‘BBC Scotland needs to produce referendum programming that’s more than one-off debates’ – NUJ to tell MSPs

THE National Union of Journalists is calling on BBC Scotland to up its coverage of the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence by calling for a moratorium on job cuts plus additional funding to be made available to produce programming that serves the referendum debate beyond simply one-off debates.

Both the NUJ and sister union, BECTU, are, later this morning, answering questions from MSPs sitting on the Scottish Parliament’s education and culture committee.

In a debate about broadcasting, they will be considering a statement presented by the BBC, which includes a reference to recent job cut plans in Scotland, announced in August and which earmarked 35 editorial posts for redundancy.

Says Pete Murray, who is a member of the NUJ’s national executive council and a former BBC Scotland reporter and producer: “There is just no evidence BBC Scotland is trying to gain extra funding to cover the referendum debate in a serious way. It’s no good just one-off debates, there needs to be serious programming, such as history and investigations, because, otherwise, there will be a serious democratic deficit.

“Twelve years ago, BBC Scotland secured additional funding of the order of 50 per cent to cover the devolution debate and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and now we have budget cuts ahead of the referendum debate. It has to stop.”

It is understood the BBC will not be present at the committee meeting.

But in a statement presented to MSPs in advance of the meeting, it says – that despite a budget cut from £102million a year to £86million, until the end of the financial year 2016/17 – there will be no drop in the number of hours devoted to news and current affairs at BBC Scotland.

Says the statement: “…in fact there will be an increase, with more radio news at weekday lunchtimes. We have already reshaped our offering on Saturday mornings, with more news and current affairs on offer to our audience, instead of late night programming.”

The budget cuts follow an agreement struck between the BBC and the Westminister Government two years ago to freeze the price of the TV licence fee for six years. In Scotland, the resulting budget cuts are being translated to between 100-120 posts being axed, of which the 35 announced in August were the latest instalment.

Says the BBC: “By the end of August 2012, 39 posts had been closed. Whilst we will again find some of the savings from non-staff costs, by March 2013 we expect to close approximately 35 posts to achieve the required savings for 2013-2014. These are in the following areas: Radio, Scotland eight posts; Gaelic two posts; News and Current Affairs 17 posts; Marketing, Communications and Audiences six posts; and New Media, Learning and Outreach two posts.”

It later says: “As we move towards the referendum itself, we will offer more debates, more documentaries and new programming, across television, radio and online, where, particularly in the case of the latter, we are developing innovative ideas to engage and inform our audiences, specifically younger viewers and listeners.”

The agenda papers being made available to the MSPs include a statement from the Scottish Organiser of the NUJ, Paul Holleran.

Murray is a former NUJ president and is now co-editor of Union News.