Threats of strike action and protests loom at Pacific Quay

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  By G.A.Ponsonby

This week Holyrood’s Education and Culture committee heard concerns from union representatives over the commitment of the BBC to high quality independence referendum coverage and the effect of the corporation’s cutbacks on staff morale.

The hearing received moderate coverage, with the BBC itself reporting the claims of staff intimidation and a culture of fear against speaking out.

By G.A.Ponsonby

This week Holyrood’s Education and Culture committee heard concerns from union representatives over the commitment of the BBC to high quality independence referendum coverage and the effect of the corporation’s cutbacks on staff morale.

The hearing received moderate coverage, with the BBC itself reporting the claims of staff intimidation and a culture of fear against speaking out.

However, little reported was a letter submitted to the Committee by the NUJ’s Scottish representative, Paul Holleran.  The tone of the letter was uncompromising and its contents revealed a BBC with a disconcerting detachment from the needs of Scotland.

Mr Holleran’s frustration at a lack of understanding from BBC bosses at Pacific Quay is evident in the first paragraph of his letter in which he refers to BBC Scotland as “that organisation”.

The letter revealed that a request by BBC Scotland for volunteers for the 35 job losses resulting from cutbacks has resulted in only one person accepting the redundancy package.  This, according to the NUJ official, means that industrial action is likely.

The threat of strikes at BBC Scotland couldn’t come at a worse time for Scots; with the Edinburgh Agreement signed and the first warning shots being fired in the independence debate Scots are in need of a quality broadcaster.

However this seems far off, with news that BBC Scotland Chiefs are not planning to contact London for extra funding until late 2013.  Even then there are very real concerns about the Scottish branches ability and desire to report on the debate in a balanced, inclusive and informative manner.

Mr Holleran’s letter revealed that questions to BBC Scotland on their plans for the referendum and the 2014 Commonwealth Games were met with an alarming lack of respect

In the letter, he writes:

We had been informed … that management were “working on a bid” for funding from London to cover the Commonwealth games and Independence referendum.  However they could not tell us;

    • how much they were asking for
    • what the timescale was for submitting the bid
    • when they expected the extra funding to be available in Scotland.

A formal request was then made by unions that BBC Scotland, “fast track the relevant decisions and make that information available to the joint unions” and enter talks about resourcing the referendum coverage and the Glasgow Games.

The reply, according to Mr Holleran, “shocked” union representatives sat at the negotiating table.

Among the management statements were suggestions:

  • that this additional funding would not affect the BBC Scotland business plans up to 2016-17;
  • that both the Commonwealth Games and Independence referendum were “one-off events”;
  • “the referendum would be over in one night”;
  • “the Commonwealth Games won’t be like the Olympics”;
  • “it will just be business as usual”.

The letter ends by expressing the union’s “major concerns as to the management attitude towards resourcing BBC Scotland.”

Mr Holleran concludes:

“This is an opportunity to negotiate meaningful funding packages at a time when jobs are being cut. We believe there is a real prospect to ensure financing to

  • save jobs at risk;
  • prevent a serious industrial conflict;
  • resource coverage of the Commonwealth Games to have a similar impact to the Olympics;
  • set up and resource a political/news and current affairs unit to ensure a quality journalistic reportage and analysis of the Independence referendum.

I have written to Ken McQuarrie expressing our concerns and I would ask your committee to look at this serious abrogation of responsibility by BBC management and come to your own conclusions.

The letter is yet further evidence of dissatisfaction amongst key stakeholders at the way the BBC is handling many aspects of Scottish broadcasting.

In October 2010 it emerged that the BBC had refused an invitation to be “host broadcaster” for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, a role that would have seen the corporation create hundreds of jobs by providing all the cameras, cabling and television infrastructure in return for the broadcasting rights.

The decision was said to have cost the Glasgow Games Organisers tens of millions of pounds.

Newsnet Scotland has also learned of plans to hold a “demand for balance” gathering outside the BBC’s Glasgow HQ at Pacific Quay on November 15th at 4pm.

Details have yet to emerge, but Newsnet understands that the demonstration will call on BBC Scotland to improve the quality of its referendum coverage and to address what campaign organisers claim is a lack of balance evident in debate and discussion programmes with pro-Union leaning commentators regularly dominating.