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.
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