Catching Up

Busy weekend and no time to blog…that’s where tweeting comes in. Why should anybody go more than a  day without knowing what I think?

If Headlines is dropped from Radio Scotland, I don’t think it shows bias, just lack of understanding of what the audience wants and lack of respect for the listeners. It has become one of the forums for different views and is a rarity on RS in that allows free flowing discussion at length, something that listeners crave. It also treats the listeners with respect by disparaging the silly scare nonsense that so much of the media pretends to take seriously. It also allows us to laugh which gets away from the mock sincerity of so much current affairs.

But why for example would you drop Headlines but keep the Business programme on a Sunday morning…a minority interest surely in what is surely dress down time at the weekend.  We shouldn’t make the assumption that the BBC knows what it is doing.  It manifestly does not, as with the   Saturday morning changes when they dropped Newsweek in favour of a two hour under resourced GMS. I hear it may be replaced with a debating format in which a Yes goes up against a No which could be a good idea with the right guests and referee but disastrous otherwise. I’m not sure that’s the relaxed Sunday morning thing either.

It won’t be presented by Andrew Marr, a fine journalist like James Naughtie who sought fame in London and found it. The problem here it seems is one of assimilation because after 25 or 30 years absorbing London culture and learning about it, embedding themselves there and bringing up families, they lose some aspect of what makes them Scots.

Is it not the same principe that applies to immigrants to Scotland? They adjust and acclimatise and are no longer the same people who left another country through time. It is a natural process but we make the mistake if assuming London or England is the same country when it is not. But like all diaspora they develop a confused impression of their identity and blame the rest of us for not sharing their view.  Presenters are notoriously egotistical and are allowed to puff up their egos until they become bullies and Big shots. They think they are bigger than the people they interview. Marr blew his Barroso interview and he now knows it. The lack if a follow up to find out what legal process would follow a Yes vote was inexcusable and laughable. Yesterday he was trying to cover that failing up but made a worse mess by giving us the Marr Declaration on the EU and was embarrassed by Salmond. It is the triumph of vanity over talent. And it is noticeable that the London Scots treat Salmnod with contempt, with a different tone from the one applied to Cameron.

Whatever bias there is in Scotland, we get a double dose via the London BBC.

Small Man

Radio Scotland is interviewing an academic from Aberdeen, I think from the excellent Rowett Institute, who says that after a bout of exercise people have a bias towards low calorie food. Does Ian Small know about this? The interviewer didn’t ask a single question doubting the methodology or deductions arrived at, taking the whole report at face value when, as we know, that is no longer BBC Scotland policy. When a report comes in it is the duty of the management to challenge its provenance to make sure it meets the BBC’s high standards of analytical efficacy. What constitutes exercise? Specifically which foods did respondents prefer and how did you assess their calorie count? Did you also offer them an alternative high calorie option? What tests did you do on the pizzas to make sure they were high calorie and are they industry-recognised tests? Who validated the report? Was it peer reviewed? Mercy, the questions just keep coming. Mr Small is going to be busy.

And actually he is…because as you may have seen the Culture Committee at Holyrood is to ask BBC executives about their response to the Bias in Broadcasting report which is a victory I think for the BBC’s critics. The management sought to warn off Dr Robertson in heavy-handed fashion. Now a bigger boy is tapping them on the shoulder and asking the questions. That means hours of homework for Mr Small who may not be feeling quite so big today.

Didn’t He Do Well?

Dr John Robertson of UWS acquitted himself rather well on Radio Scotland this morning in defending his Fairness in the First Year report on broadcasting and in the process made the BBC look small.

After listening to Dr Robertson, whom I’ve never met, I was left wondering what the BBC was afraid of. He didn’t rant. He didn’t accuse. He appreciated the pressures of newsgathering. He isn’t a Nat. He sounded surprised at his own findings and had expected them to be viewed as helpful. Not a bit of it. As we saw, his work, according to Newsnet, was first ignored by the Herald, then by BBC news and finally lambasted by the corporation’s management who overplayed their weak hand and have been left looking like bullies.

How could a massive taxpayer-funded organisation with, in Scotland, people earning at executive level from £100,000 a year up to nearly £200,000 make such elementary mistakes? My only answer is that, as I have pointed out from the outset when I began blogging last September, the quality of the senior managers at Pacific Quay simply isn’t good enough. They each have individual skills but collectively they amount to less than the sum of their parts. There is weak leadership, poor appointments, ill-considered decision-making, lack of communication with staff and audiences and they have developed an anti-news mentality where journalism is viewed as an expensive luxury when London is really interested in television production for the UK network.

With such endemic shortcomings, BBC Scotland badly needs a public-facing strategy to alleviate its declining credibility. If you run a business strategy company, start pitching today.

They could start by redefining what a separate BBC is for in Scotland because the tenor of executive utterings on this front are ambivalent. My view is that it exists to serve the Scots with news, current affairs, sport, culture, education, childrens, topical issues and drama designed by and aimed at the Scots. On top of that they earn extra income and kudos by producing programmes for London – as an extra. Instead what has happened in recent years is that Scotland has concentrated on producing output for London and diverted its energies into that sector which I think should come secondary to Scottish programming. The management have taken their eye off the ball and instead of breaking sweat to make sure the Scots are serviced first, they take domestic output for granted. By so doing, they allow the standard to reduce even when the staff – and especially the journalists – are screaming at them that the quality is suffering. This is dismissed as yet more moaning from the feather-bedded journalists so they miss what the audiences are experiencing which is questionable quality.

Ruthless budget pruning in news has had a deleterious impact. Newsnight is an example. It used to have two presenters over four nights, it had an editor and a team of programme producers, a film archivist, dedicated correspondents as well as programme director, a full-scale editing suit with editor and its own assigned film crew with a budget allowing for two-day shoots. Today, there is a single presenter, the editor doubles up as output producer, also doing Scottish Questions, there is no archivist, no dedicated correspondents, just staff off the reporter’s rota, the cameraman doubles up as editor in a news cupboard edit suite and almost every film is pulled together on the day. To cap it all, the last editor was so scunnered, he walked. The editorial chief of a top BBC brand news programme months before the biggest story of a journalist’s life and he slung his hook and left. Are you getting the message? Meanwhile, if you ask McQuarrie he will tell you there has been no impact on the quality of BBC journalism.

Kenny McQuarrie argues with me about this emphasis. When I say: You are making too many programmes for London, he retorts: No, we are making programmes for the BBC. In that answer lies the problem. He pretends that doing London’s bidding and making programmes for them is fine as it is one BBC, but the reality is that more money is spent on network (London) productions than Scottish ones, often the staff are flown up to make them – the joke is Made in Scotland, Wrap party in Islington –and the whole purpose of a BBC Scotland is to make programming for…well, think about it…the clue’s in the name. They have lost their focus on their core business – Scottish quality programming.

Another example is Jeff Zycinski as head of radio addressing a roomful of presenters (and pretending to tell them how to do their job) and showing a graph of how Radio Four’s Today programme is running neck-and-neck for audience with Radio Scotland’s GMS when everybody knows GMS should be miles ahead of London-based news output.  He then says it’s alright that so many Scots are listening to Radio Four so long as they are all listening to the BBC! No, no, no. If Scots start listening as much to Radio Four as they do to Radio Scotland, it begs the obvious question – what is a separate BBC Scotland for? Up until he was appointed head of radio we lived by the credo that GMS commanded a much larger audience in Scotland than Today and we had a higher share of AB’s, the decision-makers. His attempts at “popularising” the programme I believe drove listeners away to what they regard as a genuine BBC sound – that is the quality tone of Radio Four. In the endless search for new and younger audiences, they sacrificed the bedrock which is professionals aged over 50 interested in their own country and its place in the world. They were weaned on a quality BBC radio experience which many of them feel they don’t get any more in Scotland at crucial news junctures.

The letters and emails I received over those years confirmed this with listeners bemused as to what had gone wrong. One stat I recall was that in the final year of the GMS team I belonged to, we had the highest audience ever recorded over 12 months, according to Blair Jenkins, head of news. (What happened to him?) That has never been repeated since to my knowledge after Zycinski took over. But, like the ditching of Newsweek, this is a management which doesn’t listen to critics, internal or external, and doesn’t recant when found out to be wrong.

This week’s sordid little tale about the reaction to some academic research is part of a long-term trend in dismal decision-making. Don’t expect it to end soon.

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.

Radio Silence

Has anyone come across coverage of the West of Scotland University media bias report in the mainstream media? I can’t see it anywhere and don’t suppose BBC Scotland discussed it either. Isn’t that in itself remarkable…a Scottish university produces a report on a year-long study of news and finds a disturbing trend showing bias in what is a regulated industry – broadcasting – including the taxpayer funded BBC, and no one in the world of journalism in our country thinks it’s worth telling the public.

That’s a subject worth academic scrutiny all by itself…what principles do the media adhere to in judging items, who decides and what criteria are applied. I would certainly have suggested a follow up to the report and asked BBC management for a response. I’m surprised the National Union of Journalists hasn’t used it to claim the imbalance is down to cost-cutting, or perhaps they will. I remember on a previous occasion when Professor Tom Devine complained about Radio Scotland’s output, we decided to do the story and had to fight for a week with our own management to get them to agree to go on air to defend Radio Scotland. I think I said at the time they broke producer guidelines themselves demanding to know what would be said and what questions would be asked. I wonder when we will see the deeper more informed journalism promised from the Referendum Unit, or is this it? (There is a series of audience debate shows planned for different locations but this is hardly innovative.  Why not set our greatest minds to work on what will happen to Scotland Yes or No in opinionated, authored pieces designed to inspire people on both sides? I’d like  to hear a psychologist or anthropologist on why Scots are reluctant to believe in themselves as a nation – uniquely in the world. What is the genesis of this and is there any other nation like us? What is the point of the Union today and why have so many Unionists been trapped by history lying about our wealth? Can we examine exactly what a Devo Max would deliver? And should we be hearing from the BBC in depth research on the information provided so far and the running of the campaigns…including John Robertson’s report)

The print media normally devour anything to do with the BBC and are besotted with it. Many of them detest it and regard it as the opposition and here is a tale of it making the cardinal mistake of political bias, not someone’s assertion but evidence-based. Yet no-one picks it up, preferring bland Putin remarks about Scotland not being his business to a troubling Scottish issue.

The report gives the lie does it not to the Better Together posturing about their struggle against the forces of the Scottish government and how they were outgunned on the propaganda front and remember the risible efforts by Johann’s adviser Paul Sinclair to say BBC Scotland was a Nationalist front.