THE head of Holyrood’s education and culture committee, Stewart Maxwell, yesterday revealed he was thwarted in an attempt to force senior BBC representatives to give evidence to an inquiry into broadcasting.
• BBC chiefs issued lengthy 60-point rebuttal of union claims over cutbacks and plummeting staff morale which could threaten coverage of the referendum
• Holyrood’s education committee convenor Stewart Maxwell revelaed he had been thwarted in an attempt to convince BBC chiefs to appear
• Committee is now set to write to acting Director General Tim Davie and chairman Lord Patten demanding an explanation
Mr Maxwell said the refusal showed “outrageous” disrespect to MSPs and that the corporation did not treat the Scottish Parliament as seriously as Westminster.
At an evidence session in front of the committee last month, MSPs heard from union representatives who complained that cuts and plummeting staff morale could threaten coverage of the historic independence referendum in 2014. Former Radio Scotland producer Peter Murray branded the BBC “irresponsible” over cutbacks in Scotland and said they had led to a fall in the “breadth and depth” of its programmes.
He also warned it could take its toll on the coverage of the 2014 vote.
In reply, BBC Scotland chiefs have issued a 16-page submission, which they claim counters 60 points raised by Mr Murray and fellow union representative Paul McManus, it emerged yesterday.
The submission said: “We are producing more investigations, more televised debates, more radio news hours than ever before and the 18:30 Reporting Scotland attracts a nightly audience in excess of 500,000 viewers, making it the
most-watched TV news programme in Scotland.”
However, BBC executives from the corporation’s Pacific Quay headquarters in
Glasgow declined to appear in person before the MSPs to elaborate on their points and face questions from MSPs.
The BBC’s stance drew strong cross-party criticism.
Labour’s Neil Findlay said yesterday: “This is absolutely dreadful. I cannot think of a publicly funded organisation, who, having been asked to come before the committee, would respond in such a manner.
“I think it is quite frankly outrageous. If we now have organisations who simply say, ‘No, we don’t want to come and appear before you, but we’ll send a letter’, then it really questions the system we have here.’”
MPs at Westminster do have powers to compel witnesses to appear before them, although Mr Maxwell suggested BBC chiefs would have a different attitude.
He said: “I did seek guidance on whether or not we could make a stronger request or require their attendance here, but that is outwith the powers of the parliament.
“I certainly could not force the BBC to attend the committee, we don’t have that authority.
“They wouldn’t have to be compelled, they would appear – in my view.”
The issue has already come under discussion at a meeting of Holyrood’s conveners committee, according to Mr Maxwell, who said this was the only refusal of its kind in recent times.
He said corporation chiefs had written to the committee saying they “were not willing to come to this particular committee on this issue, but meant no disrespect to the committee”.
BBC Scotland is set to shed up to 120 jobs by 2017 as part of a drive to cut its budget by 16 per cent. The job losses equate to nearly 10 per cent of BBC Scotland’s staff.
The freeze in the licence fee has resulted in a need to reduce BBC budgets by
£700 million over the remainder of the current licence fee period to 2017.
Nationalist committee member Joan McAlpine yesterday branded the corporation’s submission “insulting”.
She added: “They’re rebutting trade unionists in a way that allows them to control the situation, as opposed to them being examined by the committee.”
Tory Liz Smith added: “This doesn’t help the scrutiny system of the parliament, particularly the committee process.”
A BBC Scotland spokesman said yesterday that its head of news and current affairs, John Boothman, gave evidence to MSPs in January on the licence fee freeze. “There was also a supporting paper presented to the committee for this meeting,” he added.
“On 29 May, 2012, there was evidence presented in person by the then director-general, Mark Thompson, and the director, BBC Scotland, Ken MacQuarrie.
“Also, Mr MacQuarrie, and the BBC National Trustee, Bill Matthews, provided evidence on this topic to the Scotland Bill committee a year ago, on 25 October, 2011, shortly after the announcement on the BBC proposals to make savings following the licence fee freeze.”
He added that a paper detailing BBC Scotland’s approach to the latest phase of the proposed savings was sent to members of the committee in advance of the meeting of 30 October.