Journalists at Work

I’ve been asked for my views on the Bias in Broadcasting evidence to the Culture Committee earlier in the week and I’ve been putting off a response. The BBC hate me when I do and my correspondents hate me more. I criticise one and defend them to the other. It’s the Endurance of the Long-Distance Blogger.

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From what I saw, the BBC are in full assault mode and totally unapologetic and as a result look unreasonable, defensive and flustered. It has become the default position of an organisation caught out by events and floundering.

To be fair, the BBC has to defend its reputation. It has a duty to do so and to stand up for its staff. It is the way it has gone about it that is wrong, by opening an inquisition on the author, referring the matter upwards to his boss, adopting an aggressive tone, questioning his credentials, nit-picking his report and failing to make sure it was reported in the normal way. At every stage, they made their predictable mistakes, one after the other, displaying a total lack of what an enlightened management would have regarded as a one-day wonder. By blundering into attack mode, placing themselves above another institution, resenting criticism and overreacting they insured we are still talking about the issue today, have had to read about it in the mainstream papers and found themselves hauled before MSPs.

It all underlines what I said about the day in 2011 when Salmond won his majority – the BBC should have seen the signs and prepared. From that moment the game was on and the Corporation was going to be centre stage. McQuarrie took his eye off the ball because 1) he was concentrating on cutting budgets and getting rid of journalists and 2) he spends far too much time in London and has no effective deputy. That is institutional failure.

Two things about the performance struck me. The first is how shifty John Boothman manages to look when asked a challenging question. He quickly shifts into angry mode creating an air of confrontation when a dash of humility or even, heaven help me, wit would be immeasurably more helpful. There is always a sense in which it is a personal attack he is undergoing rather than an inquiry into the organisation he represents, a fundamental flaw in a manager in which the two become interchangeable. It is exactly what I disliked about his dealings with Paul Sinclair in Johann Lamont’s office, seeming to confuse a personal relationship with what is surely a professional role heading BBC news and current affairs. Questions about programme content should be dealt with through the proper channels, not answered personally. His tendency to bridle and build up aggression doesn’t, to me, leave a positive impression of the BBC. I also suspect that he is everything Kenny McQuarrie dislikes as an urbane and cultured man himself. He must be aware of the image his head of news projects.

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There is too a conundrum here. In any other newsroom in the world where their executives were facing a grilling from politicians, the journalists would crowd round the screens and egg their bosses on. ‘Defend us. Tell them we won’t be intimidated. Free speech’ etc. I doubt if a single journalist in the BBC newsroom did that. Instead they would be hoping the MSPs would land a blow or two on the BBC, so discredited and disliked are BBC managers. When McQuarrie praised the impartiality and professionalism of the journalists and the high quality output, you just knew they would be listening and saying: ‘If only…’ They know who cut the budgets and sacked their colleagues and damaged morale and made quality journalism that much harder. In sport it’s called losing the dressing-room.

Incidentally, I heard them say they didn’t have a number for how many complaints had been received about referendum coverage. I don’t believe it. That information is retrievable and if it showed say one per cent complaints, would have bolstered their argument. We’re not hearing the number because it’s too embarrassing to publicise.

The Bias story is a little tragedy for BBC Scotland. When I survey the output, I genuinely find very little to object to. Brian Taylor on GERs for example in his blog this week gave the classic fair BBC analysis. I don’t consume the mainstream obsessively though so inevitably miss a lot. What disappoints me is the failure to take control of this massive story and lead it…to provide exemplary coverage, to bring to the fore their own talented people into frontline roles (James Cook is the exception on the Scottish question time programme, interestingly produced by an independent company which presumably chose him for the job, not the BBC).  The Bias row will be a legacy for the BBC, passed into the history of the campaign, leaving a taint over its reputation and for a huge number of Scots voting Yes, it will be confirmation for them of the Corporation’s failure. But right now the journalists have to get on with the job and put it behind them, as they have had to do over budget cuts since the whole suicidal exercise began. You don’t need John Robertson’s report to know how bad things are in the newsroom – check out the departure lounge. People are choosing to walk, leaving a career and pension and benefits behind in order to breathe freely and start again.  And the air is good.

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Worries in Wongaland

Something interesting stirring in Wongaland over the referendum…someone down there is briefing not just against Better Together comedy stand-up Alistair Darling but also telling journalists that Downing Street thinks it may already be lost.

I have to say I think this is nonsense and completely against the evidence I see which only makes it all the more intriguing.

In Fraser Nelson’s Daily Telegraph piece he reports: “But unofficially, the mood is bleak. Some of the Prime Minister’s chief strategists now argue that the battle is lost and that a Yes vote is not only possible but probable.” This is predicated not on Darling’s failings  but on Scottish Labour’s (Alistair is deemed by Number 10 to be one of Them rather than one of the Caledonian artisans), the same Scottish Labour Salmond made mincemeat out of two years ago. Labour is no longer the unbeatable machine, he says, to general surprise, and cannot offer the kind of rock-like backing the Unionist leadership requires. Add to that the new Scottish Secretary Carmichael whose strengths have never been on the rarified intellectual plane and you get from a London perspective an unimpressive jumble sale of the slow-witted and the low-browed perfectly capable of missing the easiest of open goals.

The impression of Carmichael as – putting it mildly – less than the bruiser he claimed, was heavily reinforced by the STV head-to-head debate with Sturgeon in which she appeared to be the senior politician armed with the knowledge and the answers making demands of the Westminster stooge. I imagined Michael Moore smiling contentedly at home and pressing Record.

Here’s is Nelson’s upsum of the debate: “Carmichael was backed by the combined might of the British government machine – so it should have sent him into that debate armed to the teeth with examples of the White Paper’s most egregious defects. His dire performance was a symbol of another deeply alarming trend: it seems the UK Government is not really trying.”

When you add to this the words given to the Daily Mail about Darling having no fire in his belly and being comatose, it does suggest they have the feeling things aren’t moving their way. And yet surely they are. On the face of it, there’s nothing but anecdote to say Yes is moving forward let alone ahead. They will take comfort from the polls – the published ones – and rightly so, although my own view is that the polls wont move for months yet because the don’t Dnows still don’t know until the pressure is on and so all the polling up to now is largely a waste of money, each effort confirming the previous one.

Of course I’m assuming these are genuine sources truly reflecting opinion in the seat of power instead mischief making. I mean the source who attacked laugh-a-minute, up-and-at-em Alistair wanted Michael Gove or, so help me, Jeremy Hunt to take over. I’d be ordering my Free At Last tee-shirts if that happened. And the deer horn cufflinks. So that idea surely damages the credibility of the source but leaves us with the nagging feeling that something’s afoot. It occurred to me that this is an aspect of the debate I foreshadowed before when discussing the media. I maintain that if and when the polls begin to move north for Yes, the same Unionist media will turn on its own and the likes of Alistair and McDougall will find themselves challenged in print and even on Good Morning Scotland where Jim Naughtie will preface his question with an erudite essay on the vicissitudes of the political fates before asking Alistair: “Mr Darling, where did all go wrong?” And such is my blinding perspicacity that I also foresaw how that turncoat mode would produce resentment among journalists who would be proved wrong. That’s when they start digging and begin to question Alistair’s credentials, his actual credentials, for the job. Thus in the same edition of the Daily Mail which called Alistair useless we find Richard Kay writing about his outside interests. “In the past year he has raked in more than £170,000 for addressing a string of private events. Darling was paid a total of £172,550 in fees for just 15 speaking engagements between November last year and October. He received two payments of £15,300 each in a single day in May when he spoke at two conferences in London — a total of nine hours’ work. One had been organised by Bank of America Merrill Lynch and the other by JPMorgan Chase & Co. Darling picked up a further £8,500 from Merrill Lynch when he spoke at another of its bashes in July.”

Wouldn’t want the Undecideds of Wester Hailes and Gorgie to know that, now would he? With this type of stuff now in Google, other journalists will find it handy when writing skeptical pieces about the Member of Edinburgh South West and write it they will if the idea gets about that despite the opinion polls and in spite of their own uncritical support, journalists see the No campaign stumbling and Salmond starts doing what he does best, making a fool of the Establishment.

I see Downing Street phoned Alistair to reassure him that he is still treasured and that they’re hunting for the mole as we speak. That might be a wise move because I suspect that Alistair’s pride outweighs his belief in the Union and he’s quite capable of stepping back to allow someone else to front it.

That would bring Gordon Brown into shot, as one of the leaky sources said. Alistair doesn’t hate anyone more utterly than Gordon and if that did happen I think he’d become a sotto voce whisperer against Better Together. Another option of course would be to have it run by a woman – Johann is first in line. That would be a welcome addition to the debate, wouldn’t it, a Borgenesque classy political operator in charge?

Alistair moving aside would also remove Cameron’s cover for ducking out of his obligation as actual leader of the Union and debating live with Salmond…this is turning out to be fun. Perhaps that Downing Street source is a closet Nat.

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