This will probably be the last time I actually write anything about the BBC so my heart is light.
Some responses to the blog gave me a laugh, some had me nodding in agreement and others had my head in my hands.
First, for all those hard of learning, can I repeat (please imagine capitals on) I have never said there is no bias. Every time I’ve written on this topic I’ve only ever offered my own direct experience to say there is no deliberate, organised, planned BBC campaign to do down the SNP, oppose independence or vilify Yes.
Bias takes many forms and comes from many sources, none of them acceptable professionally but some, no doubt understandably, as in any large organisation with multiple platforms, working round the clock producing an endless stream of output.
The truth is that no news organisation is free from bias no matter how hard they try because it is an objective – and aspiration – that can never be achieved 100 per cent. Human frailty and work pressures ensure that several times a day someone somewhere will have legitimate cause to claim a report does not accurately reflect what they believe to be true.
When you add in other factors like corporate mindset and, yes, personal viewpoints masquerading as fact, it is inevitable that some output will appear compromised.
Personally, I believe we have undergone a transformation in newsgathering and information dissemination in which old certainties and methods have been changed or dismantled. Put another way, standards have fallen, probably in proportion to the sheer amount of information now sloshing about in the ether. To keep up with rapidly advancing technology – and in response to government public spending cuts endorsed by voters – the BBC has found itself under crushing financial pressure. Therefore some budgets were cut, notably staffing. Take away a tier of decision-makers like programme editors and you remove an essential filter through which material is screened before broadcast. Their role was supervisory asking questions like: Are we right to describe a political initiative this way? Could the opposition fairly complain about it? Why are we doing yet another item on the same subject? Do we need more balance? Without them the rigour goes.
Sometimes it’s just bad journalism, either in the framing of an item, the choice of guests or the quality of script and questions. That comes from both inexperience (not helped by removing through redundancy those with the knowledge to pass on) and, conversely, the sloppiness that comes from long experience. We all get lazy. A good example in recent months was a radio interview with two economics academics, both known as Better Together old hands but not introduced as such – in other words identified as if neutral. Anyone with knowledge of the referendum would have known their affiliation which I assume the producer didn’t. The experienced interviewer then asked them non-challenging, soft questions about the possible consequences of independence including a shrug-of-the-shoulder effort to the effect that ‘…it would all be terribly complicated…’ I listened in horror to an inept, uninformative item that gave a misleading impression. It failed every tests of BBC journalism. I said to myself: They can hardly object that critics say they’re biased if that’s the quality of the output.
Another thing a good editor does is look at the continuity of coverage over a longer period. For instance, the best stories are based on criticism – something someone doesn’t want you to know. (Nowadays that’s usually the SNP government). Therefore it makes sense that a correspondent keeps in touch with those looking to expose shortcomings. In other words, the opposition. They, in turn, are fed inside information from sources who share their political affiliation. It could be in health, for example, and a good correspondent gets a stream of material from an opposition source about problems in hospitals that embarrasses the government. That is journalism. But a good editor will spot when the weight of similar attack stories seems excessive and turns into an area of public concern in itself. It’s obvious that not everything in a given field like health is bad news or the NHS would stop functioning. The reality is that there are heartbreakingly good stories in our hospitals every day and world leading work is done. Journalism is by definition selective. So an editor would look to balance his output over time with good stories. No editor – less chance of balance.
I know it doesn’t fit the blood lust of condemnation but doesn’t it sound a bit more plausible than a coven of executives scheming Sturgeon’s downfall and instructing reporters to do the dirty work?
Someone in the responses thinks the BBC is best pals with the Liberals’ press office so just gets them on air instead of the Greens…
Someone else thinks if you’re Unionist, your face fits and you get on and that’s why I apparently didn’t – nothing to do with my aversion to promotion to any management role then or my total unsuitability for the job…
Another says you can’t be a former Tory activist and be neutral…
And someone suggests they only started being anti SNP after they hired me…
(I must have been the only one not in the know. Or maybe they started when I left. (‘Right, Bateman’s away. Let’s get the Nats.’)
It is true that, even to me, there are items which sound so wrong, so unbalanced that I understand perfectly why a consumer would deduce there is deliberate bias, although the obsessive scrutiny of detail is just sad – a pro SNP story drops down the online page! A mistake at a Labour council is headlined ‘Council in scandal’ but a mistake at an SNP council is headlined ‘SNP council in scandal’ !!
Our capacity for outrage is outstripping national productivity.
But others recognise that you don’t need a conspiracy to produce an effect and I agree. We all work to the boss. Yet my sense is that at BBC Scotland staff have been more afraid of managers because they’ve shown a willingness to sack them than a desire to distort the news to order.
To those convinced Pacific Quay is a bastion of Unionism, wittingly or otherwise, I should point out, contrary to some of my correspondents, that two heads of the news department in recent years have been, so far as I know, Scottish Nationalists – one of them led the Yes campaign, Blair Jenkins. People don’t as a rule talk about how they vote (it never bothered me) but I know for certain at least one on air presenter whom you also know, who is a committed nationalist. There are Yes-voting producers of my ken. I’m aware of one manager who definitely voted SNP and of another who backs independence and reads this blog – (hi). Both John Nicolson and Brendan O’Hara worked at BBC Scotland. I have no reason to believe the political make up of the staff is any different from wider Scotland.
Beware of the groupthink you accuse journalists of perpetrating. One correspondent says most posters here are against me therefore that proves it. In other words, if enough of us say it, we’ll drown you out, never mind the facts. (I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way.)
Another suggests the ex BBC man now working for Nicola Sturgeon might be a double agent sabotaging her efforts. So that’s why they lost all those seats!
Let’s stop making ourselves look silly. There are genuine concerns about BBC Scotland and I’m doubtful about the SNP hands-off strategy which avoids confronting real broadcast issues head on. But remember that the SNP after a Yes vote has no intention of destroying what is there but rather building on it to produce a better service. Criticism would be better focussed on that plan than demonising individuals (some of whom don’t even write the scripts they read). The wilder the accusations, the more extreme the reactions, the easier it is for the BBC to sweep them aside.
There’s also a feeling that relentless blaming of the broadcasters shifts responsibility for SNP failures away from where it belongs. Blasting the Beeb over coverage of education stats won’t help the kids at school. Asking the SNP questions might.
An activist dialogue with the party about the BBC, conducted in reasonable terms, might result in a better SNP approach to broadcast shortcomings AND make the corporation think harder about quality journalism and balance.
Which reminds me: someone asks if the BBC showed how other small countries were faring independently during the indyref. Yes, they did. Allan Little went to Scandinavia. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-25061445
The best summation is this from Chris. I concur.
Everyone has an opinion Derek, but not all of those criticising the BBC do so from a splendid isolation beyond the BBC – some of us have also worked there in the past and have had major issues on London’s patrician relationship with Glasgow. I agree with yourself that there is no direct edict from above – “destroy the Nats!” – but there is a group think in parts of the Beeb based on a variety of factors that I do think can help to create an atmosphere of bias in places. With staff jobs disappeared, and people now on short term contracts, the mantra of “you’re only as good as your last job” is one that focuses the mind if you are going from three month contracts to three month contracts, for example. Don’t upset the apple cart – keep your head down, do what is asked, and you might just be back again next week.
There will nevertheless be individuals for whom many of us will have issues – Nick Robinson in 2014 with his edited Alex Salmond comment of “he couldn’t answer” is one that I have never been able to justify. But I do also buy into the idea of a decline in journalistic standards, an under-investment in investigative journalism and documentary, and an over-reliance on newspapers as unquestionable sources. On another front, a lot of output is also made by indies these days, and I think there are some issues there also. Mentorn Scotland’s handling of Question Time is appalling, for example, and I’m not just asking as a viewer today, but as someone who has a friend who has shared much experience with me of having worked on the series for many months.
There is a lot the BBC gets right, but in these days of constitutional urgency, every single error gets amplified a hundred fold. Whether the BBC is biased is one question, but the fact that it is perceived to be biased, with allegations that it somehow never seems to satisfactorily address, is what ultimately will hole it below the waterline. As much as it is impossible to blame everyone in the BBC for being biased, it is also equally impossible to accuse every viewer/listener with a grievance of having no genuine issue of concern. There are issues on both sides. The tragedy is that a lot of good folk at the BBC are as much a victim of all this as many of the viewers who feel so aggrieved. The ultimate failure is in management at the corporation.
Thank you for listening. That’s all from us for tonight. Sleep well. Here’s the national anthem….by