BBC Scotland expenses: I was there the day the rot set in





What’s this with BBC Scotland taxi expenses? First, we cannot blame the prisoners of Pacific Quay if they long to escape from that human warehouse in a black cab, or by any other legal means. Second (or second of all, to follow current linguistic practice), the taxi chit for the last two years amounts to only £1 million,  excluding such individual accounts as the controller’s, Ken McQuarrie, who has triumphantly managed to spend £1,600 of his employer’s money on taxis in the first half of this year – a mere £61.53 a week, every week, assuming, as I confidently do, that the great man took no holidays during the period in question. ‘I had that Ken McQuarrie in the back of my cab three times last week’….yeah, good for Ken.      
     For the second time this week, I have a small interest to declare. Twice in one day last August, I was summoned to be interviewed by BBC Scotland. The first was for radio in the local unmanned studio. I was promised a fee which never materialised. They wanted me back for a late-night telly chat with Alf Young and Christopher Harvie – it was a sort of Scottish Review benefit night – and offered me a taxi both ways, a combined distance of 60 miles. I felt this was a bit much, so I said I would make my own way to Glasgow by train, for which I claimed no expenses, if they would arrange a taxi back. I watched in alarm as the pitiless meter rose, mile by mile, until it broke the hundred quid barrier at the Monkton roundabout.
     On that day in August I had been Mr Probity to a fault. Yet still I managed to cost Beebicus Scotticus more than a hundred quid in one sitting to the Ayrshire coast: suddenly I became partly responsible for the excesses revealed this week. I felt oddly guilty. But why? There are two possible explanations. Partly it is a hangover from my earlier incarnation as a BBC employee, when expenses were a dirty word and each pathetic claim was beadily scrutinised by the accounts department. Also there is a recurring nightmare to consider – it still haunts me occasionally – that, although I had ceased to work for the BBC, it continued to put the money in the bank at the end of the month, year after year, and I never got around to owning up that I was no longer there.
     All this may help to explain why I feel awful about taking anything from the BBC. But I am relieved to report that my successors feel quite differently.

There is no doubt that Donalda MacKinnon and many others belong to an accepted expenses culture. When did it start? Perhaps I played a tiny part, if only in the resistance movement.

     After yesterday’s piece about Culture and Sport Glasgow, and the mention of Seamas MacInnes as a member of one of its boards, someone emailed to inform me that, although Mr MacInnes may be a humble cafe owner, his wife is quite big news. Her name is Donalda MacKinnon and she is No.2 at Pacific Quay with the title head of programmes and services.
     As it turns out, Mr MacInnes is quite big news himself. His cafe is described by his publisher as ‘iconic’ – does that mean it’s deeply religious? – and he is about to launch a Christmas best-seller entitled ‘The Stornoway Black Pudding Bible’. Oh, I get it – icons, bibles, the Western Isles – it only remains to be established where the black blood comes in. But I digress. It’s Mrs MacInnes we are concerned with today.
     She is paid between £130,000 and £160,000 a year. Wow. She could get rather more as No.2 at NHS Education for Scotland – for working part-time at that – but it seems quite reasonable by BBC Scotland standards. Way back in 2002, when Donalda MacKinnon was head of Gaelic and there was some discussion of funding for Gaelic broadcasting, she said: ‘There will be some disaffected souls who think we have loads of money. We don’t, but we do try and use it as judiciously as possible’.
     Her expenses claims demonstrate the utter veracity of this statement. The first on the list before me, dated 28 May 2006, is for a telephone call from a hotel costing £1.95. ‘Battery on mobile had gone flat, no charger’, the claim explains. And indeed Donalda MacKinnon is no charger. Well, not much of a charger.
     When the head of programmes and services does charge, it is scrupulously done. Judicious even. A ‘thank you gift’ on 3 December 2004 came in at £29.48 precisely. On the same day her employer paid for a ‘thank you card’ at £2.30. Flowers on 4 May 2008 cost £39.50, a retirement dinner for an ‘external partner’ at the Hotel Du Vin in Glasgow on 30 July the same year £292.71. And so it goes on, item after item, all in order – for hosting a table at the Children in Need ball, £131; for a room at the Sheraton Hotel, £275 (‘one night at the Edinburgh Festival’). Her taxi bill? Nothing special. One for ‘Attending Awayday’ – a mere £8.
     Tell me (by the way). What is an awayday? Bridget McConnell is organising one for Dr George Reid and others to discuss ‘the way forward’ – if any. And now we find Donalda MacKinnon going away too. What happens at these awaydays? Where are they held? How much do they cost?
     In 2006, the head of programmes and services went away quite far – to Brazil with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. An entry for ‘Vaccinations, £60’ on 10 March that year is followed by a bill for £2,504.39 for drinks and dinner with the orchestra on 30 March. But let us not leap to conclusions. There were 80 in the jolly party that night, which works out at a mere £31.30 per head. Man must eat.
     Yet there is no doubt that Donalda MacKinnon and many others belong to an accepted expenses culture. When did it start? Perhaps I played a tiny part, if only in the resistance movement.
     I became aware of the rot setting in when, after several years travelling in the cameraman’s back seat, an arrangement which gave the crew an opportunity to discuss our latest wacky assignment for Revolting Scotland, I was told by the personnel department that I must take driving lessons and go everywhere in my new car at the BBC’s expense. I replied that Bob Warrilow (the cameraman) was happy with the present arrangement, which saved the BBC a lot of money, and that in any case I didn’t want to drive. They threatened to fire me (although they never did). The expenses culture had been established, although it was a long time before people started charging judiciously for thank-you cards.
     On 4 September 2008, the head of programmes and services claimed £10 for a taxi to the CBI dinner which she was attending ‘on behalf of Kenny’. For the avoidance of doubt, I was not that Kenny. But whoever the Kenny was, he showed impeccable taste in avoiding a CBI dinner. As one surveys the bleak record of her hectic schedule, it is almost possible to feel sorry for the head of programmes and services.
     But, having studied her expenses claims, I now wish I had got the taxi both ways.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.