Oh alright…I have been avoiding the old media debate because we should be concentrating on winning. On the other hand, it is still live and I did rather start it, or at least joined the party, when I took on the BBC a year ago.
My first point is that people unhappy with any outlet of news, or any public organisation, if they feel strongly enough, should exercise their right to demonstrate and to boycott.
What on earth is threatening about that? It is an extension of market forces – I don’t want your product, it’s not good enough so I’ve come along to tell you and I wont be buying any more. It is, I think, a free country.
The journalistic voices who look at this and claim sinister intent are the same self-regarding opinionated agenda-setters who never cease telling us what to think of what to be frightened of. They expect the immunity of old where their job was to pontificate and ours was to consume and if, appropriate, fume silently. These guys need to catch up with the agenda. Just as their news organisations failed to keep up with readers’ tastes and the digital era, so they too are stuck in an ivory tower past.
The BBC is a major player in the case for and against independence and should have known it would be scrutinised minutely. The management didn’t get it. They didn’t prepare. They didn’t budget. They didn’t listen. They didn’t lead. They didn’t manage.
The written Press is now the rotten Press. What used to be a proud tradition of newspapers in Scotland is exposed as a scabrous bunch of uncritical hacks swallowing a PR man’s agenda and, with honourable exceptions that we know about, didn’t understand that the job entails asking questions, challenging assumptions and shaking the tree till the apples drop. Scottish journalism is tired, un-enterprising and frankly backward in its approach to the massive challenge and exciting prospect of national independence.
However, in the case of the BBC, the journalists are let down by the management. Of course there is poor decision-making, inexplicable scripting, warped priorities and puzzling omissions. There always is. But this is a sensitive time when every word, every image, every nuance is a potential grenade and that requires intelligence and experience to handle. Ask yourself: Has Brian Taylor put a foot wrong? Allowing for my own self-imposed purdah from BBC output, I do catch some of it and see and hear only professional neutrality from him, sometimes painfully so. He must be tempted late at night in yet another live two-way to just say: ‘Of course they’re lying…they’re politicians in a campaign. What did you expect?’
If I have any criticism it is that I think he should as political editor be leading the coverage by checking scripts and terminology. It sounds to me as if no one is doing that.
Some reports have been execrable. In one of the endless ‘brave wee Jim Murphy’ items we heard a full story about how he was surrounded and about the jostling and the eggs. At the end, the very last line of copy said… ‘ meanwhile a man has appeared in court in connection with an abusive message sent to the First Minister’, or something similar. To my knowledge the man had been convicted of threatening to assassinate Alex Salmond. Yet that wasn’t mentioned and it was clearly not the story narrative – Murphy’s Egg Armaggedon was.
Was a reporter instructed to do that? Not a chance. I know of no one who has been told to write copy or cover an event or omit news for a partisan reason. I DO know people are told to ‘make sure somebody gets a hard time’ in order to balance a previous interview. But ask Lesley Riddoch or Iain McWhirter if they were told to be biased for or against one side…
People ask if the BBC really can be that bad and the answer is Yes, it can.
I don’t hold with campaigns to have people lose their jobs. I don’t agree with banners calling individuals liars and I don’t think Nick Robinson is one. At the same time, some of those complaining used to march themselves and carried all sorts of Fuck This and Fuck That banners which were designed to shock. And, Nick gets to impose on us his interpretation (or rather Downing Street’s) every night so he’s hardly in a position to moan about the exposure. He is front-of-house, richly rewarded and, I suspect, able to take it. If it is true he connived with Number 10 to leak market sensitive information about RBS, I’m afraid his reputation will be rightly damaged. He might even be convicted! What I don’t like is what seems to be a rush to broadcast political propaganda to frighten the Scots – that is not the BBC’s job and we need to tell them so. They are another of the failed institutions of the crumbling UK.
What is revealing is who is complaining. First Charlie Wheelan…yes, the man who was Gordon Brown’s shit-kicker for years, leaking government information to journalists, destabilising his own side and manipulating the media – and he doesn’t like some Scots objecting to the BBC’s coverage. Rich, isn’t it?
Then our old friend now under intense pressure – because he’ll never get another Labour gig – Blair McDougall. On radio today he went from sensible spokesman to sinister and scary spitter of contrived innuendo. Alex Salmond orchestrated the protests…How? By ‘insulting’ Nick Robinson, of course. That was the demo’s cue therefore it is, yet again, the demon Salmond wot’s to blame.
Bear in mind this comes from a man who is running, by common consent, the worst campaign in political history based on frightening voters with implied threats based mostly on myth.
I have consistently argued that the BBC has failed the test as national broadcaster this year and I have laid out in detail what I think should have been done instead. I believe major personnel changes are needed on the executive board (and I believe they will come) and in the management of news and current affairs. But one thing I learned in my years there was how poor professionalism or bad reporting is immediately viewed as wilful or deliberate by some of the audience. I have painstakingly explained to listeners in writing why I said what I did or why I omitted something and it is clear that often they have, naturally enough, strong opinions of their own which they thought I was offending – deliberately. In the heat of a campaign, this is magnified and newsrooms are not always happy places to be as the parties and their outsiders pile in with the accusations.
This was all predictable by anyone with knowledge but was completely missed by the rabbits-in-headlights at Pacific Quay. When things began to go wrong they failed to respond, taking the line of least engagement so the licence fee payer was not informed of their plans of the effect of budget cuts which, of course, they claimed had no effect on quality. They compounded failure by threatening their academic critic John Robertson, confirming their aloofness from reality.
We should express our anger and disappointment at a public organisation gone wrong but we need to remember that journalists too are victims – of cuts, intimidation, lack of direction and low morale. I have contact with people inside and some are angry and embarrassed at how low the BBC has fallen in this time of national debate.
I don’t mean people aren’t above criticism – I was brutally honest about a newspaper journalist whom I don’t think matches up to the historic standard of his paper. Named commentators and presenters can take it. But just as you wouldn’t shout in someone’s face in a discussion, a measure of civility is called for. Like everything else, this is a question of degree and after Thursday a determined but respectful approach to the critical area of broadcasting will be needed. Like the Labour voters needed to win the referendum, BBC journalists do not need to be alienated – they aren’t going anywhere. It may be that we will hear soon what has been happening inside from those that know.
I think (I say again!) that we are about to win. When we do, a good Scots degree of grace and magnanimity will be required while we step forward on the road of national reconstruction.