UNION leaders have raised fears of a further and major decline in standards at BBC Scotland unless a drastic programme of cuts is put on hold in the wake of the Newsnight scandal.
The National Union of Journalists is calling for a rethink on plans to axe up to 120 jobs in Scotland as part of widespread cost-cutting measures put in place by the Corporation.
The NUJ’s intervention comes after Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman claimed the BBC’s programme of budget cuts had played a major part in its current crisis. He said director general George Entwistle, who resigned on Saturday night, had been “brought low by cowards and incompetents”.
Mr Paxman added: “The real problem here is the BBC’s decision, in the wake of the Hutton inquiry, to play safe by appointing biddable people.
“They then compounded the problem by enforcing a series of cuts on programme budgets, while bloating the management. That is how you arrive at the current mess on Newsnight.”
In the wake of Mr Paxman’s comments, union officials in Scotland have warned some “very experienced journalists” at BBC Scotland were at risk of being forced out under current proposals, which they had already demanded be dropped.
Paul Holleran, Scottish organiser of the NUJ, said hard-pressed BBC Scotland staff were already trying to do the equivalent of two or three jobs even before the next round of cuts were imposed.
He said there were “major doubts” over the decision-making process by management in Scotland about the way cuts were being imposed.
Some 39 jobs have already been cut over recent months, with another 35 due to go by spring 2014 – months before Scotland is due to go to the polls to decide on independence. Of these, some 17 posts in the news and current affairs department are earmarked for the chop.
The BBC unveiled plans to cut 2,000 jobs across the Corporation by 2016 last October and the “Delivering Quality First” programme unveiled by then director-general Mark Thompson. About 800 posts in news were envisaged for the axe.
At the time, Mr Thompson was accused by technicians’ union Bectu of “destroying jobs and destroying the BBC”.
The NUJ also warned that “the BBC will not be the same organisation if these cuts go ahead”.
MSPs heard last month of fears that the BBC would treat both the independence referendum and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow as “one-off events” and that staff morale was already at “rock bottom”.
The NUJ has predicted the “real possibility” of industrial action from staff at the BBC headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow unless the current proposals are dropped.
It also wants BBC Scotland to set up a dedicated news and current affairs unit to ensure “quality journalistic reportage and analysis of the independence referendum”.
The BBC-wide programme of cuts dates from 2010 when the UK government decided to freeze the licence fee at £145.50 until 2016, which resulted in the Corporation having to cut 16 per cent from its budget over that period.
Mr Holleran added yesterday: “We’ve been saying for some time now that we have major fears for the BBC because of the failure to negotiate a proper review of the licence fee.”
Michael Higgins, a media expert at Strathclyde University, said: “If the BBC has any sense at all they will put the current programme of cuts on hold for the time being while the various inquiries are carried out.
“They need to wait to see if the level of cutbacks have had any impact on any of the crucial decisions that have been made over the last few weeks.
“In terms of Scotland, there are clearly implications for coverage of the referendum if the proposed cuts do go ahead.
“With so much coverage of the debate being partisan, it is crucial to have the impartiality of the BBC, and they will clearly need adequate resources to cover the issues properly.”
Nobody from the BBC was available to speak to The Scotsman yesterday. But earlier this year Ken MacQuarrie, the director of BBC Scotland, told staff: “I don’t underestimate how hard it is to achieve these savings plans and how difficult it is for those facing the prospect of losing their jobs.”
In a submission to the recent Scottish Parliament hearing at the education and culture committee, the BBC insisted there were absolutely no plans to cut back on the number of hours devoted to news and current affairs programming.