Nothing great about this debate – Why things need to change at BBC Scotland


By G.A.Ponsonby

It’s been termed the ‘Great Debate’, the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future.  In truth though, there’s been precious little which is great about the claims and counter claims that have been presented as ‘debate’ thus far.

Questions over process dominate and scare stories are still being presented as though they were considered interventions.

By G.A.Ponsonby

It’s been termed the ‘Great Debate’, the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future.  In truth though, there’s been precious little which is great about the claims and counter claims that have been presented as ‘debate’ thus far.

Questions over process dominate and scare stories are still being presented as though they were considered interventions.

The latest scare comes from the head of a London based lobbying group called the Confederation of British Industries.  It’s the usual stuff and, as ever, almost entirely evidence free.

It’s now par for the course to have a group, committee, commission or body unleash a broadside against independence, or the proposed referendum, once every few weeks.  But, sadly for us, these stories are dominating the political narrative and acting as a block to the real issues we need to start discussing.

The economy, renewables, nuclear weapons, education, welfare and of course the awkward one – broadcasting. 

Tom Devine put the cat amongst the pigeons this week when he had a go at BBC Scotland management.  Describing Radio Scotland as a “national disgrace”, the historian said in public what many are saying privately, that things at BBC Scotland are not good.

The Scottish arm of the broadcasting giant is in a bad way.  It looks lost as it tries to deal with cutbacks in the middle of the most important political debate the United Kingdom has ever known.

Its news and current affairs department is looking increasingly incapable of handling the debate over Scotland’s future.  Some shows moved, other shows cancelled, blogs locked-down and audience figures tumbling as listeners turn away in frustration.

In place of mature and objective analysis we get rent-a-rant as tribal loyalties and ignorance dominate phone-ins and vox-pops.  Programmes dedicated to covering politics throw up the same people time and time again, saying the same thing time and again.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the set-piece debates provided by the BBC, where you might expect some kind of control to ensure balanced and mature debate flourishes, are even worse.

This week we witnessed two episodes that illustrated perfectly the failings of BBC Scotland. 

Raymond Buchanan’s weak questioning of George Osborne was a lowlight in the presenters extensive CV.  Buchanan is still remembered for his pressing of former Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson in 2010 when a freak snow storm hit the central belt and caused chaos.

Stevenson failed to offer an apology and Buchanan’s legacy was the resignation of the SNP MSP from his cabinet post.

However, Mr Buchanan’s ability to press politicians was noticeably absent this week when faced with UK Chancellor George Osborne.

Mr Buchanan interviewed the UK Chancellor on Thursday night.  Earlier that day, Osborne had repeated well-worn claims regarding independence and the referendum.  It should have been bread and butter stuff for someone of Mr Buchanan’s experience to grill the Tory Minister.

However Mr Buchanan, was either unable to, or simply refused to, press the Chancellor for evidence to back up his claims.  None of the main themes of Osborne’s headline statements were picked up – uncertainty, currency or Scottish investment.

We will never know why Osborne was given such an easy ride.

Unfortunately for the BBC Scotland man, over on STV, one of Scotland’s best interviewers was showing how it should be done.  Bernard Ponsonby’s grilling of the UK Cabinet Minister was one of the best examples of how to debunk politically motivated and vacuous attacks.

Over on STV, Osborne was pressed on these headline claims, and he wasn’t convincing in his answers.  The credibility of his claims and the effectiveness of his carefully orchestrated attack dissolved as Ponsonby dissected and exposed them.

Buchanan’s kid glove treatment of Mr Osborne was noticeable and would have been bad enough but for Friday afternoon’s edition of Brian Taylor’s Big Debate.


For those who may have missed this so called ‘debate’ – consider yourself lucky.  In a week that BBC Scotland faced claims that Radio Scotland was a ‘national disgrace’, this programme did all it could to justify the label.

One sided? That’s an understatement.  This was a verbal stoning as the Unionist bible was launched at the sole pro-indy blasphemer.  Quite how Pete Wishart was still able to make the points he did is a testament to the discipline of the SNP politician.

The panel make-up was in keeping with BBC Scotland’s now standard format that sees Unionist supporters outnumber Independence supporters.  This loading of debates and discussions is fast becoming the number one issue that the BBC in Scotland must address.

SNP MP Pete Wishart was caught in a familiar pincer movement, flanked by Tory MSP Murdo Fraser and Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson.

Professor David Bell of Stirling University, a regular on BBC Scotland, was the token ‘impartial’ guest.  I use the term ‘impartial’ loosely as you’ll understand if you listen to the proceedings.

The audience was even worse, if those allowed to voice an opinion or ask a question was anything to go by.  By my reckoning at least three quarters of those presented with the microphone voiced either pro-Union views or raised the kind of ‘concerns’ we have come to expect from the most fervent of Unionist supporters.

Pretty much every Unionist scare story or claim was aired.  Bank bailout, EU membership, currency, Scotland going bankrupt, too small, price of oil, oil running out, Ireland (sic).  Each and every one directed at Pete Wishart.

The show was indicative of a broadcaster that has lost its way – it does not know how to present this major debate on Scotland’s future.  This is worrying, and Buchanan and Taylor exemplified just why the BBC itself needs to be central to the debate and how we handle it.

Indeed, in all of the arguments over process, the one process that has been ignored is that of the independence debate itself and the role of our national broadcaster.

BBC Scotland is facing swingeing cuts – jobs are going and staff moral apparently suffering.  First Minister Alex Salmond again spoke of his concerns when asked about BBC Scotland job cuts on Thursday at First Ministers Questions and revealed plans to meet the next Director General about the situation.

Contrast the cutbacks faced by Pacific Quay with the money poured into English football and marvel at the London’s priorities.  It’s as though they don’t want a mature and informed debate to take place.

Meanwhile, even the most basic requirements of a mature, balanced and all inclusive debate are ignored by BBC Scotland bosses.  Why not replace one of the pro-Union MSPs with a Devo-Max supporter to address debate imbalance?  Is such a basic and obvious step beyond the wit of producers?

Are BBC Scotland managers so inept that they fail to realise that loading debates and discussions on the constitution, with Unionists, will produce a lopsided exchange?

Do they not see the dangers in continually affording special privileges to one side in the debate whilst the other two have to fight to be heard, and one(Devo-Max) rarely heard at all.

Some weeks ago two groups, made up of angry licence payers intent at forcing the BBC to address what they believed was an institutional bias against independence, called off their protests.  Newsnet Scotland supported this move, our reason being that such a ‘BBC Bias’ campaign was unlikely to lead to mainstream support from the public who respected the institution.

Whilst we commended the initial move, there was little chance of affecting change at BBC Scotland.

However, the situation at BBC Scotland shows no signs of improving and with just over two years to go to the most important decision in 300 years, there is a pressing need to address what we at Newsnet Scotland will diplomatically call ‘falling standards’.

In the coming weeks, Newsnet Scotland will meet with other concerned and interested bodies who are equally keen to see balance, objectivity, professionalism and openness in the referendum debate.  We hope to be able to work with others in an effort at raising the bar and improving the quality of debate over the next 24 months.

One of the key aims of Newsnet Scotland will be to convince BBC management of the need to address some of its worst practices.  Habits that are harming not just the debate, but the reputation of the Scottish broadcaster itself.


Raymond Buchanan interviewing George Osborne{/youtube}


See Bernard Ponsonby here: