BBC Scotland and the referendum: mismanagement, cuts and London indifference


By a Newsnet Reporter

Journalists at BBC Scotland were hampered in their coverage of the independence referendum by poor management, budget cuts and London indifference, according to their union leader in Scotland.

In a devastating critique of what was going on within BBC Scotland headquarters at Pacific Quay, National Union of Journalists’ Scottish organiser Paul Holleran described how a series of decisions were taken with little or no consultation.

He also told the Bateman Broadcasting podcast that when the union issued a statement condemning fierce and unfair criticism from both sides of the referendum debate, one leading UK liberal newspaper removed references to the No side, leaving the impression that intimidation stemmed only from Yes supporters.

The NUJ was fighting “front loaded” cuts of 17 per cent to staff jobs at BBC Scotland before the referendum campaign began in earnest during 2013. Holleran said that the additional £5m supplied to the News & Current Affairs (N&CA) department was spent without consultation, even while job cuts were being sought.

Most of the money went towards a series of televised debates and around a dozen “special documentaries”. It also funded the replacement of the tired Newsnight Scotland format with the unsuccessful Scotland2014 programme, fronted by Sarah Smith.

One example of questionable spending was the hiring of The Hydro conference centre in Glasgow to host a debate in front of 8,000 school-age children. “The cost of that began at £150,000 and began escalating,” explained Holleran.

His case is that a beleaguered department, already losing journalists “of skills and expertise”, was poorly led and left in the dark about various plans for referendum coverage.

The situation worsened after the YouGov opinion poll that put Yes ahead a fortnight before the September 18th vote. BBC News in London promptly sent its own correspondents north to cover the story, and the views of experienced Scottish staff was ignored. “They covered it their own way,” remarked Holleran.

The NUJ’s Glasgow Broadcasting branch has initiated an inquiry into the various events of last summer. Members are highly critical of the attitude of BBC Scotland management, which refused to engaged with critics during the campaign, or to explain their position. But they also want to defend their own integrity in the face of fierce public criticism, some of which the union sees as belligerent and over the top.

Holleran, a declared Yes supporter himself, cited several examples of a lack of consultation with Yes protesters and other critics, as well as with the BBC’s own journalists. He believes the BBC could have retained its reputation by being more open with external critics about its coverage of the referendum, the restrictions within which it operated, and its remit.

Holleran said that BBC Scotland is under-resourced and treated as “a mere branch” of the BBC.

A significant row is underway currently over planned massive job cuts in BBC News headquarters in London, including the axing of numerous on-air correspondents, and it is believed that the fate of BBC Scotland has been “parked” meantime.

The NUJ was called in after a series of social media attacks on named journalists led to directs threats of violence and intimidation immediately prior to the referendum. The union continues to press for the protection of journalists as they go about their jobs.

Paul Holleran talks to Derek Bateman:

NUJ referendum statement in full: