Here is the non-news

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Kenneth Roy

Reevel Alderson’s touching feature for BBC Scotland, ‘The Night Glasgow Burned’, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cheapside fire, was reasssuring on two counts. It showed us a Glasgow we do not often see – the Glasgow of the serious working class grown old. In the faces of the firemen who survived there was both dignity and an immense sadness.

Kenneth Roy

Reevel Alderson’s touching feature for BBC Scotland, ‘The Night Glasgow Burned’, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cheapside fire, was reasssuring on two counts. It showed us a Glasgow we do not often see – the Glasgow of the serious working class grown old. In the faces of the firemen who survived there was both dignity and an immense sadness. This programme should have been required viewing for the shallow marketers who now presume to control the city. It was reassuring, too, for its demonstration of the craft and skill still residing among the journalists at BBC Scotland; in several ways it was quite a beautiful piece of work. But I am afraid it was an exception.
     If ‘The Night Glasgow Burned’ was so good, why do we not see more programmes like it? It is significant, perhaps, that it was essentially historical in theme. On the Scotland of the moment, a Scotland not short of stirring and sometimes significant events, the voice of the BBC is muted. Where exactly was it on Team Glasgow (or the Purcell affair in general)? On the inflation of public sector top salaries? On the secret judges of the Mental Health Tribunal? On the appointment of bankers to run the arts in Scotland? On the threat to freedom of information? On the tax avoidance at Cal Mac? On the Blawarthill hospital development and the withdrawal of funding from the hospice?
     Of course, I have chosen stories either initiated by this magazine or in which SR has been in the thick of it, so I can safely say that in terms of primary inquiry and analysis – or in most cases of simple follow-up – the BBC was nowhere. Throughout the last eight months of SR investigations, we have received not a single telephone call from ‘Reporting Scotland’ or from any department of Radio Scotland, the station where you are pretty well guaranteed to hear inane laughter within a few minutes of tuning in. On the one occasion we tried to interest the news department in a story (John Bannon breaking ranks at Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board), two members of our staff were rudely dealt with by someone claiming to be in charge of forward planning.
     I refuse to believe that we are alone here: that the lack of engagement with public affairs affects only those issues in which SR has exhibited a special interest. It is much more likely to be a general malaise. For evidence of this malaise, it is necessary to look no further than BBC Scotland’s deplorable Ceefax news pages, where any suggestion that Scotland is a serious nation, to some extent in charge of its own destiny, is discouraged in favour of a relentless drip-drip of parish pump trivialities scarcely worthy of the inside pages of a local newspaper. Worse: this publicly funded service is regularly hijacked for the promotion of commercial events (on the morning I write this, it is carrying plugs for a local rock festival and a local book festival).
     Time and again, the people in charge of BBC Scotland – not the presenters and reporters, but the producers and editors – betray a lack of knowledge of the country they are supposed to be serving. I will give a small example. Two women I knew and worked with died recently. One was a minor, if much-loved, thespian in the north-east. The other was a social campaigner, influential in children’s legislation and prison reform, a former member of the BBC’s own Broadcasting Council for Scotland, and the presenter of one of the most outstanding documentaries ever to come out of Queen Margaret Drive (‘Lilybank’). I will leave you to guess which of these women was the subject of much attention (including details of her funeral), and which was completely ignored by BBC Scotland. Actually, I will not leave you to guess: the death of the social campaigner was unnoticed by the organisation she once served with such distinction.
     Thirty years ago, when I worked at BBC Scotland as a young reporter, I was surrounded by people of exceptional ability and dedication: David Scott (who helped to correct a major miscarriage of justice: no greater tribute could be paid to any journalist), Matthew Spicer, David Martin, Carol Craig, Alf Young…well, I could go on. How that lot would have relished some of the stories of the last few months in Scotland. How many ‘Current Account’ specials would we have had on Purcell alone? There are still good people at what we must now learn to call Pacific Quay, but the lack of resources and creativity – they do not always amount to the same thing – is increasingly disturbing. ‘Current Account’ has long gone. I do not know what happened to the excellent ‘Frontline Scotland’. There is ‘Newsnight’ on BBC2, an opt-out from London so clumsily managed that it irritates as many as it informs, at an hour when most of us are either in bed or thinking about it. And there is not a lot else, apart from the occasional gem such as Reevel Alderson produced the other night.
     As a nation with a lively interest in its present and some bold aspirations for its future, Scotland deserves rather better. We need a switched-on public broadcaster fearless in exploring and exposing what is going on under our noses and often in our names. Where in all this is the controller of BBC Scotland, Ken Macquarrie, who earns the colossal salary of £200,000 a year?
     And I have not yet intruded on the private grief known as Scottish Television. I will come to them next week.