Dr John Robertson of UWS acquitted himself rather well on Radio Scotland this morning in defending his Fairness in the First Year report on broadcasting and in the process made the BBC look small.
After listening to Dr Robertson, whom I’ve never met, I was left wondering what the BBC was afraid of. He didn’t rant. He didn’t accuse. He appreciated the pressures of newsgathering. He isn’t a Nat. He sounded surprised at his own findings and had expected them to be viewed as helpful. Not a bit of it. As we saw, his work, according to Newsnet, was first ignored by the Herald, then by BBC news and finally lambasted by the corporation’s management who overplayed their weak hand and have been left looking like bullies.
How could a massive taxpayer-funded organisation with, in Scotland, people earning at executive level from £100,000 a year up to nearly £200,000 make such elementary mistakes? My only answer is that, as I have pointed out from the outset when I began blogging last September, the quality of the senior managers at Pacific Quay simply isn’t good enough. They each have individual skills but collectively they amount to less than the sum of their parts. There is weak leadership, poor appointments, ill-considered decision-making, lack of communication with staff and audiences and they have developed an anti-news mentality where journalism is viewed as an expensive luxury when London is really interested in television production for the UK network.
With such endemic shortcomings, BBC Scotland badly needs a public-facing strategy to alleviate its declining credibility. If you run a business strategy company, start pitching today.
They could start by redefining what a separate BBC is for in Scotland because the tenor of executive utterings on this front are ambivalent. My view is that it exists to serve the Scots with news, current affairs, sport, culture, education, childrens, topical issues and drama designed by and aimed at the Scots. On top of that they earn extra income and kudos by producing programmes for London – as an extra. Instead what has happened in recent years is that Scotland has concentrated on producing output for London and diverted its energies into that sector which I think should come secondary to Scottish programming. The management have taken their eye off the ball and instead of breaking sweat to make sure the Scots are serviced first, they take domestic output for granted. By so doing, they allow the standard to reduce even when the staff – and especially the journalists – are screaming at them that the quality is suffering. This is dismissed as yet more moaning from the feather-bedded journalists so they miss what the audiences are experiencing which is questionable quality.
Ruthless budget pruning in news has had a deleterious impact. Newsnight is an example. It used to have two presenters over four nights, it had an editor and a team of programme producers, a film archivist, dedicated correspondents as well as programme director, a full-scale editing suit with editor and its own assigned film crew with a budget allowing for two-day shoots. Today, there is a single presenter, the editor doubles up as output producer, also doing Scottish Questions, there is no archivist, no dedicated correspondents, just staff off the reporter’s rota, the cameraman doubles up as editor in a news cupboard edit suite and almost every film is pulled together on the day. To cap it all, the last editor was so scunnered, he walked. The editorial chief of a top BBC brand news programme months before the biggest story of a journalist’s life and he slung his hook and left. Are you getting the message? Meanwhile, if you ask McQuarrie he will tell you there has been no impact on the quality of BBC journalism.
Kenny McQuarrie argues with me about this emphasis. When I say: You are making too many programmes for London, he retorts: No, we are making programmes for the BBC. In that answer lies the problem. He pretends that doing London’s bidding and making programmes for them is fine as it is one BBC, but the reality is that more money is spent on network (London) productions than Scottish ones, often the staff are flown up to make them – the joke is Made in Scotland, Wrap party in Islington –and the whole purpose of a BBC Scotland is to make programming for…well, think about it…the clue’s in the name. They have lost their focus on their core business – Scottish quality programming.
Another example is Jeff Zycinski as head of radio addressing a roomful of presenters (and pretending to tell them how to do their job) and showing a graph of how Radio Four’s Today programme is running neck-and-neck for audience with Radio Scotland’s GMS when everybody knows GMS should be miles ahead of London-based news output. He then says it’s alright that so many Scots are listening to Radio Four so long as they are all listening to the BBC! No, no, no. If Scots start listening as much to Radio Four as they do to Radio Scotland, it begs the obvious question – what is a separate BBC Scotland for? Up until he was appointed head of radio we lived by the credo that GMS commanded a much larger audience in Scotland than Today and we had a higher share of AB’s, the decision-makers. His attempts at “popularising” the programme I believe drove listeners away to what they regard as a genuine BBC sound – that is the quality tone of Radio Four. In the endless search for new and younger audiences, they sacrificed the bedrock which is professionals aged over 50 interested in their own country and its place in the world. They were weaned on a quality BBC radio experience which many of them feel they don’t get any more in Scotland at crucial news junctures.
The letters and emails I received over those years confirmed this with listeners bemused as to what had gone wrong. One stat I recall was that in the final year of the GMS team I belonged to, we had the highest audience ever recorded over 12 months, according to Blair Jenkins, head of news. (What happened to him?) That has never been repeated since to my knowledge after Zycinski took over. But, like the ditching of Newsweek, this is a management which doesn’t listen to critics, internal or external, and doesn’t recant when found out to be wrong.
This week’s sordid little tale about the reaction to some academic research is part of a long-term trend in dismal decision-making. Don’t expect it to end soon.