Didn’t He Do Well?

Dr John Robertson of UWS acquitted himself rather well on Radio Scotland this morning in defending his Fairness in the First Year report on broadcasting and in the process made the BBC look small.

After listening to Dr Robertson, whom I’ve never met, I was left wondering what the BBC was afraid of. He didn’t rant. He didn’t accuse. He appreciated the pressures of newsgathering. He isn’t a Nat. He sounded surprised at his own findings and had expected them to be viewed as helpful. Not a bit of it. As we saw, his work, according to Newsnet, was first ignored by the Herald, then by BBC news and finally lambasted by the corporation’s management who overplayed their weak hand and have been left looking like bullies.

How could a massive taxpayer-funded organisation with, in Scotland, people earning at executive level from £100,000 a year up to nearly £200,000 make such elementary mistakes? My only answer is that, as I have pointed out from the outset when I began blogging last September, the quality of the senior managers at Pacific Quay simply isn’t good enough. They each have individual skills but collectively they amount to less than the sum of their parts. There is weak leadership, poor appointments, ill-considered decision-making, lack of communication with staff and audiences and they have developed an anti-news mentality where journalism is viewed as an expensive luxury when London is really interested in television production for the UK network.

With such endemic shortcomings, BBC Scotland badly needs a public-facing strategy to alleviate its declining credibility. If you run a business strategy company, start pitching today.

They could start by redefining what a separate BBC is for in Scotland because the tenor of executive utterings on this front are ambivalent. My view is that it exists to serve the Scots with news, current affairs, sport, culture, education, childrens, topical issues and drama designed by and aimed at the Scots. On top of that they earn extra income and kudos by producing programmes for London – as an extra. Instead what has happened in recent years is that Scotland has concentrated on producing output for London and diverted its energies into that sector which I think should come secondary to Scottish programming. The management have taken their eye off the ball and instead of breaking sweat to make sure the Scots are serviced first, they take domestic output for granted. By so doing, they allow the standard to reduce even when the staff – and especially the journalists – are screaming at them that the quality is suffering. This is dismissed as yet more moaning from the feather-bedded journalists so they miss what the audiences are experiencing which is questionable quality.

Ruthless budget pruning in news has had a deleterious impact. Newsnight is an example. It used to have two presenters over four nights, it had an editor and a team of programme producers, a film archivist, dedicated correspondents as well as programme director, a full-scale editing suit with editor and its own assigned film crew with a budget allowing for two-day shoots. Today, there is a single presenter, the editor doubles up as output producer, also doing Scottish Questions, there is no archivist, no dedicated correspondents, just staff off the reporter’s rota, the cameraman doubles up as editor in a news cupboard edit suite and almost every film is pulled together on the day. To cap it all, the last editor was so scunnered, he walked. The editorial chief of a top BBC brand news programme months before the biggest story of a journalist’s life and he slung his hook and left. Are you getting the message? Meanwhile, if you ask McQuarrie he will tell you there has been no impact on the quality of BBC journalism.

Kenny McQuarrie argues with me about this emphasis. When I say: You are making too many programmes for London, he retorts: No, we are making programmes for the BBC. In that answer lies the problem. He pretends that doing London’s bidding and making programmes for them is fine as it is one BBC, but the reality is that more money is spent on network (London) productions than Scottish ones, often the staff are flown up to make them – the joke is Made in Scotland, Wrap party in Islington –and the whole purpose of a BBC Scotland is to make programming for…well, think about it…the clue’s in the name. They have lost their focus on their core business – Scottish quality programming.

Another example is Jeff Zycinski as head of radio addressing a roomful of presenters (and pretending to tell them how to do their job) and showing a graph of how Radio Four’s Today programme is running neck-and-neck for audience with Radio Scotland’s GMS when everybody knows GMS should be miles ahead of London-based news output.  He then says it’s alright that so many Scots are listening to Radio Four so long as they are all listening to the BBC! No, no, no. If Scots start listening as much to Radio Four as they do to Radio Scotland, it begs the obvious question – what is a separate BBC Scotland for? Up until he was appointed head of radio we lived by the credo that GMS commanded a much larger audience in Scotland than Today and we had a higher share of AB’s, the decision-makers. His attempts at “popularising” the programme I believe drove listeners away to what they regard as a genuine BBC sound – that is the quality tone of Radio Four. In the endless search for new and younger audiences, they sacrificed the bedrock which is professionals aged over 50 interested in their own country and its place in the world. They were weaned on a quality BBC radio experience which many of them feel they don’t get any more in Scotland at crucial news junctures.

The letters and emails I received over those years confirmed this with listeners bemused as to what had gone wrong. One stat I recall was that in the final year of the GMS team I belonged to, we had the highest audience ever recorded over 12 months, according to Blair Jenkins, head of news. (What happened to him?) That has never been repeated since to my knowledge after Zycinski took over. But, like the ditching of Newsweek, this is a management which doesn’t listen to critics, internal or external, and doesn’t recant when found out to be wrong.

This week’s sordid little tale about the reaction to some academic research is part of a long-term trend in dismal decision-making. Don’t expect it to end soon.

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0 thoughts on “Didn’t He Do Well?

  1. can’t agree, derek. I thought the bbc must have his wife locked in a basement somewhere. would write more if not for a broken arm!

  2. Very well indeed Derek… as do you. Hopefully there will be a new Scottish Broadcasting setup after Sept. and you would fit in very nicely as it’s heid bummer!

    • “individual skills but collectively they amount to less than the sum of their parts” in System terms the greatest condemnation of any collection of journalists. One has to ponder how difficult this is to achieve.

  3. A clear account of a defensive BBC Scotland that is failing to understand the reason for its existence is to provide quality programming and balanced reporting for the people of Scotland. Using budgets to make programmes for London and flying people up to make them is a transfer of resources from Scotland to London

  4. That explains a lot. Sad. But we can look forward to quality Scottish radio and TV after independence.

    • macgilleleabhar

      Jan, Your comment set me thinking along a cynical trail.Could it be that in present circumstances should the “No” be successful( God forbid) then BBC Scotland’s job will be complete and it will be absorbed into “London” BBC then run down even more and finally closed due to lack of audience?

  5. I think that the BBC along with all the other London based organisations operating in Scotland were quite happy to pay lip service to a Scottish identity until it became clear that Scots wanted more than a short bread tin image and wanted real political control over our affairs.Since then,all we have had from these organisations is how good we are together and that without London control of our affairs we are doomed.
    Along side these messages there has been a definite attempt to eradicate the Scottish identity and God help us if we vote No.

  6. Radio Scotland is only one part of one of the greatest con tricks in history. Keep the natives thinking they are a real country.
    The rest of the world knows the truth.

  7. I have been commuting from Musselburgh to Bellshill for 18 months listening to the radio in the 1+ hours it takes me. At the start I would always flip between R4 & GMS depending on the headlines of the day. I have given up on both. I now listen to CDs or drive in silence. You get more hard news stories on the One show. The standard of journalism at the BBC is just terrible.

  8. I loved how Bill Whiteford introduced the item, saying the report had come out ‘this week’. No attempt to explain why – or even note the fact that – they delayed reporting it for so long.

  9. Yep – it was clear Bill Whiteford imagined being listened to by the managers next door, but he’s definitely someone I’d give a job to in the new SBC. Pity they didn’t give Dr Robertson a chance to comment ( prop’ly as D Cameron always says ) on the personalisation where YES = FM’s project, but there’s no corollary.

  10. It’s criminal that lowest common denominator radio has won out. Radio Scotland used to be challenging, informative and entertaining. It’s now reduced to inane banter as typified by the Fred McCauley Show and endless loops of the ‘news’.

    It’s no surprise then that the rot began following the appointment of Jeff Zycinski, when Lesley Riddoch was cold-shouldered in 2005, and it’s been downhill ever since. It’s testament to your professionalism that you battled on. Keep up the good fight!

  11. John Mccutcheon

    Can anyone tell me why James Naughtie’s on GMS now. Maybe I’ve missed the reason, or is it an attempt to win back the audience from Today

  12. The thing is Derek, with the talent and level of cultural activity in Scotland, and events like Celtic Connections and the Edinburgh festivals on its doorstep, Pacific Quay has the potential to become a globally significant player in television and film production for the whole English speaking world. The poverty of ambition at BBC Scotland is simply tragic.

  13. BBC Alba have to get some credit for their historical expose ( see Michael Greenwell yesterday )

  14. I’m in a country of 5 million people, whose citizens are living through one of the most important years of the past millenium in Scotland – that’s no exaggeration. In addition to this unfolding historic year, lots of other things – newsworthy things – happen every day in this country. But when I wake up every morning and watch the BBC Breakfast programme, I’m only presented with a compressed 2-3 minutes of Scottish news on the half-hour. The other 27 minutes is a litany of England and Wales grief about their troubled NHS, their troubled education system, their troubled social care system…perhaps a stage-managed live report from a biscuit factory in Rochdale or an exercise class in Bristol to lighten the gloom. Can anyone tell me just what the hell is BBC Scotland for ? Its not for me and others like me who want to know – and in some depth – *what’s the news in Scotland today ?* Instead it’s 27 minutes of blinding irrelevance followed by 3 minutes from Pacific Quay, with the crane in the background just to visually remind us that this is the local bit now. Blink and you’ll miss it if you’re putting the toast on. We are poorly served indeed and the tragedy is that we’re so used to it, that this feels “normal” to many. The subliminal – and largely accepted message over decades of TV – is that we’re too small to have enough news worth talking about – and the BBC reinforces that by making sure it does nothing to seek it out, to expand it, and to inform. This is astonishing under-ambition by BBC Scotland – and yet theres no prospect of it changing. Hard to believe and makes your heart sink when you think about it…

    • It is the Stockholm Syndrome played over many years, Paul.
      If we don’t win it this time, the following generation will be so brainwashed, that the idea of Scotland will be a quaint memory from the past.

      Before the days of TV, folk actually talked to each other. Now we are taught what to think from our betters.

      As this is Burns night, i’ll away and play Parcel o Rogues at full volume.

  15. Falling Audiences. Falling Readership.
    No wonder the MSM is terrified of the internet and Social Media.

  16. The BBC don’t care about Scotland and where there is a news item from Scotland it is rarely from outside Glasgow area and almost never from the Highlands. Even when the story is about all Scotland like the police control rooms yesterday where was the additional jobs in Inverness from being an all Scotland major incident hub highlighted. Also too much time on football especially Rangers. Lack of coverage of Scottish cricket team in the World Cup qualifying currently as well.

    • Pity us poor folks in the Borders who are just about disenfranchised when it comes to BBC and independent TV. South of Edinburgh is no-man’s land, especially the eastern side. We receive independent TV from somewhere down south — have given up trying to suss out where. So we miss out on much of the Scottish political coverage. No wonder the opinion poll done in the Borders was apparently so poor for ‘Yes’ It’s long past time the Borders were viewed as an important and integral part of the rest of Scotland in broadcaster and media coverage as in everything else.

  17. On top of all this, can I add that the news output of Radio Scotland is being completely overtaken by this seeming need to ‘appeal to the lowest common denominator’. The worst offender in this regard is the ‘John Beattie’ programme on weekday lunchtimes when trivia rules. This programme has become a complete insult to the ‘news’.

    This dependency on trivia is carried through other programmes where listeners’ input of trivia is essential to the programme.

    And when you look at Reporting Scotland I cannot count the number of times when, in the three or so headlines chosen, if there’s an SNP or IndyRef item, we are given the headline, followed by a clip from the unionists or opposition, so what remains with the viewer are the words of the opposition position.

    What a farce!

    There must be a complete of the whole of BBC Scotland soonest!

  18. complete overhaul, of course.


  19. Murray McCallum

    “He [Dr. John Robertson] sounded surprised at his own findings and had expected them to be viewed as helpful.”

    No Derek. it seems to me that Dr John Robertson will never be successful in the front line media. Too timid, no strategy and no political awareness.

    I think he would be better as an academic. Collecting and analyzing data in order to produce and publish reports whatever the findings. That is my advice to Dr John Robertson.

  20. ” In the endless search for new and younger audiences, they sacrificed the bedrock which is professionals aged over 50 interested in their own country and its place in the world. They were weaned on a quality BBC radio experience which many of them feel they don’t get any more in Scotland at crucial news junctures.”

    Absolutely agree. We had a ten minute discussion of Justin Bieber yesterday morning. Utter drivel. I really honestly don’t give a toss about Bieber’s alleged driving offence and don’t see why this is news at all. I certainly don’t see why it deserves ten minutes in the main GMS interview slot after 8am. Does GMS really have nothing better to talk about?

  21. “Kenny McQuarrie argues with me about this emphasis. When I say: You are making too many programmes for London, he retorts: No, we are making programmes for the BBC. In that answer lies the problem. He pretends that doing London’s bidding and making programmes for them is fine as it is one BBC, but the reality is that more money is spent on network (London) productions than Scottish ones, often the staff are flown up to make them – the joke is Made in Scotland, Wrap party in Islington”

    As a viewer, I noticed the rapid, upward change in the volume of programmes tagged as being produced by BBC Scotland a long while back. Naturally, being a paranoid cynic, I put this down to a combination of the upcoming referendum (look Scots viewer’s, this is what you will lose if…), and the decentralisation effort’s going on ala Media city at Salford (look UK viewer’s, we aren’t a London centric organisation, run by a self serving metropolitan elite, as part of Londons Project Britain).
    Project Britain ? It’s been active since before the Olympic jamboree, & it’s aimed at not just us, who see what Black hole London mean’s, sucking up resources and talent from across the UK. For those who missed it, “Central government spending on arts and culture in the capital amounted to £69 per resident in 2012-13, compared with £4.60 per person elsewhere in England.”, from a BBC report a few month’s back.
    Auntie is fully aboard the Project Britain bandwagon, have a look at the title of every second programme produced in the last few years. The Great British Bake off ect. I’m waiting for The Great British History of Great Britain, but as I said, paranoid cynic.
    Made in Scotland, Wrap party in Islington. Reverse that, and you could be describing one of JoLa’s script’s.

  22. Thought Dr Robertson acquitted himself very well. If anybody from the Scottish Government reads Derek’s blogs (and I would be very surprised if they do not) can you please do something? We have demonstrated time and again in debates around the land that when presented with the arguments people swing towards Yes. The No side are dominating the press and by hook or by crook they appear to be dominating the Radio and TV too. A fair hearing is all that is being asked for. It is all we need.

    • While Broken Together seem unfairly determined to dominate the media, their reported reluctance to appear on public platforms to debate with willing reps from the Yes side reinforces the strong impression that they actually have little to say. All they really offer is obfuscation.

      A Yes vote will be a vote for power. What we will do with that power is up to us. That is the power of the Yes. We can even, after a month or so, decide, “Nah, we’ll return the power, cannae really afford it. Wonder if they’ll take it back. Havenae hardly touched it… Don’t know what we were thinking.”

      As if. But I’m quite sure they’d be only to glad to whisk it quietly back to Westminster and turn the screws.

  23. I neither listen to GMS or Today. Why would anyone?

  24. BBzzz Radio Scotchland is largely awful. Pusillanimous pap.

    But I agree Dr John Robertson did well. No pushover.

  25. When I lived in Sussex, I used to listen to Radio Scotland at lunch-time, live online. Lesley Riddoch. It was a delight to hear international news from a Scottish perspective. In 2004 my firm moved to new premises and I didn’t have privacy to carry on listening at lunch-time. In 2006 I moved back home and one of the great joys I looked forward to was getting Radio Scotland on a pocket tranny and my car radio again, and being able to tune my clock radio to GMS. (Another was getting the Herald. How let down can you get?)

    So what happened between 2004 and 2006? The programme and indeed the station I came home to is a waste of bandwidth.

    Regards the BBC, they are continuing their roll, which is to accelerate the anglifying of Scotland.

  27. Please tell me that your being ironic mac.
    The Daily Mail ! You would have thought they were our natural allies, that’s if you believe what Project Fears supporters say we are, ie immigrant hating, right wing fascists.
    Now Project Fear are going after the media they can’t control. Can I smell fear emanating from those who’s modus operandi has been to peddle it ?

  28. If the aim is to try to attract a younger audience, it shows how out of touch, those in charge are. The last time ‘young people’ listened to Radio Scotland was when Tom Ferry used to be on at night and in parts of Argyll, Radio Scotland was the only channel you could get. So you are talking the 80s pre MTV , music channels, internet, iPod or iPhone.
    That said, there are still parts of the country , Radio Scotland is the only channel ( when driving) that you get a decent signal which is a very powerful position to be in, if you are the only source of news.
    On Tuesday, while driving home, Drivetime, was explaining about a glacier, then there was a report from some Institute, debating an estimated 100,000 people would be unable to pay for their funeral. No context, in Britain or Scotland or where?The next story again not a priority for people driving home from work, who might like to know what has been happening in the World that day. The Secretary of State for Scotland wearing his old hat Chief whip with his party in disarray,what role has he played, the progress of the budget, Scots/Ukranians, Syrians ?. Now granted, it was only a 20 min journey and I may have missed the headlines but you get the distinct impression ( like RS at night) it is mostly centralised reports distributed to all BBC channels- very little local about it.
    It kind of lost the ‘ local’ for me,when the attack took place on Glasgow airport. I remember driving , listening to Clair Balding ( reporting from a horse trial somewhere) the news of the attack -bizarre.

  29. Well the natives are indeed restless and with good cause. BBC Scotland radio news once was a professional interesting affair sometimes beating their London cousins to the punch on breaking news and with interviews too. Now, GMS, lost links, wrong time checks, too many weather and traffic breaks , rubbish hand overs, personal jokes between presenters (hello!). In fact all their output is tosh in the morning slots, Kaye, Fred, Beattie … Ach!

    Come independence there should be important jobs going for experienced semi-retired presenters if you get my drift.

  30. Derek

    The BBC, and by that I mean news and current affairs dept is not fit for purpose and has been usurped by Labour in Scotland to be their handmaiden.

    The other parts which make up BBC Scotland seem to have been castrated to fulfill a Landon based agenda.

    Put simply, it is not fit for purpose which is the needs of the people of Scotland, not a political gang or a foreign ownership and their political requirements, or rather the monkeys higher up the tree.

    It is not fit for purpose and the safest, quickest and surest way of improving the quality of public broadcasting in Scotland would be to put it down and start afresh from within a written Scottish Consitution.

    “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
    ― Omar Khayyám

  31. Thomas William Dunlop

    Sneeky though to put him on a saturday morning. I guess the audience is less at the weekend. No need to frighten the listeners of GMS

    • I wonder if it wasn’t a bit of an own goal as I’d imagine audience at this time on a Saturday will be overwhelmingly +45 yrs, apparently the demographic we’re currently struggling with. They’ll also be sitting down and listening to their radios rather than rushing out of the house to work.

      The way Dr Roberston approach the interview disarmed the interviewer and meant he was able to clearly and unhurriedly put across the key points, another point which will be appreciated by the (slightly) older listener.

      The real trick is to now circulate a recording of the interview to as wide an audience as possible. I’m actually tempted to splice it into the order of service at my mums Kirk. 🙂


      Ps before the dm accuses me of ungodliness can I please point out the Kirk bit was a joke! On the other hand operation steeple will of course be going ahead next week as previously advertised…

  32. I was listening to Radio Scotland last week and heard James Naughtie interviewing someone about the trends in supporting independence.The person who was being interviewed spoke about the Labour voters who were switching to yes and it was clear that Naughtie had no idea what he was talking about.He is completely lost with the fine detail of Scottish politics ,which is understandable however it doesn’t make for good listening.

  33. Last Sunday morning Ken Macdonald prised the debate open (jokingly) very slightly and this morning he ventured a bit further. Surely we can look forward to even more progress next Sunday.

  34. Gave up listening to all BBC stations except Radio 3 some time ago. No longer watch news on BBC or STV – we need the TV in one piece to watch Borgen and the Bridge. Unfortunately many people I meet are incredulous when I point out the bias in the MSM. “Another rant against the BBC, why would they be biased?”. If these people finally wake up to the propaganda they have been fed for years then they will reject the No Message. I give out WIngs, Bella and Derek’s website details at every opportunity. Keep up the incisive reporting Derek, it is sadly missing from the MSM.

  35. I have gone into the BBC website where they ask viewers to suggest news stories etc and suggested that one their investigative journalists could cover this story to find out why the mainstream media have virtually ignored this piece of research!
    Just for the fun of it, a piece of cybernattery!

  36. I’ve just seen a recording of the Scottish Cabinet’s meeting in Bathgate. In the Q&A session someone asked about this research and Alex Salmond answered the question himself. He obviously knew all about it and gave a very detailed answer saying it was research that should be taken very seriously.

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