Remember that what I’m describing are attempts by the parties – particularly Labour – to influence editorial decision-making. I have another incident involving a current BBC presenter who was threatened “with their job” by a senior SNP figure moments before they went live in a studio interview.
If I go back a few years to a General Election a political producer was so harassed by an SNP spad – still operating in government today – that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for them. The experience was so shocking it amounted to harassment and in any other environment would have involved the police.
There is a corruption at the heart of our politics and it doesn’t just land at Labour’s door.
And for those quick to jump to conclusions, I don’t believe anyone at the BBC has deliberately distorted a story out of political bias. Well, I can’t say it has never happened but it would be an isolated case which was so insignificant that other journalists didn’t notice.
John Boothman was acting naively with, I think, wanton disregard for the appropriate professional distance that is required of a BBC executive. The point I’m making is not that he worked deliberately to prejudice output but that in being so close to Sinclair he blurred the line and left in the minds of his journalists a perception that he was less than independent and impartial. Call me naïve but I don’t think he tried wilfully to set a Labour agenda, I think he didn’t have the professional discipline to stay aloof from those trying to influence.
He would turn up at a programme desk and tell journalists that he’d just had Jim Murphy (or whoever) on the phone about, say, defence cuts. He liked to show he was in touch and could network. But what message did that leave in the minds of his staff? Well, first, that he was close to Labour who seemed to trust him. But was he quietly hinting that the programme should talk to Murphy and do the defence cuts story?
In this atmosphere you need to know where you stand and I fear he left enough doubt in the minds of his team about his position.
He never told me to do a story, change or distort a story, take a line or drop a story.
But another problem that has arisen in his time as head is that budget cuts have seriously affected the quality of journalism. The depth and range of presenter briefs – my own area – is no longer what it should be especially on a big programme like GMS. One presenter said to me he was upbraided for not giving an SNP minister a hard enough time in an interview, not out of bias but for journalistic reasons. He said he couldn’t have done so because he wasn’t armed with the ammunition to mount a serious challenge because of the quality of briefing material.
The BBC makes mistakes at all levels and has an almost total inability to recognise how it is perceived outside its own walls. Those mistakes have created an impression of political bias which I totally understand. It has frustrated me and many of the staff inside. But, to cut against the grain for many of you, the idea that there is an anti independence conspiracy is laughable. Literally. Journalists laugh at the very idea.
I promise to explain later in more detail where the BBC is going wrong. But for now you only have to imagine how many people would need to be involved in a conspiracy. In Scotland alone it would be 200 journalists. Can you imagine that conspiracy holding up for more than a weekend? It would mean an editor telling a programme team not to run a certain story. If they felt aggrieved they would object. I would point blank refuse to do something I believed was untrue and politically biased. I would put my job on the line and so would everybody else. There would be an immediate union meeting. Every news outlet in Scotland would hear about it within half an hour and the BBC switchboard would be fire-fighting press calls. There are times when I smell bias too but there is always – almost always – another explanation. That exemption from political prejudice applies to John Boothman as well. He hasn’t been his own best friend at times but I know of no occasion on which the output has been inaccurate or biased at his command. And because he’s married to Susan Deacon doesn’t tell you anything. Do we define people’s politics by their partner? Isn’t that what Johann Lamont did by saying Nicola Sturgeon was married to Peter Murrell and then aggregating their joint income. So what? I think we need to get hold of the idea that the real story of BBC Scotland is about dysfunctional management, poor decision-making, lack of genuine consultation, lacklustre leadership resulting in occasional sloppy and certainly uninspired journalism. Anyone consistently producing or influencing politically biased journalism would be pinpointed and discarded – or more likely moved into management out of harm’s way. Sorry, but there is no conspiracy