IN this critical period for the future of Scotland, we need a national broadcaster ready to ask tough questions, not a parochial plodder, writes Stephen Jardine
At THE weekend, I watched the Remembrance Service from the Cenotaph on the BBC. It is one of the reasons why we cherish our national broadcaster.
In the hands of ITV, the ceremony would be punctuated with commercial breaks and the inane observations, possibly from Ant and Dec. Instead, we had David Dimbleby’s measured solemnity and the roll call of the fallen from Afghanistan that made the two-minute silence more poignant and relevant than ever. Remembrance Sunday is a reminder why we have the BBC and why we trust its treasured place at the centre of our national life. But that role has never been more in doubt than it is this week.
The resignation of Director-General George Entwistle on Friday night marked the darkest day in the Corporation’s 85-year history. The great irony is that, in an organisation obsessed with bureaucracy and with more senior managers than the Chinese Communist Party, he quit over the failure of anyone to exercise proper editorial control.
To become Director-General requires a long, slow ascent, keeping your head down, avoiding controversy and not saying or doing anything even vaguely contentious. That does not make for robust leadership, as Entwhistle proved. To reinforce how removed the BBC has become from the public it serves, his reward for abject failure after just 54 days in the job was a £450,000 pay-off.
No-one in authority at the Corporation even seemed to think that would be an issue. How wrong they were. Only the BBC would give a half million pound pay-off to someone who walks away from a job. Only the BBC could deploy a euphemism like “stepping aside” to avoid saying that director of news Helen Boaden and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, face the sack. None of this would happen in the private sector. It happens in the BBC because the reality of how it is financed is so far removed from the real world.
The past month has highlighted serious institutional failures in the way the BBC is run, but these problems are not confined to London. The creaking management structure is replicated in Scotland, giving us our own particular set of problems and concerns. At best, it is an approach to covering Scotland that lacks creative spark, and is parochial and pedestrian. At worst, it is a dereliction of duty when we need the BBC here to be at its very best.
The next two years are the most important in the life of modern-day Scotland. Our broadcasters need to be asking the toughest questions, lifting every stone and calling politicians to account. Instead, we have a commercial broadcaster, STV, on its knees, and a BBC struggling with job cuts and crippled by self-doubt. I know several senior people on and offscreen at BBC Scotland and they all paint the same picture, of an organisation riddled by fear and ineptituide. Instead of the rigorous debate we all expect and deserve between now and the independence referendum, all we will get is more of the same dull discussions featuring the usual suspects.
The radical decision to give young Scots the vote on independence is a case in point. It is crying out for a documentary series following a cross-section of youngsters from all walks of life in the 18 months to polling day, as their views are informed and decided. Instead, we get yet another dull studio discussion with the grown-ups in charge.
Newsnight may have been guilty of shoddy journalism, but it least it is not responsible for the nightly tedium that is Newsnight Scotland. And for more evidence of something wrong, look no further than the absence of Lesley Riddoch. Despite being one of our finest and most challenging broadcasters, as well as a Scotsman columnist, she is without a regular role because she will not always stick to the script and occasionally walks close to the line. BBC Scotland is safer without her, but our national debate is poorer.
The BBC’s Scottish headquarters at Pacific Quay is one of Europe’s most technologically advanced broadcast centres. It should be bursting with creativity and people delighted to be working at the cutting edge of modern communication. Instead, it feels like Clackmananshire Council on Friday afternoon.
On a recent visit, I spoke to a presenter worn down by the institutional incompetence and inefficiency, and looking for a way out. In the canteen, I met a talented producer also desperate for an escape from the plodding mediocrity. Anyone who could do anything else, anywhere else, has gone or is looking for a way out.The end result is a moribund institution, loaded with management dead wood and run not for the viewers and listeners, but for a small cabal of lifelong pension-hugging BBC bureaucrats. The proof is in the upcoming schedule. Instead of programmes challenging what we want to be as a nation, we have yet more stereotype-laden west of Scotland comedies and a grim documentary series on life after dark in Glasgow.
Television is not the only problem. The same institutional failings afflict Radio Scotland and make it a pale imitation of what it could and should be. The individual journalists and programme-makers are not to blame. BBC Scotland is full of bright, ambitious people who want to make great programmes and help shape our public life. But they are stifled by a management system riddled with incompetence that ensures every spark of creativity is extinguished.
BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten has said the Corporation needs a “radical and structural overhaul”. That review needs to pay particular attention to Scotland. In 2014, we host the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and a referendum on the very future of our nation. It should be BBC Scotland’s finest hour, but the current crisis throws that into question.
All eyes are on London at the moment, but the systems, practices and bureaucracy that led to the fall of the Director-General also threaten coverage of events in Scotland in 2014. That concern is shared by the convener of Holyrood’s education and culture committee. Stewart Maxwell MSP summoned the director of BBC Scotland to answer fears that job cuts have undermined the Corporation’s editorial ability at this critical time. The head of BBC Scotland, Ken MacQuarrie, has so far refused to appear in front of the committee, but in the light of recent events he must be called to account.
Too many overpaid managers and too few programme-makers with enough resources is the issue at the heart of the crisis in the BBC. In total, 120 jobs are due to go at BBC Scotland in the latest round of cuts. Those job losses should be halted until the new Director-General is in place. That individual must come from outside the BBC and have an aggressive approach to protecting and developing talented programme-makers, while ruthlessly slashing talentless senior management.
High on the list of priorities must be BBC Scotland. Jobs need to go but at the top, not at the bottom. The organisation also needs direction. Not what’s its always been, but what it could be and should be at this critical time in the life of our nation.
The current crisis is profound. With strong leadership, Scotland in 2014 could be when the BBC bounces back, but that requires fundamental change and the clock is ticking.
• Stephen Jardine is a journalist and broadcaster who runs Taste Communications. He has presented on the BBC.