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Thursday, 21 February 2008

Blogging and the BBC - some fundamental challenges

Yesterday, I popped into Bush House for a small training session for BBC World Service journalists. I thought I was going to talk to the Head of Training about the possibility of organising a future workshop but ended up being roped in to form one half of a two person 'panel' on blogging.

I was woefully underprepared but rather enjoyed having the opportunity to share and discuss some of my preliminary ideas and half-baked ideas. Hearing the views of journalists is obviously very valuable to me as well.

The other half of the panel was formed by Sunny Hundal from the blog Pickled Politics. He did most of the talking and had lots of interesting things to say about political blogging in the UK, which provided some useful background.

But from the session, I reckon what journalists would really appreciate is a little guidance on how to find interesting and useful blogs and how to use blogging within the context of the BBC.

Using Blogs as Sources

Achieving the first part is a matter of giving busy journalists some helpful shortcuts so that they can navigate their way round the blogopshere. I spend hours researching and reading blogs; they don't have that sort of time. A few sessions on identifying and finding useful blogs, reading them, keeping them, managing them and the like would be a start.

The second part, concerning how the BBC can blog as an organisation, is inherently problematic, has an impact on the very identity of the organisation, and has no easy answers.

There are two fundamental problems that face the BBC when they use blogs. The first concerns the competing identities of the BBC.

Is the BBC a 'Corporation' or is it a 'Public Service Broadcaster'?

If it is the former, then there is no reason why BBC journalists who blog should not present a BBC line on their blogs. In practice, that might mean liaising with the press office to ensure that certain confidential information was not blogged about - eg internal disagreements, editorial errors etc.

If the BBC is the latter, then BBC blogs could and perhaps should be used as a way of providing greater openness and accountability.

Personally I think openness is the way to go. Not least, because if the BBC doesn't do it, the danger is that somebody else will. The mainsteam media can get into all sorts of trouble if it is even perceived to be hiding certain information from an audience in the digital age as this recent episode demonstrates.

I suppose the real debate is just how open can any organisation be and still function? There must be a line somewhere.

Using Blogs as Content

The second problem is the notion of impartiality - a founding principle of the BBC. In his book, Can We Trust the BBC?, ex-BBC journalist Robin Aitken argues that the idea of impartiality at the BBC doesn't stand up, suggesting that every journalist brings a certain set of assumptions, and prejudices unavoidably to their work. (In academic speak, I think the postmodern challenge is finally reaching the profession of journalism.)

Everything is relative though - the BBC is not Fox News. The attempt to remain impartial surely has some value.

Much successful blogging rests on partiality. It works because opinions are expressed, people tend to be open about their viewpoints and considered/heart-felt/intelligent /angry/vitriolic/pointless/ill-informed (delete as appropriate) debate takes place.

The blogging style and tone that appears to be most successful at the moment doesn't fit with the BBC's guidelines, or ethos.

If Rory Cellan-Jones were to write a technology blog post suggesting that the Mac is better than the PC, a few eyebrows might be raised. But imagine a similar blog post written about Israel and Palestine or, for the sake of impartiality(!), Palestine and Israel.

What's the answer?

A radical solution would be to throw 'impartiality' out of the window but do taxpayers really want the BBC to become overtly opinionated? And, of course, the solution is rather irrelevant given that it can't do so in any case because it would be illegal under current broadcasting regulations.

The other solution is for the BBC to use blogs in ways that enhance the content they provide and facilitate debate. Arguably, the BBC's most successful blogs have been those that actively invite audience participation (Newsnight, PM, Have Your Say) and thus a sense of ownership in a programme.

What is certain is that BBC blogs cannot be modelled on political blogs, but blogging is not limited to this style. Finding new voices, styles, tones and niches is the challenge for programme-makers. Oh - and don't forget to make some good radio and television in the meantime.

© Daniel Bennett 2008

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