Christmas in the Trenches

The guns fell silent and white flakes drifted gently down from a lowering sky. On one side, concealed within the deep scar of a trench, crouched the defenders –the Patriots – still reliving the last furious encounter with the enemy. On the other side of the desolate field, cratered with the remains of constant bombardment, the British Bombardiers Company (BBC) wondered whether yet another broadcast plea to the rebels was worth trying.

Then, quite suddenly, a head appeared at the lip of the little gully. Eyes peered through the billowing snow towards the Patriots. A ragged garment – was it a dirty cotton vest – broke surface tied to a splinter of wooden pit prop. Slowly, arms extended on either side, the green-clad figure emerged fully on the empty plain. The tattered flag hung limply from his hand. A whistle sounded and, clearly echoing in the stillness, a voice bellowed: ‘Enemy in sight.’ The ratcheting sound of weapons being cocked could be heard. Followed by more silence.

Instead of the exploding bedlam of frightened men firing erratically, the still silence persisted. On either side exhausted fighters lay in the cold mud, each praying to himself that it would continue. One whispered: ‘What’s written on the flag?’ Holding the binoculars steady his mate read slowly: ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation.’

Down the line a Patriot climbed unsteadily out of the freezing earth tomb and moved stiffly towards the other man. Behind him, eyes widened at the sight of an unarmed man risking everything in a deadly arena where the slightest movement always triggered a fusillade. They approached each other carefully, eyes never leaving the other, until they were close enough to touch.

Each saw, not a combatant nor an enemy, but a mirror image of himself. As they stood, uncomprehending, irregular lines of uniformed men were converging slowly all along the trench lines. At first language was difficult but soon the sound of animated conversation and laughter resounded in the snowy air.

Cigarettes were exchanged, chocolate shared. A football bumped through shell craters.

Minutes later, without signal, the lines began drifting apart, reversing at first then turning their backs. One by one the figures disappeared back into the ground, to await the order to fire. The void of no man’s land was restored as if nothing had ever happened. The silence descended again with the snow, unbroken by birdsong.

Merry Christmas, one and all…

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From Our Correspondent

The retirement of Colin Blane after a lifetime in BBC radio journalism that took him from Beijing to Johannesburg to Brussels to Glasgow is a reminder of the contribution programme-makers have made to our lives. We hear them daily from flashpoints around the world, sometimes literally from a front line under fire, giving detailed analysis of perplexing events. Colin was with Nelson Mandela when he was freed. Jim Muir, a Scot from Lochaber, is a lifelong Middle East expert. Another, Alan Johnston, was kidnapped by the Army of Islam. I know journalists from other countries, often living in distressed societies, who cherish the sound of the BBC World Service bringing them valuable information they trust.

Our world has been shaped in many ways by the BBC through documentaries and debates, dramas and light entertainment. The breadth of output dwarfs anything else – 10 UK radio channels, seven ‘national’ outlets and 40 regional stations, a battery of television services from BBC America to BBC Persian. It gives us iplayer and Gaelic language. The scale and diversity makes it the world’s biggest broadcaster.

My personal pride was in connecting people in Scotland through a shared interest in our country and reflecting the wider world. For the first time in my life I felt part of the fabric of the country. Presenting for the BBC was the single most memorable job I had in 45 years.

Which is why I have become concerned at the direction taken by the BBC as it wrestles with a multi-channel digital environment on the one hand and state containment by insecure politicians on the other. I have been vocal on the shortcomings of the BBC in Scotland echoing the worries of many existing staff. And if there is a genuine desire to have a broadcaster we can be proud of we need to pressure it to change because the BBC isn’t going anywhere. Even after independence.

The idea that we opt out of consuming the BBC or not pay the licence fee is fine for those who don’t want to be part a diverse and multi-faceted public media. But it isn’t SNP policy to write off the BBC. There is no plan on the day after National Liberation to switch it off. Jackie bird won’t be getting her jotters.

On the contrary. ‘The SBS will continue to co-commission, co-produce and co-operate with the BBC network. The SBS will commission or produce a share of BBC network original productions reflecting the Scottish population share, in terms of both hours and spending. These arrangements will shift commissioning power and resources from the BBC to Scotland, while providing continuity for the BBC, consistent with its recent moves to decentralise from London’, says Scotland’s Future, the government’s Guide to Independence, and still the template for a post-Yes Scotland.

SBS, the Scottish Broadcasting Service, will be established not to replace the BBC but explicitly to work with it. ‘Under our proposals, a Scottish Broadcasting Service, providing TV, radio and online services, will be established as a publicly funded public service broadcaster, working with the BBC in a joint venture’, says the SNP. It will ‘initially be founded on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland, and will broadcast on TV, radio and online.’

Non-payers beware: ‘On independence, the licence fee will be the same as in the rest of the UK, and all current licence fee payment exemptions and concessions will be retained’ and ‘Existing licences for broadcasters in Scotland will be fully honoured.’ They won’t be ditching BBC programmes that drive nationalists mad. ‘Evidence also suggests that people in Scotland want more Scottish programming alongside access to the best from the rest of the UK and the wider world.’ And: ‘Scottish viewers and listeners should continue to have access to all their current channels’. When the document says SBS will ‘have the right’ to opt out of current BBC programming, it implies that services we currently know will be virtually unchanged. And remember, during the indyref how the Yes side scoffed at suggestions we might not get some programmes from the network…

In other words, the plan for independence is to rename the organisation the SBS and base it on the existing framework and arrangements. We will have a new channel in addition to BBC One but there is no suggestion that its news progammes will be served by anyone other than the existing newsroom, at least initially. There will inevitably be changes but there is no provision for wholesale clear-outs of staff. And in any case, recruitment won’t deliver what some critics seem to want which is supportive rather than critical coverage (As in the National). They’ll still get stories they don’t like. The way to eliminate bias is to hire professional staff with effective editorial oversight. Anyone praying for an age of McCarthy at Pacific Quay is in line for a let-down. The Greens are also against breaking up the BBC and instead prefer a federal structure.

The emphasis on commissioning will change over time with an expectation of more Scottish content. But the SNP recognises that it can’t just start again from scratch even if it wanted to. The BBC, for all its faults, can’t be reinvented and it certainly can’t be replicated in Scotland. What we can do is carve out a specialist service using the existing organisation and we can brand it as truly Scottish. We can scrutinise it at Holyrood and up the Scotland-focussed content. This is realism from the SNP, a typically pragmatic approach miles away from any string-em-up hysteria of the mob. BBC haters are heading for disappointment. Its elimination is a non-starter. And that’s official policy.

As I wrote at the time of the row over the roadside hoardings plan highlighting BBC bias, the constant raging about the BBC sounds scary to those not yet committed to Yes. It makes them wonder what kind of people nationalists are. That doesn’t excuse execrable journalism but it should give us pause about the impression we give to those we need to win over. We are each entitled to hold any view we wish but if we are truly interested in furthering the cause and ultimately in winning, we have to promote our case as rational and balanced. Some of the recent messages here stand in stark contrast to the measured and insightful contributions on, for example, land reform and crofting. There was me thinking we were better than that.

There is a window of opportunity here for Donalda MacKinnon but a short one. The new charter starts in January and yet here is a new Director for Scotland entitled to some leeway being new in post. She must have made her pitch in the job interview and if it included something radical – like a Scottish Six – she is entitled to claim it now. Let’s hope so.

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A Man Writes…

If I don’t mention my leather trousers, is it alright if I talk about women in power? I ask because I belong to a generation of hacks who wrote stories like ‘First Woman Bus Driver in Dundee’ or ‘Yes, Ma’am – New Top Cop is a Female.’ We were awestruck that someone who wasn’t a man might be put in control because, of course, the backgroundhought was: Imagine men being told what to do by a woman.

Half a century later and we’re still doing it. No matter how many women enter the workplace and rise through the ranks, there is still a frisson when one emerges top of the pile. She breaks the glass ceiling – and doesn’t even bother to sweep up the mess. Huh! What are things coming to…

BBC Scotland has just appointed its new Director – what we used to call the Controller, in that mildly sinister lingo of the State apparatus so redolent of George Orwell (former staffer Eric Blair). And, as even feminist Lesley Riddoch pointed out, Donalda MacKinnon is the first woman to hold the post. Do we still rejoice at that? Will it make any difference that she is female? Some of the women I remember in executive roles in the BBC, far from having a more nuanced style than a male, were brisk to the point of rudeness, often snappy and demanding. Broadcasting was a leader in affirmative action to balance gender in the staff so there is a long history of women forging careers there. I have to say, in my experience, it was clear over time that there really was no difference between the sexes. Both could be either easy and creative or they could be brash and impatient. The fact is you get used to working with each other and stop thinking about differences. The same thing happened with your place of origin so that you were constantly working with people from Ireland, Australia, America, the sub continent or pretty much anywhere. Like a university, the BBC is a melting pot, the living proof that people rub along whatever their background.

Donalda is also a Top Gael. (The clue’s in the name, really. I always think it sounds as if they wanted a boy to work the croft but were landed with a girl.) She’s from Harris and takes over from Kenny the Gael who’s from Mull which makes an inspirational and possibly unique achievement with one Gael succeeding another in an English language organisation. That in itself is another mark of how affirmative action can bear fruit. The BBC has provided an employment gateway through the Gaelic language for generations from the Gaidhealtacht. It doesn’t mean, of course, they wouldn’t have made it anyway but it is heartening that there are successful examples to be emulated when there is a drive to broaden the use of the language.

A woman. A Gael. These are signals, but do they mean anything in real terms?

We have to hope so because I think the BBC is in historically poor shape. It is undergoing a transformation into a kind of publishing house for outside productions with the Beeb’s own programme makers bidding for contracts against independent companies. It can’t compete for the major sporting events. The new on demand studios like Netflix are entering traditional BBC speciality areas including costume drama. Its home-grown offer gets stolen (Top Gear, Bake-Off). And the sure-footed news and current affair offering on which so much of the respect is built, is floundering. Is Panorama a must-see? Does anyone take Newsnight seriously? Are right-wing millionaires (Neil, Dimbleby) really the best presenters we’ve got?

Then there’s Scotland. The referendum was a tipping point because it exposed just how limited the BBC’s resources had been allowed to become. The failure to nurture and retain talent. The deliberate removal of experience. The creation of the worst industrial relations the unions had known. Low morale and bullying management.

The main cultural organisation in the country and it couldn’t reflect the single greatest event in a century. Instead we had stagey debates with the usual suspects and, apart from an occasional incisive film, the BBC, with outposts in Shetland, Orkney, Stornoway, Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dumfries and Selkirk, totally failed to convey the town hall phenomenon that swept the nation. While Scotland was in a democratic ferment, the Beeb sat with its headphones on, feet up on the desk, lost in its own bubble.

So will Donalda resolve this? Maybe. The trouble is that she was there all along. When the unions howled at the appalling news management team and its impact on quality, she was mute. When the redundancy programme, cunningly deferred everywhere else, was brutally front-loaded in Scotland to push staff out the door, she was there. When the women of the newsroom took their worries about bullying and intimidation to her, as the senior female at BBC Scotland, she rebuffed them.

Which brings me to my main argument. I’m glad she got the job out of the panel available and have hopes that she will impose a more responsive regime than her predecessor. But my information is that there were only three final candidates, all of them existing staff. Two men, who are both accountants, and Donalda…all of them long-term Pacific Quay insiders. What kind of choice is that? Three institutional figures who are part of the existing set-up which has performed so poorly?

This is the biggest cultural position in Scotland with a salary, last time I looked, of nearly £200,000 and there is not a single credible candidate from outside the existing staff structure of BBC Scotland. That is one tiny gene pool.

Donalda is the only one with any programme making experience and that’s a long time ago. Why are two accountants on the short list anyway? Accountants! This is the thriving hub of digital creativity making soaps, documentaries, comedy, drama, news and sport – and radio – and they seriously considered an accountant to lead it? Where are the heads of the successful independent production houses the BBC itself puts so much store by? Where the applications from broadcasters in Europe and Scandinavia or the English-speaking world of Australasia and the Americas? Where is even the faintest whiff of edginess or new thinking or aspiration and ambition…

Instead we get the predictable insider, BBC-savvy careerists already comfortable and unchallenged in their assumptions, limited in outlook and damned by their involvement with the previous establishment. What a contrast to the wailing over non-Scottish leaders in arts organisations occasioned by Alasdair Gray. If only…

She faces another institutional hurdle – the role of her predecessor Kenny MacQuarrie, who instead of taking a long overdue retirement, has been promoted to head of what the Beeb likes to call Nations and Regions (that’s Scotland and Cornwall for example). In other words, he is still her boss. He will still hold the cold hand of budget and executive control over her efforts as a kind of Witch Finder General for London and, given his known fealty to HQ, we can expect that to be enthusiastically pursued. He was no fan of a Scottish Six – as soon as the public went off the boil, so did he. If she wants to proceed down that route, she may have to content with his resistance.

Still, it’s up to her. She can either break with the past and force her way or go quiet and acquiesce. I think her first move should be to forge a relationship with two other women in power – Fiona Hyslop and Nicola Sturgeon. If there are battles ahead, they’re the best allies she could have to fight the grudging culture of London HQ.

The trouble with insiders though is that they learn that getting on depends on getting in – you stay in the good books and longer you last without rocking the boat the higher you rise. For two long that has been the priority in Scotland. It has been self-preservation over national celebration. Obedience and timidity cannot rebuild the respect the BBC has lost in Scotland.

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