In the 1960s and ’70s, it was common practice at the BBC to reuse video tapes. Old recordings were taped over with new shows. Some Doctor Who episodes have been lost forever. Jimi Hendrix’s unruly performance on Happening for Lulu would have also been lost if a music-loving engineer hadn’t sequestered the tapes away, preventing them from being over-written.
Except - a VT engineer called Bob Pratt, who really ought to get a medal, was in the habit of saving stuff he liked. Even then, the BBC policy of wiping practically everything was notorious amongst those who’d made it. Bob had the job of changing the heads on 2” VT machines. He’d be in at 0600 before everyone else and have two hours to sort the equipment before anyone else came in. Rock music was his passion, and knowing everything would soon disappear, would spend some of that time dubbing off the thing he liked onto junk tapes, which would disappear under the VT department floor.
To be fair to the BBC, the tape-wiping policy wasn’t entirely down to crazy internal politics—there were convoluted rights issues involving the actors’ union, Equity.
Those issues have since been cleared up. I’m sure the BBC has learned from the past. I’m sure they wouldn’t think of mindlessly throwing away content, when they have such an impressive archive.
And yet, when it comes to the web, the BBC is employing a slash-and-burn policy regarding online content. 172 websites are going to disappear down the memory hole.
Just to be clear, these sites aren’t going to be archived. They are going to be deleted from the web. Server space is the new magnetic tape.
This callous attitude appears to be based entirely on the fact that these sites occupy URLs in top-level directories—repeatedly referred to incorrectly as top level domains on the BBC internet blog—a space that the decision-makers at the BBC are obsessed with.
Instead of moving the sites to, say, bbc.co.uk/archive and employing a little bit of
.htaccess redirection, the BBC (and their technology partner, Siemens) would rather just delete the lot.
Martin Belam is suitably flabbergasted by the vandalism of the BBC’s online history:
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.
Many of the 172 sites scheduled for deletion are currently labelled with a banner across the top indicating that the site hasn’t been updated for a while. There’s a link to a help page with the following questions and answers:
Why don’t you just delete these pages when the programme has ended?
Our view is that these pages often contain a lot of information about the programme or event which may be of interest in the future. We don’t want to delete pages which users may have bookmarked or linked to in other ways.
When do you delete pages from bbc.co.uk?
In general our policy is only to remove pages where the information provided has become so outdated that it may lead to actual harm or damage.
It’ll be interesting to see how those answers will be updated to reflect change in policy. Presumably, the new answers will read something along the lines of “Fuck ‘em.”
- The website commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave act,
- The website for the summer of British film,
- The website chronicling composers of the year,
- The website documenting wildlife explorers on location,
- The website of last year’s Electric Dreams, a programme all about the changes in technology over time…
Kiss them all goodbye. And perhaps most egregious of all, you can also kiss goodbye to WW2 People’s War:
The BBC asked the public to contribute their memories of World War Two to a website between June 2003 and January 2006. This archive of 47,000 stories and 15,000 images is the result.
I’m very saddened to see the BBC join the ranks of online services that don’t give a damn for posterity. That attitude might be understandable, if not forgivable, from a corporation like Yahoo or AOL, driven by short-term profits for shareholders, as summarised by Connor O’Brien in his superb piece on link rot:
We push our lives into the internet, expecting the web to function as a permanent and ever-expanding collective memory, only to discover the web exists only as a series of present moments, every one erasing the last. If your only photo album is Facebook, ask yourself: since when did a gratis web service ever demonstrate giving a flying fuck about holding onto the past?
I was naive enough to think that the BBC was above that kind of short-sighted approach. Looks like I was wrong.