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.