Routinisation of Audience Participation: BBC News Online, Citizenship and Democratic Debate
Authors: Thorsen, E.
Leading up to the 2010 UK general election, Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, stressed the importance of the Corporation’s ability ‘to provide a strong and independent space where the big debates can take place, free from political or commercial influence’. ‘In this public space,’ he continued, ‘everyone can have access to the lifeblood of healthy democratic debate – impartial news and information’. Affirming the importance of BBC Online, Thompson described it as ‘being a cornerstone of what the BBC should be about’ (Thompson, 2010).
As with previous elections, one of the key strategic priorities for the BBC’s Election 2010 website was to help inform the citizenry about the campaign and empower voters to make an informed choice. In the most traditional sense, this was achieved through the BBC’s journalism and a series of rich background features – e.g. guidance on voting procedures, MPs and parliamentary politics, and comparisons of party manifestos. The BBC election websites have also featured experimentation with various forms of audience engagement, exemplified by different interactive features on the BBC micro websites for the 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010 UK general elections. This has traditionally been anchored in the Corporation’s public service commitment to facilitating ‘civic engagement’ and providing ‘democratic value’ to British citizens (see also Thorsen et al., 2009, Thorsen, 2010, 2011, Allan and Thorsen, 2010).
The BBC’s news website was incredibly popular during the 2010 election according to visitor statistics. On results day, May 7, BBC News Online had 11.4 million individual users, breaking the previous record set on November 5, 2008, for the election of Barack Obama as US President (Herrmann, 2010). Comparing this to 2005, the number of unique visitors to the BBC’s election site on results day, May 6, was 3 million taking the overall BBC News Online total to 4.3 million (Ward, 2006:17). This demonstrates a near three-fold increase in individual users from one election to the next and indicates that whilst the internet might not be perceived as having had a significant impact on the election outcomes, the BBC has certainly had a considerable impact on citizens’ online activities.
Based on a larger study into BBC’s election websites involving interviews, observations and textual analysis, this chapter will examine how audience participation had by 2010 become a routinised part of the Corporation’s newsroom. It will begin by providing an historical overview of how public access programming has developed within the BBC and its influence on how the Corporation has sought to facilitate participatory spaces online. Following a discussion of online participatory spaces on the BBC’s election websites, it will offer a critique of how these are operationalized internally. It will argue that despite converged newsroom practices, the scale of the BBC’s operations means facilitation of civic engagement is fragmented between competing stakeholders within the Corporation each with their own routinised practices and perception of its value. This tension has a dramatic effect not only on the dialectic relationship between BBC journalists and its audiences, but also on the type of ‘public space’ the Corporation is able to foster and by extension the empowerment of citizens to engage in ‘healthy democratic debate’.