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A new founding principle for the BBC

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Fantastic. A proper thoughtful speech about politics, the media and the role of the BBC from Mark Thompson – the BBC’s Director General (‘The Trouble with Trust’).

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m impressed is that I’ve been banging on about many of the same issues for a while now. Indeed, for the last couple of months I’ve been on a road trip telling anyone who will listen (BBC included) that news organisations are changing fundamentally, that the Fourth Estate is under threat, and that the only news organisation with the scale and remit to take the lead in doing something about it is the BBC.

One aspect of his speech particularly struck me. Thompson did not just outline what he saw as the problems with democratic engagement (including a healthy dose of scepticism about the value of scepticism) he also had a go at suggesting a way forward. This included transforming “the way we [the BBC] connect British democracy – and all its many democratic institutions – to the public”.

This is important. It means, in effect, adding a fourth pillar – ‘to connect’ – to the BBC’s famous founding principles – to inform, educate and entertain’. I’m not sure I like the verb Thompson’s used – I’d probably go with ‘to engage’ or ‘to include’ rather than ‘to connect’, but the concept is right. Only by including the public in a reconstituted Fourth Estate can we hope to sustain and renew it.

Thompson then talked about what this might mean in practice, for example, giving the public “Direct access to information about your MP or representative: how they vote, what they stand for, how you can contact them”. Much, in other words, of what mySociety has started to do through, and some of it’s other excellent websites.

Indeed it sounded like organisations like mySociety – and, I hope, Media Standards Trust – inspired this part of Thompson’s speech. Which appeared to be confirmed by Thompson’s comment at the end that “We don’t want to do all this on our own, but in partnership with some of the existing sites which are pioneering web democracy – and with the democratic institutions themselves”.

This is significant – and exciting – new territory for the BBC. The Corporation will need partners, and will need to sustain its ambition (not so easy given the financial and other pressures it is under), but this is most certainly the right direction. Thank goodness.

Written by Martin Moore

January 16th, 2008 at 12:48 pm

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