BBC bosses questioned by MSPs over cuts and referendum coverage


By Andrew Barr
BBC director-general Mark Thompson and BBC Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie have admitted to the Scottish Parliament’s culture committee that job cuts at BBC Scotland will be necessary in order to meet their goal of finding 16% savings.
However both men denied that quality would be impacted and instead insisted that depth of coverage would be maintained over the short term and even increased as the 2014 referendum approached.

The BBC director-general told a Holyrood Committee that audience satisfaction was growing in Scotland and cited programmes like Reporting Scotland as examples of excellent impartial journalism, adding: “Approval of the BBC and its services, trust in the BBC and its news, and the quality of its programs are all at historic highs in Scotland.”

Mr Thompson admitted that no plans were being made for broadcasting services post-independence, saying the BBC did not want to take part in “scenario planning”.

Labour’s Neil Findlay questioned the BBC’s lack of planning for independence, saying: “I’m quite astonished that there hasn’t been any discussion with such a significant institution in the life of Scotland as to what the future of broadcasting and public service broadcasting might be should there be constitutional change.”

The primary focus of the committee, however, was to establish the reasoning behind and the objections to cuts in BBC Scotland coverage.

Earlier this month, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said she had “grave reservations” about the potential impact of BBC cuts in Scotland, but Mr Thompson has given his assurances that reductions may be revised if there are public concerns about a drop in broadcasting quality.

Mr Thompson insisted that coverage of the independence referendum was “of immense interest and importance”, telling the committee:

“To me, it’s a massive Scottish event and a massive UK event.  It goes to the heart of the destiny of Scotland as a nation and it goes to the heart of the destiny of the United Kingdom and will be of very considerable interest to our audiences across the UK and around the world.

“This is one of the biggest things the BBC will ever do anywhere – it’s a story of immense interest and importance.”

Mr Thompson went on to say: “One of the issues that we’re working through right now is the obvious point, which is that we’re going to need the right level of journalistic effort, both in Scotland and at UK level, and we want to make sure we’re thinking about that carefully now, as we’re making staff reductions, so we don’t end up, as it were, having to re-hire people for this very big event.

“It will be one of the largest domestic stories the BBC has covered in recent years and will be properly resourced.”

However, SNP MSP Joan McAlpine suggested that commitment to quality in Scottish broadcasting was inconsistent with broadcasting cuts, telling Mark Thompson:

“You said that you place a great deal of value on listening to your audience.  Last year the BBC’s audience council for Scotland reported that audiences here want more not less Scottish news, and they want deeper analysis in the coverage.  But you’re cutting the news and current affairs budget in Scotland by 16 per cent over the next five years.”

Mr Thompson insisted that Scots would indeed receive better coverage of events, to which Ms McAlpine replied: “They’re going to get it by spending less money?”

Ms McAlpine also questioned the reasons for English regional radio suffering far less cuts than Radio Scotland and suggested that this was an example of inconsistency.

Ken MacQuarrie, BBC Scotland director, claimed that the broadcaster’s priority was “connecting the people of Scotland to each other, to the wider UK and to the rest of the world,” adding that coverage “will be authoritative, responsible and balanced”.

Pressed by a representative from the National Union of Journalists, who was concerned about quality of news coverage on Radio Scotland, Mr MacQuarrie was forced to concede that BBC Scotland were using trailers for TV programmes and passing them off as news on Radio Scotland.

Mr MacQuarrie also defended a decision to allow a whole Newsnight Scotland programme to be dominated by a discussion of an earlier BBC Scotland documentary on Glasgow Rangers, despite Welfare Reform having been the subject of an important debate that same day in the Scottish Parliament.

Further questioning by Marco Biagi MSP saw Ken MacQuarrie admit that a viewer watching BBC coverage in Scotland would hear more about the rest of the United Kingdom than about Scotland.  Mr Biagi suggested that, in an ideal world, that scenario would be reversed for “education and participation” in Scottish democracy.

Mr Biagi went on to add that a lot of the UK reporting is “redundant” in terms of Scottish public interest.

The committee was told that the BBC currently collects £300m in Scottish licence fee money, with £200m of that being allocated and distributed between Scottish services.  The remaining £100m is Scotland’s contribution to network television and overage of events such as the World Cup or London 2012.

The impact of the BBC in political reporting and in influencing debate whilst still hugely significant, is not exclusive.  In the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014, it has been predicted that the internet and social media may have a greater role to play for political activism. 

Findings this week suggest that Scots use social networking more than anybody else in the UK.

Dr Eamonn O’Neill, social media expert and journalism lecturer at Strathclyde University in Glasgow said the statistics “indicate Scots are far more engaged with news and current affairs sites than anywhere else in the UK.”

He added: “This isn’t really a shock, because Scotland has historically always been a politically engaged society and likes to talk to itself about itself.”