Better Together chief linked to moves to block Scottish focused news on BBC


  By G.A.Ponsonby
One of the key figures behind the Better Together campaign opposed the creation of a Scottish based news programme that would have brought jobs and skills to Scotland, because it had the support of the Scottish Government, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.
Blair McDougall, who is the Campaign Director of the cross-party pro-Union alliance, was a senior Labour Party Advisor when he called for a Scottish Six evening news programme to be blocked by party officials, labelling existing BBC Scotland programmes “parochial”.

In November 2007 McDougall sent an internal memo to the then Secretary of State for Scotland Des Browne warning against allowing BBC Scotland to create an evening news programme that would have presented events home and abroad from a Scottish perspective.

He wrote: “We also need to be clear about what he [Salmond] means by the ‘Scottish Six’.  They [Scottish Govt] do not mean Scottish news first followed by UK news (as STV does at present).  They want a totally separate programme where the world and some UK news is covered but by (sic) a Scottish perspective.

The Better Together Chief added: “The argument against it is best made by anybody who ever watches Newsnight Scotland – that in a TV and internet age people access news in a range of different ways and plenty of people will find what they want without having a parochial and expensive duplication of what they have already with some stories cut out.”

McDougall was also critical of the flagship radio news programme ‘Good Morning Scotland’ calling it a radio programme that “rehashed” stories initially broadcast by the Today programme.

The revelation coincides with an intervention into the independence debate of former BBC director-general John Birt, who today claimed independence would have a devastating impact on the BBC.

Writing in the Guardian, Birt said: “The BBC, like other national institutions, would lose 10% of its income. The recent new obligations placed on the BBC – to fund World Service, S4C and other activities from the licence fee – will in short order take a further 15% out of the pot used for funding television, radio and online services. So in the space of just a few years, if Scotland became independent the BBC as we know it would effectively lose a quarter of its funding.”

However Birt has already admitted in his own memoirs that he “worked hand in glove” with Tony Blair in 1998 to stop the creation of a Scottish Six main evening news bulletin.

Birt revealed he had made a direct approach to the prime minister, Tony Blair, to keep the powerful cohort of Scottish Labour MPs on side.  A Scottish Six would “encourage separatist tendencies”, Birt argued.  Blair agreed, and asked Peter Mandelson to marshal Labour’s forces; later James Purnell, then an adviser at No 10, and now the BBC’s director of strategy and digital, took on the task.

The SNP has said today this must not be forgotten in light of his recent scaremongering on the future of broadcasting in the event of a Yes vote and independence.

In The Harder Path, Mr Birt’s memoirs, he writes that the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, agreed to ‘fight’ against a ‘Scottish Six’ for political reasons – even though the proposal carried broad support in terms of improving the BBC’s output in Scotland, including the support of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland.

He said: “I was deeply resistant to the proposal (of a Scottish Six) It could have dire consequences for the BBC and unintended consequences for the United Kingdom … once the Six was conceded there would be no argument for resisting the takeover of the One and the Nine as well.”

Commenting, Joan McAlpine MSP said:

“John Birt is not an impartial bystander – his comments are as politically motivated now as his actions were then, when he was meant to be in charge of running an impartial BBC.

“The fact that he worked hand in glove and was happy to boast about ‘fighting’ with Tony Blair to deny the people of Scotland an upgraded evening news bulletin when running what is meant to an impartial national broadcaster speaks volumes.”

On the FoI that revealed Mr Birt’s anti-independence position in broadcasting was backed up in 2007 by No camp director Blair McDougall, when he was a Labour Special Adviser at Westminster, Ms McAlpine added:

“It is hardly surprising that the Director of the No campaign was working to try and stop Scotland having more powers years before the referendum.

“As the BBC Scottish Annual Review shows, Scottish audiences are not satisfied with the BBC and the only way a comprehensive Scottish broadcaster can be delivered – with all the extra jobs it would generate – is with a Yes vote.”