Friday, April 17, 2009

Digital Britain - Drool Brittania

Digital Britain starts late as Minister’s train is slow, a bit like Virgin or BT Broadband. As usual, the debate has been hijacked by the BBC, BT, Virgin, Universal, Mirror Group and some irrelevant London web companies, who are really TV production companies in disguise. And, there's too many old guys in suits and ties. It’s a bit like the media supplement of the Guardian, where media equals TV and print. Nick Higham, from (yes you’ve guessed it) the BBC, is chairing.

Fittingly enough, the event’s taking place in a library – how British is that? So we have a brief interlude from the CEO of the British Library, who seems like someone from another century - that's because she is - just obvious cliches. The train-handicapped Minister, Andy Burnham, arrives, and opens with a statement of astounding stupidity, 'the British Library has long been the cornerstone of Britain's knowledge economy." Is this a joke? Nobody's laughing, but there's some puzzled looks.

Brown says ‘bugger blogs’

OK so he didn’t actually say that, but it we knew that he was thinking as much. Brown reads out the usual ‘digital revolution similar to industrial revolution’ line, but his heart’s not in it, as internally he must be cursing his digital demise by email and blogs. He’s been crucified with Damien McBride and Derek Draper as his convicted companions. Lots of old 1980s talk of ‘creative industries’, ‘creative talent’ and even ‘creative genius’. Is he turning into Tony Blair?

Only 200 people at the event – not quite enough for a revolutionary movement, unless we adopt some Al Qeda tactics, but this is how government operates. They tend to exclude the innovators in favour of civil servants and big corporate flunkies. Indeed, coffee break is 35 minutes, as most of the delegates are getting on a bit and couldn’t get through the morning without bladder relief.

Mandy – living proof of reincarnation

Next up is that living proof of reincarnation, and proof that it doesn’t depend on good deeds or moral character – Peter (sorry Lord) Mandelson, or ‘Mandy’ to his close friends, and enemies. This is the man who is so in touch that, when faced with mushy peas in his constituency fish and chip shop, he inquired about the ‘guacamole dip’. He whips us up into a frenzy with some quick quips and bon mots, then suddenly just as we reach the climax, he pulls out. ‘There will be a Government announcement on Monday!’ Oh Mandy.........

Oh no – it’s Anthony!

Oh no Anthony Lilley chairing, of the suitably and archaically named Magic Lantern, a company so inept that it only survives on government grants and handouts. I’m sure he won’t be mentioning the BBC Jam project (cost £75 million, products – nil). Magic Lantern is one of those London ‘electronic window dressing’ companies that survives through media contacts. I suppose he’s one of the creative geniuses Brown alluded to.

Sure enough we have Jess Search, despite the hip surname, she’s a C4 film documentary flunky luvvie – how un-digital is she? Lucian Grange, from Universal Music (actually a French company as it’s wholly owned by Vivendi). Johannes B. Larche CEO of Hulu (fair enough), Newscorp’s video site, and last but not least a TV web guy, who works on cross-platform projects for the BBC and C4! Illumina is another leech digital company, really a TV production company dabbling in web promotion for TV and film projects. It’s a bunch of analogue guys putting digital make-up on old media. Ooops the truth has just slipped out, we’ve slipped from 7th to 12th in the European league and Japan, China and India are leaping ahead. Reality can be so embarrassing.

Print dame's obituary

It’s getting worse, we have Sly Bailey from the Mirror Group. Since when was the Mirror a leading light in the digital world? She’s also a non-exec at EMI, known for its inept response to the digital music revolution. Despite astronomic pay rises she has seen circulation figures and the value of the group plummet to all time lows. What does she have to say on our digital future? You guessed it – absolutely nothing. Sorry, it was like watching someone reading out their own obituary. Ms Bailey slammed the Digital Britain report for only mentioning newspapers four times. That’s about four times too many for me. Wake up Sly. It’s not up to government to fix your outdated business model.

Future mired in the past

So concludes the Digital Britain debate. It's all so depressing. We’re gazing at the future but mired in the past. A tiny London coterie of TV, film and print people are sounding off about a world they despise and know little about, while the innovators are sidelined and ignored. As long as Digital Britain is in the hands of old analogue aunties, and pretend digital TV production companies, we’ll drop even further behind. We know what works in online media – it’s small techy companies doing innovative and disruptive things, being properly capitalised through angel and VC finance. Where are they?

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Blogger Francis said...

In the interests of fairness, the story about the guacamole dip might not be his gaffe:;f=101;t=000327

12:27 AM  
Anonymous Jeremy Silver said...

Hi Donald,

Very justified criticisms - hard not to agree. For all the radical rhetoric, Digital Britain looked yesterday like hasty results of ringing around a few friendly CEO's and running ideas past them for "commercial buy in".

The true tech entrepreneurs aren't in the room, they're out there doing it.

The difficulties come when the results show up and conflict with the commercial legacy businesses who do everything they can to stop them succeeding.

One of the most effective ways they do this is by taking lots of their money by charging exorbitant licensing fees for their content. Then it's a win win for the incumbents, they make money even if the start-up doesn't and they can tell government that they are doing more experimenting than ever because they're "involved" with all these new innovative businesses. They're involved alright, involved in a daily battle to slow them down and drain them of resources.
It was a great strategy - ten years ago when I helped devise it for EMI.

No one said a revolution would be easy!

Jeremy Silver

7:08 AM  
Blogger David said...

If it wasn't so depressing this would be funny. We should be Number 1!

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Graham Brown-Martin said...

Difficult to disagree with much of your post here Donald but what also occurs to me as we hurtle towards this brave new world is whilst there has been much emphasis within the Digital Britain work to protect the interests of business and property, i.e. copyrights, etc., there has been scant, if any, consideration towards protection of the individual.

I guess as in life as in cyberspace.

However abuse of digital technology whether it is major corporations abusing loophole's in the law to publish photographs of your front door or individuals seeking on relentlessly stalking others & sending abuse via the net we have a legal and law enforcement system that is completely ill-equipped and more importantly is not interoperable with the rest of the world.

Of course, this is something that is also personal to myself and family as recently broadcast on national television:

But given that both the Police and Home Office have been unable or unwilling to tackle this problem I wonder in the new Digital Britain how our citizens will cope without borderless laws in a borderless cyberspace?

10:14 AM  
Blogger Harold Jarche said...

Sounds very much like Canada, unfortunately.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Rob Spence said...

Donald- who would be the go-to guys as far as you are concerned if we are to really get Digital Britain going?

8:53 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

We need to focus on goals not inputs.

1. EDUCATION - mandate the use of e-learning with an ECO policy on 'Every Child Online'. Also inists on the recording of lectures and changes to academic year towards more corses on demand. We can save piles of piblic money in education by AVOIDING huge building projects (I'm glad the 6th form college programme has been halted) and reduce the need for more teachers.

2. WORK - encourage mmore home working, especialy in the public sector, to reduce commuter tarffic and pollution.

3. HEALTH - more online GP effort, with appointments, blood test results etc. delivered online. A clear set of deliverables for customers.

4. JOBS - online UK system fo job search, application, online interviewing etc. More emphasis on advice services online for career change/training.

I could go on but I feel that the commissioningof these services would produce an entrepreneurial culture if there were clear procurement rules around using small companies. They do this in the US.

There also has to be more help for Angel investment so that the risk is worth taking. Angel investment is interested investment, often by experienced business people.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Paul Canning said...

Spot on. 'fraid I nicked one of your best lines

11:41 PM  
Blogger Paul Canning said...

Oh, + I have experience with Ms Bailey which I go into

11:42 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

Well said. I think this sums up the key problems v. well. Props!

10:30 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

Hi Donald
I enjoyed your acerbic commentary, and have linked to it from my latest BBC column at

Keep up the good work :-)


4:07 PM  
Anonymous Eamonn said...

All too predictable, just another meeting of the old (media) boys network. The BBC governors recently approved the £30 million overspend on the BBC website last year. Maybe this year they'll divert the funds to delevloping a more pluralistic media model. Only joking.

11:58 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

The entrepreneurial side of Digital Britain has long been stifled by the public service broaqdcasters - BBC and C4. If they don't starngle things they divert useful minds, money and activity away from fruitful progress. BBC Jam etc.

Napoleon was prophetics - London's a city of electronic window dressers.

11:28 AM  
Anonymous Anthony Lilley said...

Hello Donald

Someone just linked me through to this post and - with the obvious exceptions - I just wanted to say that I agree with you on the thrust of what you're saying.

Far too many people like me, and maybe even more old-fashioned, were there talking about the digital future. I hope I said as much in my comments on the day when, for instance, I wondered aloud where the games people were and asked for policy to promote investment in genuinely interactive risk-taking, not for protecting film, newspapers or anything else. I might not have been perfect for the role, but I had a go.

My position, and my company's for that matter, isn't and never has been at the leading edge of innovation; although I've only ever worked in digital media and have never been in TV. I'm someone who feels at home in the space between old and new media and I do my work there. I agree there should have been more interactive media/tech people at that event - but I wasn't involved in the planning or anything else to do with Digital Britain except on the day.

I also believe that the PSBs need a big shake-up, but I don't believe that will happen without a gradual shift, certainly in the case of the BBC. We'll have to disagree on that one.

As for your comments about me and Magic Lantern. You're entitled to your opinion of course, - but for the sake of accuracy, we have never had a grant from the government or any kind of "hand out", whatever one of those is. We did a great deal of work on BBC Jam, which we won in heavily contested competitive tenders. We also, like you, I know, felt the concept of Jam was flawed. None of our work saw the light of day because of BBC and government politics, not because of anything we did. We offered to release it open source if that would have allowed some of the investment not to be wasted but that wasn't allowed.

We do, of course, work with PSBs and in the public sector, but I guess that you have no problem with companies doing publicly-funded work per se as Epic did a great deal of it, if I remember? And, for what it's worth, though not all of our projects turn out as well as we'd like, we have won our share of awards over the years, and we have a fair few repeat clients so I hope we're not completely inept; although sometimes projects have failed. Nonetheless, your comments are treading a pretty harsh and fine line.

I'm sorry you felt the need to use such emotive language. I have a great deal of respect for your thinking and have learned a lot from you since we worked together all that time ago. As someone who's also put his own money on the line to develop a business and commercial products (which is mainly what we do these days), lost (and occasionally made) money in the process and works hard in Sussex (not London), I agree with a lot of what you say, believe me.

All the best

9:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry Anthony but Donald is right on the point about your organisation and others working on public sector handouts. Magic Lantern and the other present like Ilumina are typical traditional media lovey organisations where the networks into the BBC and C4 provide an insestuous trail of contracts. Believe me we have tried to compete and not got past first base despite better outputs, becuase we do not have these relationships.

BBC Jam was far from an open competition and many of the same old names got the work becuase ex BBC people work in these agencies now (Anthony you recruited a couple of them - come on). That said you are one of the most open and challenging of this group, but there should not be a group is the point!

Please for once can we get government money going to a really open process where digital excellence and innovation wins out - probably not!

2:23 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

This is right. The BBC and C4 are a distorting factor. If they are not chilling the market they're handing out contracts to their media mates. It's killing entrepreneurship and innovation in this country. I've heard that BBC Jam is back on the cards. An insider described the previous farce as a bunch of broadcast people with no project management producing vastly overpriced and ineffective content. It would seem that incompetence simply leads to more incompetence.

4:12 PM  

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