It’s easy to get carried away when it comes to the internet. You start with a simple search for a news story about a new toll road on the M6 and within five clicks of the mouse you’re in a discussion forum debating whether or not Bob Monkhouse was the godfather of light entertainment.
And that is pretty much what happened to the BBC.
In 1998, when it set up its online operation, the world wide web had already taken off. Recognising that it could not ignore the potential of this exciting new medium, the corporation got stuck in, setting up sites that were complementary to its existing programmes and that licence payers could use happily without fear of being bombarded with pornography.
But within a short space of time, the enthusiasts that it had quite rightly employed had gone a bit mad in the toy shop they’d been given the keys to.
Untroubled by the key question that every other internet business has to ask – how do we make this thing pay? – they expanded into areas that were certainly fun and often well used, but had as much to do with public service as Monkhouse had to do with road funding schemes.
Now it looks as if the keys might have to be returned, at least to some of the toy shop’s departments.
The publication of Philip Graf’s keenly anticipated report into the BBC’s online operation is critical of its approach to sites that are insufficiently distinct from commercial counterparts. In doing things because they could, it suggests, they forgot to ask themselves whether they should. Hence the closure of its Fantasy Football, Surfing, Pure Soap and What’s On listings sites in response.
But there must be more to come. The closures – five sites from around 20,000 offered by the corporation – amount to less than 2 per cent of BBC Online traffic. The BBC now has four months to respond to Graf’s recommendations, including those that 25 per cent of non-news content be supplied by third parties.
Regional newspaper groups, in particular, will look forward to discussions about content – and possible partnership deals – on the BBC regional sites.
The BBC should not be discouraged from innovation. But Graf’s report goes some way to ensuring this doesn’t come at the expense of competitive publishers offering more choice to the public.