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Lesley Riddoch: BBC caught in political crossfire

Time someone shone a light on policy decisions that affect Scottish licence-payers. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Time someone shone a light on policy decisions that affect Scottish licence-payers. Picture: Ian Rutherford

  • by LESLEY RIDDOCH
 

Once again BBC management have been found wanting when it comes to managing news balance, writes Lesley Riddoch

I know that BBC-baiting has become a national pastime. I know first programmes aren’t easy. I know criticism isn’t always valid, pleasant or easy to act upon.

I know a lot of effort went into the first edition of Crossfire on BBC Radio Scotland at 9am on Sunday morning. But I’m afraid the format creates unlistenable radio and abandons important traditions of Radio Scotland broadcasting at a critical time for Scottish licence fee payers.

For the uninitiated, Crossfire is presented by former rugby player and broadcaster John Beattie with fellow travellers Pam Duncan Glancy – a Labour campaigner and equality and human rights activist and Andrew Wilson – a former SNP MSP, Scotland on Sunday columnist and PR consultant. It’s not clear if these two are co-presenters, occasional or permanent guests. But it’s crystal clear that absolute equality of airtime is the format’s main objective. The result is mind-numbingly careful, scripted and inward-facing referendum ping-pong when Scots desperately need lively, confident, outward-facing broadcasting. That format needs to change – and fast.

Now it’s true that John Beattie and Pam Duncan Glancy were brought in at just two days’ notice when Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale quit as co-host. BBC guidelines were found to prohibit the payment of full-time politicians – a rule BBC producers should have decided to contest or abide by months ago. Instead it was left to Labour’s Scottish Education Spokesperson to quit leaving the impression she had let the BBC down. My guess is that nothing could be further from the truth. Pam Duncan Glancy was brought in at the last minute and the BBC – presumably fearing the journalist-free format might now fall apart – also installed John Beattie as the rather uneasy ringmaster. The resulting programme simply didn’t work. It didn’t add new insights, it didn’t live up to listeners’ expectations and BBC Scotland – not the presenters -- bear full responsibility.

To make matters worse, Crossfire replaced a very popular programme. Until last week the Sunday slot was occupied by Headlines, presented by the experienced BBC journalist Ken Macdonald with diverse commentators to chew over the week’s news, the Sunday morning papers and opinion from online blogs. In the second half of the programme a variety of Scottish newspaper political correspondents joined the fray. Yes/No balance was achieved by the choice of guests, the relaxed format – inviting feisty, good-natured interruption – and the quirky style of Ken MacDonald whose sense of humour included a fearless ability to poke fun at all institutions, including the BBC itself. Commentators on Headlines understood they had to face outwards and engage with the listening public not face inwards and arm wrestle one another to the floor. Their contributions generally exhibited the wide-ranging knowledge of folk who do their own research and thinking. Headlines occasionally sailed close to the wind – as any decent live programme should – but was always a good listen. Above all its format mixed international, national, UK, political and sports news in the way Radio Scotland has always done. And this is my biggest grouse with Crossfire – its exclusive focus on the referendum is counter-productively narrow.

In the past few days, instability in the Middle East has dominated every newspaper headline, the exit of England from the World Cup (and subsequent Scottish schadenfreude) has dominated every conversation, the spiralling cost of welfare “reforms” and the latest “Back Ed Miliband” campaign have raised eyebrows and the BBC’s decision not to cover a massive Save the NHS rally in London has set Twitter alight. But not a second of Crossfire airtime was devoted to any of these topics. Instead the format super-served political anoraks with representatives of the Yes and No campaigns contesting the narrowest version of the referendum debate for an entire hour. This short-changes Scottish listeners and Radio Scotland staff – both of whom have experienced a hollowing out of current affairs output.

Of course I can understand the urge to “accentuate the positive” and concentrate on nothing but the referendum for the remaining 12 weeks of the campaign. It sounds responsible and suggests activity. But abandoning discussion of the wider world on Crossfire is a big mistake.

Now I realise that may sound contradictory.

Along with early critics of Scotland 2014, I bemoaned BBC Scotland’s decision to spend part of that precious half hour tackling non-Scottish stories. But Scotland 2014 is immediately followed by Newsnight whose sole brief – funded by our licence fees – is to analyse UK and international news. Make no mistake. I’d far rather that BBC Scotland offered a confident blend of UK, Scottish and international news on TV in place of London or Salford-based network news programmes. But that massive battle for a “Scottish Six” has never been fought. Instead, programmes such as Reporting Scotland are “local” opt outs, supplementing a southern diet of UK and international stories.

That’s why it’s all the more important for Radio Scotland to maintain its traditional, broad perspective on UK and world events – particularly during the last weeks of the referendum campaign. Opinion polls suggest factors such as a possible Tory victory at Westminster, a UK decision to quit the European Union or more Conservative welfare “reforms” could all swing undecided voters. So analysis of UK politics is vitally important within the independence debate. Even the herculean struggles of Word Cup minnows have a bearing on the mood music. So too does the unfolding story on the streets and in the town halls of Scotland as grassroots campaigners transform the “official” debate.

And yet, while all these fascinating strands exist, Crossfire is trying to breathe life into old, hackneyed areas of debate upon which no new light can be shed.

None of this is to blame presenters but to question the format chosen by BBC Scotland managers. They dumped an existing programme that was working well and replaced the friendly cut and thrust of open-minded individuals with the heavily scripted balance of politicians delving deep into the war chest of slogans and party lines for opinions and briefing material.

Unlike any other broadcaster, newspaper, blogger or tweeter, the BBC is a state-funded operation that exists to educate, inform and entertain. When it fails to perform these functions, we are entitled to ask why. When it does so in the run-up to a momentous referendum, we are entitled to demand improvement as a matter of urgency.

 

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