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Martin Belam | 10:20 UK time, Friday, 7 December 2007

This post is part of the tenth birthday celebrations of bbc.co.uk

If you extrapolate current statistical trends, by 2025 40% of the UK population will be obese, 1 in 3 of us will be Elvis impersonators, and increased electronic storage will mean that you'll be able to carry a video of your entire life around with you at all times.

Well, maybe not quite, but it's certainly true that over the last ten years physical storage of digital media on servers and removable storage has got cheaper and smaller - and it wasn't exactly big in 1997.

All of which raises the question - why can't I just link to the 1997 version of the BBC website, or the 2000 version, or to exactly what it was like on Christmas Day 2002? A lot of those things are simply not there anymore.

When I joined the BBC, I was always told that Andrew Neil had the first individual programme support site - but that, for example, is no longer on the BBC site. The pages credited the production of the HTML to Mark Himsley, just as the BBC would do for a television programme.

Even in cases where an original BBC website from the 1990s is preserved, there is no guarantee that any of the functionality will survive.

In 1997, the BBC covered a general election online for the first time. The pages are still on the web, but sadly, Peter Snow and company no longer swing like they once did. Clicking the 'Interactive' option from the menu generates a 403 Forbidden error.


Sometimes, although the HTML has been kept live on the BBC's front-end web servers, some of the dynamic applications at the back-end have been decommissioned, accidentally wiped, or have simply broken as the BBC's technical infrastructure evolved.

You can still find a 1998 microsite dedicated to the first anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales; here, however, the multimedia has not been preserved online. Part of the microsite was an opportunity to watch again clips of Martin Bashir's Panorama interview. The .ram files are no longer on the server - trying to view the clips causes an error.

Sometimes, when sites have been formally closed, the decommissioning of sites has been handled well by the BBC. The much-missed Cult website has a goodbye message on the homepage, and the banner has been altered to reflect that the site is no longer maintained.

At other times, the BBC has been a bit clumsy.

07_02-france98.pngWhen I started at the BBC in 2000, the online coverage of the France 98 World Cup was already badly broken, because someone had deleted the entire directory with all of the images from the tournaments. I've never established whether it was a mistake, or due to rights issues with the photographs themselves - but either way, it basically destroyed the site.

That isn't to say it wasn't BBC policy to keep anything and everything. One of the cybercrimes that could have your "Trusted User" FTP access to the BBC's master content server revoked was getting caught deleting a large chunk of the site without letting the BBC Broadcast team know first so they could back it up.


The BBC is learning, though. With the new programme support pages, there is the promise that each episode of every show will have a permanent and unique URL for the foreseeable future. The Information & Archives department, home to an astonishing treasure trove of physical archives, now has a system in place to capture copies of files as they are uploaded to the BBC's servers, and to preserve the multi-media elements related to programmes.

There have also been moves outside of the BBC to archive the site. The Wayback Machine has some content from the BBC site that can no longer be accessed. News Sniffer is a favourite site of conspiracy theorists on both the left and right of the political spectrum, whilst the BBC News homepage and BBC homepage archives were prototypes that came out of the BBC's backstage.bbc.co.uk initiative.

Every now and then the BBC runs a treasure hunt or amnesty, asking people to return any old reels of films or home recorded clips of BBC shows that have now been lost to the archives. I sometimes wonder whether they should do a similar appeal to try and get some missing screenshots back of the early web years.

Martin Belam is a former Senior Development Producer, New Media


  1. At 09:54 PM on 07 Dec 2007, Andrew Tegala wrote:

    Shame to hear this story. I thought going into the electronic age the Beeb would have learnt the lessons of all those wiped archives in the late 1960s!

    Isn't this a missed opportunity though? It would be great to see a page with 10 years of the BBC. Suppose we will have to cope with just screengrabs uploaded to FlickR

  2. At 05:23 PM on 10 Dec 2007, Brandon wrote:

    Some of the sites were pretty basic and as later managers took over they revised the whole site style.

    We had long arguments about removing old content but as the editors they had the ultimate say. The argument usually went "that's old why would anyone want it?"; "there's nobody maintaining it"; "we need to remove stuff to make space for new".

    When content was removed some areas, usually News, would scream and have it put back. That's why www.bbc.co.uk/politics97 and www.bbc.co.uk/election97 are still there. Earlier stuff lost the argument.

    It's not all gone, though - I kept the server backup tapes, so a lot should still be recoverable (up to 2002).


  3. At 03:08 AM on 11 Dec 2007, Orville Eastland wrote:

    I've been visiting the BBC for a number of years, as it's the major way I access the BBC's services, now that Shortwave no longer aims for the US. (I do still get bits on Public Radio and TV, plus Doctor Who on Sci-Fi.) I've enjoyed the various news stories on the BBC's website, and occasionally I come across interesting old things.
    In regards to the Cult website, I hope certain bits related to still-running shows (such as Blue Peter and Doctor Who) can get incorporated into the current shows' sites.
    As for my favorite old BBC News story, which is still around, I think this story on some unusually-named Indian politicians is my favorite:

  4. At 11:24 AM on 14 Dec 2007, Mark Himsley wrote:

    Back when we were making the Andrew Neil Show microsite we had no content management system preserving every edit, we just had FTP access to a section of the bbc.co.uk site.

    We had no plan to keep archives of every day's updates (we had very few plans about the site at all – I remember I designed the layout and Photoshoped some images I grabbed from the opening titles and put the homepage up and it was a week or two later before the graphics designers made something that looked – well after the programme was on air).

    I wish I had thought to archive the pages – the real issue was that untrained people would directly edit the HTML (often breaking it until I could get to the page to correct it) and therefore it would have been difficult to achieve anyway.

    BTW. Later versions of The Andrew Neil Show micorsite snapshots on web.archive.org have the graphics archived too.

  5. At 03:23 PM on 14 Dec 2007, eyedropper wrote:

    Leaving images around on severs is a rights nightmare when they fall out of license. I've first hand experience of legal wrangling from a major image supplier about things that are technically public facing even though nothing links to them anymore. This is even more the case with sports images, so you can see why editors go 'wipe the lot'.

    'sides if the BBC preserved everything they wouldn't give us a hobby or the chance to moan in 30 years time. Personally I'd like to see the 'working out' shown a little more. I wonder if the recent homepage design will get a 'glass wall' style book on how they arrived at the final design.

    Also Martin, what will happen to /homearchive in the new design, can it cope?

  6. At 01:51 PM on 15 Dec 2007, Martin Belam wrote:

    >> Also Martin, what will happen to /homearchive in the new design, can it cope?

    One assumes that the parsing of the page was tightly tied to that design, so I guess it will just break unless someone has thought to factor that into the re-design process. Of course, that is one of the reasons it has a 'beta' slapped on it - so that it wouldn't become a dependency for future homepage decisions

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