The Last Days of the Old BBC Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 20th 2016

These are turbulent times for the BBC. The patrician age of benign liberal paternalism and enlightened elites knowing what is best for us, unquestioned and unchallenged, have long since passed.

We have now swung to the other end of the spectrum. Not a day seems to go by without the BBC being criticised from somewhere. The ‘Daily Mail’, ‘Daily Telegraph’ and Murdoch press conduct a never-ending war undermining the Beeb’s status – questioning the legitimacy of the licence fee and what they see as its dominant market position.

The toxic right want to destroy the BBC, but the left stopped being enamoured decades ago, and in Scotland all of this is added to by the experience of the indyref. Many respected voices feel that the BBC is shortchanging Scotland, and offering up an inferior service.

BBC Scotland’s problems have historical and cultural roots. The origins of a specific Scottish service were found in an age long disappeared. When the BBC high heid yins decided to allow a Broadcasting Council for Scotland in 1953 it was stacked with the great and good and chaired by the Lord Clydesmuir, formerly John Colville, unionist Secretary of State for Scotland from 1938-40.

When the BBC began broadcasting TV coverage made in Scotland on March 14th 1952, initial public response wasn’t positive. ‘The Scotsman’ commented at the time that when Scots complain, ‘London announces that the Scottish regional controller has full control and can choose whatever he presents’ and yet ‘London appoints the staff in Scotland and pays it’ (The Scotsman, May 8th 1952).

It isn’t surprising, fast-forwarding to today, that even on the BBC’s own figures there is a democratic deficit. In England, 61% of the public are satisfied with the quality of BBC programmes, while in Wales this falls to 55%, and in Scotland 48%. This is exasperated by the financial picture which sees £323 million raised in Scotland from the licence fee, but a mere £35 million spent on TV. When Radio Scotland, digital and common services are added on this figure rises substantially but still leaves a sizeable gap.

BBC Scotland travails are deeper than these figures suggest. Where does power sit in BBC Scotland, who is it facing towards, and who is it accountable? The answer isn’t to external audiences or Scotland, but internally upwards to London bosses. This literally means that BBC Scotland bosses spend a large part of their time and effort not on satisfying Scottish audiences, but serving London. They answer and report to the BBC down south as the first priority of their work. That doesn’t make for a good BBC Scotland, and nor is it efficient or helpful.

This state of affairs leads to a related problem. Which, if any, part of Scotland does the BBC here address? Which constituencies and communities does the BBC have which it represents and serves with distinction? Leave aside the Gaelic communities and BBC Alba that is a rare success, having created small triumphs on a miniscule budget.

The answer is telling, because it can argued that BBC Scotland doesn’t serve any part of Scotland well, whether geographically, socially or interest wise. Its football coverage is, despite its wall-to-wall nature on radio, often driven by merely getting audiences. Its comedy is mostly cringeworthy, with the odd exception, drama, next to non-existent, and arts and culture, thin in the extreme, apart from at Edinburgh Festival time.

Some of these concerns are historic. In 1944 the Saltire Society called for an end to the BBC’s ‘timidity neurosis’ and issued a questionnaire asking ‘were there enough Scottish items?’ Over thirty years later and Radio Scotland was born in 1978 with the expectation of a Scottish Assembly the following year. It met with near-universal panning with Neal Ascherson calling it the equivalent of ‘Radio Kailyard’.

With all these problems the BBC sometimes still has managed to do good things. The first act of Alasdair Milne as Controller in 1968 was to rebrand the BBC as ‘BBC Scotland’; while Alastair Hetherington in the 1970s, before he went on to edit ‘The Guardian’, pushed hard against the micro-scale of London control, to the extent that he was pushed overboard.

Today though there is an absence of real leadership at the heart of the BBC – both internally and externally. Ken MacQuarrie is managing a safety first, minimalist agenda of getting the organisation from one day to the next, and surviving. There is no higher purpose or vision.

This vacuum is acutely felt by many staff inside the BBC. The organisation, despite numerous retrenchments, still has many talented journalists, and people who pride themselves on working for an organisation known and respected throughout the world.

Yet, quality journalism, programming and commissioning, are not what BBC Scotland’s leadership are about. The only thing which seems to drive them is having a quiet life and being surrounded by acolytes who will do their bidding for them. Thus, last year, the long running saga of John Boothman’s unhappy tenure as Head of News and Current Affairs came to a head. This had been characterised by years of allegations of inappropriate behaviour, which management did nothing about, until one case became public. Boothman was moved from his job, but to this day is still drawing his six figure publically funded salary while notionally contributing to the Charter Review process, but in reality, doing next to nothing, to the consternation of colleagues.

Last week BBC London bigwigs Tony Hall and Anne Bulford gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament, along with Ken MacQuarrie. Hall said lots of nice things to the parliamentarians about digital innovation and media platforms, but it couldn’t disguise that neither he or any part of the Beeb down south has any intention to do anything far-reaching with regard to Scotland, unless they have to. It isn’t an accident that Hall’s long promised big speech on a Scottish vision and agenda has been continually postponed, and as yet has no final date.

MacQuarrie was quizzed on the leaked BBC Scotland plans for a new digital channel and radio station. These were he said ‘plans that were not a plan’, amounting to little more than creative brainstorming and a series of emails. These ‘non-plans’ for a new Scottish settlement – covering the same ground as Nicola Sturgeon did in her McTaggart Lecture at last year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival – now look stuck. The Scottish Government’s thinking in the form of Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop isn’t exactly bold or imaginative, but instead, via its recent and on-going ‘stakeholder sessions’, about the interests of the producer community.

The Scottish Government has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UK Government on the BBC Charter Review. As a result of this its consultation on the future of the BBC has seen a huge response. The scale of this interest has surprised the government here who are now struggling with how to analyse and manage this public outpouring.

This indicates that there is a widespread public interest about the future of the BBC and broadcasting that the BBC, north and south of the border, are struggling to respond to.  In 1997-98 the solution which emerged was for a ‘Scottish Six’ – an integrated news and current affairs covering Scotland, the UK and world. It nearly happened, but was actively stopped by persistent lobbying by Tony Blair and then BBC head, John Birt (the latter viewing that the next stop was an English Broadcasting Corporation).

Many years later, Hall has returned to a ‘Scottish Six’. But what would have worked then is nothing more than a sop now. The BBC have traditionally been behind the curve of British political and constitutional change, but the advent of devolution and the Scottish Parliament has left it struggling in the extreme.

The pace of change in these areas is glacial. At the high point of Britishness, 1945, Robert Hurd, President of the Saltire Society asked, ‘Will the new daily news bulletins continue to be a kind of appendage following London instead of a proper integration of Scottish news with world news?’ Despite the dramatic scale of Scottish and global change over the intervening sixty-one years, this is the same terrain of Tony Hall’s deliberations and proposals today.

Indeed, the BBC is one of the last centralising features of British public life, but one which doesn’t not understand the different cultures outside of London and the South East. Senior BBC figures down south just don’t get the scale of this problem. Scotland is something to bought off by a ‘Scottish Six’ – end of story. They don’t see their partial, increasingly insular version of Britain as the problem.

BBC Scotland is an anomaly. Its non-accountability to the Scottish public has similarities to that other struggling institution now fallen on hard times – the Labour Party. In fact it is actually worse, because while Labour has been in former leader Johann Lamont’s words ‘a branch office’ at the least, voters could turf out their MSPs and MPs. Both organisations became dysfunctional and atrophied by focusing southward in decision-making to their ultimate detriment.

Change is coming. It will necessitate a Scottish based broadcaster, based on the skills and resources of the BBC. However, there has to be change on a number of levels. First, there has to be internal transformation inside the BBC based on bold, courageous, communicative management that sees staff, ideas and ambition as something to be supported. Second, any focus should not be solely or mainly on the needs of producers and building a media infrastructure, but outward facing on the needs and interests of the audience and content. Third, it has to embrace the democratic spirit of the age and the new world of media, from DIY culture and makers of micro-media, to the fragmentation of the public. Finally, this shouldn’t be an insular set of concerns, but is about how Scotland represents and understands itself, and projects and portrays itself on the global stage.

These are the last days of the old BBC Scotland. Change is coming whether BBC bosses in Glasgow and London embrace it or not. It would be more creative and helpful if they could choose to become part of the forces of the new media landscape, rather than being forced by events.