Based on confidential interviews with BBC journalists Adrian Searle on how disaffection with editorial, staff and budgetary decisions being made in London almost led to a strike on Referendum Night that could have left us with a media blackout.
On the 11th November the Saltire Society Literary Awards were announced at a ceremony at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. As Publisher at Freight Books my personal interest included a title in the running for First Book of the Year, Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth, as well as a shortlisting as Scottish Publisher of the Year. The Saltire Society was founded in 1936 to “improve the quality of life in Scotland and restore the country to its proper place as a creative force in Europe”, part of an increased Scottish consciousness and political awareness in the 1930s and 1940s, rising out of the Celtic Renaissance that flourished before the First World War and undoubtedly in reaction to the privations of Great Depression after.
In the late 1940s co-founder of the Scottish National Party, John MacCormick, a moderate gradualist, was frustrated by fellow nationalists’ refusal to countenance anything other than full independence. He left the SNP to create the Scottish Covenant Association, a cross-party pressure group calling for devolution, which he believed would be more palatable to the electorate.
In her teens, my mother was one of the 2 million signatories of MacCormick’s Covenant. As a thirteen year old she would hide behind the curtains in her grandfather’s house in Dalhousie Place, Arbroath, while the leader of the plot to steal the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey, Ian Hamilton, debated his next move with a group of co-conspirators. The charismatic Hamilton was a chain smoker and my mother would collect his cigarette butts and keep them in a tin. Her uncle, Frank Thornton, a draper, town councillor and part of the group, was the man who received the Stone of Destiny at Arbroath Abbey in 1951, before it was given up to the authorities, famously in two pieces rather than one. Hamilton and his friends were also members of the Scottish Covenant Association. Despite the huge groundswell of support demanding devolution in the early 1950s, this was not delivered for another 44 years.
That my mother had been a Scottish Covenanter came as a surprise, revealed as we debated across the dinner table in the weeks before the independence referendum. Now in her mid-seventies, she had become an avowed No voter. Concerned for her pension, unsettled by threats of Scotland’s exclusion from the European Union, worried by uncertainty over currency and the blanket warnings of Gotterdamerung should the country vote Yes, she was exactly the kind of voter targeted by the self-proclaimed ‘Project Fear’.
The battle for hearts and minds was fought in two main arenas. The No vote held sway in broadcast and print media, while the grass-roots Yes campaign, taking its lead from Obama’s first tilt at becoming US President, dominated social media. On September 18th 2014 Scotland voted No. Many regard the three main Westminster party leaders’ ‘Vow’ in the Daily Record a few days before the Referendum, promising to deliver new powers to Scotland in the event of a No vote, as the knock-out blow in the campaign. Lord Smith of Kelvin is now chairing the cross-party working group tasked with agreeing exactly what powers will be devolved within the timetable originally set out by Gordon Brown. That the role of the BBC in the Referendum campaign was so contentious, enraging Yes supporters with its alleged bias, suggests that greater devolution of the national broadcaster should be at the top of the Scottish Government’s shopping list.
In 2008 the Corporation’s own King Report declared the BBC institutionally biased in its news and current affairs reporting of the Regions. Amongst its findings were that the words UK, Britain and England were used interchangeably, often inaccurately. Presenters would refer to England specifically as ‘we’ or ‘us’, very few legislators in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland were interviewed, regional political developments received little national broadcast coverage, BBC News was excessively London-centric, regional reporting focused exclusively on crime, sport or human interest and when a number of stories were being considered from around the UK, those closest to London geographically had the best chance of being run. Anyone listening to the Ten O’clock News or BBC Radio 4’s Today programme these days will confirm that while stories will invariably begin with ‘In England and Wales…’ there is almost no coverage of issues or legislative changes in health and education from Scotland or Northern Ireland on national networks, one of the key weaknesses highlighted by Professor King.
In February 2014 Dr John Robertson, a research academic at the University of the West of Scotland, published his initial findings after monitoring broadcast coverage of the campaign from 17th September 2012 for twelve months, around 640 hours of news programming on BBC and STV. According to his stringent methodology BBC national news and Reporting Scotland ran 211 stories that might be deemed pro-independence and 317 pieces that were judged anti-independence.
During the final month of the Referendum campaign complaints of bias from Yes supporters on social media included the BBC’s reporting of statements made by large companies, such as retailers and banks, on the potential impact of independence. Company representatives often gave carefully worded statements, attempting to avoid being drawn into the debate on one side or another, that were subsequently ‘interpreted’ by presenters as being unequivocal in expecting job losses or price rises. The lack of airtime given to leaders of the Yes parties resulted in veteran campaigner Jim Sillars making dire threats of nationalisation against pro-No companies, only to retract on Radio 4’s Today programme claiming that saying something outrageous was the only way he could “get on your prestigious programme”.
Yes campaigners also complained of a focus on exclusively anti-Yes lead stories in broadcast bulletins in the final week of the campaign. This included the BBC’s Eleanor Bradford posting a story two days before the vote about an anonymous ‘whistleblower’ identifying a £400m NHS funding black hole in Scotland via leaked papers. While the SNP administration categorically denied that this was anything more than a discussion document, it was lead story on bulletins for the final two days before the vote.
Lack of coverage of major Yes rallies on network news also caused much consternation. Social media was used to compare BBC images of pro-Yes events, showing a handful of supporters, while attendees’ photographs showed tens of thousands gathered in Glasgow’s city centre. Alleged intimidation by Yes voters during the campaign was a regular discussion topic on radio and TV, while the fact that a key unionist rally in Edinburgh attracting a claimed 15,000 was organised and led by the sectarian Orange Order went unreported. Subsequently, coverage of Unionist supporters, dressed in Rangers football tops and Union Jacks, using violence and intimidation to ‘clear’ George Square in Glasgow of disconsolate Yes supporters on the day after the vote (not to mention the arson attack on the offices of the pro-Yes Sunday Herald) was accused of being, at best, low-key and at worst, collusive.
Talking confidentially to journalists from BBC Scotland highlights that perceived bias was also recognised within Pacific Quay, its headquarters in Glasgow. ‘We spent two years preparing for the Referendum campaign, establishing protocols and non-pejorative language,’ says one highly experienced news journalist based in the city. ‘Many of the problems arose from London journalists being asked to report on the campaign in the final month or two with little or no knowledge of the Scottish political landscape.
‘Initially there were strict guidelines about not using loaded phrases. Words like “separation” were banned. However, the closer the vote got, the more these phrases were used wholesale by London-based colleagues. The SNP were frequently, almost ubiquitously, referred to as “nationalists”, something we had agreed not to do. The endemic inconsistency was highlighted when pro-independence parties were referred to as the “Yes campaign” while it was made very clear by London editors that under no circumstances were we allowed to call Better Together the “No campaign”.
‘While many of my colleagues in London would pride themselves in understanding the subtleties of Middle East politics, say, or those in Africa, there’s a kind of snow-blindness when it comes to Scotland. They can’t or won’t engage with the detail. Familiarity breeds contempt.’
However, swingeing cuts are also blamed for some of the failures in reporting. Another BBC Scotland journalist identifies the reason for lack of coverage of protests outside BBC Headquarters in Glasgow on Sunday 14th September, 4 days before the Referendum vote.
‘The banners outside Pacific Quay during the anti-bias protest said “BBC: Where are your cameras?”. What many people don’t realise is that with the cuts, Pacific Quay now only has one news camera at weekends. That was being used elsewhere to cover an ISIS hostage story. The irony that we had to use BSkyB footage in bulletins to report on a protest outside our own offices was not lost on staff.’
Such is the disaffection with editorial, staff and budgetary decisions being made in London that there was very nearly a strike by journalists on Referendum Night. Paul Holleran, Scottish Organiser of the National Union of Journalists confirmed to me a blackout of coverage nearly took place. ‘The BBC has a malfunctioning management in London. As the Referendum campaign was in full swing, at a negotiation meeting about cuts, James Harding, Director, News and Current Affairs, announced that rather than following due process he was going to hand-pick journalists to be shown the door. We were all shocked. There was also a great deal of unhappiness about London-based staff being shipped up to Glasgow en masse. All Regions voted to strike and although we were non-specific, the 18th and 19th of September, the day of the Referendum vote and the day after, were target dates.’
There was further anger over the plan to cancel veteran anchor Gary Robertson’s contract whilst recruiting other senior journalists from London. ‘Jim Naughtie and Sarah Smith and both respected professionals,’ said a BBC Scotland colleague. ‘But it was wrong that one of our own was out on his ear because London journalists, with little knowledge of post-Devolution Scotland, had been recruited on big salaries, wholly counter-intuitive when budgets are being slashed.’ Naughtie is reputed to be on £162,000 for a 12 month stint in Scotland. ‘Of course, Jim has done a great job and, to his credit, was appalled at the lack of resource up here.’
Only a personal intervention by BBC Director General Tony Hall prevented a strike. In an email to staff he conceded that “it was wrong [of the BBC] to front-load cuts prior to the Referendum”. Paul Holleran said, ‘Tony Hall has instigated a review and I believe is trying to introduce a more civilised culture into the BBC.’ Robertson’s contract termination is also on hold.
Another accusation by staff is that BBC editors specifically blocked airtime for the First Minister on a regular basis. A BBC journalist working in factual programming told me that one example was a request to include a 90 second personal tribute from Alex Salmond in a programme about the late Margo MacDonald MSP, who died in April, which was denied with no explanation by editors.
The BBC’s annual report states that in the year 2013-14 £102m was spent on Scotland-only opt-out programming across television, Radio Scotland, Radio Nan Gaidheal and online content. An additional £5.2m was spent on BBC Alba. Another £90m is invested in recording network-wide programming in Scotland. In comparison, in 2012 the BBC spent £180m on a three year deal to televise English Premier League football highlights.
Those working inside the BBC complain that for opt-out programming screened in Scotland alone they are working with second class budgets and second class resources, while key editorial decisions are all made in London. One of the journalists I spoke to said, ‘Of the £350m raised by the license fee in Scotland, almost half goes south never to return and at least three quarters of what remains is controlled editorially from London. 100% of the licence fee raised in England stays in England.’ A quick perusal of departments providing nationwide services within the BBC shows that all are headquartered in England.
As a publisher from Scotland, with a list of around 35 titles planned for 2015, my interest is not in making money alone. If it was Freight Books would only be publishing celebrity memoirs and mummy porn. Like many of my fellow publishers in Scotland, although international in outlook, I am passionately committed to promoting Scottish voices and Scottish culture to a worldwide audience. After all, this is my country and it fascinates me. I believe the vast majority of those working at Pacific Quay, The Tun in Edinburgh, and the BBC’s other offices around Scotland, share that passion. There is no lack of talent or creativity.
But as someone who loves radio above all other broadcast media, it is a national embarrassment that Scotland only has one principal English language radio channel to call its own. Norway, a country to whom Scotland was compared throughout the Referendum campaign, boasts three television channels, five broadcast radio channels and a further six digital radio channels. Its annual spend in 2012 was approximately £450m (raised via a license fee similar to that in the UK) – a budget well over double that of BBC Scotland and quadruple if compared with Scotland-only content. When it comes to the BBC, and particularly in times of austerity, it is entirely predictable that those making the decisions will want the lion’s share of the money, only providing BBC Scotland with as little as they think they can get away with.
According to the BBC’s Annual Report, out of a total budget of £4.7bn in 2013-14, the annual spend on content is £2.4bn. Scotland’s £107m is roughly 4% of that total. However, more interestingly, what is termed in the accounts as ‘infrastructure, distribution and business support’, which one presumes means all back-office and technical spend, accounts for £568m of the national budget. Out of this £6m is spent in Scotland, a mere 1% of overall investment. Either Scotland is very efficient at making television and radio or we are being sold appallingly short.
Gordon Wilson, former leader of the SNP, ahead of the publication of his book, Scotland: Battle for Independence, said in a national newspaper that to achieve self-determination during the Referendum campaign ‘it was essential to raise the profile of Scottish identity and dissipate British identity.’ An arch hardliner and elder statesman of the party, Wilson was damning in his criticism of Alex Salmond’s gradualist tactics, which were ‘too coy’ about asserting Scottish nationhood.
To be fair, Salmond consistently reiterated his ‘Team Scotland’ mantra in the face of Gordon Brown’s ‘Best of British’. But with the entire UK printed press, aside from one notable exception, set against independence, or at best ambivalent, the only platform for promoting Scottish national identity was television and radio. But the dominant media channel, the British Broadcasting Corporation, lived up to its name by steadfastly supporting the status quo, surprising and angering many Yes campaigners in what they regarded as blatant promotion of No messages.
Post-Referendum, with Scottish Labour languishing at 23% in the polls and SNP membership at 83,000 – an all-time high and dwarfing all rivals – parallels can be drawn with the rise in Scottish national consciousness before the Second World War and the high-water mark of support for the Scottish Covenant Association in the early 1950s. That the SNP may achieve significant majorities not only in Holyrood but also in Westminster after next year’s General Election could reignite the independence debate sooner than commentators and politicians imagined.
Clearly, in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Scottish people, he who controls the national broadcaster has great influence over the self-image of the nation.
Why else did Westminster seek to dictate the narrative so obviously through the BBC’s coverage of the Referendum campaign? For that reason alone, the Scottish Government would surely prize greater devolution for BBC Scotland. That no fixed budget formula or spending guarantee exists for Scotland’s national broadcaster could be deemed legislative negligence. However, as Lord Smith of Kelvin takes submissions on what new powers Scotland deserves, I for one remain sceptical that the BBC, and by association the British establishment, has the willingness to relinquish any control over such a valuable political and cultural asset.