It’s a No to the BBC’s referendum coverage


  By Lesley Riddoch
Is the BBC having a good referendum campaign?  Not on your nelly.  Each day brings fresh accusations of bias, selective reporting, misrepresentation and lack of imagination.

This week’s clutch of accusers make unlikely bedfellows – the former Unionist leader Lord Trimble insists he did not tell the BBC a Yes vote in Scotland would lead to violence in Ulster; the National Collective says millionaire-funded, London-based “No Borders” was misrepresented as a grassroots Glasgow-based organisation

  By Lesley Riddoch
Is the BBC having a good referendum campaign?  Not on your nelly.  Each day brings fresh accusations of bias, selective reporting, misrepresentation and lack of imagination.

This week’s clutch of accusers make unlikely bedfellows – the former Unionist leader Lord Trimble insists he did not tell the BBC a Yes vote in Scotland would lead to violence in Ulster; the National Collective says millionaire-funded, London-based “No Borders” was misrepresented as a grassroots Glasgow-based organisation and given an unwarranted chunk of BBC airtime;  and the NUJ says BBC staff are unhappy about the BBC’s continuing membership of the No campaigning right-wing lobby group, the CBI. There have been no substantive BBC replies to any of these objections — and it’s only Monday.

You’d think such an eclectic mix of complaints would give BBC management pause for thought – after all no-one could dismiss David Trimble as a professional agitator for Scottish independence.  And yet, after 25 years working for Aunty on both sides of the border, both sides of the microphone and both TV and Radio – I expect these criticisms will be shrugged off by BBC bosses like water off the proverbial duck’s back.

A favourite BBC response to criticism has always been “we’re being attacked by both sides, so we must be doing something right.”  This time, however, there’s really only criticism from the Yes side. There’s no point in Better Together shooting the messenger when Aunty essentially embodies the best of the Union.

But now the very one-sidedness of complaints has led to some new catch-all defences – “they would complain, wouldn’t they?” and, as the volume of objections mounts “don’t these Nationalists have anything better to do?”

Somehow the BBC always manages to escape serious criticism.  Partly because no governing party dare cast the first stone without being accused of state interference.  Partly because many BBC entertainment programmes are hugely popular.  And partly because it’s almost impossible to hold the broadcaster to account – unless you happen to be the UK Culture Secretary. Not surprisingly the Conservative MP for Bromsgrove doesn’t have too many problems with Aunty’s referendum coverage. So that’s basically that.

Most people have better things to do than chip away at the Beeb’s cumbersome complaints procedure.  Any day now a trite response will fall into my inbox explaining why a childish animation caricaturing SNP defence policy is still on the BBC’s website.

I complained 15 working days ago and though that’s five days longer than their suggested response time I won’t waste another minute chasing an answer.  As the referendum campaign itself has demonstrated it’s more empowering to support well-made arguments for change than get sucked into the negativity of becoming Angry from McTunbridge Wells.  There are “energy sinks” in this life and pouring effort into one side of a meaningful dialogue with the faceless bureaucracy of the BBC is certainly one of them.

And yet this very unaccountability and distance from criticism could be the undoing of BBC Scotland’s current management.  It’s not just that pride – and refusing to appear before Holyrood Committees — comes before a fall.   It’s that institutions which are impervious to external opinion become unable to distinguish between legitimate and narking complaints, lose the ability to be self-critical and the capacity to adapt and develop.  Is that where BBC Scotland is heading?

There are three tides BBC Scotland urgently needs to turn. 

Firstly, accusations of indyref bias by BBC management which look hard to refute as long as the broadcaster remains a member of the CBI while its homepage continues to display anti-independence campaign headlines.  The inability of BBC bosses to immediately and permanently quit this discredited employers’ organisation is baffling.

Quite what is it about sitting round a posh table in London with Captains of Industry that’s worth endangering all semblance of impartiality in Scotland?  Perhaps BBC executives relish the chance to compare exorbitant salaries.  Perhaps for licence-fee payers this is the most pressing reason they should leave – fast.

Of course the BBC is prepared to suspend CBI membership for the duration of the referendum campaign in an unsatisfactory and typically Aunty-like compromise.  Impartiality – like puppies – is not just for Christmas. 

How can the BBC concede that CBI membership opens them to accusations of bias during the referendum campaign, but not afterwards?  Doesn’t afterwards matter?  Don’t viewers expect impartiality all the year round – year in and year out?  Evidently – since they intend to resume membership in September — BBC executives aren’t expecting a Yes vote which will demand further years of cast-iron even handedness.

And even if Scots do vote No – does any viewer want BBC bosses to return to Big Business as usual?  BBC management clearly value membership of the CBI above the appearance of impartiality and that suggests a number of worrying things.  The opinions of Scottish licence-fee payers don’t seem to matter very much to BBC bosses in London.  You get the impression that permanently quitting the CBI over its stance on Scotland would be like leaving a top London club over the brand of matches it sells at the bar.  Disproportionate.  And does the opposition of BBC Scotland staff to continuing CBI membership matter to managers?  Apparently not.  This is bad faith and bad management.

The second big problem with BBC Scotland’s referendum coverage – it’s been decidedly so-so.  A few programmes have been surprisingly informative – like the “youth oriented” documentary on the origins of the five biggest players in Scottish politics.  The script was knowing and cheeky and the power networks revealed quite fascinating. 

Allan Little fronted an excellent documentary about the   success of the Nordic nations — “Our Friends in the North.”  But other documentaries have been less well received.

According to Guardian journalist Libby Brooks “BBC Scotland screened a peak-hour documentary on What Women Want, which resulted in something of a backlash for its concentration on bingo halls, wedding shows and the tea-making skills of the deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.” Of course you win some – you lose some.

And I’ve no doubt former BBC colleagues will consider this criticism over the top and ask what precisely they are doing that is so very wrong?  That’s my biggest problem with current output.

With guaranteed income from the licence fee, the privilege of enjoying a monopoly over broadcasting on BBC channels and a world-attention grabbing referendum right on the doorstep, BBC Scotland programme makers should be so very far beyond producing “good enough” programmes.  They should be flying.  Every programme should be a zinger.

Extra funding should have produced a range of referendum programmes ranging from serious historical analysis to provocative satire and frothy artistic fun.  BBC Scotland should be capable of handling such a mix with confidence, flair and enthusiasm.  Unfortunately that’s not what has happened.   And we must be allowed to ask why before the final months of the campaign produce more of the same.

BBC Alba has made Gaelic documentaries on themes like energy and health.  Why couldn’t the English speaking network do something as straightforward and effective?  Could it be because BBC Scotland dumbed down shortly after the Iraq War, axed many of its news and current affairs programmes, lost investigative producers and presenters and is now paying the price?
Fifteen years ago, when the new Scottish Parliament first met I asked BBC Controller Ken MacQuarrie why Scotland had no TV equivalent to Question Time.  He explained it was important for BBC Scotland to have the same audience share as the BBC network.  That way BBC Scotland could justify “separate” funding.  But current affairs programmes are watched by fewer folk than drama, comedy or entertainment.  So there’d be no point putting more viewer-losing serious programmes on BBC Scotland.  It would simply lose viewers and potentially lose cash.  And – to be fair to Ken – he believed Scottishness was embedded just as firmly in our sense of humour and love of drama as in our endless appetite for a bespoke news and current affairs service.

Of course I can’t be sure if that conversation represented a policy, an excuse or just a chat.  But if it did represent BBC Scotland policy, it explains the slow shift in emphasis and programme quality on TV and radio.

BBC Scotland is now reaping what it has sown by failing to develop news and current affairs programming over the last decade — the result is a lack of flair and confidence to include minority voices in documentary making, live debates, current affairs programmes and even basic news production.

Without a vibrant core of ever-expanding, ever-questioning indigenous popular speech programmes, the independence referendum appears to have caught BBC Scotland on the hop.

Presumably deciding no presenter has the gravitas of Today presenters it imported front men like Jim Naughtie and formats like Question Time — a Punch and Judy style of debating which is generally viewed as unduly adversarial, empty and decidedly last season.  Its predictable posturing and pettiness make this UK programme well-nigh unwatchable these days and yet BBC Scotland has belatedly chosen to make this Victorian format the centrepiece of its referendum coverage.

Last month I was a panel member of a special referendum debate filmed on Orkney alongside Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, former Labour MP Brian Wilson and SNP MSP Angela Constance.  The resulting mixture of platitudes and aggressive exchanges made me despair.

Brian and Alistair repeatedly talked over the presenter James Cook.  Angela Constance repeatedly avoided the question.  I’ve doubtless done a bit of both in my time.  But is this really the best televised public debate we can muster – I don’t think so.  Yet we are set for another five such “debates” before September 18th.

Much of the problem lies in the Question Time format which is borrowed lock, stock and barrel from the public school via the House of Commons and is most easily populated with MPs for whom there is only one bullish and aggressive way to debate.  

If Scots actually wanted that kind of “ya boo sucks” debate we would have stayed with Westminster. After all, nobody does it better.

But we didn’t.  Scots voted for devolution in large measure to escape such puerile, pointless point-scoring.  Granted Holyrood is often little better.  Despite a different layout and more women members, the Scottish Parliament has imported much of Westminster’s breast-beating and empty theatrics – for set piece events like First Ministers Questions especially. 

But that British confrontational way of hammering out winners and losers in debate has also been transferred to the small screen in Scotland.  It isn’t fit for our purpose and probably doesn’t serve rUK well either.

By contrast, an event at the Aye Write book festival the following week was feisty but infinitely more interactive, interesting and respectful.  Ruth Wishart was in the chair and the panel consisted of one MP, Rory Stewart, one historian, Michael Fry and one journalist, myself.
Scotsman reviewer David Robinson observed;

“There were three Yeses on stage to a solitary No, but it didn’t matter, because none of them was predictable or entirely political, which is surely the reason it all worked.  Fry – who had in a preceding event expounded on how Scotland held on to its own identity even at the high water mark of Britishness in the 19th century – came to the Yes side from the Right, Riddoch from the communitarian, grassroots Left.  Stewart introduced himself by apologising “for being three of the most unpopular things in Scotland today – an Old Etonian, a politician and a Tory”.

It was indeed a sparky discussion featuring an “eccentric” line up that would never grace a BBC Scotland panel.  But if, by some miracle, the panel was acceptable its members would be restrained from grappling with one another’s views by an earnest presenter working through the week’s faux pas and minor nit-picking revelations – a formal, dressage style debate instead of the fast-thinking, gutsy steeplechase most audiences prefer.
I can’t see how such free flowing, challenging and adventurous debate is possible if MPs or MSPs predominate.  And yet, BBC programme makers are evidently worried about going too far “off piste.”

Presumably that’s why BBC Question Time stretched its own format to involve five politicians (four of them unionist) during a notorious programme involving myself, Angus Robertson, Ruth Davidson, Anas Sarwar, George Galloway and the ubiquitous Nigel Farage.

Despite having a unique audience of 16 and 17 year olds, BBC producers evidently felt the debate wouldn’t prove sparky and interesting enough for the average viewer in Surrey unless provocative politicians were imported to enliven the leaden Scots.

This lack of confidence in the basic material of Scotland – its stories, perspectives and people is the third big problem I’d lay at the door of BBC managers. 

Long ago when I first started broadcasting, the redoubtable Colin Bell believed only a small number of folk were worth hearing on air and they circled around the microphone with some frequency.  Those days are gone.  But where is the diversity, the new discoveries and the unusual voices in BBC debates?

Following complaints that not enough women were prepared to speak on independence I was able to concoct a list of 100 potential contributors one evening using twitter alone.  Have more than a handful of these women been on air?  Admittedly I don’t watch and hear every edition of Newsnight or Good Morning Scotland – but I doubt it.

Where are Highland or island voices discussing the referendum?  Where are Scots on network programmes?  I was flown down to London as a guest on a Radio Four programme to ensure I wasn’t disadvantaged by sitting in a remote Scottish studio unable to catch the presenters’ eye.  This added an unsustainable level of cost, time and hassle for myself and the programme producers – crazy and totally unnecessary on a radio network with studios conveniently located almost everywhere.

But the inconvenient truth is that London relies on the usual suspects in London, Salford relies on contacts living close to studios in Salford and Glasgow relies on Glaswegians.  That’s not good enough.

Sadly, the anarchic, occasionally silly and cheerfully decentralised days of programmes like Nationwide are long gone.  And Scots are still too worried about losing their funding to even nibble the hand that feeds.

Where is the Scottish Bill Bailey?  Where are the intelligent, funny and inspiring Scottish contributors and presenters who should grace our screens and airwaves every week not once in a blue moon?

Do they not exist, have they not been found or are they currently in London trying to make a living?  Why was a recent programme about land ownership by the excellent David Miller the first BBC Scotland documentary on this vital subject since 1992?

In short, why are the stories and people of Scotland not interesting enough to fill our own airwaves and to contribute regularly to network BBC output?  It seems London-centric Britain has produced a London-centric BBC in its own self-regarding image.

Of all the bones to pick with BBC Scotland, this inability to reflect the vibrancy of our nation to our nation is the most serious.  Not hearing or seeing the talented folk amongst us deprives Scots of confidence and new perspectives.  And that is a political act.
Viewers and listeners expect a genuine diversity of views on any subject these days — not tablets of stone delivered by the great and good.  BBC Scotland has tended to lean too heavily on (unionist) authority figures and tended to ignore new (pro-independence) voices, leaders and spokespeople with large online followings. 

Some may despair about the number of teenagers taking media courses in recent years, but the result has been a savvier viewing public, aware there is no objective reality and that news is a consciously chosen construct.  This generation is not easily palmed off.

BBC Scotland is very unlikely to change.

But the viewing and listening public is on a democratic journey that may yet change everything.