A top British politician wants to create a publicly-owned tech company to rival Facebook and Netflix — but the idea is being ridiculed

NetflixNetflix drama ‘Black Mirror.’
  • Jeremy Corbyn, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s most powerful adversary, wants to create a publicly-owned tech company to rival Facebook and Netflix.
  • His idea is called the British Digital Corporation and people think it sounds like a nationalised Facebook without the fake news and data misuse, where users can vote to get TV shows made.
  • The vision is deliberately radical, but it has been ridiculed as unworkable and unnecessary.
  • A senior BBC figure told Business Insider that the British Digital Corporation overlooks an organisation already doing the very things Corbyn wants to achieve – the BBC.

Imagine a website that has the power to connect you with others like Facebook, but also the ability to grip you with TV content to rival Netflix. Now imagine owning that website.

That was basically the proposal put forward this week by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s opposition party and Prime Minister Theresa May’s most powerful adversary.

Speaking to an audience of some of the UK’s most influential media executives, Corbyn posited the idea of creating a British Digital Corporation, or BDC. If that acronym has a familiar ring, you’d be right.

Under his vision, the BDC would effectively be a sister organisation to the BBC, a sort of digital sidekick to Britain’s 96-year-old national broadcaster, known affectionately as Auntie.

Like the BBC, the BDC would be funded and owned by the British public. The BBC collects its money through the TV licence, a levy on UK households that generates around £3.8 billion ($US4.9 billion) in revenue a year for the corporation.

Corbyn was a little woolly on the detail, and his suggestions prompted people to speculate that he wants to create a nationalised Facebook, without all the nasty fake news and data misuse, where users can vote on TV shows they want to be made.

Below is the plan in his own words, taken from his speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in Scotland. You can watch the speech in full here. Corbyn said:

“A BDC could use all of our best minds, the latest technology and our existing public assets not only to deliver information and entertainment to rival Netflix and Amazon but also to harness data for the public good.

“A BDC could develop new technology for online decision making and audience-led commissioning of programmes and even a public social media platform with real privacy and public control over the data that is making Facebook and others so rich.

“It could become the access point for public knowledge, information and content currently held in the BBC archives, the British Library and the British Museum. Imagine an expanded iPlayer giving universal access to licence fee payers for a product that could rival Netflix and Amazon. It would probably sell pretty well overseas as well.”

Corbyn’s British Digital Corporation ridiculed

Delegates who spoke to Business Insider after the speech concluded it was a radical, but ultimately unworkable and unnecessary plan. Others just ridiculed it.

Jeremy corbyn soft brexitGettyLabour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Brent Hoberman, the founder of lastminute.com and a prominent UK tech investor, tweeted: “Who is advising these people?!!?”

Damian Collins, the Conservative politician in charge of the committee of lawmakers that held Facebook to account over the Cambridge Analytica crisis, was equally scathing. He said it would be a “British Digital Leyland” – a reference to British Leyland, which in 1968 amalgamated several carmakers into one company in one of the biggest disasters in the history of nationalisation.

Alison Kirkham, a senior figure at the BBC, raised an even more existential question about Corbyn’s vision. She told me that the British Digital Corporation overlooks an organisation already doing the very things he wants to achieve – the BBC.

Don’t forget, the BBC basically invented the online video player with iPlayer in 2007. Indeed, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once said: “The iPlayer really blazed the trail. That was long before Netflix and really got people used to this idea of on-demand viewing.”

And as far as creating social conversation, connecting people, audience-led commissioning, and broadening horizons, are concerned, well the BBC has been doing that since it was invented in 1922.

Just look at radio phone-ins, giant shared viewing experiences like “Strictly Come Dancing” (or “Dancing With the Stars” as it is known in the US), TV shows being axed or supercharged based on ratings, and the BBC’s partnerships with organisations like The Open University. All of which can be accessed online.

“There seems to be a lack of understanding that the BBC is already a very digital organisation,” Kirkham, the BBC’s controller of factual commissioning said.

“It’s a real asset that the digital offer is an integral part of the broader BBC offer. I’m not sure it would serve audiences, I’m not sure it would make economic sense, to peel the two away and create two separate organisations.”

Corbyn certainly achieved his aim of getting people talking to “generate some new thinking.” Like all radical ideas, however, it appears to have raised more questions than answers.

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