Business as Usual?

The easy option for critics is, by definition, to criticise. Pointing out where it all goes wrong is the privilege of the observer. Actually solving the problem is the preserve of the decision-maker and that is much the harder part of the deal.

So having criticised the BBC for its failings, what would I have done about the referendum if I’d had executive power?

First of all, I would have started by facing up to the reality of Scotland’s position instead of blindly telling myself that nothing important was happening.

Since the SNP won their majority in 2011, the official position of BBC Scotland executives has been that the referendum is just another dot on the map – a key date for sure, like the Commonwealth Games – but nothing requiring special measures. When challenged the management has repeatedly stated the same mantra: It’s business as usual.

Take a moment and think about what that implies. This referendum is the biggest single political event in centuries. It could end the British state. It could lead Scotland to ruin or to prosperity. None of us will ever cast a more important vote for as long as we live. Beyond our shores, there is global interest.

Meanwhile back at Pacific Quay, it is just another mark on the yearly planner graph, a version of the predictable election circus and the next day it will all go back to normal. Business as usual.

I believe that this catastrophic misjudgement has coloured everything that has happened since and has short-changed the Scots who have every right to think that the national broadcaster which takes their money and plays on its central role in public life would ensure that they received the best service possible at a moment of national significance.

I think it also reveals the inner mind of those same executives whose job – and duty – is to represent Scotland and reflect Scotland to the Scots. When major events occur, the big players emerge. Or they’re supposed to. If ever there was a moment for the men and women who are custodians of the BBC to seize the moment this is it.

Planning should have begun as soon as the SNP victory was confirmed. That result should have galvanised the whole of Pacific Quay, not just managers and journalists but all programme-makers from Documentaries to Comedy.

I would have established an all-department group with people throughout BBC Scotland and ask them to discuss with their staff how they wished to approach the issue and how they could input. BBC Scotland is alive with creative talent which mostly operates in silos because that’s how management think. One thing you learn quickly is how much overlap there is between people and programme strands. Just because you work in Childrens doesn’t mean you don’t think about politics.

The second thing would have been my advisory board – a mostly external group whose role would be to monitor BBC output, to propose areas for research and programme-making and look specifically at the referendum issue in terms of fairness and balance. We need to dispose immediately with the idea that the BBC Trust performs effectively a supervisory role. The Trust is a timid and toothless creature usually in awe of the BBC’s respected reputation.

The referendum is a task for a learned group with insight into politics and public life with a firm grasp of what informing and enlightening the public means. I would have them meet every month to review referendum output, suggest areas to be covered, judge the tone and style of output and bring expert scrutiny to the detail of claim and counter claim. I would publish the minutes of their meetings and put online a monthly interview with the chair. There are many potential candidates for inclusion on my board and they could have their own known political views but would undertake to park them in the wider public interest. I have no doubt there would be a queue of those willing to serve in Scotland’s interest. (Tom Devine? Bill Howat?) I also see a role here for international representation and for the public. My board would not have any direct powers over journalists. All the editorial control would remain with BBC News but disagreements and criticisms would be published for all to see.

The other advantage is that it provides a firewall between the programme-makers and the public. It makes it easier to trust what the public are being told and harder for them criticise unfairly, adding to BBC trust.

Third, the BBC should have recalibrated its criteria for balance. Instead of pretending that this wasn’t a “live” issue until the weeks preceding the vote when there is a legal requirement for balance – and simply doing a general rule-of-thumb balance in the years before that – there should have been an immediate decision that all programmes with more than a marginal referendum content would be strictly balanced between Yes and No.  This is tough for the BBC because it makes current affairs shows configure panels for independence when they are discussing a range of other topics. The only way round this is to keep the referendum off the agenda or to allow it to come up in perhaps a single question in a debate programme. Otherwise, all journalistic output should be Yes-No balanced. Remember we all also consume BBC programming from London which makes little if any real attempt at balance, or, from what I see, any real attempt at understanding. In that way we are already subject to a distorted view of independence and union before BBC Scotland even starts to balance output. Just think of Question Time opting for Nigel Farage and George Galloway on a platform with Angus Robertson, the treatment of Nicola Sturgeon on a previous programme and the quasi-racist tirade by panellists on Any Questions. Tightening up Scotland’s editorial balance process would help counteract the anti-Scottish bias in network programming.

Next I would have a detailed and on-going briefing for all journalists but available to all staff. This would give a précis of the issues as they evolve and pinpoint areas of disagreement, showing where each side – and main players therein – are exposed in their thinking. The big questions would be highlighted to keep them before the minds of the newsroom staff with the data pertaining to them alongside. That ensures there is a concentrated focus on the main issues and nobody has an excuse for not being up to date. Journalists cover all sorts of stories and they are not all expert on constitutional detail so this would provide the background and focus they need when working on referendum stories. This process would be uncomfortable for both Yes and No sides as both interviewers and audience become better informed.

I would have immediately established a Referendum Unit to be the cutting edge of BBC coverage. This requires resourcing – now available – and is one reason, along with institutional stasis – that the management refused to start one. I first proposed this soon after the SNP victory and the National Union of Journalists also had it as official policy. It means that in the newsroom there is a hub disseminating and filtering all referendum material, making it the fulcrum of the coverage. The journalists build up an in-depth knowledge that is a resource for all. And I mean all.

How many silly gaffes and lack of understanding by network staff in London could be avoided if their reports and scripts were monitored by a unit with expertise in all referendum coverage? That would be a service for all the BBC and brings with it the prestige of Scotland providing a centre of excellence on the constitutional issue. Its staff would appear across all BBC programming, bringing kudos to BBC Scotland.

I have put this personally to Kenny MacQuarrie and had no positive response. Yet when the new Director General decided there should be a unit and made funds available, MacQuarrie and the BBC hailed it as the right thing. That was shameless and transparent. The unit was thrust upon them by a Director General who took the trouble to meet and talk with a wide range of Scots about their concerns and reached the same conclusion as BBC journalists – that a referendum unit was required. He did BBC Scotland’s job for them.

I have high hopes for the unit now being assembled. I hear good things of the man in charge who seems to have the respect of London bosses and there are already hints he may be put into a higher position after the referendum. If the BBC gets into gear quickly enough, this unit could be a game-changer – for the BBC if not for independence.

Next on my list is perhaps the most obvious all, certainly the most public-facing. It is new programmes. Where are they? Where is the replacement for Newsnight, currently dying on its feet; where the weekly replacement of the phone-in with a referendum programme; where the monthly television documentary slot dealing with all aspects from the referendum process to the experience in other countries; where the on-air satire? The possibilities are mind-blowing to bring intelligent, focussed, polished programming and build up Scotland’s reputation as a current affairs broadcaster. Why didn’t the BBC hire Iain McWhirter instead of Scottish? Why don’t they commission a couple of programmes from Lesley Riddoch, surely the most thoughtful and radically-minded voice on how the debate is a society issue not just an economic and political one? Why didn’t the BBC issue an invitation to the Prime Minister to debate with the First Minister to force the issue and serve the voters of Scotland? Why is it usually the newspapers who get the stories first ? Why isn’t the entire agenda being set by the BBC who could have taken ownership of it and burnished its reputation. Where is the leadership the country deserves?

By now, if they’d grasped the opportunity, BBC Scotland could and should be savouring its greatest hour, proving its worth to all Scots and to their masters in London. Instead it is the subject of relentless complaint – from both sides – while the Scots are left moaning that they are unenlightened and uninformed. The coverage is piecemeal with little sense of planning or continuity so that Glenn Campbell goes to Canada and Raymond Buchanan goes to Copenhagen and the head of news issues a note to staff boasting about the countries covered. That is box-ticking. Why not issue a list of places to go to and people to talk to and give the reasons why so the coverage is coherent and the staff all understand. I don’t know anyone in the newsroom who was even aware that Glenn had gone to Canada which tells you that a small group make decisions when there is a reservoir of talent sitting only feet away – a newsroom full of journalists. In my case, I was sent to make documentaries about the Quebec referendum in the nineties, have written about it – for Edinburgh University – and appeared on television to talk about it. I have direct personal knowledge that could have been tapped but wasn’t.

There is a sense of duty fulfilled about small audience shows with a predictable political panel set, not in a full-scale BBC studio – usually unavailable for Scottish productions as they’re in use for London output – but filmed “on the street” as they call the internal PQ space. There are already tours of Scotland planned by theatrical companies and I hear of one by writer Neal Ascherson but where is the full-time BBC Scotland touring television debate forum travelling the length and breadth of the country bringing us the views of all Scots, no matter how remote, on the future of our country. Is Brian’s Big Debate all there is?

I expect things to pick up during this year and for a sharper more comprehensive coverage to emerge. I think BBC Scotland will rise to the challenge. But there is a lot of recovery needed,  caused not by journalists but by managers fixated on budgets and caught in the headlights as the country changed in front of their eyes. The one thing we can say for certain is: This not Business as Usual.


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0 thoughts on “Business as Usual?

  1. Excellent analysis which if your right will be ignored by those at PQ. I don’t feel that the focus on budgets is a major cause as you say at your conclusion. The ‘greats’ overcome such difficulties. There needs to be a broom wielded, not from London jocks being imported, rather from the Journalists ‘in house’ showing both backbone and solidarity for any consequences or bullying. ‘Big Debate’ – totally agree it’s inadequacy; Iain Macwhirter agree; Neal Ascherson agree. Overall, an excellent piece which will hopefully be referenced in tonight’s Reporting Scotland (some chance).

  2. Another observant commentary . Maybe I’m missing stuff but I’m personally disappointed at the lack of quality and focus of the current offerings on the referendum so far by both BBC and STV.
    Apart from reporting on who said what and the usual bickering political exchanges there’s not much
    to commend it and its usually consigned to late viewing anyway. Apart from Iain McWhirter’s documentary pre-empting his book there’s not been much in the way of in-depth documentaries or examination of views around the country or examining changing attitudes to the Union, e.g. the Labour for Independence movement., or exploring comparable small nation experiences in self determination, economics; defence and their position in the World.
    You’re so right that there is a wealth of opportunities which can and should be explored by the media to better inform the voters. I wonder then if that’s exactly the reason why the “Establishment” hasn’t encouraged it so far because it would possibly provide too much of that “balance’ to which you refer.

  3. Thank you for the fulsome explanation of how the BBC has completely failed to engage with the issue, in much the same way as they have failed to engage with the EU for the last thirty years. This London-centricity is completely paralysing (outside London that is). Your blueprint of suggestions show us ‘what could have been’ – this could have been the making of BBC Scotland, and if there is a Yes vote, there might not have been any consideration of radical reform of it – as it is, I think the box-tickers know they’re on borrowed time.

  4. Aye Derek we don’t think it is ‘business as usual’, but your ex employer does! Keep the undecided uninformed is their motto!

  5. Many, including me, pointed out the failure of the BBC to engage more than a year ago.
    Unfortunately for BBC Scotland it went far beyond failure to engage, into collusion, deliberate misrepresentation and alteration of information.
    I have in the past respected and defended the BBC, especially when it looked like we would end up with Sky ruling all, back in 2010.
    BBC depends on its reputation for unbiased, fair treatment. Hypocrisy isn’t a good sell.
    On reputation the receivers aren’t in yet, but it’s close to bankruptcy.

    • and i am one of the people who will help them on their way I have stopped paying the licence fee I am on my 3rd letter to make payment Nae Chance If we cant depend on MSM to inform without bias then dont but the newspapers send e mails to advertsers spread the message loss of revenue has a way of drawing attention We need to fight back NOW

  6. Totally agree Derek. Why is it the Sunday Herald can come up with an interesting new indyref story every week which informs and adds to the debate with often expert opinion assessing the issues yet the BBC have no breaking news unless it can be slanted to raise doubt. The Courier reported on the Danish position on a nuclear free Scotland in Nato. Even National Collective operating on a shoestring have interviewed European politicians just by asking them. Please keep up the good work. The BBC needs to be pressurised into providing decent informative coverage

  7. Fantastic analysis Derek, but depressing also; it seems that apart from an independence unit forced upon them by the DG, it’s all too late for BBC Scotland. Whether it’s Yes or No, the lasting post-referendum view of our ‘national’ broadcaster must be pretty bleak. Was it just that the BBC were blindsided by the 2011 SNP win (as were many including perhaps the SNP), or just an institutional fear of exerting any influence on such an epochal and existential (for BBC Scotland as well as Scotland) event?

  8. All I can say is “what might have been”. The BBC in Scotland have been on this path for many, many years. It took the referendum to expose it, that is all. And I defended the BBC to my London based Scots friends, who regard BBC Scotland as a joke. Shame on me.

  9. Roibert a Briuis

    YES BUT Derek you are and were obviously too radical for the BBC.

    From the outside looking in they are well past their sell by date.

    Excuses (even your understandable BBC bias) don’t cut it here, we have the evidence daily of how bent they are with their reporting of all things bad about the SNP and independence and how they constantly present the unionist case as if it was the only team on the park…..and when caught out live like KW on the border bridge the astonishment is so sad it make you wonder… …these are some of the allegedly more intelligent more in the know political animals – and they are so out of touch with the thinking Scottish people it is sickening.

    One can only hope that incident like this the undecideds swinging to YES people is happening in a quiet way all over Scotland and they will vote in their masses for Independence

    I am not convinced that the BBC can be reborn see the light and smell the coffee.

    Time will tell of course interesting times ahead.

    I tell you what Derek IF i can convince my 80+ year old mother to vote YES or even not vote at all, I am sure I can fix the BBC, sadly being realistic both are overambitious dreams. Not that i am for giving up (with my mother) you understand but as for the BBC let it disappear without trace

  10. Let us hope that an independent Scotland will herald the arrival of decent Scottish Broadcast & Media services and hopefully headed by someone as forthright and open as yourself if not yourself, you are a breath of fresh air in a spiral of self serving scaremongering and stale blindsiding overseas reporting directing focus away from those things which we most need to know. This is doing the people of all the British nations no good whatsoever. I watch Al Jazeera for my news broadcasts these days.

  11. Both enlightening – and depressing. It shows what could have been done, but hasn’t. We’re a year out, and it could still happen – but probably won’t.

    Our wee Yes Scotland campaign has had visits from a French radio programme, a Norwegian journalist, and issues publicity and information.

    Yes Scotland head office are constantly contacted by Russia Today, Al-Jazeera, and many other international news organisations.

    However, the UK media, in its Metroparochial bubble, refuse to believe anything outwith London can be important. And it’s Scottish staff are too far down the totem pole, and apparently too subservient, to be able to communicate upwards.

  12. Scotland has long been criticised for its lack of entrepreneurial spirit resulting in a low number of business start-ups. This is another aspect of that. Intelligent, well educated people sitting back waiting to be told what to do, and docilely following instructions whether that is the path they favour or not. Where did Scottish ambition go, our aspirations for the future? Somewhere along the way they’ve been buried, making it too difficult a chore to see beyond the end of our noses.

  13. Derek, I don’t want the BBC to change, not now, it is too late.
    I’m happy to leave them where they are, as unionist stakeholders. The cloak of objectivity has slipped, the pretence of neutrality now questioned.
    We have more to gain by having the BBC seen as a stakeholder in the outcome.
    I can understand their unionism, it is the deceit of fake objectivity I detest.

  14. Would you have closed down the online comments section on BBC Scotland Politics section?
    That one action was the work of cheap nasty politics at the behest of their Labour masters. No one will tell me other wise. It was proof if we needed it that Labour has BBC Scotland under the thumb. The relationship is one of in breeding and patronage. Glasgow’s City council can teach them nothing.
    McQuarrie and Boothman are a disgrace and bring shame to the word journalism. They are no more than political puppets.
    BBC Scotland once had a controller who tried to fight Scotland’s corner. A fine upstanding man of principal one Alastair Hetherington. From Wiki: Hetherington’s time as Controller of BBC Scotland was not a happy one. He did much to invigorate programme output and appointed a number of specialist News correspondents including Helen Liddell and Chris Baur to try to increase Scotland’s presence on the BBC networks . He also sought increased financial freedom from the BBC in London. Encountering a more bureaucratic organization than the one he knew at The Guardian, he clashed with the director general of the BBC, Charles Curran. In 1978 he was sacked from the position by Curran’s successor, Ian Trethowan and named as Manager of BBC Radio Highland. In 1982 he became research professor in media studies at Stirling University and in 1984 he succeeded Richard Scott as chairman of the Scott Trust. In 1989 he retired to the Isle of Arran, where he wrote and worked on projects before he was forced to give up such activities due to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in the mid-1990s.
    So that was a clear enough signal to those that followed, toe the line or be dismissed to the Highlands. And by God did they toe the line. BBC Scotland has been squeezed to death ever since.

  15. Derek says:

    ‘..when the new Director General decided there should be a unit and made funds available, MacQuarrie and the BBC hailed it as the right thing.’

    Would this be Sir Tony Hall ? – the very man that stated in his speech at the Edinburgh TV festival in August this year that it would be ‘difficult for the BBC to be impartial’ with regard to the referendum. Already making up the excuses for the pitiful display we’ve had from BBC Scotland over the last two years, it’s an absolute joke of a statement.

    As for your suggestions Derek, I agree with them all. We’ve all put forward our own suggestions over the last couple of years on various websites. I wanted to see Lesley Riddoch do a good length documentary (or even better, 3 x 1hour films) on the Nordic countries – Iceland on the Bankers and constitution, Norway on the EU and oil, Sweden and Denmark on their welfare systems and taxation. All three programmes looking at the good and bad of life for our Nordic neighbours, the trials and tribulations.

    Instead I got Glenn Campbell going to Denmark to tell me how high tax rates are and that Scotland won’t be allowed into the EU all for a two minute slot on Reporting Scotland.

    If thats typical of the talent you mention in PQ then sack the bloody lot of them.

    • Lesley’s Nordic Horizons series of lectures is just crying out for development and use on the television or radio, there’s several new books on the subject, as well as Iain MacWhirter’s special knowledge and flair – there’s so much talent out there going to waste. But then there’s always (or was always) their choice, Kaye …

      • Agreed Marga, Lesley’s Nordic Horizon exploits have been very informative and entertaining. Of course, if the informative part outweighs the entertaining part then thats no use for BBC Scotland, where it’s all about the lowest common denominator.

  16. I was never inspired by BBC Scotland management. When London said “jump”, I was always fairly sure what it’s response would be. The BBC’s talent in Glasgow has much to offer – a hell of a lot to offer in the right circumstances – but the BBC in Scotland, as an institution, is a lost cause.

  17. I fear your 20 yrs employment in the BBC has made it difficult for you to be objective. I don’t think its easy to escape the BBC corporate mentality. The BBC sees itself as simply the best, the pinnacle of broadcasting. For many of us this is a palpable lie and we are furious that we are forced to fund it. I take your point re. It being easy to criticise, and I guess you are trying to look forward in a positive way for the BBC?
    However I for one expect no change and if Scotland wins a Yes it will be in spite of the BBC. (There is hope for a Scottish public broadcaster in the event of a yes, none for the BBC in the event of a no.)
    I personally am optimistic it will be Yes, and a part of this optimism is that more folk are recognising the output from the state broadcaster as propaganda to be disbelieved. PS: I think using the word ‘ruin’ is a little OTT.

  18. From everything you are telling us Derek (for which, heartfelt thanks btw) it seems to me that BBC Scotland’s main aim is to please London. Since the days of the dodgy dossier, BBC London seems to serve the British Establishment, and to focus its news and current affairs programmes on the home counties. So doing what you advise would be a disaster as experience is beginning to show that when there is a decent debate, yes wins. Not good for the British Establishment.

    If a nation of properly informed Scots are more likely to suport independence, then maybe that is just too high a price to pay for BBC Scotland to prove that it is not too wee, too poor and too stupid?

  19. Good report here from our Icelandic friends, that will never be discussed on BBC Scotland. They make many of the points that the Yes camp have.

  20. It is almost inconceivable to me that BBC Scotland will rise to the occasion. I’ve just switched off GMS in disgust listening to them interviewing someone about UK students studying in China and hearing how many GCSEs and A Levels they’d need. If BBC Scotland can’t even understand that we have our own education system, have had since the 1500s, I don’t think there’s much hope. Far from sharpening up it is just becoming a sick joke.

  21. Derek – I have written what could be turned into a TV satire on the current state of the independence debate, it just did not quite make it onto Ringwood Publishing’s new author list this year. The opening chapter is available at: – if you are interested in developing it into a radio / TV play, pm me at and I’ll send you the full ms.

  22. Av always been a defender of the BBC, the quality of their science , history, documentary, and wild life programme making is second tae none, but when it comes tae the political and news side of things, that’s where the concerns start. Throughout the Scottish election campaign of 2011, they consistently doon played the S.N.P, and tried tae influence the ootcome like some kinda labour propaganda machine. During the independence referendum it’s been mair of the same, but taken tae a new level.Am at the stage noo where a don’t even watch their so- called news any mair, fur fear of huvin another anger induced heart attack. The good news is though, maist of the Scottish public feel the same, and the clock is ticking oan this wasp’s nest of uncle Tams, am lookin forward tae a wee trip tae Glesga next year tae watch that fleet of pickfords vans pull up ootside Pacific quay !

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