BBC Scotland holds its breath on Holyrood accountability


PQ Insider considers what the Smith Commission might say about Scottish broadcasting

Here in BBC Scotland very close attention will be paid to Lord Smith’s report this week.

The rest of the world may be rightly concerned about the high politics, and the detail of fiscal and welfare devolution. Our news department and its hangers-on will be telling the story in their usual way. The audience will have no problem discerning the Labour line, plus whatever the SNP government spinners have told Brian Taylor.

But here in the heart of Pacific Quay, and at BBC HQ in West One, all-knowing eyes will be searching furiously for a single little paragraph: Will there be any sort of devolution of broadcasting?

No-one expects the real thing, but there is a working possibility that the SNP contingent on the commission may sneak in an apparently anodyne small measure, perhaps in exchange for dropping its insistence on something more high-profile.

The only suggestion that matters to the BBC is the possibility that Scottish Parliament Committees might be empowered to order BBC executives to attend and answer questions, as their counterparts at Westminster can do. It’s that prospect which is causing bums to squeak here at “PQ”.

Sometime soon I’ll explain more about the mechanics of how the BBC behaved during the referendum, and how more than a few staff members were unhappy with the way the corporation defied its own principles of impartiality.  But for just now please accept the idea that the BBC exists for one primary purpose: perpetuating itself.

A long time ago its purpose was different, but nowadays the “Executive Board” and the supervisory “Trust” exist to keep themselves in prestigious (and in the case of the executive) very remunerative positions.    

So how do you that?  Simple. You curry favour with the government of the day, especially when the BBC’s charter is due up for renewal. We obviously don’t know for sure who’ll be in government after next May, but we’re entirely sure it will be one of the usual lot, or at an extreme push, a LibDem. And guess what, they were all on the same side in the referendum. Easy peasy for us, we only needed to keep up the pretence that the Scottish question was important in some way until September 18 (It did get a bit tense near the end, but we coped).

After the referendum, we had all assumed, it would be business as usual. A few moans from disgruntled Yes supporters and SNP politicians, but nothing really to concern the great and the good in Central London. And by extension, nothing to upset the core team here at Pacific Quay.

But to borrow a phrase from Yeats, recycled by Salmond:  “All has changed, changed utterly“.  Even in the big bunker at W1A they’re aware that Scotland as an issue hasn’t gone away, as had been expected. The  implosion of Scottish Labour, mirrored by the entirely unforecast rise in SNP support, and the tectonic shifts in electoral behaviour in  England, suddenly mean that all bets are off.

While no-one is quite predicting  an SNP Culture secretary in the UK cabinet, there is the potential for post-election negotiations. An issue like devolving broadcasting is potentially very significant for the SNP, and relatively minor for the “big” parties desperately seeking traction elsewhere.

If the Smith Commission recommends devolving any part of the regulation of broadcasting, there is a real possibility that BBC Scotland executives would have to answer questions about their behaviour. A while back Labour heavyweight John Boothman, who is nominally Head of News, sat beside BBC Scotland Director Ken McQuarrie, and behaved quite disrespectfully towards Holyrood’s culture committee. Reputedly, they’d only agreed to turn up after their bosses in London told them that failure to do so would be bad corporate PR.

The Holyrood committee was so powerless that all it could do was suggest in its report that it would be jolly cross if it turned out anyone had been telling fibs.

And now to the point of all this: Boothman – who missed the final stages of the campaign due to a burst duodenal ulcer but remained in touch with favoured correspondents for all but a few days – has been subject to 17 specific accusations of bullying, stretching over years, many of them fully supported by the journalists’ trade union.

His department has for the past four years scored spectacularly badly in BBC-wide staff morale surveys. He was the only BBC Head of Department to try to “front-load”  the most recent round of enforced sackings, meaning he tried to force through five years’  worth of redundancies in one quarter, just months before receiving the funding to recruit dozens of extra staff for the referendum.

I’ll tell you more about this all later, but the key point ahead of the Smith report is that Boothman, and possibly his boss, were allegedly kept in place by the BBC’s “big bosses” because of their Labour connections, and the value of that to the No campaign.

It’s an open secret that McQuarrie, 62, will be leaving to spend more time with his pension after the general election, and it is thought that he persuaded London bosses that Boothman should not be put out to grass before then, ostensibly to allow the new regime at PQ to keep him or  “make its own appointment“ as Head of News.

The reality, as always, is that any such appointment will be made to fit the political landscape as it looks then.

With Labour’s Scottish implosion, Boothman as the ultimate Labour fixer is suddenly no longer an obvious asset to the BBC.  If thousands of Yes supporters are actually willing to stand outside Pacific Quay in mid-campaign, singing rude things, how many more will be supporting politicians who want to take a  heavy stick to the PQ elite?

London BBC doesn’t like problems in the provinces. Several previous BBC Scotland senior executives have found that out the hard way.

Boothman is back from sick leave now, with a new role of “helping Ken McQuarrie”. Given that his most obvious genuine professional skill  is politically-motivated manipulation, there is an assumption here that his main job will be deleting emails. His old department is still being run by management loyalist Peter Macrae.

Here in the bunker two of us – maybe three? –  are lining up to throw hats into the ring for Director of BBC Scotland when MacQuarrie goes. In certain scenarios, Boothman’s hat could be in there too.

If the Smith Commission puts broadcasting devolution into the realms of possibility, heads may roll quickly, and you may even see a BBC re-think on the SNP’s role in the pre-election BBC Leaders’ Debate strategy.

However, if broadcasting remains where it is, BBC Scotland management will stay put, ensuring in turn that the Murphy/Labour message dominates the Scottish airwaves between now and next May 7.

What happens to BBC Scotland then will depend entirely on the election outcome.