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.