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Sunday, May 23, 2010

BBC uses prisoners to work on programme archive plan

BBC uses prisoners to work on programme archive plan

The BBC has used serving prisoners to work on its historic programme archives in a secret project uncovered by The Daily Telegraph.

Under the scheme, the publicly-funded broadcaster handed over footage to inmates who earn just £30 a week rather than members of its own 23,000 staff.

Convicts at a privately run Category B jail, the second-highest security level, transferred tapes of old television shows to computer to save them for posterity.

Senior staff in the BBC’s archives department visited the jail to watch the work in progress while meetings were held to discuss a landmark deal for the prisoners to digitise all 1million hours of programmes in its vaults.

Fearful about the controversy the scheme could cause, the BBC never discussed it publicly and even the broadcasting union, Bectu, was unaware of it. Details were obtained by this newspaper through a Freedom of Information request that took more than four months rather than the usual 20 working days.

The BBC insists that it has not given any money to Serco, the private jail operator, for the secret scheme nor signed any contracts, following the pilot project last year.

However emails disclosed by the corporation show that it had shown considerable interest in the innovative project proposed by Serco, which runs four prisons in England.

The BBC owns more than 1m hours of historic content, some of it decades old and at risk of being lost. It employs 66 people to look after it, at a cost of £5m a year, in its Information and Archives department. The corporation estimates it would take 10 years to safely copy all 100m items in its collection into longer-lasting digital formats.

In December 2008 it was approached by Serco to become involved in Artemis – Achieving Rehabilitation Through Establishing a Media Ingest Service – a new project for prisoners to transfer archive documents to computers.

Serco said it would provide “high-quality employment” and the chance of an NVQ qualification for inmates and HMP Lowdham Grange, a 628-capacity jail near Nottingham all of whose inmates are serving at least four years. The firm said this would mean it could provide a “stable work force”.

The BBC was told it would prove a “very cost-effective” way of digitising its archive, and several meetings were organised to discuss plans.

Managers agreed to hand over 20 hours of old videos, including episodes of Horizon and Earth Story, so prisoners could transfer them to computer and also add “meta-data” – typed detailed descriptions of the footage to help producers search through it more easily.

The British Library and National Archives also provided material for the pilot project.

In September last year, five members of BBC staff visited the jail, where a production workshop had been built, and were reported to be “pleased” with what they saw of the prisoners’ work and enthusiasm.

However David Crocker, the driving force behind the scheme at Serco, admitted: “The major concern was around the potential negative newspaper headlines that the BBC may attract.”

The company did discuss the scheme with one newspaper and one trade magazine but made no reference to the BBC’s involvement.

In November, Mr Crocker told the BBC: “I can’t thank you enough for finding a project for us to kick-start Artemis.”

He said his staff were drawing up “terms of reference” and would then “cost the project” of a full-scale digitisation of the BBC’s archive. However no deals have yet been signed.

The BBC said: “The BBC did hold discussions with Serco about their planned project to digitise archives. As part of this the BBC, alongside other organisations, provided some material for Serco to use as part of its feasibility study for the project.

“No payment was made to Serco as part of this, nor was any guarantee or promise of work entered into.

“The BBC has no plans to work with Serco to digitise its programme archive and has not come to any agreements nor signed any contracts with any firms about utilising the prison workforce on any project.”

1 comment:

Barnacle Bill said...

Makes a change to read something positive about the Beeb.
I wouldn't condemn it as slave labour as it gives prisoners a chance to get qualifications in an area they would not otherwise meet inside.
The only trouble is it is not something that could be introduced across the whole prison service.
But it is good to see someone thinking outside the box, as they say, in relationship to prisoners.