leader’ in its fields. It can, it should, recognise the internationally-agreed rules can no longer sustain with the existence of the internet and open a dialogue to have all broadcasters – state and private – internationally, to open their archives fully. The release of this material will add incalculably to cultural and historic resource and to continue to deny this material to paying customers defies logic, is already subject to widespread breach, and continued application to failing legislation is dogmatic folly. This is a wealth belonging to the licence fee payer, effectively the UK taxpayer. If the BBC can’t work out how to make money from it then they should not be its custodian. But to continue to hoard all this material unseen and unused is simply and morally insupportable.

A proposal. That a voluntary ‘Upper-Standard’ Licence fee be made available, at a cost of £350 per annum total. That the licence fee holder be permitted to download, permanently, an additional two hundred hours of BBC archive footage of any and every kind, and up to, and including, one thousand still images of any and every subject, from the entire archive held.

As a very limited ‘for example’, I’d buy every broadcast edition of ‘Newsnight’ across the period of the 1982 Falklands War, with associated unedited and unbroadcast material, and access to all celluloid film reels taken in-theatre and in the buildup of logistical forces in the UK prior to deployment. Doubtless somebody else would wish the same access to footage of their favoured football team.

I don’t want to steal it, I want to pay for it. If the BBC won’t let me buy it, give it to somebody else and let them sell it to me.

I don’t use what the BBC is churning out today, and have not for some years now. It’s not good enough, I don’t watch it or listen to it. I do believe its output has become very heavily biased in political and social senses. That’s academic. But I continue to pay the licence fee and I want what the BBC is custodian of, to pay extra for it. And I want the government to recognise the discontinuity and compel the BBC to assist in unwinding this Gordian Knot. 

It will be very difficult. I’m not pretending this is a simple proposal by any means. But as I’ve already established, ‘difficult’ is not ‘insurmountable’. It will depend on the sincerity of the BBC in recognising a balance between its charter obligations and acknowledging the incalculable unrealised value of the Archive it resides upon. It will also depend on an approach by those above it to smell the coffee. 

Last but not least, a recognition that the status-quo is demonstrably broken on the matter. But if the BBC holds out on this, pretending the problem is too immense to assault, then their Archive is a folly. Its reason to exist will become existence in its own right, and for no other purpose. 


Very many thanks to Sam Hooper for permitting me space on his Semi-Partisan Politics weblog to air this view.
BBC logo 1970

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3 thoughts on “An Alternative Proposal for the BBC

  1. Douglas Carter August 24, 2020 / 6:37 PM

    As a footnote, I have ceased paying the License Fee. it’s no longer justifiable.

    But I would still happily pay for access to any part of the entire unrestricted archive.


  2. Phil Tobin February 19, 2020 / 10:49 AM

    Superb post. Thoughtful, reasoned, and one with which I have some sympathy.

    That said: why can’t Douglas do what hundreds, if not thouands, of ordinary people do and simply download a YouTubre clip to watch later? My wife and I are not arch criminals. But, equally, we cannot enjoy YouTube videos on tiny phone or small tablet screens. Nor do we have a smart TV (though we have made ours that way, using Roku and Google Chrome). Via Roku we are able to use a “YouTube app” to access the live playing of YouTube clips; however, finding the darn things, using on-screen keypad searching so ancient, so clunky, so tedious and so time consuming I’d be surprised to discover the facility hadn’t been invented by an IT-savvy dinosaur, is not an attractive prospect. Nor is speech search. asking Roku or an Amazon Firestick’s Alexa to look for a particular YouTube title is anything but ideal. (We know. We’ve tried it.)

    Instead, we download what video clips we like for watching later. A lot of fairly old 1960s Top of the Pops style videos are on my wife’s tablet and mine, and we tend to play ’em through our headphones from our iPads when on long flights. Other video clips we download to our desktop PC, transfer across to the iPad’s portable Sandisk extra memory, and then screen-cast to the big TV.

    Heck, if we can manage this in our mid-70s, anyone can. Whether or not Google objects to folks downloading YouTube videos is by-the-by: Google long since vacated the moral high ground.It profits mightily from YouTube, and I’m delighted to see so many yesteryear BBC TV productions archived there (the very first of Michael Palin’s meanderings, travelling the length of the railway from London to the Kyle of Lochalsh, back when he were nobbut a lad, is a favourite.)

    As to accessing the BBC archive, for the purposes of permanent acquisition of copyright material, I certainly wouldn’t dream of forking out £350 a year for the privilege, even if i could afford that amount. Licence payers paid long since for that material to be created. More to the point, I don’t need a permanent archive of material on my own devices.Douglas isn’t talking about the equivalent of a lending library membership but about purchasing secondary usage rights. On that basis, I don’t think the idea wiil get traction: the BBC is highly unlikely to ease back on its rights protection for the comparatively trivial amount of £350 per head.

    As to the licence fee today, we’ve just received our first renewal reminder. We doubt we’ll bother. The past 48 hours have subjected us to the BBC’s adolescent news managers and their preoccupation with trailer trash TV and some newly deceased minor celebrity associated with it. And the BBC has also been using part of the money we pay to publicise the return to ITV3 after a brief solemn hiatus of the particular trash TV show at the heart of all this mournful coverage: a running ticker along the bottom of the BBC news screen yesterday was the best advertising that moronic TV channel could ever have received.

    However: stupid is as stupid does. And the BBC, as a corporate entity, is now so utterly stupid that it doesn’t want an audience of older folks who can much better afford the license fee than the hip, trendy, social-meeja loving young audience it’s currently, and pointlessly, chasing — a group beset with high mortgages, unpaid student loans, railway season tickets etc, in comparison to boring oldies like us who paid off their mortgages long since and thanks to prudently saving all our lives, can actually afford the licence fee.

    That is, if we wish to pay it. AndiIf those responsible for the BBC’s £half million costs wasted on the disgracefully inept Cliff Richard saga are dispensed with sooner rather than later. And if the BBC stops employing in senior management children straight from primary school. Andi If the BBC gets back to entertaining and informing in equal measure.
    If if if. . .. Fat chance. So no thanks. I think we’ll skip. We can actually watch the news live on YouTube, seeing as how ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC itself are quick to post video materiial on there.As for catch-up TV and the BBC iPlayer, there’s more than enouigh junk TV to catch up with via the apps of other channels. And BBC productions inevitably finish up on those channels, seeing as how the swecondary rights market is so valuable. (For the moment, we’re enjoying watching Doc Martin not on BBC iPlayer but as an ITV catch-up.)

    Is there a reason to keep funding the BBC’s cheap senstionalism, journalistic amateurishness and managerial incompetence? Nope.

    * I do think an important distinction needs to be made between the repellent mess that is BBC TV (referred to above) and BBC Radio. Yes, I’ll pay for a radio licence, though not with some misgivings: after all, when in the bonkers pursuit of “audience figures” the idiots in charge of The Archers threw dear Nigel off of the roof, they also threw off many thousands of listeners who woke up to the fact that amateuirsm rules supreme throughout the once deservedly respected organisation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Douglas Carter February 19, 2020 / 2:21 PM

      Thanks for the response.

      ‘I don’t think the idea will get traction: the BBC is highly unlikely to ease back on its rights protection for the comparatively trivial amount of £350 per head.’

      That’s true. Hence the need to post my piece in the first instance. Like all large corporations, in particular those who have some decades under their belts, the BBC has developed organic self-defence mechanisms to distance itself from outside influence. It’s why I use the terms that Government will need to direct the BBC to make use of the archive. To take money for that which will otherwise languish unused and unseen for many more decades. Because without that pressure, that’s precisely what will happen to the archive. it will become an administrative black hole. What goes into it can never reappear to the outside observer. That cannot be right and it cannot be permitted to continue.

      I’m not really on-side for secondary ‘rights’ either. Only for personal and private use. if I was to prepare a History or other factual text and wished to access the archive to use material which will appear in such a publication, then the BBC will take money for such materials as would be usual. Then those rights would be sold under limited circumstances with the royalties properly accounted for.

      Sam’s blog here is influential. It does have a following and I would be confident that somebody from the BBC has already read it. But Sam’s reach and influence are international. It may well be that a TV exec elsewhere on the planet has also read this piece and will be tickling an irritable nugget in their own brain – and they themselves may see the logic where the BBC will be inured to the idea of such a radical departure.

      If that’s true, then my article here will have had some value.


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