Donalda McKinnon, the heidbummer of BBC Scotland, has announced that she’s retiring from the job after just over three years in post. When she took the job in December 2016 she announced that her task was to restore trust in the BBC amongst the Scottish public. So that worked out well, didn’t it.
It was the behaviour of the Corporation during the independence referendum which more than anything destroyed the BBC’s once prized reputation for fairness and impartiality in Scotland. But the rot had set in even before there was any prospect of an independence vote. Back in the 80s and 90s and the early years of this century, the news management at Pacific Quay had an incestously close relationship with the Labour party. Senior members of BBC staff infamously attended the regular lunch meetings held monthly in Glasgow by the disgraced Stephen Purcell, who was at the time the Labour leader of Glasgow City Council and tipped for future leadership of the party.
When Stephen Purcell, who to his credit has since come out in support of independence, fell from grace, the response of the Corporation was to circle the wagons and suppress any attempts to investigate the story. Purcell admitted to cocaine use. Yet as far as the BBC in Scotland was concerned the story was that he had resigned due to mental health issues and we were all to be invited to sympathise with him in his time of struggle. However at the time there was a swirl of rumours of assorted goings on within Glasgow Council, rumours about inappropriate activities, allegations of contacts with criminals, reports of bullying, intimidation, and allegations that certain favoured individuals were benefitting financially in dubious ways. There were even some rumours of some particularly disturbing incidents. None of these were ever investigated by the BBC so to this day we remain in the dark about the truth or otherwise about the allegations.
The Corporation did its best to close down the story. It came across as a blatant example of BBC Scotland protecting the British establishment in Scotland. Any attempt to raise these wider issues in the comments section of the BBC Scotland website was immediately censored, no matter how carefully phrased to avoid any possibility of defamation. The story was brave Stephen’s struggle with mental health issues. Everything else was off limits.
Compare and contrast with the way in which the BBC hounded Michelle Thomson, the former SNP MP for Edinburgh West. Michelle was fully investigated and found to have done nothing wrong, but that didn’t prevent the BBC from doorstepping her and ensuring that the story was headline news for months. The difference of course is that the latter was an SNP politician.
Then there was the still unexplained decision by BBC Scotland management to prevent public comments on articles on the BBC Scotland website. Punters in Scotland were prevented from giving their opinion. This closure happened a few months after the Purcell incident, and suspicions remain that there was a causal relationship between the two. We don’t know. The BBC has never bothered to explain to the Scottish public that pays for its existence why it decided to refuse to allow members of that Scottish public to comment on BBC Scotland stories. The policy remains in effect to this day, still unexplained, despite Donalda McKinnon’s announcement that she sought to restore trust with the Scottish public.
It was the BBC’s behaviour during the independence referendum which more than anything destroyed the willingness of many in Scotland to give it the benefit of the doubt. What we saw during 2014 was a Britfest. At best mere lip service was given to the principle of giving both sides in the debate equal treatment. Right up until a few weeks before the referendum, when the period of purdah was officially in place, the BBC persisted in treating the independence question as one of party politics instead of as a binary yes or no. We were regaled with a single SNP politician up against three opponents, one each from Labour, the Tories, and the Lib Dems. We were loftily informed that this was balance.
Then there was the BBC’s peculiar willingness to give huge publicity to any story which painted independence in a poor light, and its reluctance to give publicity to stories which were favourable for independence. An example which I spoke about in the London Calling documentary about bias in reporting during the referendum campaign, a documentary which has never been shown on TV and which never will be, will suffice by way of illustration.
During the campaign, the SNP announced that its policy for an independent Scotland was to get rid of Trident missiles and warheads from Scotland, but to seek membership of NATO. Various Better Together figures asserted that an independent Scotland which got rid of the UK’s nuclear viagra would never be allowed to join NATO. This assertion was made several times in interviews and was never challenged by any BBC reporter. It was never mentioned at any point that another country had already done exactly what an independent Scotland was proposing to do, but which we were being told was impossible. Spain got rid of American nuclear submarines and missiles from the US base at Rota in southern Spain after the death of the dictator Franco. Spain then went on to join NATO. This information is clearly germane to the discussion about an independent Scotland and NATO, but the BBC never thought to mention it. Instead it allowed Better Together politicians to make their assertions, and to allow them to stand unchallenged.
Then there was Rory Stewart’s peculiar documentary. The BBC gave public money to a Conservative MP in the spring of 2014 to front a very odd documentary giving publicity to his ahistorical and idiosyncratic theory that Britishness was a far older and more organic national identity than a Scottish one. There was the equally odd decision to give massive publicity and headline news to a so-called “grassroots” organisation calling itself Vote No Borders which sprang into existence from nowhere without any apparent grassroots existence and just as quickly disappeared. Meanwhile genuine grassroots initiatives went entirely unreported. During the referendum campaign Bella Caledonia had a competition to design a poster for independence, not a single news outlet – and certainly not the BBC – bothered to reply to the invitation to the press conference to announce the winner.
Following the independence referendum the former BBC economics editor Paul Mason remarked that the BBC was a “unionist institution”. Immediately after the vote, he commented, “Not since Iraq have I seen BBC News working at propaganda strength like this. So glad I’m out of there.”
The BBC likes to claim that those who criticise it are indulging in conspiracy theories. It’s a handy way of dismissing criticisms without having to engage with them seriously. There is no deliberate conspiracy, what there is is an organisation which recruits from within a narrow social group of middle class people who share a particular outlook. Britishness is their default, the norm from which all other viewpoints are to be examined. This prevailing attitude from upper management means that individuals within the BBC will be conscious not to reveal their own pro-independence sympathies, but individuals with anti-independence sympathies will feel far less constrained. There’s no conspiracy, what there is is an unhealthy mindset.
Donalda McKinnon has not been successful in countering any of this. The pressure within Scotland for an hour long Scottish news programme to replace the main news at six on BBC followed by the parochial murrdurr fitba and wee cute kittens show that is Reporting Scotland was resisted by management in London. BBC Scotland management did little or nothing to press the case for it, at least in public. Ensuring that the Scottish viewing public were subjected to a diet of English news followed by a exercise in Scottish parochialism is key to ensuring Scotland’s subordinate place within the UK.
Instead Scotland was fobbed off with an underfunded ghetto channel, set up to fail. Even with the best will in the world, no TV channel subject to the budgetary constraints imposed upon BBC Scotland is going to dominate the schedules. The new BBC Scotland channel does produce some worthwhile programmes, and those working in it are genuine in their efforts to give the Scottish viewing public programming which is reflective of Scotland’s needs, but they are constrained by the same British attitudes that rule within the Corporation, an organisation which doesn’t even trust the staff at Pacific Quay to turn the lights on and off. Lighting in the building is controlled centrally, in London. It’s a minor point, but it speaks volumes about the BBC’s determination to control every aspect of “where we are”.
I believe that Donalda McKinnon was sincere in her intention to restore trust in the BBC amongst the Scottish public. The reason that she failed was due to the prevailing attitudes in BBC management in London. The fundamental truth that the BBC in Scotland has still not grasped is that when a large segment of the public lose trust in a media organisation, especially in a public service broadcaster, the fault for that lies with the media organisation not with the public. It’s therefore the media organisation which needs to change. We’ve seen precious little evidence of a willingness to change from the BBC in Scotland. The BBC has still failed to face up to its essential crisis in Scotland – how exactly does an organisation which regards itself as the BRITISH public service broadcaster fairly represent a public where half or more of the population no longer see themselves having a British future.
We know that the next time there’s an independence referendum, as there most assuredly will be, the BBC will be firmly on the side of opposition to independence. That’s something that the independence movement has already factored into its calculations. We will not expect the BBC to be impartial when it comes to the defence of the British state and British rule in Scotland. Whoever replaces Donalda McKinnon won’t alter that. People in Scotland will continue to vote with their bank balances, and quietly refuse to pay the licence fee.
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