Thursday, November 29, 2012

The inside story of the website that saved the BBC

The original BBC News website design, 1999
The original BBC News website design, 1999 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifteen years ago this month the BBC launched its News Online website. Developed internally with a skeleton team, the web service rapidly became the face of the BBC on the internet, and its biggest success story - winning four successive BAFTA awards.

Remarkably, it operated at a third of the cost of rival commercial online news operations - unheard of in public-sector IT projects. Devised before there were really any content management systems, the technical architecture became a template for all major news systems, and one that's still in use today. The team endured some furious internal politicking and sabotage to survive.

Here for the first time is the inside story of the website that saved the BBC - with contributions from key figures including former BBC director general John Birt, now Lord Birt.

Why the internet? When the information superhighway arrived on a wave of hype, there was good reason to be sceptical. Dialup computer bulletin board systems (BBSes) had been around for a decade albeit with limited adoption from enthusiasts. The French version of Prestel, Minitel, had only reached its wide audience of about 9 million homes because the French government had subsidised the terminals. The internet remained just as expensive, at UK dialup rates, as the marginal BBSes.

"A senior news editor told me the internet would be a flash in the pan - this was in 1996," recalled one BBC correspondent. When it was clear it wouldn't, it was argued it would confuse people.

Another Beeb journalist, Mike Smartt, who was an early enthusiast of the online service, said: "Putting web links on TV would merely bamboozle viewers, they argued. Announcing them on radio news would be worse and take up precious time."

Fortunately, one BBC figure fascinated by digital technology was best placed to ensure the online operation could take off: Lord Birt, the director general of the corporation, who was an Oxford engineering graduate. At a grammar school in Liverpool in the late 1950s, he had been given a project to explain the difference between analogue and digital computers to his science class.

"I didn't find a use for that knowledge for twenty five years," he now chuckles.

Lord Birt had been trumpeting the impact of new technology, such as fibre-optic networks, and how it could dramatically lower the barriers to entry: TV could become a read-write medium, he pointed out in a 1979 lecture.

Although the newborn internet was on the Beeb's radar from early on, no one knew exactly what to do with it. There was a desire to explore it, Lord Birt told us, but "this was quizzical, curious and inchoate - it was a very long time before that coalesced into anything you'd call insight".

For Lord Birt, the 'net looked like "a way of sending rather dry-looking text around the world speedily and it did feel all very techie - this wispy blue print, no pictures, no graphic design, certainly no moving pictures. No real impact. It felt like the kind of medium you'd use to send academic papers to a foreign university".

Lord Birt "This is a medium in which you can transmit news - but in what form - and to what market - these were things we didn't know the answer," he told The Register.

In the summer of 1996, the BBC had signed a deal with Fujitsu ICL. For £50m, the computer giant acquired the right to use BBC material and build its websites - including a news service. The sites would use Fujitsu ICL software, under shelter under the umbrella domain The service would be funded by advertising.

Lord Birt explained the thinking: {Read On}