Nation shall speak peace unto nation...with help from ethical AI - the BBC's ambitious digital plans in an age of Fake News

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 27, 2024
In a media age where truth is an abused commodity, BBC Director General Tim Davie sees ethically-applied AI as an enabler to bring people together.


A couple of weeks ago there was a storm in a social media tea cup when a BBC executive announced plans to use generative AI to promote elements of the Doctor Who brand. It was, in reality, not a particularly substantial evil masterplan - a disclaimer on an online email newsletter being the most tangible example on show - but it was enough to send many spinning into a frenzy like a Dalek without an eyestalk and demanding that this experiment was abandoned.

Hop forward in the Tardis to this week and those same complainants were celebrating a seeming victory as the BBC Complaints Team stated in a reply:

As part of a small trial, marketing teams used generative AI technology to help draft some text for two promotional emails and mobile notifications to highlight Doctor Who programming available on the BBC. 

We followed all BBC editorial compliance processes and the final text was verified and signed off by a member of the marketing team before it was sent. We have no plans to do this again to promote Doctor Who. 

Leaving aside the completely unnecessary apologetic tone of the message here, my main reaction was to think this isn’t the end of the matter. Like the Daleks, who always come back for more after every defeat, AI is something that the BBC, like any rational organization, needs to explore right now and make plans to exploit, especially if, like the BBC, budgetary pressures are screaming out for new solutions to improve productivity and cut costs. 

The future

So it was with grim inevitability that AI featured heavily in a major speech yesterday by Tim Davie, Director General of the BBC, about the future of the broadcaster. For non-British readers, it’s perhaps useful to explain that as a public service broadcaster, the Corporation is funded in large part by a mandatory license fee - which rises to £169.50 next month. 

Critics of this funding model in an age of streaming choice have demanded its abolition for years, with right wing politicians and various entities associated with the Murdoch media empire particularly shrill in their insistence that the licence fee is outdated. The BBC does have commercial arms that generate additional funding through the likes of product licensing, overseas sales and, increasingly, co-production/distribution deals, such as that struck with Disney+ for Doctor Who.

This will be seen more and more, suggested Davie:

We will utilize commercial partners much more actively in areas like programming and technology to increase our horsepower. Our recent deal with Disney on Doctor Who is a good example of how we can work to deliver more value through third-party funding, while protecting content for UK audiences.

Also, we will need to work more strategically with the best tech companies to co-create solutions and form business partnerships that save money, inject capital and create better products…Also, with the backing of BBC Studios, we will invest in stronger direct-to-consumer services globally, including relaunching and the BBC app internationally, with appropriate commercialization.

Digital innovation will remain a key priority, he added: 

In News, we will, of course, continue to focus on journalism of the very highest standards and never wave from our Reithian mission; everything is secondary to that. But we will accelerate work to ensure people can understand the facts and get an impartial assessment of the news – using technology and algorithms for good. Also we want to make it clearer to people what we have to offer.

We will double-down on multi-media brands like BBC Verify [an anti-Fake News initiative] and deploy it globally. We will launch two new brands. Firstly a new digital destination that will offer deeper analysis, longer reads and thought-provoking journalism which provide more context beyond rolling news. Also, to help audiences navigate our investigative journalism, we will create a BBC Investigations brand where people can find all our content in one place.

There will also be significant changes to BBC Online, he pledged: 

We will create a fully-integrated and sensibly-personalized service that allows us to connect up the BBC rather than simply offering it up as a set of different products. This involves a dramatic change in how the BBC works.

We have done very well on limited resources, to be one of the only non-US media companies to have scale in video through iPlayer, and audio via Sounds, alongside market-leading Sport, Weather and News services. But we have not fully unlocked the power of this multimedia offer to audiences. A BBC of the future will complete the journey from a broadcaster-controlled to a more audience-controlled future.

With this in mind, we have been undertaking a total rewiring of the data and 'horizontal' systems, such as Search, that underpin our online offer. In the future BBC, you will be able to move across the content seamlessly, not limited by media type. If you are interested in a topic you should be able to easily mine the whole BBC, from archives to live output, audio/video World Service Local. We have already rapidly built to over 20 million UK weekly accounts in the last few years, and we want to push on to ensure a minimum of 70% of adults are getting this value online weekly.


All good. But what about the rise of AI? Prior to the Doctor Who (teeny, weeny) fuss, the BBC had been taking things very carefully, publishing three principles that it said would shape its approach to gen AI. These stated that the BBC would:

  • always act in the best interests of the public.
  • always prioritise talent and creativity. 
  • always be open and transparent with audiences when we use AI to support content-making. 

It was to these that Davie returned yesterday: 

We will pro-actively deploy AI on our terms, always holding on to our published principles. Never compromising human creative control, supporting rights holders and sustaining our editorial standards, but proactively launching tools that help us build relevance. We are now working with a number of major tech companies on BBC-specific pilots which we will be deploying the most promising ones in coming months. Our ambition is significant. We want to increase fact-checking of sources, use translation and re-formatting technology to take our best content across media and languages. 

Greater personalization of content is one goal, but always with ethics front of mind, he went on: 

Supporting this, we are developing unique ethical algorithms that dramatically increase personalization but are not simply driven by the narrowing of an individual’s recommendations…All of us are increasingly consuming global content on platforms driven by algorithms that create the most commercially-potent relationship with a customer. These algorithms can create a very narrow version of personalization, threatening social cohesion.

In this world, shared moments and common cultural experiences are becoming more, not less, precious. People are increasingly drawn to those communal moments, to places where they find hope and joy, where they are able to have a civil discussion, where they can laugh together, not defined solely by political beliefs or by their online purchase history.

And there was a sort of call arms for the British aspect of the British Broadcasting Corporation: 

As we move to an internet-only world, we can shape this tipping point to act for the benefit of the British public. We can choose not to rely solely on US and Chinese tech companies who may not have the interests of a shared British culture and our democratic, tolerant society at their heart. This will require us to create unique algorithms to serve our values for good. Algorithms and AI that bring us closer, not drive us apart. Personalization, of course, but not driven by a narrow commercial return.

Davie concluded: 

Today a new wave of technological change is reshaping our media landscape at extraordinary speed. It’s bringing fresh challenges for our democracy, our creative economy, and our society. It’s time to make a choice once again, to decide to intervene. To stand up and champion for the UK and all of us, to serve. Not to accept that only the forces of the global market will prevail. To champion an institution that is admired worldwide and is needed more now than ever. Not simply defending the BBC but fighting for what it makes us. To pursue truth with no agenda; to back British storytelling; to bring us together. To act with urgency, to shape this new era of rapid technological change for the good of all, and for the UK as a whole.

My take

You can gauge how pragmatic much of this statement of intent was by the rabid foaming-at-the-mouth reaction it immediately received from the above-cited Murdoch media and its lickspittles on the political right. To those with fewer vested self-interests, what Davie is proposing around digital and AI is ambitious, but sensible. In an age where the likes of Fox News and GB News pose as the voice of reason against ‘the mainstream media’, the great historic trust in the BBC - not only in the UK, but around the world - needs to hold the line. Appropriately-managed and ethically-deployed AI tech can undoubtedly be an enabler to that end, as much as it will be used by its detractors and bad actors, both commercial and political, to undermine inconvenient values. 

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