Feature

Digital publishers hold a firm line as Drayton takes on BBC

The British Internet Publishers Alliance's new chairman is not going to allow the BBC any rest, writes Alasdair Reid.

The new-media market has a seemingly prolific capacity for generating acronyms -- and we're not just talking about technical jargon either (though heaven knows this is an industry awash with the stuff). No -- the digital advertising business also knows a bit about committees, trade bodies and marketing forums. In fact, you can't help wondering whether the idea is eventually to mirror

exactly the ISBAs, PPAs, NPAs, IPAs and whatnots of the wider media and ad community.



Last week we were reminded of the existence of one of the lesser spotted members of the acronym kingdom -- BIPA. Or the British Internet Publishers' Alliance if you prefer longhand.

To date, BIPA hasn't exactly had the highest profile in the acronym jungle but, with the appointment of a new chairman -- Hugo Drayton, the managing director of Hollinger Telegraph New Media -- that might start to change. Drayton (he replaces Rob Hersov who stepped down at the end of last year) is one of new media's heavier hitters and is clearly not scared of the public spotlight.



He got off to a brisk start in his role last week with a tactical foray against the BBC. No surprises there, you might argue, because historically BIPA's main role has been to lobby on behalf of the

private sector against the BBC. But could that change now that Drayton is at the helm?



Unlikely, he reveals. BIPA will continue its primary role as a single issue pressure group. Drayton explains: "The BIPA agenda has been consistent since its launch several years ago. The central cause is that the BBC threatens to undermine the competitiveness of the UK's digital publishing market. In government discussions they tend to bundle in digital publishing with broadcasting, which we would argue is a damaging and ignorant thing to do. In digital TV there is arguably a role for state TV in developing the market but that certainly isn't the case in digital publishing. There is no other country in the western world that has made a decision that a state-backed dinosaur should be used to promote the use of the web."



So it's an admirably focused organisation. But isn't its existence symptomatic -- perhaps paradoxically -- of a lack of focus in the digital arena? Isn't there a need for an organisation that can galvanise publishers and take a lead on some of the other big issues confronting the business? For instance, in

encouraging internet sites to take a more grown-up attitude to research and auditing issues? And to educate politicians about thedata protection and e-commerce issues they have trouble getting their heads around -- for instance the European Parliament shenanigans about cookies. Or the debate in the House of Lords about whether internet service providers should be classified as publishers.



Perhaps, Drayton says. "Of course we are interested in these other issues. The cookies issue is hugely important. And there is broadly a promotional job to be done for the industry. We are interested as a group of publishers

to promote the widespread use of auditing. But those are issues

covered by organisations such as the Periodical Publications Association and Internet Advertising Bureau. And no-one else lobbies on this central issue of the BBC. That is where our role lies."



The IAB, of course, can't lobby on the BBC issue because one of its members is the BBC. So Danny Meadows-Klue, the chairman and chief executive of the IAB, is in a slightly awkward position on this one, but he agrees it is a central

issue for the industry. "Many publishers from across the internet sector express concerns about the potential for the BBC to dominate. It's not a simple issue -- it is not just about whether the BBC should be allowed to carry advertising, for instance. Because if you look at the online audiences commanded by the BBC compared with all other publishers online then it is already in a strong position and it is also able to exploit its position."



Meadows-Klue points to the vast array of resources that the BBC is able to leverage in support of its

internet activities. For instance, it has a huge volume of content rights and can tap directly into the commissioning process where TV content is concerned. It is also able to cross promote to an extent that no digital publisher can rival.



So can BIPA count on widespread support for its agenda? Well, perhaps. Charlie Dobres, the chief executive of i-Level, points out that advertisers don't always see it that way. He comments: "Obviously the line from some quarters is that it is unfair to have a commercial operation funded by taxpayers. We have sympathy with that view -- especially as we are likely to see continued blurring of the line between BBCi [the public service BBC brand] and the unashamedly commercial Beeb.com. On the other hand, we're not exactly against the BBC being commercial. Advertisers tend to be enthusiastic about commercial activities being enhanced by the BBC brand."



And he does tend to agree that the industry as a whole sometimes struggles to get its views across. He argues that it can be confusing trying to remember what the relationships are between the various trade bodies. When it comes down to it, for instance, the most effective lobbying on the cookies issue recently was via the Advertising Association -- which is hugely

experienced and is plugged right into European politics.



Drayton concludes: "I found it ironic that while the whole cookies thing was happening last year at the same time the Government was running a campaign for UK Online [its drive to increase internet use in the UK]. I'm sure there are lots of people doing good work on the lobbying front but from where we sit you can't really tell."



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