The BBC is giving away 1 million computers, and once again doing the job of government

Do all Year 7s really require freebies from the BBC?

In 1981, as part of their Computer Literacy Project, the BBC got together with Acorn Computers and came up with the BBC Micro. It gave legions of digital virgins their first exposure to the intricate wonders of computing, and was widely acknowledged as A Good Thing, if not by Clive Sinclair, who lost out to Acorn in the battle for the contract to build the machines.

Now the Corporation is doing something similar with their Micro Bits project, which will see all children starting secondary school in September being given a Micro Bit, a stripped-down computer similar to a Raspberry Pi, the credit card-sized module whose second generation was announced last month.

It’s clearly a terrific idea – who could complain about a scheme that gets young people thinking about and experiencing how computers work, as the BBC says in its launch literature, helping shift the emphasis from consumption to creation?

The big question, though, is should the BBC be paying for it? In fact not much TV licence cash is being used – the Beeb has organisations like Barclays, Microsoft and the Open University as partners – but many licence-holders will still ask, is this something that every 11-year-old needs? What about rich kids? Do all Year 7s really require freebies from the BBC? I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson, whose Top Gear nets £150m annually for the Corporation, will be thrilled to know that a generation of snot-nosed sprogs, both common and posh, will benefit from the fruits of his talent.

Others will say that the BBC should concentrate on its central remit: making TV programmes. In fact it has does have an accompanying series of shows about computers, though the only ones revealed so far are a documentary about Bletchley Park and a drama based on Grand Theft Auto, which doesn’t exactly bode well.

For me, though, this kind of scheme is exactly what the BBC should be doing. Yes, it might be better if the Government was stepping in to address the projected shortfall in digital-friendly professionals. But they’re not. And let’s be clear, neither would a privatised BBC shorn of the licence fee, unless there was profit in it.

All those right-wing windbags who aren’t interested in the good stuff the BBC does will doubtless hate the idea. In fact it often seems to this left-wing windbag that the BBC has more sense of the greater good of the nation, in its widest sense, than the Government itself.

As the BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall put it, “This is exactly what the BBC is all about – bringing the industry together on an unprecedented scale and making a difference to millions.”

I think he’s right. The BBC isn’t just about making good radio and televison: from the outset it set out to make itself fundamental to the British way of life. I sometimes think the letters should stand for the British Britishness Corporation, so central is it to how we view ourselves as a nation – which is why right-wingers get it so wrong when they view it as just another bottom line which would be considerably improved by cutting off public funding and having adverts instead.

Lord Reith – of “entertain, educate and inform” fame – would surely approve of the Micro Bits scheme. “Just as we did with the BBC Micro in the 1980s, we want to inspire the digital visionaries of the future,” says Tony Hall. “Only the BBC can bring partners together to attempt something this ambitious, this important to Britain’s future on the world stage.” That’s probably an overstatement – but still, let’s credit the BBC with trying to improve our lives and the state of the nation.

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