Lesley Riddoch: Questions time at BBC Scotland

Sarah Smith has a new show, Scotland 2014, but Gary Robertson does not. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Sarah Smith has a new show, Scotland 2014, but Gary Robertson does not. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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With programming, staffing, budgets and morale in turmoil, we deserve answers from Auntie, writes Lesley Riddoch

What the heck is going on at BBC Scotland?

Good Morning Scotland host Gary Robertson has been told his contract won’t be renewed in August after 15 years as a presenter. According to a Sunday newspaper, BBC bosses told him he “would be released as part of cost-cutting measures”. Now NUJ representatives will meet BBC managers today to avert a walkout that could disrupt coverage of the Commonwealth Games and the independence referendum.

Why such a strong, collective reaction to one redundancy? After all, prominent BBC employees lose their jobs all the time.

Context is all.

News of Robertson’s sacking broke at the end of a week in which ratings plummeted for Scotland 2014 – the replacement programme for Newsnight during the referendum campaign, headed by Sarah Smith. Despite publicity and the capture of a big London name, the new programme had fewer viewers than the network programme and fewer than STV’s Scotland Tonight. By Thursday just 22,000 viewers were left watching – a quarter of STV’s total. The attempt to inject fun into serious subjects was slammed by many, the set seemed uncomfortable, interviews were soft and the discussion of subjects trending on Twitter was facile. Staff expressed surprise that the new programme went on air without weeks or even months of dry-runs and pilots. The lack of preparation showed. One reviewer commented: “There is an abiding sense of Scotland 2014 being the posh, new kid in his stiff blazer who has wandered into the rough school. There will be time enough after September to be genteel but, right now, Scotland needs its news shows to be tough. We require scrutiny not smiles.”

Scotland 2014 will doubtless get better but it was an embarrassingly bad start – and presumably an expensive one. No official details on cost have been released but signing a London-based Channel Four network correspondent can’t be a cheap recruitment option and the programme has a set of almost entirely new production staff.

Yet days after this poor showing, BBC Scotland announced plans to sack Gary Robertson, the main anchor of the generally popular Good Morning Scotland. The conclusion was inescapable: Gary – a freelance presenter – has been sacked to finance Sarah Smith’s new show.

Now that, of course, may be plain wrong. There should be new money aplenty inside BBC Scotland right now for extra referendum coverage thanks to director general Tony Hall’s decision to inject £5 million “raised by savings elsewhere in the corporation”. But there’s been no clarity about precisely where that money has gone.

While referendum programmes produced by a mixture of “imported” and seconded staff have been getting lukewarm reviews from viewers and critics, day-to-day spending on BBC Scotland’s “bread and butter” programmes seems to have been cut and morale is at an all-time low.

Union representatives say staff are being kept in the dark about changes. Long-serving Newsnight Scotland producers only discovered their last programme had been aired by reading the TV schedules.

The NUJ has a list of other grievances including bullying, complaints about equal pay and unfair dismissal, and continuing staff opposition to the BBC’s membership of the No-leaning CBI. Above all, the NUJ claims BBC management has effectively de-recognised the union by failing to consult it over programme changes and redundancies. It argues Robertson’s case is best viewed as a compulsory redundancy after recent successful legal challenges to the dismissal of long-serving contract staff. So whilst the union’s 65-page submission to management today will focus on union recognition, a vote of no confidence in BBC Scotland management will be proposed unless Robertson’s dismissal is rescinded within a week, normal working channels with the union established and other ongoing staff complaints resolved.

This industrial relations meltdown is taking place just weeks before the most important democratic, sporting and media moments in Scotland for hundreds of years. BBC Scotland managers have previously stonewalled critics, refused to appear before Holyrood committees and tried to fob off unions. I suspect that won’t work this time.

Not because the hard-working Robertson is Jeremy McPaxman – quite the opposite. He is a pleasant, well-briefed, capable interviewer – more like the average listening Scot than the “big hitters” now getting preferred treatment.

And, for fair-minded Scots, that irks. Much of the energy behind devolution arose from the perception that Scots got edged out of top jobs and important moments by London-based incomers. Now that seems to be happening right at the heart of the BBC’s independence coverage. No expense has been spared to hire high-profile names but tried-and-trusted, local presenters appear to be expendable. The implications for life after the referendum are grim. According to one producer, “it’ll be like the Marie Celeste in here when all the referendum contracts go in September”.

Indeed. Robertson often presented Newsnight Scotland at 11pm on TV and popped up at 6am the following morning on radio. Can Good Morning Scotland manage without that kind of energy? Is Sarah Smith staying on? Is Jim Naughtie giving up his London day job? Is someone younger and (presumably) cheaper set to fill all of their shoes on 19 September? Will BBC Scotland cheerfully give up all the extra budget, programmes and schedule time if there’s a No vote? Or is Scotland 2014 the first teetering steps towards a Scottish Six programme mixing news from home and abroad, as radio has done for decades?

All these questions are being asked by licence-fee payers right now. But you can bet your bottom dollar, no-one in BBC Scotland will answer. They don’t have to.

Six weeks after complaining about a childish animation caricaturing SNP defence policy on the BBC’s website, I’m still waiting for a response. Similarly, there’s no explanation for the decision to axe the popular and pleasingly irreverent Radio Scotland programme Headlines.

So many questions and, thanks to the chronic lack of accountability in Scotland, no answers from Auntie. Surely, whatever the referendum result, things must change at BBC Scotland.