Thursday, 12 November 2009

The BBC stripped bare (and paying for strippers)



Went to an interesting talk today by anthropologist Professor Georgina Born who wrote 'Uncertain Vision', based on ethnographic research at the BBC. She said that the BBC was an excellent place to witness the impact of neoliberal marketing thinking applied to the public sector in the 1990's (bringing in terms like accountability and a whole set of practices which are now accepted as part of the landscape).

She was critical about this impact, which for example saw the introduction of short term contracts which in her opinion squeezed the space available autonomous creative thinking, betraying the democratic Reithian vision.

There are pockets of hope and creativity for her, one being the BBC's determination to keep its finger on the pulse by exploring the possibilities of digital technology, leading to excellent services such as the BBC Asian Network which manages to be universalist and cater for a 'minority' (though this didn't square with her criticism of investment by public sector broadcasters in consultancies to project which platforms were going to be key in the future - how else are they supposed to know...?)

The answer came soon enough. Unsurprisingly perhaps for an anthropologist she also saw hope in the BBC's concerted efforts to carry out its own market research to ostensibly find out how to reach its audiences (I thought much like a PR professional might applaud an organisation which decides to do PR ect., but that's me being cynical). In the last decade this research has also included ethnography and she relished in the irony of the BBC employing commercial ethnography practices to "slap them in the face" when she had to tread so warily in her dealings with the upper echelons.

Anyway - two things to add. Firstly, the BBC isn't keen to shout about all the research it does. I am aware of its employment of a consultancy which conducted ethnographic research into nudist camps on its behalf (imagine the headlines...!). Secondly, for all her travails trying to get access to various departments such as news at the BBC, I spent a lot of time on the other side of the equation, trying to get journalists access to anthropologists going about their daily work. It wasn't easy and I think points to the difficulties outsiders have in gaining access to the internal processes of any institution as well as the similar incomprehension felt when facing rejection: "but why wouldn't they want to speak to me, my motives are pure..."

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