By a Newsnet reporter
The BBC has provoked anger from Holyrood’s education and culture committee after snubbing a request to appear before MSPs to defend the BBC’s plans to axe funding and jobs from BBC Scotland.
MSPs of all parties united in condemning the refusal of BBC senior executives to explain the BBC’s approach to Scottish broadcasting in a setting where they would be open to questioning.
The SNP’s Stuart Maxwell MSP, head of the committee, said that the snub from BBC bosses demonstrated “outrageous disrespect” to the Scottish Parliament, and proved that the BBC’s leadership only takes Westminster into account.
Mr Maxwell explained that unlike Westminster MPs, MSPs do not have the power to force BBC bosses to explain themselves, and said:
“I did seek guidance on whether or not we could make a stronger request or require their attendance here, but that is outwith the powers of the parliament. I certainly could not force the BBC to attend the committee, we don’t have that authority.”
The non-attendance of BBC bosses is thought to be the only instance in the history of the Scottish Parliament of senior directors of a public body refusing to appear before a Holyrood committee.
MSPs had requested the attendance of senior BBC executives after hearing last month from representatives of the NUJ, representing staff in the BBC Scotland news division whose jobs are threatened with cuts. The union representatives warned that the planned cuts to BBC Scotland’s budget have caused staff morale to plummet and threaten the corporation’s ability to provide proper coverage of the independence debate and the historic referendum due in 2014.
35 jobs are due to be cut from BBC Scotland, 17 of which will be in news and current affairs. The BBC had hoped that sufficient staff would volunteer for redundancy, but only one has accepted the offer amid claims of intimidation by BBC Scotland management.
Worryingly, the union representatives also gave evidence to the committee which suggests that BBC bosses will marginalise the Scottish debate unless they are held to account. In a written submission to the committee, the NUJ’s Scottish organiser Paul Holleran informed MSPs that BBC management had told him that the independence referendum was a “one off event” which would be “over in one night”.
Mr Holleran also told the committee that BBC Scotland management had made little effort to secure extra funding from London in order to provide coverage of the referendum and Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games. BBC management had informed Mr Holleran that they were “working on a bid” for such funding, but were unable to supply even the most basic details of the amount of the funding bid or its timescale.
Also giving evidence to the committee last month, NUJ Executive Committee member Peter Murray, himself a former BBC reporter, said:
“There is just no evidence BBC Scotland is trying to gain extra funding to cover the referendum debate in a serious way. It’s no good just one-off debates, there needs to be serious programming, such as history and investigations, because, otherwise, there will be a serious democratic deficit.
“Twelve years ago, BBC Scotland secured additional funding of the order of 50 per cent to cover the devolution debate and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and now we have budget cuts ahead of the referendum debate. It has to stop.”
In response to the criticisms of the NUJ and others giving evidence to the Holyrood committee, the BBC has submitted a 16 page response which they claim answers the points raised. The reply hailed Reporting Scotland as “the most watched TV news programme in Scotland”. However the BBC declined to send a representative to appear before the committee to respond to MSPs’ questions.
The committee will now write to the BBC’s acting Director General Tim Davie and chairman of the BBC board of trustees Chris Patten to demand an explanation.
SNP committee member Joan McAlpine said that the refusal of bosses from Pacific Quay to explain themselves was insulting, and added: “They’re rebutting trade unionists in a way that allows them to control the situation, as opposed to them being examined by the committee.”
Labour committee member Neil Findlay strongly condemned the BBC decision, saying: “This is absolutely dreadful. I cannot think of a publicly funded organisation, who, having been asked to come before the committee, would respond in such a manner. I think it is quite frankly outrageous.”
Meanwhile it has emerged that BBC bosses also snubbed another invitation to explain their policies in a public forum.
The Scottish Constitutional Commission is organising a discussion, to be held on Tuesday December 11, on the role of broadcasting in Scotland. Despite numerous attempts by the organisers to secure the attendance of a representative from BBC management, the broadcaster repeatedly refused to participate, citing the fear that someone may ask a question outside their remit.
Organisers attempted to address this concern and offered to alter the title of the event to address BBC concerns, but were still met with a blank refusal. Attempts to secure the attendence of Bill Matthews, the BBC Trustee for Scotland, were equally fruitless.
Writing in Bella Caledonia, Alex Grant, who is organising the discussion on behalf of the Scottish Constitutional Commission, writes of his frustration with the BBC’s lack of cooperation and says:
“In summary it would appear to us that the BBC, despite statements to the contrary, does not wish to defend its performance in a public forum. And there are many questions about current never mind future performance.”