The vandalism of the BBC's online history

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 25 January 2011

With all the news about changes to BBC Online, the thing that had caught me eye was the deletion of lots of sites that had already been mothballed or archived in a previous round of BBC cuts. I was going to write a blog post about how that seemed rather arbitrary, and that it probably costs more money to hunt them down and destroy them than it would to just leave them sitting on a disk somewhere gracefully degrading.

Fortunately, Darryl on the 853blog has already written that post, so I don't have to - "Pulling the plug on the BBC's internet history". Well worth reading.

The theme of archiving BBC content is something I've blogged about several times before, and I thought it might be useful to recap and link to some of those posts.

In 2005, when I still worked at the BBC, I wrote a series of posts looking at the oldest content that still existed on the BBC's servers. At that time, it included the Budget 97 site, Diana Remembered, Politics 97, Election 97, Budget 96 and Budget 95.

Screengrab of the BBC's online coverage of the 1995 Budget

In 2007, I wrote a blog post for the BBC as part of 10th birthday celebrations for the website, looking at the problem of archiving internet content: "Mind The Gaps: The BBC's Website Archives".

In September last year I wrote about whether preserving the precise user experience of the web at any given time was actually important provided the content survived, and I've also wondered about how in the future we'll be able to articulate the dense narrative and pop culture references of games like GTA. It is also an issue I think about at the Guardian, where our print World Cup archives are much more faithfully reproduced than if you visit the web pages we produced in 2002 and 2006.

Back to the BBC though, and I'm really not sure who benefits from deleting the Politics 97 site from the BBC's servers in 2011. It seems astonishing that for all the BBC's resources, it may well be my blog posts from 5 years ago that provide a more accurate picture of the BBC's early internet days than the Corporation does itself - and that it will have done so by choice.

I can't help thinking that in 10 years time there will be comparisons with the short-sighted junking of 60s TV shows - including Doctor Who episodes - that was done in the 70s to save money and space.

The BBC's Politics 97 site

15 Comments

This reminds me a bit of what happened to the White House website once Obama was put in office. There was this "bonfire" of pages and content that referred to the previous Bush administration.

I'm still saddened by the demise of Celebdaq last year. I suppose the archives of all that will go. H2G2 archives will probably shuffle off into nothingness as well.

'Course from an SEO point of view getting rid of those old pages is probably a bad idea...

Thank goodness for archive.org?

I don't think anyone's going to delete these sites, I certainly hope they'll be mothballed in the same way as say http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult

Thanks for the kind words, Martin.

The issue with the Cult site sums it up - it's been closed already. They can't close it again. Actually putting in some editorial focus on these sites is long overdue, but it's daft to say "and we're going to delete (say) the North West Tonight website to save money" when that website hasn't been touched for years. Best to preserve these fragments of the past - after all, the BBC News archive remains and includes its early, clunky look - rather than wipe them away in some pointless purge.

Informative post. I will be one of the many people mourning the passing of 606.

Would the BBC not be better off selling these assets rather than merely removing them?

Martin's right - Cult is to be deleted. I produced it. It was only *massive* user reaction that let it remain on the servers with a promise that it would be preserved. Or not. The mad thing is that it doesn't cost anything to keep it up there - and there's so much stuff on there that... well, I had a look at it for the first time in ages today and got really quite emotional. Things like Daniel Judd's amazing "I Love Blue Peter" section really shouldn't just be wiped in order to fulfil a line on a press release...

When people first started writing they can have had no idea that 4000 years later we'd be interested in the tax receipts and other miscellania they left on clay tablets. The BBC in the 60s had no idea that we'd be interested in old TV shows.

Archive.org was founded on the principle that while content owners are clueless about prosterity, prosterity will care about the early decades of the web. I think if anything can be relied on to last it will be archive.org. I agree with you that it is patchy & wish it were otherwise though.

It does seem odd that these TLD's are to be stored in a small box at the BBC, rather than on a server where they could still be accessed.

As someone who was responsible for at least one of them, I'd like to think that the content would be available to look back on in some years time, as one of your respondents says, so that we don't end up throwing away some of the bits that made up creative culture in the 1990's and 00's.

The odd thing is that the BBC appear to be working, expensively, on collating, encoding, storing and distributing their archives of TV and Radio so that they are accessible online, whilst they take already online work away and pack it into storage.

Just because it is financially possible now to preserve everything online (as it wasn't with the cost of tape for programmes in the 60s), it doesn't mean it should be. In any archive there should be weeding in the public collections, to take out the rubbish and refresh content. Archiving privately is not the same as deleting. Librarians and Archivists have been weeding collections for decades, but I guess it is a new concept to people used to the internet and almost infinite storage. I do like /cult, but there are plenty of other resources out there now that cover similar ground, so I'm not going to miss it terribly. We only care about a handful of programmes from the 60s that we continue to think are great (Doctor Who, Not Only But Also, Top Of The Pops, etc). Thats a tiny minority of the output. There was a lot of barely watchable dross deleted that no one cares about, and a whole lot of mediocrity preserved that will never be broadcast again because well, its worthy but boring. Thats the reality of archives. The odd gem, a lot of might be interesting but probably isn't and outright rubbish. The skill is knowing which is which. Having looked at the sites chosen, it looks about right to me. I'm just hoping they're making a backup...

Hopefully the BBC will realise the foolishness/uselessness of deleting these sites, but in case they don't, I've nominated the sites on this list for inclusion in the British Library's UK Web Archive project. (http://www.webarchive.org.uk/ukwa - but I suspect would probably be at best useless and at worst counter-productive for lots of people to nominate the same sites.) I've also checked a few at archive.org and they seem to be included there, although Flash content isn't.

It's been a while since I worked there, but there certainly was a process by which all states of the sites formerly known as 'BBC Online' were copied onto an archive server before they went live (it wasn't done with news.bbc.co.uk sites for a number of reasons, one of which is that, at the time, about 5 years ago, the content all remained accessible). I don't know what the policy has come to be, but the versions of those sites held on the archive server will exist after the live sites are taken down.

For the long term, the best move would be to create a digital repository, overseen by archivists (sorry, media managers) and preservation experts who can ensure that sites (as well as television and radio programmes) continue to be accessible even while technology changes (and I'm aware that this is a a controversial area in terms of preserving the original experience). Does anyone lurking here know?

I can recommend Adrian Brown's 'Archiving Websites' if people are interested in the topic.

I realy don't think the BBC cares, to be honest.

Or as we discovered on the Radio Two boards last autumn, the focus had changed somewhat. Rather than allow the boards to be a place for open, frank and free comment, even for reasoned constructive criticism of the BBC and its policies (as had hitherto been the case), the new line of thought was to censor the criticism out of sigh and whitewash it away. The BBC had sunk a lot of investment and prestige into a revamp of Radio Two, after Sir Terry Wogan retired, including importing a presenter hitherto unfavourably known for the size of his ego and the spectacular and totally unprofessional way his previous employment at the BBC had ended. some of us had warned that this was Russell Brand all over again - had R2 learned nothing from that particular train-crash? - and that this presenter appeared to have been given far more power and ability to influence things than was good for him. In the old days, reasoned comment like this, quoting the facts and drawing reasonable inferences from them, would have been passed by mods and left to stand. But the new online management appeared to have been given its orders to allow the messageboards to be a place where only praise of the BBC and its chosen golden boy was allowed to be posted. In short, they wanted the R2 boards to be like a Soviet party conference, where only praise of the regime was allowed and dissidents were ruthlessly trampled and sent to an online Siberia. They could then present the result as unforced listener praise for the new post-Wogan morning and use it as free PR and advertising.

Modding was woefully and painfully inconsistent. Those of us, including me, who were slow to realise the implications of the new regime were placed in the ghetto of premod. The BBC cited "libellious content" as he reason for the premodding. (I have spokebn to other people culled at the time, on the independent R2OK! boards, and they all tell the same story). Yet one particular poster was allowed to repeatedly troll abusive and nasty comments about the departed Sarah Kennedy, by then no longer a BBC employee. Those of us who reported this person's deeply personal and offensive postings for abuse of the system were told that we were ourselves abusing the "report abuse" buton, ansd if we persisted, action would be taken against our accounts.

then - and it wasn't just me this happened to - a BBC mod must have been instructed to trawl through my postings. A total of seventeen postings I had made while in premod - and remember, the very definition of premod is that a mod has to see your postings first and agree they are not in contravention of house rules - which had been allowed on the board were retrospectively yikesed. This included a couple made to h2g2 while under premod, and permitted as fair comment by a hootoo mod. I believe the BBC mods ddid this - not only to me but to several other regulars - in order to retrospectively accumulate evidence to justify what they did next, which was to ban me completely from all BBC boards.

I protested that this was unfair and unjust, especially as my membership of hootoo actually predated its being assimilated, Borg-like, into the BBC machine. I had up until then had a total of four postings yikesed from hootoo -a drop in the ocean considering postings made and Entries and UG material submitted. (Two were for good reasons - written in a flash of blood to the head when I wasn't thinking straight. No argument there. One contravened the foreign language rules because it was in Welsh; a fourth I had protested about at the time as it was to my mind fair comment on a Guide entry I felt had been written by an employee of the company concerned for commercial reasons, the intention being disguised advertising and product placement ratrher than information. But that was it - I have largely had an amicable and friendly relationship with hootoo, and to be barred because Radio Two's boards went Stalinist, or rather Evansist... as I recall, I even emailed the hootoo eds for support and a friendly word at my showtrial!

So that's what happened. The BBC banned at least a dozen long-time messageboard contributors, as far as I could make out, and the timing stinks. Apart from our input over R2's internal problems, were cuts being planned even then, and it felt in needed to neutralise the sort of articulate people who would raise opposition? The R2 boards were closed not long after it kicked "the awkward squad" off BBC Online... the last ever message posted was one of glowing praise for Chris Evans...

The masterpeice of character assasination the BBc sent me to justify my exclusion concluded

"Your unwillingness to adhere to House Rules presents an unacceptable
editorial risk and because of this we are not prepared to uphold your
appeal.

Please note that that once banned, users are not permitted to return to the
site."

It took them eleven years to work out I was an unacceptable editorial risk? And by the way, the letter I got was word-for-word identical to that received by other dissidents ejected at the same time...

So do not look for truth, justice, or straight talking from BBC Online at this time. You may be dissappointed.

Thank you

AgProv (Paul Catlow)

it's very likely we could host these sites on a web-sever in London protected by academic research exclusions of the copyright act. We have spare computer on a 100MB line with fixed IP, but would need someone to volunteer to set it up as a web-server. We already have downloaded the torrent backup of the sites listed for deletion.

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