I’ve been asked for my views on the Bias in Broadcasting evidence to the Culture Committee earlier in the week and I’ve been putting off a response. The BBC hate me when I do and my correspondents hate me more. I criticise one and defend them to the other. It’s the Endurance of the Long-Distance Blogger.
From what I saw, the BBC are in full assault mode and totally unapologetic and as a result look unreasonable, defensive and flustered. It has become the default position of an organisation caught out by events and floundering.
To be fair, the BBC has to defend its reputation. It has a duty to do so and to stand up for its staff. It is the way it has gone about it that is wrong, by opening an inquisition on the author, referring the matter upwards to his boss, adopting an aggressive tone, questioning his credentials, nit-picking his report and failing to make sure it was reported in the normal way. At every stage, they made their predictable mistakes, one after the other, displaying a total lack of what an enlightened management would have regarded as a one-day wonder. By blundering into attack mode, placing themselves above another institution, resenting criticism and overreacting they insured we are still talking about the issue today, have had to read about it in the mainstream papers and found themselves hauled before MSPs.
It all underlines what I said about the day in 2011 when Salmond won his majority – the BBC should have seen the signs and prepared. From that moment the game was on and the Corporation was going to be centre stage. McQuarrie took his eye off the ball because 1) he was concentrating on cutting budgets and getting rid of journalists and 2) he spends far too much time in London and has no effective deputy. That is institutional failure.
Two things about the performance struck me. The first is how shifty John Boothman manages to look when asked a challenging question. He quickly shifts into angry mode creating an air of confrontation when a dash of humility or even, heaven help me, wit would be immeasurably more helpful. There is always a sense in which it is a personal attack he is undergoing rather than an inquiry into the organisation he represents, a fundamental flaw in a manager in which the two become interchangeable. It is exactly what I disliked about his dealings with Paul Sinclair in Johann Lamont’s office, seeming to confuse a personal relationship with what is surely a professional role heading BBC news and current affairs. Questions about programme content should be dealt with through the proper channels, not answered personally. His tendency to bridle and build up aggression doesn’t, to me, leave a positive impression of the BBC. I also suspect that he is everything Kenny McQuarrie dislikes as an urbane and cultured man himself. He must be aware of the image his head of news projects.
There is too a conundrum here. In any other newsroom in the world where their executives were facing a grilling from politicians, the journalists would crowd round the screens and egg their bosses on. ‘Defend us. Tell them we won’t be intimidated. Free speech’ etc. I doubt if a single journalist in the BBC newsroom did that. Instead they would be hoping the MSPs would land a blow or two on the BBC, so discredited and disliked are BBC managers. When McQuarrie praised the impartiality and professionalism of the journalists and the high quality output, you just knew they would be listening and saying: ‘If only…’ They know who cut the budgets and sacked their colleagues and damaged morale and made quality journalism that much harder. In sport it’s called losing the dressing-room.
Incidentally, I heard them say they didn’t have a number for how many complaints had been received about referendum coverage. I don’t believe it. That information is retrievable and if it showed say one per cent complaints, would have bolstered their argument. We’re not hearing the number because it’s too embarrassing to publicise.
The Bias story is a little tragedy for BBC Scotland. When I survey the output, I genuinely find very little to object to. Brian Taylor on GERs for example in his blog this week gave the classic fair BBC analysis. I don’t consume the mainstream obsessively though so inevitably miss a lot. What disappoints me is the failure to take control of this massive story and lead it…to provide exemplary coverage, to bring to the fore their own talented people into frontline roles (James Cook is the exception on the Scottish question time programme, interestingly produced by an independent company which presumably chose him for the job, not the BBC). The Bias row will be a legacy for the BBC, passed into the history of the campaign, leaving a taint over its reputation and for a huge number of Scots voting Yes, it will be confirmation for them of the Corporation’s failure. But right now the journalists have to get on with the job and put it behind them, as they have had to do over budget cuts since the whole suicidal exercise began. You don’t need John Robertson’s report to know how bad things are in the newsroom – check out the departure lounge. People are choosing to walk, leaving a career and pension and benefits behind in order to breathe freely and start again. And the air is good.