Recipe for disaster

I want to scribble down a few thoughts on the BBC Food thing while they’re fresh in my mind. Catalyst for this is the ‘news’ that the BBC is taking the BBC Food recipe database offline at some point soon. There’s been no official announcement, just an unnamed source, but as BBC News is repeating this unnamed source I’m going to assume it it at least a possibility.

So, a disclaimer. Five years ago, I spent a year working at the BBC in the multiplatform products bit of BBC Vision. It was my team that ran product management and editorial on the new Food site, and the site that exists today is largely the site we conceptualised and built at that time.

The idea was very simple: take the recipes from BBC programmes, repurpose them into a database, and then make that database run a website, a mobile site, and who-knows-what-else. Create relationships between recipes based on ingredients, shows, cuisines, and who-knows-what-else. And then run it with as small an editorial team as possible whose job was simply to turn telly recipes into database recipes. It was a platform play, pure and simple, in which every new recipe added to the utility of every recipe already on there. We weren’t creating ‘new content’, there had been too much of that already — in fact, one side-project was to get rid of a lot of the ‘online-only’ text content that already existed, as it wasn’t up to the same standard as the telly stuff. We were repurposing existing content for another use, and giving it a digital life fertilised by the growth potential of a database.

Did we discuss ‘public service remit’? You bet we did. Every day. And it really came down to two things:

  • These recipes have already been paid for by the BBC licence fee payer, and they’re being under-utilised. A new service can be developed out of them for very little up-front cost.
  • Nutrition is now a public health issue. Obesity is draining NHS coffers, government guidelines are badly understood and terribly publicised. There is a role for the BBC to play in this, and this is the way to do it.

And beneath this there was something else — could this type of undertaking act as a model for BBC online services? In taking the job, I’d also adopted a project that was near completion — the Wildlife Finder, which took clips from the BBC’s nature output and put them into a taxonomic database, allowing people to view the very highest quality television ever made browsed through a scientific ontology. I’ve just looked and I think they’ve emasculated that, as well. But the idea of Wildlife Finder and BBC Food was that the BBC archive provided material for new services, and these new services should as far as possible slot into a digital, database architecture — because who knew what might be unlocked by that? We were influenced by Creative Commons and open source, by Wikipedia and, yes, by Google. This content should be in the public realm, was the thought. It will make the public realm richer, and will have a new life in that realm.

Did we discuss ‘profit’? Don’t be silly. OK, then, so did we discuss ‘audience’? Yes we did, and there were audience targets, as there should be, because otherwise, why bother? But the primary purpose of the exercise was public value and public health. The secondary purpose was — and let’s be honest about this, please — we were paid to build things, and we wanted to build things, and this seemed like the kind of thing the BBC could and should build. One has to be careful around secondary purposes like that, of course.

And that’s the nub of this — there is only one British corporation (outside government) currently able and willing to build this kind of thing, by which I mean an ambitious platform service with no immediate commercial return but with an obvious social return on investment for the time spent using it. But now, it seems, we’re being told that this is ‘imperial ambition’, in the words of the Chancellor.

The problem is, I think, one of bad faith, the BBC’s as much as the government’s. The BBC could have a powerful public sphere strategy — a big public discussion about how the networked digital world needs a public space in the same way as telly and radio did, and how it is the BBC’s role to do that. But it won’t make the case for it — indeed, it’s waving goodbye to the people who could make the case. And without a public sphere strategy, it’s impossible for those that remain to build great things. It’s also impossible, please note, to articulate what the BBC shouldn’t do. It’s possible, desirable even, to say the BBC shouldn’t do a Food site. But is that debate public, and is it in good faith? Puh-leeze.

And the reason for that is government bad faith. Government is being lobbied by private media companies — led by News Corp, but they are by no means the only voice (for instance Pearson, the staunchly establishment then-owned of the Financial Times, helped put the kibosh on BBC Jam, the ambitious project to open up a public space in digital education). Politicians dislike the BBC because it calls them to account, but they’re not stupid — they know people love Auntie, and they know they can’t be seen to be pulling it down too egregiously. All they can do is make offline threats on the licence fee and the charter, create a climate of FUD inside the BBC executive function, such that boldness dies and honesty boils away.

So the two enemies — the BBC, and the government — end up fudging it. What should be the core of the BBC’s online strategy — the development of an online public space — is dissolved by anonymous sources like the one announcing the closure of BBC Food, because no one wants to be associated with the decision to close a popular resource. The talented people who work at the BBC slowly leak away, and with them the chance to develop a significant pool of digital talent with a public purpose.

And we, the public, sit by helplessly and watch it happen, because it’s not happening in a sphere in which we have any agency, and when we are asked, we’re ignored. So we keep buying our copies of the Daily Mail and our Sky Sports subscriptions, and money keeps flowing into the pockets of media lobbyists, and on the circle turns.

As I write this, there’s a petition doing the rounds calling for BBC Food to be saved — a similar petition to save 6Music was successful a few years back. And who knows? Perhaps this is how we’ll have this debate — via change.org, not the compromised newspapers or the pusillanimous Beeb. Perhaps this is the way of testing the value of a BBC service — how much do people squeal when you take it away?

That would be an irony — that the public service value unlocked by an American-built for-profit B Corporation comes to the rescue of Britain’s poor, battered and beleaguered Beeb.