Recording now…

Wow! What a reaction…dozens of conversations and observations and some truly enlightening contributions full of fact and analysis. This is the place to be, I think. Even with all the assortment of emphasis and approach, it is clear we are all agreed that we are not being well served by BBC Scotland. That’s putting it mildly.

I know some responders are suggesting I am defending the BBC against claims of bias. I am not. I said at the outset that there was a general thrust in news and current affairs which doesn’t challenge enough and is too happy to accept a script which has Made in Britain stamped on it. I did try to move critics away from the idea that there is an organised conspiracy to stop independence. There isn’t. There are individuals who I agree sound as if they have a Unionist mindset and there is weak or poor journalism, mostly the result of ineffective leadership and remorseless budget pruning.

parliament-exterior-at-night1

In a way, as some of you point out, it matters not. What does matter is the perception of the BBC’s coverage and it is undoubtedly clear that a large number of Scots have lost faith and trust in the BBC. The corporation’s own polling shows us that and I think it is getting worse as this campaign goes on and will leave a residue of resentment afterwards.

This is deeply worrying for the BBC. Put it this way, there is in reality no such thing as complete impartiality. It is an aspiration and the BBC’s declared intention is to create a public perception of impartiality. That’s why for example they reprimanded Kirsty Wark for holidaying with McConnell. Of itself it means nothing but the perception has been damaging. The BBC is failing on the public perception front…which is one reason why they are appointing a parliamentary adviser.

This is the week when the management are asked at Holyrood about Professor Robertson’s report on Fairness in the First Year and I would like to see MSPs urging him to carry on his research throughout the year, asking the BBC to extend full access to the news decision-making process to him and promising they will  return to review this matter after September.

In other words the BBC should submit to a comprehensive external analysis of its output and approach so the public can see after September how it performed and if it met its obligations under the Royal Charter. This can’t be left to the BBC itself as it has proved itself pretty inept at defending its record so far. The research should extend beyond early evening news to encompass all broadcast news on radio and television, excluding perhaps online as that would mushroom the work to overwhelming levels. It can use Professor Robertson’s template for judging bias and apply it to interviews and programme treatments so see if one side is favoured over another as in last week’s Danny Alexander episode.

The BBC should fund the work as an act of faith in itself to demonstrate its belief of impartiality and as a sign that it is genuinely committed to allaying public concerns about its role in this campaign. If it did so, it would provide the organisation with something of a PR coup to undo the bad impression given by its truculent and unworthy response to Professor Robertson’s work. It might be an idea to send such a plan to your MSP or any member of the Culture and Sport committee chaired by Stewart Maxwell who is probably sick of me by now.

By giving him access to speak to the decision-makers in the news department and allowing them to justify their decisions, they would allow him to make more precise and detailed analysis which is one of the criticisms they made of his work. It would also oblige everyone in the BBC to think very clearly why judgements were being made if they had to be accounted for – which is really management’s job but which doesn’t happen. What do you think?

Advertisements

You’re Derek Bateman!

Campaigns aren’t supposed to contemplate defeat in advance and I know people – like Pat Kane in Stirling last night – who refuse to go there. It’s never been my view though because as a journalist as opposed to a participant, it has always been my job to look at both sides and all outcomes. I am deadpan about opinion polls in that I read them and refuse to go up or down. They are what they are according to what question was asked and when. They tell us what people said at a moment in time and not what they will do on September 18. I hear from people all the time saying openly and confidently that we will win. They have no doubt. I heard the same again last night from people who are out every week canvassing. I can’t disagree with them and am taken aback at their conviction. You’ll never get me to that stage. If I’m confident, I’ll go quiet. So if I ever write a line about victory being in sight, you’ll know it’s the wine working on the medication.

Pat Kane

These Yes meetings are cathartic for me. It is quite scary going from journalist to public participant – a totally different and unnerving transfer of attitude and skills which I would never have contemplated if it were not for what I regard as the national cause of independence. I am completely, perhaps madly, committed. It is gradually changing my life. I have forsaken an embarrassingly large amount of income, despite having wife and family; I have  put myself out here on a front line with opinions I didn’t know I had; I have jeopardised and, in some cases, severed associations I valued; I have fought an aversion to public speaking and learned to have no fear. I am for the first time in my life exposed – to ridicule, hostility and to recognition and respect.

I spent 25 years at BBC Scotland yet I am now better known than I ever was. I am recognised on the street. Improbably, people shake my hand. Love your blog, I get often. People tell me who I am…you know – You’re Derek Bateman!

I never was one of the select few who qualified for star treatment at BBC Scotland, not after the arrival of Jeff Zycinski as Head of Radio – he had other favourites to promote. Nor did I actively seek it, to be fair. But it is notable that six months blogging has done more for my public profile than 25 years as a BBC presenter. I also feel good about myself as in sure of what I’m doing, mostly because of the overwhelming response of Scottish people to what I write. I was always proud and a bit honoured to talk to Scotland via radio – that connection was something I really valued, more than the ego trip of being on air. But now, in a more grassroots sense, I feel part of the Scottish community, not set apart behind a mike and the welcome has been warm.

I mention this and what happens if there is a No because it came up last night – again – that this is a real movement. It is cross-cultural, it is classless, party-less and it is creative and innovative. It is self-perpetuating and it is become clear that there is no reason for it to quietly turn away if the referendum is lost. It extends beyond, far beyond, constitutional change. It is discussing how to do things differently, how to take control, how to make change rather than wait for it. It is developing a life stream that may not be stoppable, that can carry on into community action, breaking down the doors that prevent us taking part, deter us from voting, keep us from demanding and leave us at the mercy of a political machine. It needs a little co-ordination and could retain the name Yes because that sums up the attitude that defines it. Something powerful and inspiring has been born and it won’t lie down on September 19.

Meanwhile*, I’ve been wailing at the moon. Having spent part of last night at the Yes meeting in Stirling defending BBC journalism against claims of bias, I made the mistake of tuning in this morning to my old programme Good Morning Scotland. I shuddered at what has happened to it.

If you are going to preview your big story – Danny Alexander live! – followed by John Swinney – as live as he gets – you really need to have some ammunition. You need a case to make, a challenge to throw, a worked-out response for their totally predictable line of propaganda. I listened in horror to Alexander running rings around the studio for part of the interview, repeating ad nauseum his mantra of better together, too risky, no currency union. He hopped from point to point, assertion to assertion with barely a challenge. If you’d pulled back a curtain to reveal Blair McDougall and Paul Sinclair with headphones on producing the programme, it wouldn’t have surprised me. For much of the time it was the politician’s dream. He must have thought he got away with a free hit, getting a pop at his opponent while hammering home his own propaganda. And yet, when he was challenged he was laughably inept. It didn’t sound as if the pre-programme planning had been done to work out an interview strategy. For example…

What does the refusal to consider a currency agreement imply? Clearly Alexander believes Scotland has made no contribution to sterling over 300 years and has no rights to it as an asset under the Treaty of Union, otherwise he couldn’t deny Scotland. How does he justify that belief that the Scots played no role in building up a successful currency – that’s a denial of the Union itself – and how does it fit with his party policy of federalism that Scotland is a non-contributor to sterling’s value? And if Scotland’s contribution is non-existent, which UK nation has created a strong currency – is it perhaps only England?

This is a game of bluff – that’s why Danny is pressing the button again today – and your opinion depends on who you believe. Wasn’t Danny in the Lib Dem team who gave personal assurances to students there would be no tuition fees? Does that make him a man to trust? And since the whole British government is behind the currency blockage, is it a sign of how much we can trust them that it takes two years to admit a radiation leak at Dounreay? The newspapers are asking today what happened to the Respect Agenda? The Scots are learning they can’t believe what London tells them – they lied about the value of oil forty years ago as Denis Healy admits and kept secret the McCrone Report and some of us remember being lied to over Iraq by a Cabinet including Ed Balls and Alistair Darling. The track record is one of mendacity. Why should it change now over currency?

This is the job of the programme team collectively to build a case to present since Alexander isn’t on to inform or enlighten, he is on air to preach and make a nakedly political point. It is the BBC’s duty to counter. It is not an optional extra. And whatever is going on behind the scenes, whatever staff cuts and budget reductions, there is a standard of professionalism expected by the listener – and frequently trumpeted by the BBC itself.

What was revealing was just how tongue-tied Alexander gets when a proper question is asked. He really isn’t a smart operator, he is essentially a message boy. He can repeat – and repeat – the message but drag him off topic and he flounders. He was reduced, pathetically, to implying there is no plan for the EU In/Out referendum – British industry’s real fear and the reason bosses are happy to play along now on the Scottish question, in the expectation they will get the result they want on Europe. He may have no plan, but his boss, the man he answers to and with whom he sits in the Quad planning the Scottish campaign, definitely and explicitly does want a Euro referendum. That means Danny is a junior part of a government planning a referendum. Isn’t it safer for business to exist in pro-European Scotland as their European base than risk what could well be a vote in the UK to come out of the EU? You just have to press him on the point and he falls apart.

And when it was put to him what his role would be if there is a Yes, he was reduced to rubble. Even Michael Moore could answer that one! Danny’s job as we all know, will be to change sides and work his wee socks off for Scotland and his constituents. Since he fumbled it, he should have been asked: Are you really unsure where your duty lies after a Yes vote? Isn’t that more telling than any argument over currency, Minister? Your loyalties lie with the British side and with the Tories you now work with and for you Scotland and the Highlands come second – that’s the Union in a nutshell. Still, we all have off-days…had them myself.

But of course no referendum item is complete nowadays, it seems, on Radio Scotland or Radio Four, without the cross-border airwaves hopper that is Mr Naughtie, popping up at every turn of the dial like one of those nincompoops in a Whitehall farce, trousers round ankles. Here he comes again…ha ha! Jim’s mad scurry from Scotland to London and back has been a masterstroke for the British, cementing the concept of Union more firmly than oor Danny will ever manage. He’s like an advert: Look, I work exactly the same in both places at once – same words, same attitudes, same outlook. Glasgow? London? Makes no difference to me. Same Jim. Same country. It’s called Britain, Jock. Got it?!

Thus in interview with Swinney, Britain’s overtly political stance on currency – rubbished by experts like the Fiscal Commission – is, to Jim, “a fact”. Immutable. Permanent. Indisputable. Any suggestion it is a political threat is laughed out of court. Yet the response that the debt will indeed remain – as Britain insists it will – as Britain’s debt, is a “clear threat” by the Nats. This is following the Better Together narrative as if they were writing his script. Now I know they aren’t, so I think we can safely say we getting the benefit of Mr Naughtie’s personal reading of the situation here. He might as well ask: Why aren’t you playing the Unionists’ game? Why won’t you do what we all expect you to do? You really don’t understand the power structure do you, Mr Swinney? London runs the country and when they speak, you jump. So jump.

And, if I was a producer, I would asking myself why the programme didn’t focus on pensions as that is what Alexander is up in Edinburgh to propagandise about. This is rich pickings for both the Yes side and a BBC interviewer as there is no national pension pot, just a circulation of tax and national insurance funding the old age pension every month, utterly dependent on today’s taxpayers. And we still have one of the lowest pensions in the developed world and we can look over to Norway to see how Britain – broad shoulders and deep pockets – did what Britain failed to by investing the oil money.

I told the disbelieving people of Stirling last night that there was no deliberate or organised bias at BBC Scotland but I’m starting to run on empty. All I admit to is my belief that the BBC is failing – generally speaking as there are exceptions – to match up to the challenge thrown up by the referendum.  People don’t believe me though and I notice the RAJARS for Radio Scotland were down at a time when there is heightened interest in current affairs and there isn’t – or rather there shouldn’t – be any competition for speech-based radio in our country.  I fear what the next round of audience appreciation will reveal about the publics’ views on the national broadcaster.

Easy for me to say though. I’m just an ordinary licence-fee payer.

And thanks, Stirling…

PS I was leaving Stirling in the dark through the mist and rain when I became aware of a dim light outside high up to my right. I put down the window and there, towering above me, was the black mass of the castle, spotlights struggling to pierce the shroud of mist, casting an eerie glow. It was an awesome sight. I wonder if that’s how Proud Cressingham and his knights saw it before Stirling Brig…

* Anybody else notice that on Radio Four news tonight they told us about Alliance, the Dundee-based investment company, setting up shadow companies in England but didn’t mention Aviva, a much bigger outfit, saying it wasn’t a problem for them? Maybe they did Aviva  last night and I missed it but all the output I’ve heard has missed the Aviva story out, exactly as the Daily Telegraph did which covered Alliance  and then segued into the currency/Barroso fiasco. I used to argue that BBC Scotland should have a unit that had oversight of all BBC output on the referendum to check accuracy and balance to avoid that kind of London-centric reporting, but really, what’s the point? We will have to do this ourselves.

 

Dear Sir….

I’ve got a job at last! Blogging to end immediately…I’m hunting out my suit…Listen to this – BBC Scotland wants a public affairs adviser, someone with intimate knowledge of Scottish politics, who understands broadcasting and can advise senior management at PQ. It’s made for me…

They’re advertising for a good communicator – duh! – who can sort through a mass of information quickly and produce a coherent synopsis and tell the managers what to do to improve their image. Why did they bother to advertise? Must be able to talk with politicians (Johann will forgive me) and find out what’s happening in the corridors of power to tip off Kenny McQuarrie in advance. It’s made for me.

Of course I’ll miss this sharing my thoughts with all of you from the Maryhill Media Centre but it was only a stop-gap until I walked back into the Beeb as a rehabilitated big shot. And just before I go – can I say to you whining Nats out there that I have never detected the merest hint of bias in any of the BBC’s referendum coverage. Oh yes, I humoured you to keep you reading to get my numbers up but I knew they were doing their very best in there and anyway they know they’ll be on the winning side. So, farewell suckers. You know where you can stick your Yes stickers…

The job? Well it’s Adviser to BBC Scotland Public Policy and Corporate Affairs, answerable to one Ian Small, remember him? My good friend Ian is the man who wrote a perfectly reasonable letter of complaint to Dr Robertson* of some university nobody has ever heard of who dredged up the old chestnut of bias and had to be put in his place for impertinence. I think Ian and I could work very closely together in the interests of the BBC. I know he never reads this blog anyway. I know this because a colleague asked him if he’d seen my coverage of the bias affair and he shouted: ‘Don’t speak to me about that bloody blog’ and put his fingers in his ears.

The job is directly related to the referendum and independence, which is funny because that’s exactly what I said a few posts ago. I said they had misjudged it and needed strategy advice. I said it wasn’t business as usual as they claimed and pointed out they had no one in the team who was the voice or face of BBC Scotland who could represent them to the wider world. It must just be coincidence that they’ve reached the same conclusion now.

I was pleased but puzzled to read they want someone who can ‘build and establish trusted and effective working relationships with key parliamentary, government and corporate stakeholders’ as that’s what I said they weren’t doing. In fact I said it was a signal failing of the Director McQuarrie that he had no on-going personal relationship with his greatest ally in Scotland, the First Minister.

‘Must be able to deal with a wide range of people with tact and diplomacy’. (I’ll give Ian a wee lesson in letter-writing to innocent academics)

There’s a reference to dealing with complaints about referendum issues but to be honest I think the old method’s the best…Dear Sir/Madam, Fuck off, Yours sincerely.

I also suspect that since none of the high heid yins are remotely effective at answering questions that this appointee may find him/herself fronting up before MSPs to save senior execs the bother. To be fair, I was told that there was no initial plan on the media committee to investigate BBC Scotland until John Boothman gave evidence. He appeared so shifty, they thought he must be hiding something and there was unanimous cross-party support for a full inquiry.

Mind you, two hard facts emerge from reading this. First, it is Grade 10 in the BBC pay scale. Now that’s the top of the range for a programme-making journalist – as in an Editor – but it is below management, so anyone on the outside dealing with this person will know they have no real clout. It means they are officially not a decision-maker but mostly a messenger. The other people who know this are the BBC bosses themselves which means, if for example, bad news comes back from Holyrood about the quality of Radio Scotland, the Head of Radio, our chum jolly Jeff Zycinski will brush it aside and carry on regardless. Only an executive with authority cannot be ignored.

Secondly, my heart bleeds that £50,000 can be found for a corporate position, one that does management’s job for them, when the same people sacked 35 journalists, ridding the BBC of experience and quality at the very time in its history it was most needed.

If they wanted a human shield, why not save money by asking Brian Taylor, their best connected and most respected political staffer, to take on the role? This is a sign of crisis management. If such a person was envisaged why wait until six months before the vote? Why not two years ago when, as I say, all the planning should have been done. Dysfunctional? You bet. But how else would you want them to spend your money…making Scottish programmes?

(I’m trying to think where I left my suit…and where’s that application form?)

*Just been made up to full Professor at UWS. Now Professor John W Robertson, Convenor: CCI Research Ethics Committee, Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, School of Creative and Cultural Industries, University of the West of Scotland. week done him. Must be for services to broadcasting…

Back to the Eighties

Are we being informed by BBC Scotland now that it has moved into formal mode? The realisation has finally dawned on management at PQ that “something is happening in Scotland…what is it again?”

Tonight’s BBC 2 programme based on the opinion polling asking what are the main issues confirmed mostly that some of the answers are unknowable at least with any accuracy which is generally true, if you allow the British government off the hook by accepting their decision not to engage. What I wanted to hear throughout this programme were the words… “but the UK wont tell us because they prefer us to be ignorant and confused up to polling day in order to get a No vote”.

You can say of course I would say that, wouldn’t I, but is anyone outside the BT zombie zone suggesting otherwise? I don’t think so. So we had a section on currency which was fine except nowhere did I hear two key points. The first was that you can’t just join the Euro. You must have your own currency to start with – we don’t – and the pound doesn’t count if it’s ruled that it is the rUK’s currency. So we would need our own currency and then apply to join the exchange rate mechanism for at least two years before qualifying for entry – if we meet the convergence criteria. So at this stage the euro really ISN’T an option. But the most telling omission surely was the question of London’s view. We didn’t hear the critical point that on all known data Scotland’s oil and export muscle helps the power of the pound and without Scotland the currency looks vulnerable. And because of the sheer volume of cross-border trade, business will demand that the politicians keep Scotland in the pound. Therefore it is in England’s interests to retain Scotland in a currency union. That’s called perspective and I didn’t hear it. It seems to me that the main point here is that we could be negotiating, to get clarity or otherwise but London has set its face against it. Worth a mention?

I’m afraid I missed the section on the EU but then I’m not good at watching programmes which do lists and pretend it’s the hit parade. They’re striving to make it relevant and accessible but was it just a bit patronising in tone? John Gordon Sinclair’s voice-over was straight from Gregory’s Girl – he must have aged a wee bit by now? – and makes you think none of this is important  at all, it’s a bit of a laugh, like when his mate who’s a window cleaner says that you ask the lady of the house if she can fill up your bucket and Gregory asks: “Is that code for something…”

Didn’t they have Clare Grogan doing voice over in last week’s programme? Are they taking us back to the 80’s. Is that BBC Scotland’s comfort zone – the Thatcher years  before devolution? Will Mary Marquis present the next one?

I also thought it was ugly to look at…I’ve never liked those thin bars they put across the images which make you screw up your eyes. If it’s used briefly in flashback it works but throughout a whole programme it simply distorts the images and nothing should block your view. And fading in and out of negative is hackneyed too and is hard to look at. Good to see David Bell, Nicola McEwan and Jo Armstrong on camera although Jo fell into the trap I blame all economists of…failing to realise that the numbers you see today may change for the better. Scotland’s economy might actually improve, Jo and we might be energised and create new business, other new countries have. And her unqualified assumption that oil will deliver less revenue omits the age-old economic principle that a scarce commodity goes up in value. Also, did she miss the FT articles showing immediate enrichment for every Scot from independence? She went on about not knowing how long any improvement might take when the answer appears to be, from official stats – £100 a week for every family household, immediately.

But, hey, it’s early days and it’s good to see the BBC Scotland correspondents pretending to get on with each other round a table…

Was that the Cross of St George on Douglas Fraser’s tie and is it a subliminal message to the Undecided?

 

 

BBC: Can We Just Let It Go Now?

BBC Scotland is attempting to extricate itself from the controversy over the UWS Bias in Broadcasting report. In a letter to the researcher Dr John Robertson they repeat accusations that his work is unprofessional and say they now conclude they “must agree to disagree”. Corporation bosses are keen to end the row they started by questioning the validity of the year-long study that found the early evening news displayed bias and was having a detrimental effect on the Yes side.

In another pointed and reproachful letter* the head of policy Ian Small asserts that the findings of bias are variously flawed, inaccurate, misrepresentations, guesses, distorted and value-laden. In a highly subjective assessment, Small offers no evidential base for his accusations, repeating exactly the error he accuses Robertson of committing.

He fails to say how the BBC has reached its conclusions, what methodology it used or evidence to support his contentions. There is no independent assessment, only the value-laden judgement of BBC bosses infuriated at being accused of failing in their duty.

The only attempt at providing evidence is a reference to a health report about a woman whom Dr Robertson said was revealed to be a “Labour plant”. Small says this is complete fabrication – “as the person has confirmed to us.” He doesn’t indicate what else he expected her to say when asked by the BBC the question: “Are you a Labour Party plant?” He then underlines the phrase: “There is no truth whatsoever in your accusation”.  Why would he do that in what is supposed to be a professional and appropriate letter from a major public organisation? To me he again sounds like an angry consumer who has found his bill is too high, rather than a cool and detached executive.

There is no word of conciliation, no offer of a meeting, no explanation why the report was not originally aired and no mention of why this report, alone among the thousands sent to the BBC every year, was singled out for such intense scrutiny and systematic rubbishing, and if it is pure coincidence that it was critical of the BBC.

I think the opening sentence is revealing. He is worried about corporate reputation. You bet he is. Nothing hurts them like the idea that they are biased…it goes to the very heart of why we have a BBC and why we are all obliged to pay for it. But the “impact on corporate reputation of the university” is clearly a threat. It says to me: “We can make all this public and embarrass you and the university and who knows, someone might lose their job”. From the once liberal, open-minded, and self-confident BBC this is nasty stuff and illustrates the decline in the corporate ethos.

Here is a simple answer to the whole controversy. If they had the talent, they would have foreseen what was coming down the track nearly three years ago and immediately instituted a balance checking system to monitor their output and, without viewers even knowing, would have been providing carefully unbiased news reports. It didn’t need to be precise and balanced on a weekly basis but it would have provided an at-a-glance service to producers. It would also have meant that if and when someone like Dr Robertson came along and challenged them they could simply point to their own in-house data and silenced the critics. Now wouldn’t that have been clever? Certainly better than the unedifying, reputation-shredding slanging match they are now engaged in.

This is the latest manifestation of the lack of acuity and imagination to be found in the current BBC Scotland management which has also led them into the worst industrial relations dispute in the whole of the corporation. Behind that there is a deeper institutional problem. The Trust holds no sanction over them. It can admonish but it can’t hurt them and no one ever suffers for the mistakes and miscalculations. They can’t lose business and therefore income. The Parliament has no statutory authority over them. Viewers and listeners have no real choice but to use them. They control the private sector in programme-making and are in effect untouchable. When allied to lack of talent, it makes for a damaging mix and because of the referendum the scrutiny is intense and has exposed them. Let’s hope the investment in new programmes produces the right uplift in quality. (It’s a pity we won’t see the new referendum evening show until May.)

*Dear Dr Robertson

Thank you for your email with attachment.

In your comments you note that your report does not represent the corporate view of the University.  We did not suggest it did.  What we said was that we believe it holds the potential to impact on the corporate reputation of the university in the same way that it does that of BBC Scotland.  We see that it carries the logo of the university on its cover.  For that reason, again, as with all of our correspondence, this email is copied to the University Principal.

I’m  afraid there is nothing within your most recent communication that alters our view that important parts of the research methodology, the report contents and the conclusions are flawed.

Factual errors appear throughout the report (including significant inaccuracies in the number of news hours claimed as the evidence base for the report); it is highly subjective in its approach and highly selective in its choice of ‘evidence’ to support its contentions; many of its contentions about Reporting Scotland have no evidential base and are either misinterpretations or simply wrong; many of its general conclusions appear to be little more than guesses; the interpretation of data in crude quantitative terms, working from transcripts, appears to have resulted in a skewed and distorted analysis of broadcast output; much of the terminology used remains undefined and the language within the report is often, and very clearly, value-laden.

In your most recent attachment you accuse Reporting Scotland (on 27/9/12), in a story on NHS treatment, of including a case study of a seriously ill woman whom you say “turned out to be a Labour plant”. The person in question has confirmed to us that this is a complete fabrication – there is no truth whatsoever in your accusation.

Finally, you conclude, again without any evidence, that the BBC is responsible for “propagandising techniques” and somehow is involved in a “blanket suppression” of your report “across the mainstream media in the UK”.  I’m afraid there is now little more to be said regarding your report and we believe it best, in conclusion, to agree to disagree.

Ian Small

BBC: Balance the Bias

It looks like BBC Scotland is compounding its overreaction to the Bias in Broadcasting report. It is now embarked on a course of forensic examination to challenge the detail of the UWS work in an attempt to claim that it is wrong to suggest bias in favour of the No campaign. The letters currently going out give some detail of the areas they object to – the first time the BBC has publicly acknowledged to licence-fee payers what its concerns are.

“It took us several days to review the research available to us within the report and when doing so we identified a number of inaccuracies within it. In addition we would also question the methodology as well as the fundamental validity of the conclusions it reached. 

It is our view that the report consistently fails to support its contentions with factually accurate evidence; for example there are several substantive factual inaccuracies within the references it makes to Reporting Scotland news output. We are also concerned, for example, with the inclusion of a number of non-referendum stories within the data outlined in the report. 

We also believe that the report failed to define terminology used within it; for example ‘fairness’, ‘insulting language’ etc. or whether any account was taken of what the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines or the Ofcom Broadcasting Code have to say in this respect.

The report concludes the authors have “evidence of coverage which seems likely to have damaged the Yes campaign.” Our strongly held view is that there is no evidence whatsoever, as contained within the report, that supports this contention. It is no more than an assumption, based on the report’s findings which, themselves, we contest.”

Previous descriptions of their concerns were put in the public domain via the letter sent to Dr John Robertson, the author, from the head of public policy Ian Small, a letter seen by Dr Robertson’s university colleagues. This is a change in tactic after the PR mistake of replying to all correspondents with a standard letter of rebuff advising them where to make complaints. Dr Robertson, I understand, is not for backing down and stands by his research and is ready to counter the BBC’s assault on his work. In the meantime some questions arise.

Who drew the BBC management’s attention to this research since the news department did not report it? Or did the news department not report it because it was asked not to by management – a serious breach of editorial rules?

Does BBC Scotland routinely check the methodology and credibility of academic reports? Or is this the only time this has happened? If so, is it just a remarkable coincidence that the report they decide to challenge is critical of the BBC itself?

Will all academic studies which come across the BBC’s desk be subject to the same credibility check from now on and if not, why not? Does the BBC take at face value all other research from other sources or only research pointing out BBC shortcomings?

One of my correspondents said he was interviewed by a pollster asking about bias in BBC news coverage. Why is the BBC commissioning survey data on this subject if they are convinced they are treating both sides equally? And if they now have that data would they like to publish it? It is after all paid for by the audience who have a right to see it. It may well back the view that there is no perception of bias in which case it would be interesting given most peoples’ views. But how revealing would it be if it turned out to support Dr Robertson’s contention of bias? The BBC should be asked to publish this polling material. (If any of you do write in, don’t be fobbed off with claims it doesn’t exist. I know of a case where a national newspaper asked for listening figures from the year 2005 when Jeff Zycinski became head of radio in order to compare them with up-to-date listening figures. The BBC press office was instructed to tell the reporter than the data didn’t go back that far…a blatant untruth…RAJARS as they are known, which measure audiences, have been going since 1992. Who would instruct such an untrue statement to be released?)

The BBC really need to win this or they will not only be guilty of bias but of overreacting and making themselves looks very silly. The trouble is that all they’ve got is an attempt at undermining the university work when what they really need is their own internal assessment of the first year of output. Only then will they be able claim a victory. First they must get enough voices to agree the UWS work is not good enough and then they have to prove their own programming was not biased. This they can do by repeating the exhaustive work carried out by Dr Robertson and reviewing all of their early evening news output for the year in question and doing so under the professional eye of an independent adjudicator. If they don’t trust John Robertson, why should he trust them? They cannot claim they don’t have the base material – it’s all in the archive.

Meanwhile it would be helpful if the MSPs started to wind up another inquiry into the operation of BBC Scotland and tease out why they are so scared of Dr Robertson’s work and if there has been interference in editorial decision-making over his report.

By the way…there’s another issue of bias underway…BBC Scotland is taking keen interest in the latest House of Lords pantomime which of course is entirely one-sided, like the Scottish Affairs Committee. We already heard Ian Lang on Radio Scotland this morning – not debating of course, one doesn’t do on-air debates – and no doubt there will be equal time for an SNP person tomorrow but how do they cover a debate in which every overblown, self-important anti-democratic windbag says the same thing? Personally I’d ignore it. Does any Scot care what unelected party placemen say about anything – apart from the forelock-tuggers awaiting their own ennoblement. I’d say Darling and Tavish first…any others?

BBC Bias Update

A quick word about where we are on the BBC Bias row. Your emails to the main players in this little BBC drama have all been received with interesting results. Stewart Maxwell MSP who chairs the culture committee, the nearest thing we have to a broadcast monitor, got dozens of messages, according to his office and he is conscientiously answering them individually. Good for him, although I suspect he hates my guts now. But here is a man focussed on meeting public aspiration – needing votes, if you will – and working his socks off.

Contrast that with another public servant, Mr Ian Small, public policy chief of BBC Scotland, who is, in the absence of a Director or a Deputy Director able and willing to front up for a great institution, the nearest thing there is to a public face and voice of BBC Scotland. He has sent round an automated response, according to those of you who have contacted me. That tells you they are already in their bunker at PQ on the management floor, desperately deflecting and unable to find the words to defend their over-the-top reaction to a piece of critical research. When they don’t have an answer, they throw the automated response button which is the BBC corporate equivalent of saying F**k Off.

Yet again, they have misjudged the licence-fee paying public and opted to treat them with contempt. They have observed, rightly, that this is a piece of campaigning and decided to dismiss each and every one of you as worthless. But why is a campaigning individual worthless?  Isn’t commitment to engage exactly what the BBC is constantly urging everyone to do… “Do text in and tell us what you think…here’s our email address…contact the programme…” To which they should add…”unless you’re complaining about something in which case, you’re a worthless loser.”

Small didn’t even deign to answer a single point, just put people off with an address where they can complain.  And of course, we know what happens then…they take a year to respond, as they did over the Science Tower row, lie to the complainant and lose the case when the Trust find them guilty. But no one is reprimanded, no one loses their job and no one takes the blame. Brilliant! Why would they respond with grace and alacrity like Stewart Maxwell when there is no sanction, no penalty except a generalised embarrassment which bounces off the rhino skins at PQ.

It reminds me of a listener-led campaign to save Newsweek, a programme  I presented. It was the third highest audience for any programme on Radio Scotland, after weekly GMS and seasonal football which trumps them all and through which the BBC buys an audience because they pay the SPFL for the rights. The Head of Radio Jeff Zycinski forced through the Saturday morning changes against public and internal opposition and later issued a message that “real listeners” backed the changes. In other words, all those hundreds of people, many of whom had been loyal listeners for decades who took the trouble to support the programme by writing in, were dismissed as what? Trouble-makers? Non-listeners? Just contemptible individuals not worthy of concern, obviously.

The BBC gets this so wrong. There must be PR and marketing people out there who immediately spot the glaring mistakes they keep making, notably the utter inability to communicate…and this is the world’s biggest communications organisation.

They erred in writing an intemperate letter to the researcher, shouldn’t  have ostentatiously copied in his boss and should have taken care to reply to each complaint individually. If Stewart Maxwell can do it with one assistant, why can’t the BBC with hundreds of admin staff?

I don’t know what the truth is about this research – if it’s accurate or robust – but I do know the BBC has blundered badly in its response and has already lost any high ground it could have claimed. Thank God there is still some journalistic guts among my old mates at PQ. I hear Dr Robertson will appear on GMS in the morning explaining his work and it will be intriguing to hear what the BBC management response is. At least they haven’t been able to bully Radio Scotland into avoiding what has become a very tricky and unedifying episode for the BBC, thanks to all your efforts.