Review by Derek Bateman
Reports are circulating of fast-moving events at the inappropriately-named Pacific Quay. It seems that years of executive neglect of documented harassment and ill-treatment of staff in news and current affairs may be coming to a head at BBC Scotland.
The details are best left unstated to avoid any prejudice to proceedings, but it seems senior management can no longer turn a blind eye to the claims of staff who have complained for years of bullying, inappropriate behaviour and scant regard for either industrial relations law or the corporation’s own in-house personnel processes.
The Director General’s input is awaited.
PQ has been a desperately unhappy place for too long with the journalists’ organiser describing relations there as the worst he’d seen in 20 years as a union rep. Former colleagues deserve better. Recent reports suggest a day of redemption may be near for them.
There is no surprise at the failure of management to protect its staff. If you speak to people from virtually any department you can hear the same disappointment and frustration in their voice. Of all the people I know who have left our national broadcaster in the last few years, I don’t know any who’d go back. They regret the loss of what should have been an inspiring career but they are released from the atmosphere of threat and constraint.
The latest haitus coincides with G A Ponsonby’s account of the corporation’s behaviour during the referendum in London Calling – How the BBC stole the referendum, a crowd-funded publication written by a founder of Newsnet motivated by a tenacity professional journalists would envy.
This book is a product of the alternative media spawned by mainstream failure to take official Scotland to task and is unapologetic in singling out individual journalists as well as a Unionist corporate culture for scrutiny – something journalists themselves hate more than anything while defending their right to criticise others in the name of freedom of speech.
In a way though, it helps to make the book by confronting you with known onscreen reporters and contrasting them with his interpretation of what they were telling you, the viewer. It gets uncomfortable at times and I suspect the reaction in the BBC newsroom will be blanket rejection to avoid awkward questions and occasional embarrassment at a colleague’s expense. But the Ponsonby approach isn’t dismissed so easily by anyone really interested in how we are informed and even the Unionist-minded might be alarmed at what the BBC chose to tell them in a report and what it chose to omit; what it chose to emphasise and what it chose to dismiss. He has addressed his subject like a Panorama investigation breaking down different elements of the story, researching and sourcing each section in minute detail and reassembling to construct the narrative.
While I wouldn’t claim many outside BBC management will actually sit down and read this as they would a thriller, it is worth dipping into chapters and letting the author lead you through the maze from what appeared on screen back through the sources and previous comments via earlier BBC versions and contrasting with related known events. Some of these are necessarily complex trails but are not irrelevant as they return to haunt the debate today – vide, the Carmichael Frenchgate ‘lie’ story which is now being routinely compared in the media to the Salmond ‘lie’ over EU legal advice.
Ponsonby reports that in the space of weeks Labour’s attack veered from demanding Salmond say if he had legal advice on EU membership to claiming he had advice and demanding he reveal what the advice said. They couldn’t decide which was the stronger attack line so ran both in contradiction of each other and ‘the BBC headlined both attacks without so much as the blink of an eye.’ He goes on to point out that Salmond’s defence of being unable under the rules to talk about official advice was exactly the same defence used by the British government in refusing to divulge its information on Scotland’s membership – yet there was no row fomented over it by Labour and no corresponding coverage by BBC Scotland. He constantly points out this kind of unbalanced treatment which for those of us unconvinced by the claim of deliberate political bias is troubling. My answer I think, is that what he reveals is a lack of good journalism which wouldn’t merely report what some official source has released for broadcast. This approach results in news items being put out in isolation, like stand-alone statements disconnected from history and therefore lacking perspective and balance. Most of the time this failure to connect different stories into a more insightful whole doesn’t have much impact but when it came to the future of our country it was of critical importance to our understanding.
In a critique of news management before the indyref I said a dedicated (and experienced) referendum unit was required where all relevant data was stored and staff became expert. It would be the clearing house for all referendum output so that inadequate or incomplete items were unlikely to make it to air. Too late now.
Here we also find the story of the BBC’s imperious dismissal of John Robertson’s university examination of early evening news output and, in one of the best sections of all – a close look at the BBC handling of the Megrahi case – worth it for a reminder of a global story and how wee Scotland handled the limelight.
This is systematic and at time brutal stuff that unearths failings in BBC journalism that could have been overcome if, in my view, internal oversight had been good enough, standards set high enough and had staff not been run ragged by poor management and relentless budget cuts.
Lest you’re tempted by the inevitable cries of “It’s cybernat lies”, I liked his reasoned and honest finale. “Although you won’t find any journalists willing to publicly accuse the BBC of being deliberately corrupt or biased, there is an uncomfortable acknowledgement among many that the BBC has problems in Scotland.” And, even more restrained still… “BBC Scotland is not a devolved institution. The BBC never evolved in line with Scotland and thus it remains firmly stuck in the past where London rules. Like most of Scotland’s media, it is IN Scotland but not OF Scotland. It does not reflect the views of Scotland but instead lectures Scotland…”
I hope in addressing the management of news and current affairs this week the Director General takes an equally forensic approach.
London Calling, by G.A. Ponsonby is available in ebook or paperback form. More details here: http://ponsonbypost.com