In My Opinion: Alex Bell: Big trouble in little BBC

IN his Jeremy Clarkson-tight jeans and neat haircut, Blair Jenkins always had the manner of a keen school prefect – one of the guys, but loyal to the system. His resignation as BBC Scotland head of News and Current Affairs may signal to the political class that it’s time for some pandemonium, and London may come to deeply regret his passing.

His going tells you everything about his style; controlled and civilised. Jenkins may be quitting in protest at job cuts in the Corporation, but he leaves the building tight-lipped and dignified. This is no temper tantrum from a hot-head Celt. And this from a man who was said to be a closet nationalist and stood accused by some in London of being too sympathetic to the devolution process.

Jenkins was far too savvy to ever declare his political leanings, and his willingness to oversee the birth of Newsnight Scotland may simply show an enthusiasm for new journalistic challenges. Whatever the truth of this, his going ‘picks at the scab’ that had formed over the issue of who controls broadcasting legislation: Holyrood or Westminster?

Broadcasting is a reserved matter, which means Westminster has authority over the matter. Keen devolutionists, nationalists and confident journalists all argued for it to be a Holyrood matter. Donald Dewar rejected this, perhaps fearing novice politicians would tamper with the TV when there were more pressing matters to be dealt with to ensure a good public reception.

A political debate did emerge over whether there should be a version of the BBC teatime TV news, produced in Scotland but reported on the world. With MSPs having no influence over the matter, the power struggle that mattered was within the BBC. Senior managers in Glasgow pressed for the new programme, nicknamed the Scottish Six, but lost out to London bosses.

The ‘Scottish Six’ argument reflects in miniature the core issues of the nation’s political divide. Unionists are against the idea, fearing it will result in a parochial (a key word for opponents of Scottish self-governance) and poorly-produced programme. Nationalists are for the idea, believing viewers will get better coverage of the world, less preoccupied by the (parochial?) concerns of the south-east of England.

Jenkins may have believed in a Scottish Six, but his instinctive loyalty to the BBC and his calm diplomatic manner meant he will have been prepared to play the long game. This will have suited those who wanted Westminster to retain control of broadcasting; if they could keep the specific issue of a Scottish Six bogged down in the bureaucracy of the Beeb, then the general issue of broadcasting was also off the agenda.

Further, Blair was concerned, to the point of obsession, with maintaining the BBC’s neutrality in the Scottish political landscape; every complaint or accusation of bias would be thoroughly considered.

Alex Bell is a co-director of allmediascotland.com ltd.