Conspiracy theorists, or those schooled in the dark arts of public relations, might think it is a smart PR Move for the BBC to mobilise the millions of middle Englanders in the “Great British Bake Off” audience by announcing the BBC’s online archive of over 11,000 recipes is going to be culled. Or it might just be a massive cock up. Certainly the BBC did what appears to be a partial reverse ferret this evening suggesting in a press statement that “…as much of the content as possible” would be migrated to the BBC Good Food website. Either way, at the time of publication the on-line petition against the cull has gone viral passing 100,000 and counting, with signatories including MP’s, comedians, and journalists as well as tens of thousands of the general public who sometimes need some quick inspiration about supper while pushing the trolly around Tesco [other supermarkets are available], or who genuinely need to find a healthy recipe, or a cheap one.
That is the point, all libraries are to a greater or lesser extent a public service, safeguarding priceless material, or sometime less than priceless but equally telling material against the day someone wants to access it, use it, write about it. Indeed, this social good is recognised in Law with the provision of a library service made a statutory responsibility for local authorities, albeit one which is under unprecedented pressure thanks to the Government’s continuing austerity policy. However, last year the architect of that policy, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, gave a speech where he suggested that maintaining an archive of recipes was part of the BBC’s “Imperial Ambitions” which should perhaps be left to others, specifically National Newspapers which, he suggested, could be crowded out by the BBC.
One year on, and a week on from the BBC White Paper, the BBC’s senior management seem to be prepared, at least in public, to shoot this particular food puppy to please the Chancellor, without first putting the argument that the archive was derived from BBC programmes, already paid for by licence fee payers and from the audience for those programmes interacting with their BBC. In other words that it is not just the BBC’s archive. It is the viewers and listeners archive.
Neither did the BBC point out that the existence of its on-line resource is so damaging to commercial competition that of the current top ten books on Amazon UK four are recipe books, or that food supplements and recipes are a staple of practically all national newspapers anyway.
Indeed, if the Chancellor was aware of any research which pointed to the fact that if you can get a recipe for Lemon Drizzle Cake from the BBC website, you will not then buy a copy of the Times, the Mail or even the Guardian, he did not quote it.
However, stepping back from the immediate issue of whether the BBC’s decision is political and is aimed at giving the Chancellor and the Right Wing of the conservative Party some sacrificial red meat, the implications of the BBC’s decision are appalling for research libraries and archives in general, not to mention the ephemera kept in archives which documents day to day activities, tastes and changes and which form the raw material of social history. Archives which increasingly exist on-line.
To deliberately take an entire free to access, public archive, and for the political convenience of management, deliberately make it unavailable, and lets be clear de-indexing from Google is making the archive unavailable to anyone except internet researchers versed in the language of URL’s and the Way Back Machine could be seen as the electronic equivalent of, in the worst case burning a library with the books still inside, and at the very least sealing the recipes in the jars and dumping them in an electronic cave for two thousand years like some kind of soggy bottomed Dead Sea Scrolls. In short, to uninvent an archive is simply unacceptable. And the same goes for the BBC Travel site and perhaps most of all for the Newsbeat content which is aimed specifically at engaging young people with the news.
There are already enough problems archiving digital datasets to ensure they remain available for future researchers without the organisation which should be in the lead of preserving such material and making it available, setting the appalling precedent that a major archive can be simply switched off or to all intents and purposes hidden, on the whim of any management, let alone on the whim of a politician with no point of view beyond ideaology, ambition and the bottom line, who exercises control by dropping hints and waiting for his victim to self harm by administering the poison.
If this attempt to neuter another part of the BBC goes wrong, and the numbers still signing up to the petition to save the BBC Recipe site suggest it easily could yet go very wrong, then it would signify another Government policy becoming toast. If that does happen it can only be good for the preservation of all of our digital archives, as well as the diversity of our menus.
Meanwhile it is rapidly approaching supper time. Which of the fifteen recipes for Spag Bol would you prefer?