This weekend, the BBC took the unusual step of admitting it had lied for decades about subjecting BBC job applicants to political vetting by MI5. According to a lengthy online article by the respected correspondent Paul Reynolds, the process of weeding out “undesirables” with left-wing connections began in the 1930s and continued for 60 years until an Observer expose in 1985. That year, I was a BBC News trainee based a few doors along from Room 105 in Broadcasting House where staff files were kept.
After reading that Christmas Tree symbols adorned the files of staff in need of further security vetting, some trainees “borrowed” the key and we did some late-night reading. I found no incriminating mark but the following remark after a stint in the TV newsroom at White City; “Lesley will make a valuable addition to a newsroom. Hopefully not this one.”
Now that could have been about a lot of things – or just one. As a trainee, I questioned coverage of the miners’ strike several times; when the sound of rioters was laid wrongly behind film of peaceful miners and when the rules of graphics (biggest number first) were broken when a small number of miners decided to return to work. Yes – small, pernickety points. But did they mark me out as a troublemaker? I always thought it unlikely – but now?
Later that year I applied for a post in the BBC Northern Ireland newsroom after three happy month working there. I was the only Belfast-born trainee applicant and yet also the only one not to be interviewed. Ten years later, a senior executive explained I had over-stepped the mark by interviewing a Sinn Fein councillor alleging sloppy asbestos removal at the Divis Flats – notorious landmarks in Republican west Belfast. Had I been “weeded out” as a troublemaker or was I just experiencing an attack of paranoia with a bit of entitlement? It was hard to be sure. In any case I was employed by BBC Scotland shortly afterwards and worked as a reporter and presenter for 20 years, which in itself seemed to suggest any earlier vetting exercises were well and truly over.
But formal processes have informal impacts.
There’s no doubt the Christmas Tree system is long gone, but the business of selection at the BBC necessarily continues.
The choice of who to employ, broadcast, legitimate and reject hasn’t gone away. It now relies on the instincts, habits and political outlook of BBC producers – but those private judgment calls are rightly just as hard to interrogate today as views expressed in secret files 60 years ago.
Last week, for example, there was a row about an alleged e-mail circulating among BBC Scotland staff with a list of independence supporters who cannot be hired for work in news and current affairs.
It was reportedly leaked to broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli– the BBC has categorically denied his claims. The trouble for BBC Scotland is that the weekend revelations prove Aunty has extensive experience denying dodgy procedures it also secretly implements. So does such a list exist today – it’s not likely, but who knows? Trust in the fairness of the BBC was once high. Not now.
Much of the reason is the “dodgy dossier” row of 2004 where the BBC stood up to Tony Blair’s government and lost. As a result, one of the BBC’s best DGs was forced to walk the plank. With Greg Dyke’s demise, the corporation morphed into a fearful and bureaucratic news operation whose producers understood (first by memo, then intuitively) they had to stay well clear of any fundamental challenges to government policy, probity or authority. And that’s been difficult, because long overdue challenges to British governance have dominated public life ever since, with Aunty rarely to the fore.
Since my own case is commonly cited, I actually accept that being a public advocate of independence means I’m not seen as neutral on perhaps the most enduring issue facing Scots today and therefore can’t front news and politics programmes. But does that “ban” go further to include non-broadcasting work and other types of programming?
Recently I presented a three part TV series for BBC Northern Ireland in 2016 on the historical and cultural links between Scotland and NI. It was offered to BBC Scotland who decided not to show it. Fair enough. It’s a free world. But was that because of a question (suggested by producers) about the possible impact of Scottish independence on Northern Ireland? Ironically, all sorts of big, constitutional issues are being discussed in Ireland right now as a result of Brexit and its threat to the peace process.
But in Scotland, any fleeting mention of serious constitutional change prompts an immediate search for a balancing statement in support of the status quo. If it cannot be found, the project is doomed. The same strictures rarely apply in reverse.
Does it matter? Since my own BBC contract ended in 2008, I’ve opted to indulge a lifelong interest in the Nordic nations and now appear on some BBC Scotland outlets as a pro-indy commentator.
But other well-known pundits like Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine and columnist Paul Kavanagh are never on. Is that by accident or design? The weekend’s revelations of political vetting raise big, legitimate questions about how decisions are made today – which individuals are chosen for jobs and TV interviews and which subjects are deemed worthy of analysis.
BBC Scotland has a thinly-disguised corporate view that independence was a one-off campaign that should’ve ended four years ago – a slightly embarrassing teenage-fad supporters will eventually grow out of.
Sometimes you can almost hear the feet tapping, waiting for Scotland to return to business as usual. But it probably won’t. Politics changed irrevocably in 2014 and so did the viewing tastes and news preferences of almost half the population. Independence supporters once tholed a TV schedule and news agenda, which presumed near total support for the status quo.
Scotland has changed forever. And whilst it may be a headache in the short term, life for BBC Scotland will finally get easier when it accepts that inconvenient truth.