In My Opinion: Eamonn O’Neill: BBC Scotland – time to get back into the fight

THE recent attention received by BBC Scotland from every conceivable quarter reminds me of the old Chinese saying, ‘May you live in interesting times…’

It’s a saying that can be interpreted as either a blessing or a curse which adds to its dark charm.

Speaking as a journalist, I would always prefer finding myself in interesting times, rather than becalmed tranquil waters.

Better to fly into the storm than huddle down hoping something will turn up.

That’s how our journalistic DNA is meant to be hard-wired.

Of course, the various volleys lobbed towards the PQ HQ of the BBC have come from all sides and everyone – from the casual blogger, to the serious commentator, from the political activist to the BBC’s own audience council members in Scotland – have had something to say.

Some have been more helpful than others and they range from one extreme of practically dismantling the place to barely acknowledging any faults at all.

The recent trio of Nick Robinson, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon all brought things to a head recently in a way that might have seemed unimaginable only a few years ago.

The BBC’s response, perhaps signalling a welcome shift towards recognising that, to coin a phrase, the status quo ain`t what it used to be, and that a new Scotland editor will be appointed sooner rather than later, was something positive.

But even that has been criticised by arch-critics as a sign the Beeb is doing too little, too late and is playing half-hearted catch up.

One issue that struck me however, was the absence of any analysis about how much this whole situation has come into existence because new technology allows it to.

Disruptive digital gear is producing a messy but undeniably fascinating in democratic terms, operating environment for the media.

Nick Robinson, for example, recently characterised a mob mentality in the pre-Indy Ref protests outside PQ, even chucking in a daft Putin comparison for good measure, but he omitted the fact that the protests were organised in classic digital grassroots fashion, and not through some top-down diktat.

I spotted the same pattern in the ‘Occupy movements in both London and Wall Street. First order of business was good WiFi because once that was organised, well, anything was possible.

No-one waited for permission. They just got going. To me, the protests outside PQ were part of that global trend and this was Scotland`s turn to witness a new bottom-up manifestation of digital possibilities.

Of course, the fuel was the political debate the country was having with itself and, yes, the media are part of that, but the infrastructure, the speed of organisation and the numbers involved, were not, in global terms at least, something new.

The rise of an alternative media base has provided those who consume news and current affairs regularly, with choices and a range of views – good, bad and ugly – that would never have got within sniffing distance of the big beasts like BBC Scotland.

They also operate in a freer ethical and professional space, which is not always good nor fair. But it is a fact.

Again, the new technology afforded complex connections and alliances to emerge in ways and patterns no-one could have foreseen.

New voices and platforms seemed to emerge from nowhere in a seemingly random pattern.

Yet, even this was an illusion.

The so-called Arab Spring, now something of a sad and distant memory, was notable for its extraordinary use of digital technology. Without the latter, the former wouldn’t have existed.

But, the crucial point was that the outcome was simply not predictable and in the same way the outcome of these interesting times is not foreseeable either.

This is the media in Scotland’s version of chaos theory. Small shifts have, theoretically, huge implications – practically. You can often only identify what the next big thing is once it has actually happened.

All news organisations and, in particular behemoths like BBC Scotland, are extremely vulnerable in this constantly-changing environment. But they are not alone in finding themselves in this place, looking rather startled at the warp speed of change, whilst seeking solace in the quaint notion that it’s ‘early days…’ even though the calendar on the wall suggests another, harsher reality exists.

The safer you feel, the more vulnerable you are and it’s not you who shall decide what ‘good enough’ is either. And all it will take is one start-up investor and some seriously experienced leadership and, overnight, a new consolidated digital media beast would be born.

BBC Scotland now finds itself in the middle of this swirl of threats but, like any good drama, there are also opportunities. Its own organisation structure and style of leadership was designed in another era; that has now gone.

It served well in its day, by and large, but it’s now time to change fast and respond with the same flexibility that the evolving world it is covering demands. It`s done this before and it could do it again.

The ever-growing alternative news sources have been born in this era and, by their very nature, are more nimble and responsive to it.

To survive and even thrive, BBC Scotland has to recognise that the game has changed and it’s time to reorganise and respond.

Therefore, its news executives cannot afford the luxury of naval gazing for too long for fear it’ll be accused of hiding in the shadows as a Holyrood election season nears.

Instead, it must grasp its moment and react with the speed and imagination of those who have already seized the initiative in the digital realm.

It requires fresh thinking to underpin new digital newsgathering and broadcast/online plans, new and imaginative audience engagement and a clear commitment that it will seek the correct amount of resources for its staff to do the job not just well, not just good enough, but rather brilliantly.

My former university lecturer, Professor Sir Tom Devine, used to start his legendary Scottish History classes with the pronouncement that Scotland was the perfect ‘laboratory’ to study regional, national and indeed global trends during the 17th-20th century period.

He reckoned that if it was happening elsewhere in the world then, by God, some poor 18th century farmer on the soaking wet Carse of Gowrie, would be impacted by it.

Looking at BBC Scotland in these interesting times, it’s clear that it too is at the centre of global digital trends as much as national debates.

Anyone who doesn’t start with that reality is kidding themselves on and cannot hope to manage and lead it into tomorrow.

To regain its footing and forge the way in producing the finest and most forward-thinking news and current affairs journalism of these tumultuous and exciting times, it must recognise the business of gathering and disseminating news in a digital Scotland has changed utterly.

Its cultures, practices and output must rapidly reflect this. It must realise that being efficient is not the same as being effective.

This is crunch time and it cannot wait for its viewers and listeners to go off elsewhere before the reality of having reached the ever-nearing tipping point suddenly becomes clear.

I sincerely believe that there is nothing wrong with BBC Scotland that cannot be fixed by what is right with BBC Scotland. But it needs to act fast, leverage its strengths and push forward with vision and boldness.

A culture of failure in the pursuit of excellence must not only be allowed but expected. It’s time for them to get back into the fight and be proud of its journalism.

And a good start would be for those in charge to admit that being good enough is no longer good enough.

Dr Eamonn O’Neill is an award-winning journalist, specialising in investigations, and programme director of the MSc in Investigative Journalism course at Strathclyde University.