“Assuming that the BBC is for the people, and the Government is for the people, it follows that the BBC is for the Government.” John Reith, 1938, first Director General of the BBC, speaking in favour of appeasement of Hitler’s territorial ambitions
‘Bastardisation’ is my creation. It conveys exactly a process over a number of years. In no special order: discarding integrity, the diminution of funds, implementation of gargantuan salaries, the contraction of output, the withdrawal of decision-making to London, the squandering of license money on cancelled projects often in many millions of pounds, even greater salaries, sacking talented staff in place of competitive submissions from freelancers and independent production companies UK-wide yet stealing their ideas, the elevation of the second-rate, BBC Scotland treated as an outpost – the betrayal of a nation it purported to serve, oh, before I forget – banker-level salaries.
The rot starts at the head
The BBC’s own respected Newsnight journalist, Paul Mason, felt so moved he went public on the reason for his resignation, his disgust at the way the BBC has turned itself into a purveyor of half-truths and deceptions. It deserves a paragraph all to itself. He tweeted:
“Not since Iraq have I seen the BBC working at propaganda strength like this. So glad to be out of there.”
Sarah Smith’s ‘Titanic’ was an unintentionally amusing moment, the only one, in a pathetic litany of despicable propaganda organised by the BBC to derail the result of the Referendum. As a former executive employee I am ashamed to have thought that place the apogee of a writer’s career. In fact, it is difficult to write about the BBC with any degree of impartiality and still hold back disenchantment and rage. The BBC proved itself a stalwart of Westminster ideology, a mouthpiece for the anti-democracy lobby.
Scotch on the Rocks
The BBC did the dirty years earlier when just before the first vote on devolution it transmitted a third-rate drama serial entitled Scotch on the Rocks. Adapted from his novel by Tory Minister, Douglas Hurd, one ultimately close to Thatcher, it portrayed Scotland full of erstwhile tartan terrorists.
The central group was a paramilitary organisation ‘operating on the fringes of,’ but really affiliated to, the SNP, ready to blow up anybody in their quest to rid Scotland of the English. It worked. It put the fear of the loony among us and helped blight the reputation of a legitimate political party.
A stushie blew up – if ‘blew up’ is the best phrase – in BBC Scotland’s face. The BBC declined to commission more episodes, announcing it had wiped the tapes. (They exist to this day. What the BBC says publicly is not what it thinks or does privately.) But the damage was done. The myth of a Tartan Army laying in weight among the heather was given substance.
BBC Scotland Education Department
The second rout of SNP influence happened internally. One of its most respected departments, its education wing, was led by a nationalist sympathiser, Sinclair Aitken. He employed producers of a like-mind, mainly because they had excellent knowledge of Scottish culture and history, and knew how to weave their erudition into entertaining and informative programmes for Scottish schools.
Sinclair was a character and a half; outspoken, fearless, protective of his staff, a man able to get the best out of them creatively, and a lover of the malt. Whether that or a natural confidence fired his boldness is uncertain, but he was often heard telling senior management where to go when they dared tell him to tone down the Celtic, or make do with less money. Sinclair Aitken didn’t last long after that. He succumbed to the war of attrition between BBC London and BBC Scotland. He left to enjoy more malt.
No rank escaped the knife
Sinclair was always asking for greater support from BBC London. Two BBC Scotland controllers who tried to do just that were brutally banished into the wilderness, Alistair Hetherington, (sacked 1978 – a respected editor of the Guardian newspaper) and Alasdair Milne, (sacked 1986 – by Joel Barnett of the ‘Barnett Formula’). Both Scots who dared to ask BBC London for greater financial and programme autonomy.
By a combination of budget cuts, Birtian inter-departmental competition, rampant commercialisation of facilities, vast inflated salaries for executives and producers, the bonus culture, (study recent history of corrupt banks) things went from bad to worse.
Under Birt’s cost cutting intricacies BBC Scotland lost any relevancy to Scottish culture, and its education department lost its presence in the diaspora of Scottish life. What little respect was left for educational programmes forfeited respect under the maladroit hand of James Boyle, BBC Scotland Radio controller, the man who went on to give birth to the bureaucratic sleeping policeman that is Creative Scotland.
Scotland at Six News
There was also the call for a Scotland at Six, an international angle to Scottish news, extinguished in double-quick time by BBC London though the pilot programme was adjudged excellent. BBC London brooks no international outlook on its watch from a ‘province’. BBC Scotland is seen as provincial station and that’s the way it must remain.
BBC’s then director general, Greg Dyke, encouraged by a BBC Trust report, concluded a Scottish Six filled with international news was a good thing. Birt – that bloody man again – thought the idea ‘totemic’, a motivation to the potential break-up of the Union. (Quoted from his autobiography.) The idea had the backing of the Broadcasting Council of Scotland, a group consisting almost exclusively of Tory and Labour sympathisers, and only one SNP supporter, but they too were over-ruled.
To a limited extent, Gaelic Television’s Eorpa fulfills the indigenous cultural role now, but it’s more of a documentary series rather than hard daily news. It enjoys a steady niche number of viewers. In any event, London’s power elite probably think it has too little influence to be a threat to their colonial hegemony. Besides, who wants to read subtitles?
What did BBC do prior to the Referendum vote on the 18th of September 2014, that places it squat in the latrine of infamy? It showed in Times bold type it was a state broadcaster not a public broadcasting company. It did all it could to promote and protect the status quo, upholding conventional wisdom and authority. “If the BBC is for the people, and the government is for the people, it follows that the BBC is for the government” said Lord Reith, its first director general, a buttoned-up Scot. And that’s what the BBC has been ever since.
Alarmed by a poll that showed the Yes vote in the lead for the first time, 50% against 49%, and with only days to go to the vote, BBC exploded into action.
‘Exploded’ is the only adjective to use because the BBC had little time left to alter the course of events. Faced with a challenge to its very existence by the SNP government, knowing an alternative broadcasting service would be the outcome of independence, criticised by academic and writer alike for its insistence on being wholly irrelevant to Scotland’s culture, and battered by the sight of thousands of protesters outside it Glasgow Pacific Quay headquarters, BBC had to move fast.
Brown’s Dissembling Gets Prime Time Slot
After running a series of specious programmes on how Scots felt about their democracy presented by shallow celebrities and stand-up comedians that amounted to an expenses paid jaunt to the tourist spots of Scotland, the BBC gave an hour’s prime time television to Gordon Brown, a man without a role in the Referendum.
Hated by the British Establishment, considered a grossly inept prime minister, he had barely attended the House of Commons since his humiliating exodus from Number 10 Downing Street, and never visited Scotland’s parliament once.
For television and press, Brown gave an oration to a hand-picked group of the elderly and the meek, held behind closed doors, no press to ask awkward questions, an oration packed to the gunnels with untruths, disinformation, and terrifying tales of lost jobs, careers, freedoms, and pensions. His core announcement was that he personally would guarantee more powers for Scotland if it voted No, and he would agree a timetable with Cameron and his cohorts to implement those powers. No similar uninterrupted or non-analysed hour was given to Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister.
Esler and British Intelligence
Then there was the mystery of journalist, and erstwhile presenter of Newsnight, Gavin Esler, presenting a glaring piece of puffery about an obvious, to all except Esler, fake “grass-roots” (his description) anti-independence movement called ‘No Borders.’
He did not present it as it was, a phony British intelligence unit without a shred of credible evidence to support its claims. He did not ask where it had acquired its largesse in such a short time. His narrative was without any questions or scepticism.
To increase puzzlement further, Esler presented his advertisement to viewers before No Borders had announced its arrival to the public. Esler’s feature was the announcement.
Bird and Darling Comedy Duo
The BBC’s next move was to employ Jackie Bird, a newsreader not known for trenchant interrogation of flaky politicians, to interview the ‘leader’ of the No campaign, the ill-at-ease Alistair Darling.
She began the chair-to-chair, toe-to-toe interview by asking a loaded question. “What do you feel about more powers for Scotland? … let’s call them Devo-Max…”
Why Bird used the ambiguous term ‘Devo-Max’ is a mystery. Devo-Max was not on the ballot paper, nixed by prime minister David Cameron as his condition for signing the Edinburgh Agreement. Nor should it have been discussed because the terms of the Referendum barred politicians from offering additional incentives in the last days of the debate.
Waiting in the wings ready to exploit the interview, arch enemy of more democracy for Scotland, ermine calling, Alistair Darling seized on the topic and waffled to the best of his ability the Union was a benign relationship. He was not challenged about his claims and assertions.
In another interview, a concerned Jackie Bird, faced with the ‘shocking’ rise of the Yes vote, asked her Tory politician guest in genuine alarm, ‘What are we to do?’ (On leaving the BBC, Bird announced she’d like to become a Tory MP.)
By suggesting extra powers that allegedly constituted Devo-Max, Bird was placing in the public mind the idea that a No vote would not be a negative vote, not a vote against one’s kith and kin. Darling duly answered he was always ‘all for’ more powers but with Scotland remaining in the Union. This was misleading. He was on record stating the opposite contention, we should expect a ‘flood of tears’ if new powers were granted.
The Vow Wows
The next day the Daily Record tabloid paper, (impossible to call it a ‘news’ paper, a rag that only tells its readers what to think), published its infamous ‘Vow’ on the front cover, a promise made by the three Unionist party leaders of more powers (unspecified) if Scotland voted No. BBC gave the empty Vow full coverage in all news bulletin’s, radio and television, plus political discussion ‘shows,’ in contravention of Referenda rules.
Almost immediately Gordon Brown announced he had a swift timetable agreed for a commission to pull together a list of new powers. He gave no evidence of how he had secured a timetable. He would see to it Westminster kept its promise. He made that claim by hijacking an already existing internet petition as if his own, demanding signatories to make London keep its promise that he himself said he would guarantee. He couldn’t and did not. Not a single one.
Insults and Lies
The BBC’s intervention was topped by one of their London-based political reporters – a confirmed Tory activist – who asked First Minster, Alex Salmond, why the public should trust his judgement rather than the barons of big business who deal in millions of pounds every day, as if a leader of a government handled no more than a few pennies, and all businessmen are honest. The question arrived when Salmond was in a temper at the false news the Royal Bank of Scotland was moving staff south, in truth only moving its brass plaque. The BBC omitted to make the truth known.
The BBC journalist’s question issued from a claim by an oil millionaire that North Sea oil was running out, his prediction contradicting his other claims by millions of barrels. Then came alarms of the SNP cutting emergency wards in hospitals, a false announcement. One piece of black propaganda followed another.
The Mad Hatter’s tea party was now in full swing, and the result was obvious on the bleak morning of September 19th when it became clear a large number of Yes voters had switched to No.
The BBC, acting as a mouth-piece for the British government, was successful in altering the course of Scotland’s history, delaying the modernisation of its democratic structures and restoration of civic rights, ensuring the continuation of its existence as an outpost of British imperialism … at least for the medium term.
But BBC executives had no reason to be smug.
Although the BBC, still in auto-pilot anti-SNP mode, reported Unionist thugs attacking disappointed Yes voters in Glasgow’s George Square as a battle both started, it did not stop the backlash. A politicised nation energised for empowerment was not going to take the crap and go home to watch BBC television, blissful they had been hoodwinked.
The Scottish nation wanted political change. Real change.
In 2014 John Boothman, head of BBC Scotland News and Current Affairs, was sent to another job in London. Boothman had lost a grievance complaint against him taken out by Zoe MacDonald, a BBC camerawoman and daughter of the late nationalist politician Margo MacDonald, after she recorded him being abusive about her and her mother. There had been other complaints from staff of bullying. The claim of impartial news gather took another blow.