It was election time and I was given the task of producing a series of five-minute films satirising the campaign for Newsnight. They would be shown on each of four Thursday nights, that being the last transmission day of the week for the programme in Scotland.
I was to look out for funny moments in the BBC coverage and pick out events that could be over-scripted with spoof commentary and jokes, search for embarrassing outtakes and generally think up treatments to point fun at the politicians and give the weary voters a laugh at their expense.
The first in the planned series worked out quite well. I had a cheering gaggle of silver-haired OAP Nats in Portobello whom I billed as the new generation of Young Nationalists; I had Annabel Goldie and William Hague arriving by chopper to the soundtrack of M.A.S.H. (and likened Annabel to Hot Lips); and an outtake of Charles Kennedy tiptoeing through stage shrubbery depicting an apple tree as if he was afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. It was apparently a filmed rehearsal for a show in which he was taking the mickey out of himself.
This latter clip was in the BBC digital library system used by news programme-makers and although it wasn’t shot in Scotland, it had been apparently filmed that week, it was BBC copyright and was not marked with any restrictions on its use. Another producer pointed me in its direction and we agreed it could be used as I had nothing better on the Lib Dems to include in the film – which I needed to do for political balance. Over this theatrical clip my script asked the question: “Is that a cider apple tree?”
You can see the joke, such as it is, and why Charles Kennedy might be upset by it. On the other hand his resignation was at least four years previously, it had been routinely the butt of jokes and this was, after all, clearly billed as a satirical film. His clip was near the end, so anybody watching up to that point was in no doubt about the tone of the content. It was taking the piss and, I would argue, I was potentially more insulting to Annabel Goldie whom I also had portrayed with a huge Rotary Club red banner during a campaign visit. As she stood smiling, I intoned: “The People’s flat is deepest red, it’s shrouded oft our martyred dead…” etc.
The next day I came in to work and was met by a worried producer who said there had been trouble over my film and the whole series had been pulled. The Director of BBC Scotland was involved, I was told.
Both the Head of News and Current Affairs and the Editor of Newsnight had met with the Director Kenny MacQuarrie and it had been decided to bin my series in its entirety.
I was informed that Charles Kennedy had phoned in to complain about his portrayal. It appeared the Director had taken his complaint seriously.
It would be, to say the least, highly unusual for a senior BBC executive – in this case the Director – to involve himself directly in an editorial decision. Bosses like to maintain the idea of independent journalism, although the Director is technically Editor-in-Chief and, to be fair, this decision involved the man who could properly make that call, the Head of News. I was given no indication that any resistance had been offered to the idea of dropping future films. I was told that the Director was “very, very unhappy.”
Actually so was I. As a journalist there is nothing worse than the idea that some outside force has interfered with legitimate journalism and that a view which the public has a right to know is blocked because someone of influence doesn’t like it.
I was told that the Kennedy clip should not have been used without permission, although there was no restriction on its use that I was aware of. And even if the producer of the programme of origin had been unhappy with its broadcast in Scotland, which I was told he wasn’t, the fact is that the clip was in circulation in the BBC digital library and available for anyone to use. I wondered then if the claimed doubtful provenance of the clip was being used to justify what was essentially an emotional reaction to the Kennedy phone call?
I’m sure it is one of the unpleasant aspects of the job of a BBC executive to have to defend the broadcast of material that offends those in public life with whom they come into contact. But isn’t that one of the challenges of a boss…to put the corporate interest ahead of the personal? Isn’t that why in the case of the Director, for example, he’s paid £190,000?
To me this case smacked of the corporate wobbles, of an official unease at pushing the boundaries just a little to get a laugh out of the discomfort of the political classes who lecture the rest of us. I was unconvinced by arguments about the rights to a BBC film clip. As a journalist I saw it much more likely as a failure of nerve by BBC bosses.
I’m sorry about Charles Kennedy’s drink issues – goodness knows I’ve had a pint with him myself – but is it really a no-go area because he is embarrassed by it? Isn’t this the same man who hid the truth from the public and openly lied about it for years and whose party colleagues did the same? Is it really unacceptable to make a mild jibe about it in the context of a satirical item?
In any case, even if you accept the BBC view one hundred per cent and even if, for some unknown technical reason, I had no “permission” to broadcast the clip, is it not overreaction to ban all similar items throughout the election? Surely the obvious response, if it’s true the decision was based solely on one clip, was to remind Newsnight producers – and me – to take care over the selection of material and carry on rather than denying the viewers access to good output. And remember, this was not a decision based on a formal complaint from a member of the public and adjudicated upon. It was apparently the direct result of a single phone call from an MP. And for Charles Kennedy – what a result!
Which makes you wonder why the complaint from Liam Robertson was handled so completely differently. Mr Robertson went through the official complaints procedure. He didn’t know to call personally. His case began in July 2011 when he complained about a radio presenter on Morning Briefing being allowed to appear in a television advertisement and consequently the agenda of a BBC programme was distorted. I think the way this was dealt with showed the BBC at its worst; bureaucratic, nit-picking, dissembling and seemingly working its socks off to prove the licence-fee payer was wrong.
Yet what was the judgement of the BBC Trust?
That there had been a clear breach of the Guidelines on Conflicts of Interest as the news agenda of Morning Briefing had been distorted to take account of the presenter’s appearance in a television advertisement.
That, while not false, the effect of a statement made by the BBC with regard to the intervention of a senior manager was to mislead the complainant.
That the delays experienced by the complainant at various stages of the BBC’s handling had been unacceptable.
The Committee was dismayed to note the extremely long time – since the end of July 2011 – that the complainant had been pursuing these issues. (To May 2013…that is 22 months to you and me – a somewhat longer and more tortuous path for an ordinary licence-fee payer than the Route One – all over in 24 hours – approach for Charlie Kennedy, wouldn’t you say?)
In Mr Robertson’s case the BBC breached its own rules, “misled” a member of the public and strung out the process to an unacceptable degree. I challenge anyone, including Kenny MacQuarrie, to say the combination of these two cases shows anything other than a management failing in its duty to the licence-fee payers.
As Liam Robertson said to Newsnet: “What really concerns me…is the culture of denial at BBC Scotland. They denied everything without even doing a proper investigation, dragged out my complaint over two years and then, as the Trust concluded, they ‘misled’ me. It’s been an utter failure at every stage of the process and it makes me wonder how many other breaches are going unnoticed?”