BBC Scotland comes under fire from NUJ over referendum coverage


  By G.A.Ponsonby
BBC Scotland has been criticised over its referendum coverage amid claims that the corporation’s poor quality programmes could result in a “serious democratic deficit”.
Speaking on the day he appeared before Holyrood’s Education and Culture Committee, NUJ Executive Committee member Peter Murray said BBC Scotland needed to do more than just broadcast occasional one off debates.

Mr Murray, himself a former BBC reporter, called on the broadcaster to invest in staff at this crucial period and added: “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.”

Mr Murray’s criticism of the corporation’s referendum coverage preceded his appearance in front of the Holyrood Committee where he revealed that morale amongst BBC Scotland staff was at an all time low.

The NUJ spokesman accused BBC bosses in Glasgow of presiding over a culture of fear, with staff afraid to speak out.

Speaking in front of the committee, Mr Murray added: “Staff morale is pretty well at rock bottom. People say it’s no longer a pleasant place to work.  People are fearful of their jobs, naturally.

“The BBC is supposed to be model employer, not a terrible employer.  But at the moment people are saying that the BBC has become a terrible employer.

“Staff are being expected to do much much more. I was told about one reporter who had to work 27 days on the trot without a break, and then was asked to come in and cover someone else.

“That pattern of excessive workload seems to be becoming part of the norm, that senior managers expect this.”

Echoing his NUJ contemporary, Paul McManus, from the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (Bectu), also accused the BBC of cutting back at a historic time for Scotland with both the Commonwealth Games and the independence referendum being held in 2014.

Mr McManus said: “You cannot lose 17 staff from news and current affairs and deliver the same level of programming.”

The Committee members also learned that BBC Scotland will not begin discussing the issue of their funding of the referendum coverage with the BBC in London until late 2013.

The revelation disappointed SNP MSP and committee member Joan McAlpine who said:

“The referendum in 2014 will be one of the biggest news story in Scotland of modern times – the idea that our national broadcaster can put off planning for this until next year is surprising to say the least.

“The BBC are routinely involved in planning for major events years in advance – and the referendum should be no different.”

Writing in her Daily Record column, Ms McAlpine revealed in a letter to the committee, the National Union of Journalists claimed that BBC management had downplayed the costs of referendum coverage, claiming it was a “one off”. The NUJ also claimed management had dismissed Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games in 2014 as being nowhere near as important as the London Olympics.

She added: “The people of Scotland pay for this service, and we have a right to expect that the BBC will provide first class, impartial and informative reporting of this debate.

“The BBC are currently front-loading job cuts in news and current affairs in Scotland – in light of what is happening in Scotland over the next few years, surely this is the wrong approach for our national broadcaster at this time.”

Both the BBC director general George Entwistle and BBC Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie had been invited to appear in front of the Committee but declined to attend.

The criticism of referendum planning and the poor quality coverage follows the scandal over the BBC’s role in the Jimmy Savile sex scandal.

A survey published yesterday suggests that trust in the BBC has fallen to just 45% with almost two thirds believing that the child sex scandal has caused lasting damage to the BBC’s reputation.