HAVING cold-shouldered MSPs for weeks, senior BBC executives have now agreed – possibly under pressure from the chairman of the Corporation’s regulator himself, Lord Patten – to appear before the education and culture committee of the Scottish Parliament.
But – despite the National Union of Journalists, and our sister union, BECTU, giving evidence to the committee at the end of October – BBC Scotland managers say they do not want to engage in a discussion about ‘industrial relations matters’.
So, it is ironic that the very same room where the committee meets was, on Tuesday night, the venue for a debate about the role of the BBC in Scotland and its place in the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future.
It’s unfortunate that no BBC executives were there – or, if there were, they didn’t announce themselves – because not only would they have had a foretaste of some of the questions they will face from MSPs next month, they would also have heard a very clear case put to them about how those ‘industrial relations issues’ affect not just BBC Scotland’s future role in the constitutional debate up to the 2014 referendum and beyond, but its day-to-day newsgathering abilities right here, right now.
From around the room – from MSPs, journalists, campaigners and constitutional experts, and from parliamentary workers, academics, viewers and listeners – came not just criticism of a lack of diversity in BBC Scotland’s coverage of contemporary culture, but also something more subtle, and possibly less familiar.
However, it is a case which the NUJ has been making for several years now, so it is heartening to hear it being made at the Scottish Parliament by a range of people, including some who happen to be members of the governing party.
It is that the quality of journalism is tightly bound to the resources going into it.
So, cut the number of reporters, producers, camera operators, sound engineers, archivists and researchers you have in a newsroom and you will cut the number of stories you can broadcast, the number of parliamentary committees you can report on, the number of care abuse scandals you can investigate, the number of court cases you can cover, the local council meetings you can attend, and the number of press conferences you can take part in. Literally: the number of questions you can ask.
Almost everyone at BBC Scotland knows it. Many are too fearful for their jobs to say it out loud in their workplace.
No amount of technology, high-speed broadband connections, smartphones or programme delivery infrastructure will substitute for it. Tragically, it is a lesson which dozens of local newspapers have learned, to their cost and to the greater cost of the communities across the UK and Ireland which they serve.
It is a fairly simple argument, really: falling income and the lack of staff are damaging your news coverage.
Newsroom staff from Dumfries and Glasgow to Selkirk and Lerwick already know -through absolutely no fault of their own – that it is frequently easier to report on events in Westminster, Washington or Ramallah than it is to cover something in Fort William, Stranraer or Bathgate.
The reason is staring them in the face every day they go into work: job cuts.
BBC Scotland managers seem to be in denial of that inconvenient truth – brought about by an annual 16 per cent budget reduction when the Westmister government and the BBC two years ago agreed a freeze on the TV licence fee.
However, now all of us NUJ members at BBC Scotland have voted by 70 per cent for industrial action to try to halt any further haemorrhage of jobs in this current round of cuts. To those mangaers who’ll be appearing at Holyrood in the New Year, and to every TV licence fee payer in the land, the question is: what must we do about it?
The answer from the National Union of Journalists is clear: a moratorium on any further job cuts in Scotland until after the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the independence referendum.
Within the last week, the BBC appears to have found the cash to fund three new senior management posts in Glasgow to cover planning for the Games; we believe they also need urgently to find money to prevent experienced, vital newsroom staff from being made redundant in the next few weeks. They have managed it at the BBC Asian Network; we believe they can do it here, too.
And there was a similar answer from people around the table in that committee room as well: a period of ‘budgetary respite’ to allow a kind of recovery at BBC Scotland, which it will need if it hopes to do justice to the magnitude of the constitutional – and sporting – story which the country has the right to expect it to cover comprehensively in the next two years.
Of course, there are many other questions needing answers, too: about longer-term funding for a more diverse public service broadcasting sector under independence or ‘devo max’, about future regulation of the Scottish media, about journalists’ training for the next decade and about finding the money to rebuild Scottish newspapers after the ravages of the recession and profit-taking adventurism by the major proprietors.
But for the moment, let’s hope the BBC has an answer to those questions about its own immediate future when the MSPs ask them next month. Because they have been unconvincing so far.
Pete Murray is a rep for Scotland on the National Executive of the NUJ. He is a former BBC news producer and is currently co-editor of union-news.co.uk.