There are two long pauses during our interview: the first when I ask if he would like the archive to be his legacy at the BBC, and the second when I ask why he didn’t get Ashley Highfield’s job in 2008 as the BBC’s director of future media and technology. He stares intently out of the window.
Ageh doesn’t want to talk about himself. He is in the very early stages of his most significant project yet: one that aims to redesign the internet. After two years analysing the content, framework and potential of the BBC’s archive, Ageh’s conclusion is that many of the challenges – not least rights, accessibility and the cost of digitisation – are shared by other public institutions. So his vision is to create a new «digital public space» for publicly owned content.
The Digital Public Space proposal is still being developed with organisations including the British Film Institute and the British Library. Essentially it would be a new layer of the internet in which institutions would make publicly owned content available, free, for non-commercial public use. That content could be used elsewhere for commercial projects – but at a cost.
Arguably the archive’s biggest challenge is rights, which were not designed for the perpetual nature of the internet, says Ageh: «This notion of the public space allows content to be amphibious rather than only commercial or public sector. It would allow the web to be as commercial as it needs to be, but structured in a way that you couldn’t retrospectively apply to the web.» It would, he claims, stimulate the creative economy, drive digital literacy and maximise public value. The Digital Public Space idea is as brilliant as it is ambitious. «As a nation, we need to decide that we are going to create an environment where every one of our citizens can get value from these technologies,» he says. «The BBC should facilitate this, but it is an opportunity for these technologies to remind all our national institutions what they were trying to achieve in the first place.»
It is difficult to see Ageh outside the public sector. He seems umbilically tied to the BBC, describing it as reading him stories each night as a child when his Italian mother hadn’t yet learned to read English. But back in 1979, Ageh worked for a 27-year-old Richard Desmond as an ad copy chaser. After various listings titles and the football magazine When Saturday Comes, he was hired by the Guardian in 1990 to work on improving TV and radio listings, and that coincided with a newspaper price war. A former colleague remembers him pulling a prototype for the Guide out of his back pocket in the pub. «I argued that a better option than reducing the cover price would be to add value,» Ageh says. «It might be overstating it to say the Guide saved the Guardian, but it certainly had a very positive impact on the sales, the demographic and the perception of the paper.»
Ageh’s first cigarette was handed to him in a playground in Walthamstow, east London by John Diamond, later the author of much-admired columns on cancer. When Ageh «spotted the internet» in 1993, he went back to Diamond – one of a handful of journalists then writing about it – to find out more. Part of a small but dynamic «New Media Lab» team at the Guardian, Ageh began experimenting: «I realised that if the Guardian moved quickly, we could ‘own’ the internet.» The team put together a UK version of Wired, among other things, and after that dramatically burnt out he moved on to Virgin.net in 1995.
Ageh never actually applied for a BBC job. A mischievous, astute colleague at upmystreet, Stef Magdalinski, filled in his application form in 2002. Several weeks later, he was head of search and listings. «I didn’t know that much about search and didn’t see how I’d ever get a job at the BBC,» he says. «I still don’t really feel I work here because I’m not part of the programmes. And it’s too important a place to have someone like me working there.»
Despite Ageh’s evident skills in analysing ideas, building consensus and identifying opportunities, it says much about the BBC that he still lacks confidence and feels an outsider: both because of his approach and through being conscious of his Walthamstow background. He’s one of the corporation’s few black senior executives. Given the big personalities at the top of the BBC, even his closest friends agree he is unlikely to be made director of future media and technology. He doesn’t work in the right way for one of these top jobs, says one. But maybe he should be appointed to such a post «in the sort of organisation the BBC ought to be».
In spring 2003, the engineer Ben Lavender took an outline for an online media player to the BBC. Ageh immediately became the McCartney to Lavender’s Lennon, driving the project through no fewer than 84 internal BBC presentations until a trial budget was approved by the executive board. Greg Dyke said the idea would save the BBC, while it was Carolyn Fairbairn, then director of strategy and distribution, who sponsored the proposal – not Ashley Highfield. Ageh skilfully disarmed opponents along the way and rode the punches. «My role was to know the questions the BBC was going to have to face five years ahead, and come up with a product that would allow answers to those questions to be evolved. My belief is that iPlayer should still be much more open – open source, with APIs [application programming interfaces] and mutual collaboration.»
The full version of iPlayer finally launched in time for Christmas in 2007. «Various executives took credit for it and continue to do so,» Ageh snaps, unguarded, but he says the same of his time at the Guardian. «I’ve been airbrushed out of history there too. But I still wholeheartedly believe in everything the Guardian and Scott Trust stand for. Same with the iPlayer.»
Tom Loosemore, a friend and former BBC colleague, says Ageh is rare in deserving to be called a visionary. «He’s one of the few people that understands the BBC is not about programmes but about educating, informing and entertaining,» adds Loosemore. «They don’t always like him, they don’t always speak the same language, and he does have very big ideas – but God knows the BBC needs people like that.»
How does Loosemore rate the chances of the Digital Public Space coming to fruition? «It will only happen if the government wants to do it. The BBC is the only organisation that could propose that idea: reclaiming the public domain and improving the internet. It will happen, but probably long after Tony has moved on – so others will get the credit.»
Ageh says it wouldn’t be fair if the Digital Public Space came to be seen as his legacy. «All I’ve done is aggregated everybody else’s thoughts. I would like the BBC’s legacy to be the same in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century: from a standing start it created maximum value out of broadcasting. I’d love the BBC to be recognised as that organisation again, and for the BBC to be asked to help solve some of the problems of the media industry rather than being accused of being part of the problem. I genuinely don’t think it is.»
So why wasn’t he chosen to succeed Highfield? Eventually Ageh says: «It’s a harder job than people imagine,» and then digresses into explaining that Erik Huggers, Highfield’s successor, is also responsible inter alia for phones and internet pipes. «I don’t have the confidence or training to do it. But put me in charge of the archive and I’ll do everything I can to get maximum value for every citizen in this country.»
Digital Public Space will need to be largely self-funded, says Ageh, by aggregating and sharing existing technologies and tools: «In a different climate, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would set aside funding for some of this, but at present it is up to the institutions to find a way to make more of what we already have.» Perhaps that hints at a project that might be more attractive as a «vision» for a second-term government.