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.