Ewan Crawford: Overhaul will not address BBC’s weakest link

AS management at Broadcasting House gird themselves for the latest inquiry the real flaw in the system is ignored, writes Ewan Crawford

AS management at Broadcasting House gird themselves for the latest inquiry the real flaw in the system is ignored, writes Ewan Crawford

PERHAPS appropriately for the country that claims to have invented the television, we seem to have a heck of an appetite for sitting in front of it. On average Scots spend four-and-a-half hours every day watching TV.

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That statistic may, or may not, bring a tear to the eye of public health professionals and, who knows, may even be a reason why we don’t seem to have a conveyor belt of fit, athletic talent ready to thrill the crowds at Hampden or Murrayfield.

But whatever the consequences, the fact that we seem to like it so much means the future of television cannot be ignored.

So when the chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, says there needs to be a “thorough, radical structural overhaul” of the BBC, we need to take notice. Unfortunately the sort of overhaul he has in mind is not the overhaul needed.

Indeed it is not immediately clear to me what “structural” lessons can be learned from the botched Newsnight programme which triggered the current crisis.

Are legions of BBC staff really wandering through the corridors of New Broadcasting House thinking to themselves: “We really need an overhaul otherwise I am bound to go on air and falsely accuse someone of being a paedophile without checking properly or offering a right of reply?”

As an ex-BBC employee and now a university lecturer in broadcast journalism I would be shocked if my students, or anyone else’s, thought that was a reasonable course of action.

What happened here was a dreadful mistake of the kind that from time to time humans will make, regardless of structures.

After the 9/11 attacks, for example, the BBC managed to wrongly identify a man as a convicted terrorist and falsely suggested a mining company was linked to al-Qaeda.

Once the dust has settled and managers have been re-shuffled things will continue, at least as far as viewers are concerned, much as before.

This means brilliant programmes will be made and committed staff will still be giving their all. But for the BBC it will also mean the continuing failure to meet the most basic requirement of a public service broadcaster: that of providing a window on the country and society it is serving.

This is where the real overhaul is needed but one which is likely to be ignored once the frenzy of the Newsnight scandal has abated. The issue here is that the BBC needs to be decentralised to reflect the fact that it is the broadcaster for all of the nations of the UK.

Last year the BBC’s income (including its commercial revenues) amounted to more than £5 billion. By contrast, the latest Ofcom report into broadcasting in Scotland shows that spending by the BBC and STV combined on first run original programming specifically for viewers here amounted to just £53 million.

The BBC is therefore spending a tiny fraction of its overall income on programmes specifically for Scotland (and for Wales and Northern Ireland).

The corporation, in its defence, says it has transferred production of some network programmes, and indeed all of 5 Live, from London to centres such as Salford and Glasgow, outside of the M25.

That is true and is to be welcomed but it is not immediately clear why flying presenters and guests up from London for The Review Show or the Weakest Link has afforded viewers in Scotland a greater insight into the life of their country.

Moving a production base to Scotland is no guarantee that the diversity of the UK will be represented any better on network programmes which make up the vast bulk of BBC viewing.

It is particularly irksome for the presenter of Glasgow-based Question Time, David Dimbleby, to chastise Scottish guests, as he did recently, for talking about matters that primarily affect Scotland because viewers in “the rest of the UK” will be uninterested while long discussions on police commissioner elections or GCSE marking are deemed vital for the “national” audience, from which too often people in Scotland are effectively excluded.

Network editors would think it madness to subject viewers in England to hours of discussion on news programmes about Curriculum for Excellence but are content for us in Scotland to watch item after item about education, health or police reforms which have only limited relevance here.

This demonstrates that the BBC unfortunately has yet to come to terms with devolution, let alone the prospect of an independence referendum.

In this respect the BBC has publicly committed itself to “investing significant additional resources to cover the upcoming referendum in Scotland”. But this pledge is at odds with its current round of redundancies among Scottish journalists.

Ideally what is required is for budgets, scheduling decisions and programming in news and current affairs and across the BBC’s output to be devolved to a much greater extent.

As a supporter of independence, I think the cultural and public life of Scotland would be hugely enhanced by a licence-fee funded Scottish public service broadcaster.

But even within the UK it would be better for everyone, regardless of views on independence, if more of Scottish life was represented on screen and on radio.

It is no wonder that Radio Scotland can sometimes seem a little confused when it is expected on one station to cover news, current affairs, sport, drama, comedy, light entertainment, the arts, music and so on.

Surely we need more than one English language national radio station to represent the diversity of this country? Adhering to basic, existing guidelines would have prevented the latest journalism disaster at Newsnight.

But to meet its public purpose of representing the nations, regions and communities of the UK we really do need radical structural overhaul at the BBC.