Can I first say a word about the blog. Yesterday it seems there were 7500 views on this blog alone and I’ve had a rake of email, likes and follows. What a response. If this were the BBC, I would be issuing a press release to say it shows just how popular the corporation is. Some of the comments are strikingly perceptive, some are so close to what I regard as the reality of BBC Scotland that it’s scary and some of you sound as if you are or have been inside the Beeb. If I had to pick out one feature that gives me most satisfaction it is the large number of women responding (as far as I can tell from email addresses). I estimate between 35 and 40 per cent of contacts are from females. I thought the standard view was that women weren’t as supportive of independence so perhaps you’re all just reading in order to disagree! Anyway, that makes me proud. (Also the sister blog made the Scotsman today who reported my satirical pieces on Jim Naughtie almost as though they were fact…describing them as “an attack” on him. You can’t even take the piss these days.)
Again I say, I didn’t mean to do this. My plan was to put out my own thoughts as boldly as I can and not be distracted. But such has been the online reaction and the thoughtful and – for me – challenging questions, that I’m letting you decide the agenda and will address as many points as I can. I did say at the outset that we needed to take the debate away from the politicians and give it to the people, after all.
I must ask that you understand my reluctance to speak in detail about individuals. They were colleagues, many are friends and none joined the BBC with anything other than a desire to do their best. They are not evil conspirators, they are men and women who believe in the BBC and with some of whom I have shared a freezing picket line. They don’t go to work to conspire, lie or deceive and when we talk about the journalists, I believe they are responsible, more than anyone else, including management, for keeping the BBC true to its founding principles. I don’t exonerate bad journalism, but I do know how hard it is sometimes to create it in the modern BBC and there are very few in the newsroom who don’t spend part of every day heaving a boulder of some sort up a hill. If you’re looking for culpability, turn your eyes to the management floor.
John Boothman was also a colleague for many years going back to the late 80’s and while I am determined to speak up, it still stings me personally to expose him. I do so because complaining internally is proven to be useless and because when you reach executive level certain protocols are required, certain behaviour is expected.
He has executive authority to affect the lives of staff and when that is used as ruthlessly as he has in ending the careers of friends and colleagues, he loses the right to loyalty. I personally have affection for him but he has to realise it took a herculean effort on my part when he pushed through the removal of my own wife from the BBC. She left a 20-year career behind when she was targeted for redundancy, chased from one role to another until she was forced to agree a deal to leave. The personal testimony of staff put through an agonising process of accelerated redundancies when the rest of the BBC was deploying natural wastage, is hair-raising and distressing.
If this were any other public organisation, the BBC would set its investigation team on BBC Scotland to expose the heartless and ruthless staff selection and eradication process used and which is still threatening to cause a UK-wide BBC strike over one member of staff they refuse to redeploy.
By the way, you may be interested to read a section of my earlier post on John Boothman that I deleted before publishing because it made the piece too long. It refers to his time as a political producer in the 80’s and 90’s.
Remember, this was when Labour ran everything in Scotland and Labour was the story from the top of the Labour Opposition at Westminster, through the Scottish party, to local government. In those long years of opposition and into the Blair period, there was no better source for names, numbers, thumbnail profiles, union connections, love-hate relationships and likely position on issues than John Boothman. He also knew personally most of the people of whom he spoke. He had an unrivalled ability to put together political programmes at speed which met the BBC’s exacting standards of balance and impartiality. He also found ways to get news stories out of those programmes. I would say the Thatcher years were his heyday with the Labour party a ferment of frustration over the poll tax, devolution and of course, the inevitable internecine rivalries as they fought over what they assumed to be their own reserved domain – Scotland. As journalists, we all made a living writing about Labour.
John Boothman was a clear asset to the BBC at that time because of his Labour connections. They were key to his career and were valued by all. He had the respect of all sides throughout his career as a producer. But I felt from the outset that in the febrile air of today’s Scotland with so many political knives being sharpened, it was a risk to appoint as head of news some one around whom the perception of affiliation hung. But then MacQuarrie and his team aren’t concerned about perception or indeed quality of programme content. They were interested primarily in appointing someone to deliver their budget cuts and John Boothman was their man.
It may be unkind to say so, but like many before him, I think he was promoted to roles that didn’t suit him. He was and remains essentially a damn good political producer. Ask Iain Macwhirter. But I know of no-one who regarded him as a manager. He had no recognisable organisational ability and lacked people skills, both essential for management. I once asked his predecessor as head of news what John was planning for radio coverage of an election. “Don’t know,” he said. “It’s all in Boothy’s heid.” That summed him up. Effective management has to be more than a stream of consciousness.
If all that’s heavy stuff, here’s a lighter note about BBC Scotland management under Kenny MacQuarrie. When I was about to leave, I received an email from the new Director General Tony Hall, thanking me for 20 years presenting news programmes and wishing me a happy retirement. Wow, I thought, the DG. I’d never even met him. I reckoned he must have been tipped off by senior management at Pacific Quay who would know I was about to leave.
I mentioned this to one of my producers and he said: “No, no. It wasn’t BBC Scotland managers who told him. It was me”.
He was regularly in touch with the DG’s office through working for the union and had tipped off the DG’s secretary…hence my email. So it was my own mates in the newsroom, not the management, to took the trouble to ensure my departure was marked at the highest level. John Boothman bade me farewell in front of the staff but to this day, three months later, I never have received a note of farewell from the Director of BBC Scotland, his deputy or the Head of Radio. They must be glad to see the back of me. In fact, I don’t think they’ve noticed that I’ve gone – someone said my face still appears on the website as being on the staff. But I think it says something, that the senior bosses are so cocooned in a corporate bubble that one of their main presenters of 25 years standing can leave without the boss’s acknowledgement. Just another body out the door….
So to the emails and a common theme is the question: What happened to Isabel Fraser? As I said, these are friends and I have no locus to speak for her. Her private arrangements with her employer are between the two of them. She won’t appreciate being dragged into this blog but I know of no evidence that her coming off the telly is linked to the Ian Davidson interview.
However Issy’s situation is revealing in a wider sense. Why does this question about her keep coming up? Because the BBC doesn’t inform its audience of what it is doing. Here is an outstanding broadcast personality, whose work is admired and respected – even the apelike rudeness of Davidson is a badge of honour for her – and who has a following. Suddenly she disappears from the screen and all those people the BBC is so keen to count as viewers are left wondering why. Why don’t they put up a statement on the website at such times telling viewers that she won’t be on screen and giving an agreed statement why the decision was made and pointing out that she can still be heard on GMS on a Saturday? In the absence of such clarification, rumours grow and the poor woman is seemingly now the subject of a unionist plot, all of which rebounds on the BBC itself.
This failure to communicate – it is only the biggest communicator in the world after all – is an extraordinary feature of the corporation. They don’t understand that people care about the faces and voices that bring the news into their home and car. But of course, the thinking now is that all presenters are interchangeable, each one able to do another’s programme and that the audience doesn’t care.
There was no guidance from the Head of Radio or the Head of News about informing listeners that I was going either…no word about how it should be handled on air and how we tell the audience. Management just don’t think it matters, taking the listeners for granted. When there are 100,000 listeners, many of them loyal, isn’t it dismissive not to take the trouble to tell them the presenter who has been there for seven years is to be replaced? Don’t they want listener loyalty? All this points in the direction of Jeff Zycinski, the Head of Radio, responsible for the dumbing down of quality radio to the stage where no educated Scot takes it seriously as once they surely did. (More on him in coming weeks).
The main theme of course is of anti-SNP and anti-independence bias. I will not dispute that this is a clear perception and that I too experience it. So what is going on? As I said in a previous post, it isn’t a conspiracy because I would have been part of it.
But, as some of you have observed in emails, this is first of all an issue about ethos. It is about the collective mindset of an organisation. The BBC was founded in the glory days of the Union and for most of its life enjoyed uncritical acceptance. It mirrored the British state and was headquartered in London. (It would be simply unthinkable to move the HQ from the hub of power and cultural life in an exact replica again of Britain itself. We must all acknowledge the automatic place of London at the pinnacle of British society.) That is how the BBC is structured.
It has gradually beefed up the outlying centres on its spokes – the Nations and Regions – but there is never a moment’s doubt about where the power lies. This line of command is evident in every aspect of operations. When London decides budget cuts are needed, Scotland swiftly agrees and sets about implementing. There is no co-ordinated attempt to stave them off or argue for reduction. If there was, the Director would consult privately with staff and union representatives to enlist their support to fight back. He doesn’t. He would – again privately – brief the First Minister who is his single biggest external asset. Having the FM on board brings a challenge to London from a completely different angle…one they cannot ignore. But I know there is no on-going relationship between MacQuarrie and Salmond which would make this possible. MacQuarrie has failed to nurture his strongest contact in Scotland. Right there, you have a major strategic failing in the Director’s armoury.
The evidence for this came after the first election of the SNP government when the BBC in London responded by throwing millions at Scotland in additional funding. And then, when the SNP took a decision to step back from confronting the Beeb over its investment and coverage because it didn’t want to make an enemy of a popular organisation, what did the BBC do? They cut the money coming north as soon as the pressure was off.
Again this is a mirror image of Britain at work. Without the SNP on the rise, nothing happens.
At my own level, the pre-eminence of London was displayed whenever we had to work with a network programme. The London staff treat the rest with contempt, disrupting their bookings, taking over their studios and guests, demanding first call on everything. The rules give them the right to do this. I was forced out of a studio in Belfast moments before going live for Radio Scotland when a network correspondent and his producer barged in and demanded the studio for Radio Four although we were both guests of BBC Northern Ireland.
If you want to get on in the BBC, you go to London so the talent drains south. Sound familiar? If you return, it’s assumed you must be more talented than those who didn’t decamp. Many a failure in London has occupied a plum post in Scotland.
The BBC is British down to its bootstraps and the staff know it, especially the managers whose real skill is in managing upwards, i.e. doing their London master’s bidding whatever mayhem it costs down the line in Scotland.
I think the point is that BBC Scotland is a misnomer. It is independent in structure – with its own management – but not independent in operation. It becomes rather obvious then that it is unlikely to reflect accurately the real Scotland when its allegiance lies elsewhere.
Only a robustly independently-minded boss backed by an equally bloody-minded management team and editors with clear instruction to frame a news agenda and programme output to reflect the views of Scots irrespective of the London perspective, could come near to achieving this under the current arrangements. They would have to play a game of Bugger-it and put their jobs on the line when London objected. Likelihood? Zero.
What happened to the last Scotland Controller – Alastair Hetherington – who demanded more financial autonomy? Sacked by London.
So, without thinking about it, much of what the BBC puts out in news and current affairs terms is disseminated against this pro-British background. The analysis for example is always likely to infer Scotland-within-Britain because that is the current reality. It is also a reality that the evidence shows a clear majority here favour that remaining so. This is reflected in the tone and attitude of BBC Scotland output.
Without a separate Scottish broadcasting service this inbuilt bias will never be eradicated.
(I’m going to stop for while to have a massage and continue later…)by