As the new Battle for the Beeb gets under way, BBC Scotland should be pleased with what it achieves on a daily basis, writes John Mullin
A confession to start: I was a BBC executive once. And not just any old middle-management time- server. Whisper it, but during the Scottish independence campaign, I was Editor, the Referendum Unit – or, as my vanity sometimes preferred – the rather more grandiose Referendum Editor.
And let me tell you, a right rollercoaster of a ride it was too. It was challenging, frustrating, exhilarating – bewildering, even. There are all sorts of insights I would love to share with you about My Year of Living Dangerously: the campaign’s biggest moaner, the most abusive politician, the stupidest of my lash-ups.
There were plenty of candidates. Several times since the leaving of BBC Scotland HQ, I have been asked to write a Kiss and Tell. Alas, some deeply-rooted instinct of self-preservation always kicks in, and I resist all such blandishments.
Apologies, in advance, then. Jackie Bird, Brian Taylor, James Cook: your secrets are safe with me! But, as the latest Battle for the Beeb (BftB) gets under way, my former colleagues in news and current affairs at Pacific Quay in Glasgow have been much on my mind. The referendum – as, I am sure, was the general election campaign – was a torrid time, with hefty criticism flying, from both sides.
Throughout it all, they proved to be talented, dedicated professionals. In my experience, they always do their best in often extraordinarily charged circumstances. Sometimes, as politicians press for advantage or some campaigners seek confirmation of a prejudice that gets overlooked. I live in London at the moment – it doesn’t in itself make me a bad person. But I am staggered at how there appears to be little recognition at a UK level at the specific issues facing BBC Scotland in these tumultuous times.
Sure, the UK-wide front in the BftB is a tough proposition. It is both ideological and opportunistic, an assault on what we have come to regard as public service broadcasting and on how we finance it. We have, in 2015, hit Peak BBC.
The BftB began when Lord Hall, the director-general, was mugged over the licence fee. He was forced to take on the £630 million annual cost for free TV licences for the over-75s.
One upside is that one big and growing threat to BBC finances – it gets £3.7 billion of its £4.8bn yearly income from the 39p a day we each spend through the licence fee is to be closed. The ‘Ididn’t- watchliveIwatcheditoncatchuponiPlayer’ excuse costs the BBC around £200m a year, and that figure is rising quickly as the public catches on. The BftB stepped up with the publication on Thursday of Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s green paper ahead of the negotiations leading to the renewal next year of the BBC’s Royal Charter.
But prior leaks has meant the issue – focusing on how much the BBC should be doing, and whether The Voice is the right choice for £20m has featured heavily in the headlines. The battlelines are predictable: the chattering classes views any meddling with the BBC as dangerous.
The right wing press is delighted, enjoying W1A’s discomfort. But in all of this down south – in parliament and in the media – there has been scant reflection of the new political landscape in Scotland, and what that means for BBC director Ken MacQuarrie and his team. If the BBC network is under attack from the Tories, then what about BBC Scotland, where relations with the SNP are – shall we say – uneasy.
It was a great privilege to work at BBC Scotland throughout the referendum campaign. True, it may not always have felt like it, as someone was hollering down the phone, moaning about a perceived slight three stories down on the website, or demanding a right to reply to an imagined Good Morning Scotland calumny. Seconds before one of our referendum documentaries was broadcast – it had been a difficult programme to make, and I was at a low ebb the most vituperative abuse of it broke out on Twitter. Give it at least five minutes, for God’s sake. There were, of course, serious criticisms of our news coverage.
Though I am fantastically proud of what we did, no-one – least of all me – would claim we were perfect. I certainly made mistakes and there are lessons to be learned, with an open mind. While I worried about news staff – some were robust, others less so – I felt guilty towards the 1,000 or so out of 1,250 BBC Scotland employees who worked in other departments producing the most astonishing output.
Bruce Malcolm’s team behind the Commonwealth Games or Ewan Angus’ documentary makers – responsible for From Scotland With Love or that fantastic programme on the Forth Road Bridge were blameless, but no doubt felt tarred with the same brush. Off the top of my head – no cheating allowed – I was remembering some of the brilliant programmes I watched on BBC Scotland over the last year. How about these? Glasgow Girls, Shetland and Stonemouth; Planet Oil, Pipers of the Trenches, Danny MacAskill: Riding the Ridge, What Do Artists Do All Day? Katie Morag and Nina and the Neurons. Not bad, huh?
And then there was Scotland Decides: The Big, Big Debate, where – in extremely difficult circumstances, say no more we brought together 8,000 firsttime voters from schools all across the country. It won a Royal Television Society award.
Who else would even have tried to pull that one off? That programme is the very definition of public sector broadcasting at its very best. There are, of course, arguments to be had in the months ahead. The SNP’s John Nicolson has again raised the issue of a Scottish Six to replace the UKwide Six O’Clock News on BBC1. This was a close run thing back in 1998, and it is no surprise to see it back on the agenda. There are logistical issues and budgetary constraints, which may be more depressing after charter renewal.
But how the BBC covers news and current affairs in Scotland is a vitally important debate. We all make mistakes – even politicians. We can all do better. It’s important to talk to one’s critics with an open mind. It is also right to expect them to do the same.
In the everyday, low-level warfare of the referendum campaign, and even in the midst of the spectacular outbreaks of frenzied clashes, I found that most politicians and campaigners appreciated how good BBC Scotland is. It can approach the future with confidence.