In My Opinion: Maurice Smith: What can we expect of the BBC during the run-up to the referendum?

WHAT can we expect from the BBC as it ramps up its coverage of the Scottish independence referendum campaign?

The national broadcaster is beginning to attract attention as it prepares for what will be one of its busiest ever years in Scotland.

Commissioners are grappling with the scale of events planned for 2014, including the centenary of the Great War, the Commonwealth Games, and golf’s Ryder Cup. All on top of all the usual broadcasting calendar.

There will be additional programming to reflect all of the above. But, as if to demonstrate broader sensitivities, already there has been debate about how the BBC will present coverage of ‘Team Scotland’ at the Commonwealth Games.

Scotland on Sunday yesterday reported that, on TV at least, Scotland’s coverage will be treated on a par with that of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Radio Scotland, apparently, will be allowed to be a little more ‘partisan’.

These subtleties are all part of life in the BBC. By necessity, it seems to have an editorial policy for every eventuality. But 2014 brings us, of course, into the political debate about the BBC’s role in Scotland.

When it comes to athletics, is it a Scottish cheerleader or a more reserved ‘all British’ purveyor of the Games? Take that conundrum and apply it to the political scrutiny the BBC will attract during that other ‘big event’ of 2014: the independence referendum.

The referendum will fall heavily on the shoulders of its news and current affairs department, which has called up reinforcements like James Naughtie and Allan Little to its ranks, already.

BBC Scotland has also recruited Fleet Street journalist, John Mullin – until February, editor of the Independent on Sunday – as its ‘referendum editor’. It is also in the throes of recruiting 14 trainee journalists specifically for the referendum.

What will this activity bring, in terms of additional coverage? Firstly, Mullin is expected to supervise a significant ramp-up of BBC Online coverage of the referendum, and to start that quickly.

This will be critical for BBC Scotland, as TV and Radio scheduling time is a finite resource (especially TV). On a recent week, the BBC Scotland News page attracted a staggering 5.4million unique UK visitors, a figure that dwarfs TV, radio or other news media in Scotland.

Mullin’s boss, John Boothman, wants his department to produce a series of documentaries and debates on referendum themes. The much-admired Little is believed to be working now on an early documentary – alongside producer, Craig Williams.

Some of these programmes will be BBC Scotland-only shows. It is likely also that several will be productions for network channels, including BBC News, with repeats possible on other outlets, including BBC World.

Naughtie’s arrival next month as co-presenter of Good Morning Scotland – he will work there two days a week – will highlight Radio Scotland’s contribution to campaign coverage, but we can expect much more during the months ahead.

Next summer, there will be an official 16-week campaign prior to the September 18 vote. This lengthy campaign period will run alongside a torrent of events including the war centenary commemorations, Commonwealth Games and annual events such as the Edinburgh Festivals.

By then, the BBC will have broadcast a series of debates and similar events for which a new satellite van has been acquired. It will be anxious to make sure every audience is catered for – young, old, minority ethnic and so on. A couple of early attempts such as Jackie Bird’s all-women panel debate in June have demonstrated the value of that approach.

Once the referendum White Paper is published this Autumn, the Scottish media will start coming under more intense pressure from the Yes and Better Together campaigns. The SNP and Labour in Scotland are seasoned campaigners, ready to pressurise editors and producers directly, whenever they find the opportunity. But the particular pressure on the BBC to be ‘all things to all people’ – traditionally difficult – will be immense during this campaign.

However well prepared John Mullin may be for the job, I’m ready to predict he will find the realities of working with political parties as a BBC employee to be a real challenge. By its nature the BBC can be more vulnerable to attack, and has to be more measured than newspapers in its response.

I joined the BBC from The Herald. At the paper, a politician once complained to a senior editorial figure that something I had written had “impugned his integrity”. He was told, bluntly, that in the opinion of the paper he had no integrity worth impugning. For obvious reasons, such things just do not happen at the BBC.

It will leave the BBC on a tightrope over the next 12 months. It has to provide a balance of coverage without boring the audience. It will find itself at some stage at the centre of a tug of war between the Yes and No camps. There will inevitably be tension about its ‘UK’ and ‘Scottish’ coverage and how that is perceived in Scotland.

Everyone – politicians, journalists, broadcasters and the Press – is in for a roller-coaster 12 months before Scotland makes its big decision.

The BBC will be at the heart of that battle.

Maurice Smith is a journalist, video producer and consultant.