Looking to 2013

It’s been an interesting year, both personally and professionally, as they like to say, and although I slightly resent the fact that my day job has been so exhausting, I’m enjoying the space between Christmas and New Year in a different way from that I experienced during my fifteen years as a freelance hack and pundit. This year, I need the rest.

Of course that didn’t stop me getting up at 0730 on Boxing Day and sneaking downstairs while the house slept, to feed the cats, make a cup of tea, and start puzzling over the cashflow for Working for an MP in preparation for submitting our tax return; nor did it stop me changing the template for this website (I was going to say ‘redesigning’ it but pressing the button in WordPress to activate a new template, cropping an image to upload and changing the widgets isn’t ‘design’ in anyone’s vocabulary); and I will be reading my BBC email this afternoon, just to stay in the loop and see if I’ve been asked to travel to any more exciting places.

Next year

In 2012 I married Katie, we bought a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, my son went off to university, my daughter continued to live and work in Cambridge, and I kept a lot of plates spinning, some of them not receiving the attention they deserved.  I only ever make one resolution for the New Year, but I have decided to focus more on bigger things next year, and not let so much small stuff get in my way, both in the day job at the BBC and elsewhere in my work.  I will also try to write more here than I have, and not just post my Instagram pix.  Let’s see how that goes.


Nearing the end of 2009

It’s been a hectic year, and I’m currently embedded in the BBC Archive Development team until at least April, though I’ll be continuing my work with Digital Planet, Focus Magazine and the Billboard, as well as other gigs that come up during 2010.

In the meantime, here are two of my stories that I didn’t get round to posting here:

The Media and The Message (BBC Technology site, 16 December)

Like thousands of other people around the world I’ve just spent £2.39 on The Guardian newspaper’s iPhone app.

I can now read the paper onscreen, with some sections nicely cached for offline browsing and a cleverly designed user interface that lets me put the Media and Technology sections at the top of the paper, mark articles as favourites and quickly find related stories.

And Ten Years After Doomsday (BBC Technology site, 8 December)

I spent the evening of 31 December, 1999 in the company of Rolf Harris, Peter Snow and a large number of other people in a studio at Television Centre in London, seeing in the New Year as the nation’s official Millennium Bug watcher.

As anyone who knows about calendars will tell you, the real millennium didn’t start until a year later, but I was there because of the very real fear that major computer systems around the world would crash because they could not handle the rollover from 1999 to 2000.

My job on New Year’s Eve was to interrupt festivities every hour of the evening to report on what was happening at midnight in different countries around the world.

Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate such things, Happy Holidays for those who don’t but live in places that do, and ‘have a nice day’ to everyone else…

Turn and Face the Strain

I left my job as head of The Guardian’s New Media Lab in 1996 to work as a freelance writer and consultant, and also to look after my two young children. After a few years of freelance life I started to describe myself as ‘unemployable’, and to tell anyone who would listen that not only would I never want to go back to office life but that I doubted anyone with any sense would take me on. 

When I did take on a role as interim publisher at openDemocracy during one of its crises I expressed astonishment that people could schedule meetings for me without actually asking me in advance, and swore never to subject myself to such humiliation in future (or something like that – I may have been drinking at the time).

So it was with some surprise that I found myself seduced by Tony Ageh, the man who brought me on board at The Guardian all those many years ago and who now rejoices in the title of Controller, Archive Development at the BBC, into taking on what many might describe as a ‘proper job’ at the BBC, as opposed to my casual appearances on websites, radio programmes and the odd TV news bulletin. 

For the next six months I will be working part-time as Head of Partnership Development for the BBC Archive Project, working with Tony and the team under Director Roly Keating to build relationships between the BBC and other cultural institutions based around a shared interest in digitisation, standards and practical applications of the enormous archives that form Britain’s cultural history.

I get a desk and a computer on the seventh floor of TV Centre, access to the staff canteen and a chance to bump into Director-General Mark Thompson in the corridor early in the morning as I stagger in to the office, clutching my coffee.  And I get to have some influence on what I believe is the most important project the BBC is currently working on, finding a way to take the vast amount of material that the Corporation has accumulated over the decades and put it to work in our digital world.

This isn’t an editorial role, and I’m not working as a BBC journalist in the way Rory Cellan-Jones does, so I won’t stop working as a freelance and general hack, though the things I write for the BBC will now have to follow editorial guidelines.  I’ll still be giving talks and presentations as an independent commentator, since very little of what I normally talk about overlaps with the work I will be doing on the Archive and I won’t have any public profile in my work for the Archive Project.  I’ll have less time for such things of course, but no less interest in the whole range of issues that have motivated me over the years.

I think it’s important that anyone who seeks a public voice, as I do, is open and transparent about their interests, activities and sources of income, so now you all know what’s going on. I probably won’t be able to write much about what I’m actually up to at the BBC, as most of it is about getting projects and relationships to the point where they can be talked about by other people.  However I’ve set up a new Twitter profile, ‘bbcbillt’, where I’ll tweet about what I’m up to so that I keep it out of my main timeline.

And we’ll see how it goes – I’ll watch the ripples change their size, and perhaps leave the stream of warm impermanence.  Changes, indeed.

Whose Service?

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website]

Much of the debate that followed last week’s publication of the Digital Britain report has focused on the proposal to take some of the income from the TV Licence and make it available to fund universal broadband access, with a suggestion that once this has been accomplished £130m a year could be used to support local news services and perhaps even children’s programming provided by people other than the BBC.

Within the BBC there is a strong feeling that this would be a very bad idea because the corporation’s resilience comes in part from having a guaranteed source of funding that does not rely on politically-motivated decisions of the government of the day. The fear is that once the licence fee is shared there will be nothing to stop it being carved up to meet short-term policy objectives.

Others share this view. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee is vehemently opposed to what she calls ‘deliberately breaching the unique status of the BBC’ and asks if the destruction of the BBC is ‘really going to be this Labour government’s legacy?’

Continue reading “Whose Service?”

Digital Britain: Engaging with the Internet

I got home at 1500, checked out the Digital Britain website, then fired up the Parliament channel at 1530 to see new Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw present the Digital Britain White Paper (according to BERR) or Final Report (according to DCMS). And then I tweeted while I read, before sitting down to write this, which I filed with the BBC at around 1730 (it should be up soon). So it’s a bit rough and there may be things I’ve missed… the joys of journalism, I suppose.

We live in a largely digitised country, so in one sense the Digital Britain report is an exercise in ensuring that the legal and regulatory system catches up with the lived reality for most of the UK population rather than a visionary document describing a far-distant future.

As such it is a serious attempt to ensure that government makes the best possible use of the network in serving us all, and that businesses offering access to the internet or providing services and content over the network are regulated, rewarded and cajoled as necessary to ensure that the UK does not fall even further behind the rest of the industrialised world.

Although I criticised the interim report when it was published in January because it had been written behind closed doors and offered few opportunities for consultation and engagement for those outside the charmed circle of invited experts, it is clear that Stephen Carter and his team have listened to and taken notice of the extensive debate around their initial proposals. The result, though far from perfect, offers a good basis for work on the detail of implementation and legislation, and there are clear signs that those who want to engage will be able to do so.

There are suggestions for how to liberalise and improve access to wireless infrastructure, with potentially transformative proposals to shake up spectrum allocation to build a next generation mobile network offering 50mbps in cities and 5mbps in rural areas.

Continue reading “Digital Britain: Engaging with the Internet”

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website too]

When I heard that full episodes of The Prisoner TV series were available online I immediately headed over to the AMC website to wallow in nostalgic enjoyment and remind myself just how cool Patrick McGoohan was as he stumbled around Portmeirion trying to avoid a big plastic ball.

I’m old enough to have watched it the first time around and remember the shock we all felt at the last episode, so I was looking forward to revisiting a few episodes without having to make the effort to borrow the full DVD box set from somewhere.

I would happily have watched online and let AMC advertise to me in return, but sadly it was not to be. When I got to The Prisoner page on its site I saw only an unfriendly message, shouting at me in uppercase that:


Continue reading “”

I saw this…

Here’s what I’ve tagged on del.icio.us on %date%:

Who Pays the Paper?

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website]

If you live outside the United Kingdom then the BBC website at bbc.com has a surprise for you, in the form of some prominent advertisements.

While the license-fee supported sites provided to the UK population remain free of ads, the BBC has started treating the web in the same way as it does the TV channels it broadcasts around the world by trying to generate revenue from them.

Continue reading “Who Pays the Paper?”