How good is BBC Scotland? Ask an Irish comedian.

When the BBC Trust states “our job is to get the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers” it might seem a bit odd that in the opening lines of the Audience Council Review (Scotland) the BBC’s Trustee in Scotland, Mr Bill Mathews states that “programming highlights included Mrs Brown’s Boys”. Indeed this production was so important a photograph of said Mrs Brown was on the front page of the report. It is hardly surprising therefore when later in the report Mr Matthews admits that “Trust research indicates persistent audience concern about how Scotland is represented on Network and BBC Scotland services” That being the case and given that in his statement in Jan 2011, on taking up his appointment, he said “it is vital that public organisations are properly accountable to those that pay for them and one of my priorities will be to ensure that the BBC meets the standards of openness and transparency demanded by license fee payers”, one might wonder what he is doing to demonstrate his success?

It would appear that the BBC Trust’s man in Scotland recognises there is a problem, but if the highlight of their year is a joint production with RTE featuring a totally Irish comedy set in Dublin it is not surprising that Kenneth Roy recently also asked “what is he doing as Scotland’s only representative on the BBC Trust?”

It was with that question in mind that in April of this year, on behalf of the Constitutional Commission I contacted the BBC, both Management and Trust to invite their participation in a meeting to discuss ‘ The Future of BBC in Scotland’.

My first point of contact at the BBC was Mr Ric Bailey, their Chief Political Adviser- famous for inviting our First Minister to feature on the ‘One Show’ and infamous perhaps for excluding him from participating in the coverage of the Scotland v England Rugby commentary team prior to the 2011 Scottish elections, prompting the ‘Gauleiter’ stushie!

Mr Bailey initially relied promptly saying it would be inappropriate for him to take part and suggested that I contact Ken MacQuarrie, Director BBC Scotland. When queried about when it would be appropriate for Mr Bailey to participate in a debate he stated “I am always happy to discuss issues which are relevant to my role – that is, regarding the BBC’s impartiality and independence”.

Meanwhile I had attempted to invite Ken MacQuarrie but was referred to Mr Ian Small, Head of Public Policy and Corporate Affairs BBC Scotland. Subsequent to a telephone conversation with Mr Small he made it clear that the BBC could not” become involved in a debate on possible future models of broadcasting in Scotland” as this “could easily be interpreted as us holding a particular position on the independence debate” However he went on to state “we would, of course, be very happy to contribute to public debate and discussion on the BBC’s current performance in Scotland, and would be happy to meet…to discuss any such possibility”

We met Mr Small in early May and assured him that it was not our intention to ask the BBC to comment on political issues beyond their remit and that we would alter the title of the event in order to solve that problem. However he subsequently confirmed, in writing, that despite our assurances, that BBC Scotland would not participate. Further correspondence confirming our willingness to focus the event on Ric Bailey’s earlier statement that he could discuss “how the BBC approaches the constitutional issues regarding Scotland and the rest of the UK” met with a refusal.

Meantime I had been attempting to meet an elusive Mr Bill Matthews, the BBC Trustee for Scotland.

We finally met Mr Matthews and his political adviser on July 23 where we reminded him of his statement, on his appointment, about ‘accountability’ and his promise to “ensure that the BBC meets the standards of openness and transparency”. We made it clear that we felt that BBC management had “fallen considerably short of these aspirations in its dealings with the Constitutional Commission”. Interestingly Kenneth Roy’s recent observation that “Mr Matthews public profile is so low as to be almost invisible” was endorsed by the fact that in our meeting The Trust’s position was presented almost exclusively by his political adviser, an even more ‘invisible’ representative of the BBC’s accountability, Mr Alan Jack. His opening gambit, with a straight face and no hint of irony, was to tell us that Mr Matthews was, of course, completely independent as he was appointed by the Queen! I suppose she called Jeremy Hunt to recommend him?

The rest of the meeting centred on a continuation of the theme expounded by BBC Scotland’s Mr Small with Mr Bailey stating that he could not participate as he might be asked to comment on areas politically outside his remit! This position was subsequently confirmed in writing and despite our complaint about BBC Management, this was brushed aside.

In summary it would appear to us that the BBC, despite statements to the contrary, does not wish to defend its performance in a public forum. And there are many questions about current never mind future performance? How is it going to deal with a 20% reduction in its budget? How is going to provide and demonstrate political balance in the run up to 2014? Can it enlighten us as the detail or magnitude of “ persistent audience concern about how Scotland is represented on Network and BBC Scotland services”. Can they tell licence fee payers why their coverage of the SNP conference is minimal compared to the UK party conferences? Why can’t we have a Scottish ‘Question Time’? And perhaps they don’t air ‘Scottish Questions’ from Westminster with the same exposure as Prime Ministers Questions because it would embarrass the establishment!

And in terms of accountability nor does the BBC Trust wish to demonstrate how it is ensuring that BBC management is being held to its remit. And remember our dialogue took place long before the much larger question raised by the Savile affair raised its ugly head! You might think an organisation attacked from many directions and with a Conservative Party many of whom are eager to abolish it that it would be eager to have clear accountable independent analysis to demonstrate its impartiality?

Despite the BBC’s refusal to participate we are now going ahead with our planned panel discussion on Tuesday Dec 11 in Holyrood.

What is the Role of Broadcasting in Scotland? Should Scottish Broadcast news focus primarily on “Fitba’, Murder, Government accused, and cute little kittens”

Our illustrious panel includes Iain McWhirter, Tom Devine, Ewan Crawford, Joan McAlpine, and Kate Higgins.

Book here.