Paging BBC Scotland!

An open letter to Donalda MacKinnon, Director of BBC Scotland on the first anniversary of her tenure


Donalda MacKinnon, from teacher to Gaelic producer, to Director of Programmes, to Director of BBC Scotland, Florence Nightingale in the battle between Scotland’s right to international attention and BBC’s colonial constraints on cultural promotion

Dear Donalda MacKinnon

Leaving the BBC is like leaving the Communist Party, you’re never forgiven. In consequence it was not a surprise to hear my company’s drama proposals, praised by you and colleagues, were brushed aside after I left the BBC’s employment. That was way back then. Now that you are  in a position of influence I wonder what authority you have to decide specific programming ideals, or is new, fresh programming still a matter for BBC London and its Strictly Come Dancing elimination contest?

A year ago on your appointment to director of BBC Scotland, amid a lot of condescending hoopla about you being the first woman to command the post, you made this public statement, a laudable one.

“I know there’s a wealth of talent and creativity in BBC Scotland, in the wider sector and in partner organisations. Working brilliantly together, I’m confident we can make compelling and enthralling programmes that entertain and inform all of our audiences.”

“A wealth of talent” contradicts BBC colleagues who believe there is not enough talent in Scotland to justify increased transmission time, or producers to propose and supervise independent productions. That is the presiding bullshit.

Throw food into your backyard and all sorts of birds and mammals appear from nowhere to feed. Or put another way, if BBC Scotland doesn’t offer opportunity nor encourage it, a paucity of indigenous talent will remain the self-serving prophecy. And if BBC subjects Scottish selection to London criteria all you will get are cloned programmes, duly rejected by BBC London.

Some gossip: your predecessor Ken MacQuarrie, mindful of the BBC’s reputation, said in the pleasant cadences only a Gaelic speaker can deliver, “I’ve read your polemic; if your projects are rejected I hope I won’t be reading attacks in the press.” My reply was instant, “Are you telling me the head of BBC Scotland has no veto?”

So, I ask you, has anything changed? Have you been given a veto?

If your authority is hobbled by your London bosses, in the same manner the Scottish Parliament is constrained by Westminster, and you restricted to platitudes, then you might as well sit under your desk playing Angry Birds on your iPhone for all the good you can do.

But please be advised: the issue at the heart of this letter is fraud – as citizens we can be fined and jailed for not paying our licence fee; BBC Scotland cannot be sanctioned for acting like a spiv selling sugar-ollie water at a £147 a bottle. On that basis alone distrust of the BBC is not irrational. So, other than an alternative Scottish broadcaster, is there anything BBC Scotland can do to redeem its flagging reputation?

Below, I set out aspects of BBC Scotland’s output demanding remedy.

A Balance of Opinion.

BBC Scotland is guaranteed to argue it was scrupulous ensuring all political parties received a balance of broadcasting exposure during the Great Debate to reinstate Scotland’s self-governance. I lost count of television and radio programmes issuing from English regions in which Scotland’s legitimate political ambitions were ridiculed or dismissed as ‘nationalist’. Ignorant commentary exists to this day. Sometimes it arrives in a brief aside, or a quip, sometimes within lengthy discourse.

Even the best of BBC journalists are apt to utter ‘inaccuracies’. They crib from each other, sustaining myths and fiction, or lift from newspapers. That laziness, allowing vested interests to set BBC News agenda, leaves the BBC open to accusations of bias, a ‘state’ broadcaster disseminating narrow British orthodoxy.

Media antagonism aimed at a legitimate movement for greater civil rights places a broadcaster in the position of acting as if a policing arm of the state, naming and shaming its own citizens. We condemn coercive techniques practised in authoritarian societies, but in the United Kingdom the same tactics employed to silence dissent are upheld as patriotic.

REMEDY: Give generous air time to those living in Scotland to discuss its future.

The Voice of the People

Interviewing members of the public in the street vox populi is a hackneyed convention. BBC is obliged to obtain a balance of opinion: two pro and two anti statements edited from a number of individuals interviewed.

Editing down to one-line statements is unscientific as an indication of public mood. If a place is 60% one way, 30% the opposite way, and 10% don’t give a damn, presenting viewers with a 50-50 balance of opinion disrupts truth giving viewers the impression the town or city is split down the middle – a phony conclusion.

REMEDY: Exclude vapid vox pop interviews from political news items and debates.

Reporting Scotland

I am sorry to confirm television’s Reporting Scotland remains a Mickey Mouse operation, backwoods, inert, visually pedestrian, its presenters pickled in aspic. The entire edifice will benefit torn down and given a fresh, dynamic presentation.

The lack of any international news remains an insult to viewer intelligence and expectation. Scotland is a multi-cultural society keen on knowing its place in the world; why does BBC Scotland hang on to its kailyard origins? Commissioning and transmitting the work of London-based production companies no matter how worthy does not constitute serving Scotland, particularly when you have so little funds to share.

You identified what you describe as “deficits” in BBC Scotland’s news coverage. What steps have you taken to address relevance and authenticity?

REMEDY: Give news and current affairs a backbone and a budget.


Radio programmes suffer from blocks of mindless chatter. Listener share is in free-fall yet BBC Scotland insists on one presenter monopolising three hours every morning.

The format is tired, a rehash of past lightweight entertainment shows treating listeners as stressed out housewives. The afternoon is no better. At a time of rapid political and social change, when the established order is questioned by all quarters, the department ought to be full of ideas, people jostling for one hour slots. Where are they? What we have is one show fits all sizes.

REMEDY: Give new talent the opportunity to exploit the medium.

The Alex Salmond Show

If anything should be broadcast by BBC Scotland it’s the Alex Salmond Show. Sadly, you and I know that as far as the BBC is concerned, it thinks the SNP is as toxic to British hegemony as Russian Television, the broadcaster that buys BBC’s Top Gear.

Salmond interviewed the exiled leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, a scoop, and a fine example of democracy at work, an interview no British broadcaster thought of organising. He had Scotland speak internationally. Why does BBC Scotland act as if a provincial outpost, timid, nothing done without London approval?

REMEDY: Think big, think international, be bold.

Slandering and discrediting by innuendo

In the lexicon of self-determination howlers let slip by BBC presenters and journalists are legion. From Kirsty Wark’s open indignation on seeing the SNP elected to govern; to persistent descriptions of SNP members as ‘separatists’, there is a determined agenda to tar sections of the electorate as a threat to social stability. One might as well call democrats insurgents, or ‘Death Eaters’, to quote the ever-thoughtful JK Rowling.

With almost 400,000 English living in Scotland and half-a-million Scots in England, together with their families, permanent border controlled separation is a preposterous claim. That notion goes unchallenged on BBC political programmes. Why subject Scotland to propaganda programmes extolling Britannia’s glory days, a plethora moronically entitled “The Best of British” content resolutely south of Newcastle?

Scotland does not want the Lego variety of democracy easy to disassemble and rebuild in Westminster’s image, a comforting illusion. There is a profound distinction between the democracy Westminster is following, and the better society Scotland yearns for that the BBC ignores. BBC Scotland has a duty to explore beliefs and question dogma and orthodoxy, to give a platform for the exchange of ideas. Why call activists ‘separatists’ or ‘dissenters’ unless you intend to demean?

REMEDY: Stimulate interest in Scotland’s neo-renaissance, not reduce or suppress.

Tweeting Journalists

If not already noted, it ought to have occurred to BBC executives by now that their journalists, in-house or contracted, are alienating listeners and viewers when they indulge in banter, disputes, ridicule, and bullying on Twitter. The professional attitude is not to respond to criticism, derision, or abuse.

REMEDY: Either ban use of Twitter or restrict subject matter.

Drama, what drama?

The lack of any substantial drama emanating out of BBC Scotland for years is a disgrace. Whilst BBC is due thanks for creating regular work for local actors and writers in a soap, authors, directors, actors, cinematographers and the like of the first rank are ignored. Worse, innovation is nowhere to be seen. Drama of a political nature is shunned.

The excuse is lack of money. (I deal with this in the next category.) Yet there are ways to make good drama at low cost. Unions in Los Angeles, for example, have an agreement allowing lower fees paid on low budget films.

In fact, nowadays you can shoot an entire film on a high quality iPhone, enhanced later by digital magic. (See Sean Baker’s Tangerine.) Why not offer aspiring filmmakers one minute iPhone drama slots between programmes instead of yet another BBC commercial, or an annual competition followed by a collective transmission?

Why should we not produce an event drama at least once in a while and not once in a generation made by the USA? Why are our great authors of the past ignored? Do we need to see another version of Pride and Prejudice, but not anything of Scott or RL Stevenson? Why has BBC Scotland never produced a drama about the Highland Clearances, an issue of international significance? Scotland invented the historical novel. With digital techniques the cost of recreating large set pieces need not be prohibitive.

Why are our contemporary novelists shunned? Does anybody at BBC Scotland read modern Scottish novels? You pay lip service to Edinburgh’s excellent Book Festival but leave it to London to dramatise major novels. Does an English audience have nothing to learn from a Scottish perspective?

REMEDY: Extricate Scotland from London’s domination of drama.

Show me the money!

When Tony Hall took over as Director-General he promised to provide ‘the regions’ with an equitable share of investment. Nothing I draw notice to has the remotest chance of blossoming while BBC London insists on snaffling every penny of Scotland’s licence fees and tossing back a meagre allowance, a familiar cri de cœur from football fans as well as horrible ‘separatists’. Has he followed up on that promise?

Hall announced: “The BBC has pledged to show a more diverse range of programmes than its rivals and to do a better job of reflecting the UK’s different nations as it seeks to reinvent itself to better compete with Netflix and Amazon.”

Can you tell us if BBC Scotland is ‘renewing’ itself, what new productions have been commissioned, or is it steady as she goes?

REMEDY: Viewers are shareholders in BBC. Where is our dividend?

The trust you talk of as breeched is an understatement. BBC Scotland is culturally irrelevant. No wonder friends and associates warn an open letter is a futile gesture. I reply, how different is that from appointing a new director of BBC Scotland?

I asked if you had a veto, a deadly serious question. You need the right to reject decisions laid on Scottish broadcasting by BBC London which minimise or side-line our politics, culture and international outlook while protecting London’s interests. Scotland categorised as a provincial region is not graven in stone.

Without a large measure of autonomy – I hesitate to use the word independence and embarrass you – the output of BBC Scotland is a criminal waste of licence payer’s money. And as the viewer isn’t in charge of choosing content you can’t blame us.

Yours, reading a good book.

Grouse Beater

“Light the Saltire blue touch paper and retire”

Hard copy was mailed to Donalda MacKinnon and Tony Hall, in addition to posting on BBC, and selected newspaper, sites; also e-mailed to the Scottish Parliamentary committee looking into ways of developing the Scottish film industry. Nobody replied.


This entry was posted in BBC, Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Paging BBC Scotland!

  1. diabloandco says:

    Love it! Love it! But can’t see it being given attention by the ever self protecting BBBC.
    Perhaps when they realise that they are as respected as Fox News they might change.
    Meanwhile it is RT for me.

  2. Robert Innes says:

    Hi there,
    “Light the Saltire blue touch paper and retire”? Don’t kid yourself, or hold your breath waiting for a meaningful reply. The best you will get is the sort of reply they give when you make a complaint about their political bias, denying the proposition. They, the servants of the British state, don’t give a damn about what any of us think, only what their masters might.
    The only solution to BBC Scotland is to push the whole damn lot of them into the River Clyde along with their expensively acquired building.
    This nest of self-serving anti-Scottish vipers is intent on destroying our nation. They should rename themselves BBC (North Britainshire).
    Don’t pay the TV Tax and don’t watch live TV. Its the only language they understand.
    Robert Innes

  3. Thanks Grousebeater. Its good to read this from someone who can write authoratitively on the subject, and with a clear eye to a new beginning without being blinded by nostalgia (e.g. Bateman)

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    I have so much to say, but confined it to the obvious problems.

  5. Bill McLean says:

    Great stuff. Unfortunately, and no reflection on your fine article and prose, nothing will change in that moribund organisation until Scotland is independent!

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    I was accused – politely – recently of being defeatist about filmmaking in Scotland, when in fact I was resolutely trying to get practitioners to face the hard reality we face and work from there. I guess this polemic aimed at the BBC has the same tone – there is a way but will BBC take it?

  7. Half way through a post then I read what Robert Innes said then realized it it already been covered,
    you right Robert, Pacific Quay is beyond redemption, the only way forward is a complete break from the past and a new (non state broadcaster) built from the ground up.
    Post indy it would be insane to replace the UK state broadcaster with a Scottish one,
    the Scottish public is adult enough to make its own mind up without being told what to think!

  8. grumpydubai says:

    An absolute ‘stoater’ comment from your good self.


    You and your fellow travellers will contribute majorly in removing the chains that bind a Country which needs to be fee again.

    Thank you.


  9. Grouse Beater says:

    Thank you, you’re very kind, but I’ve prepared myself for crushing anonymity as soon as autonomy is regained!

    I can see lots of other compatriots who will be feted and praised, but I still feel I should do my part to attain the ideal.

  10. davidmccann24 says:

    Excellent summation of the state of BBC Scotland’s output.
    I would like to add to your list of authors worthy of consideration, and one who has produced recently an excellent book on that great, and largely ignored Scottish patriot, RB Cunninghame Graham, Lachlan Munroe’s “An Eagle in a Hen-House.
    Now what a film that would make!

  11. Grouse Beater says:

    A good choice, sir! 🙂

  12. davidmccann24 says:

    I have been receiving your blog for so long now that I dont remember when I first started receiving them. A friend would like to receive notifications, but for the life of me , I cant see how!
    So how?

  13. Grouse Beater says:

    Three ways, David:
    1. By joining up to WordPress, or 2. better still, using Twitter and following me by clicking on my ‘Follow’ icon, or 3. simply Googling Grouse Beater WordPress whenever the mood takes him or her. 🙂

  14. The gawd awful programs at Hogmany is a perfect example of what BBC Scotchland thinks of it’s license fee payers in Scotland.

  15. John says:

    Brilliant, just brilliant, puts all my thoughts in the one place, I will wheel them out to all and sundry!

  16. Grouse Beater says:

    You’re welcome! 🙂

  17. Ouch. Some biting criticism there, GB. All of it justified.

    The one-minute iPhone shorts idea is brilliant.

  18. Grouse Beater says:

    There isn’t an excuse not to commission drama, not these days with so many aspiring filmmakers owning a sophisticated desk or laptop. And yes, I dislike condemning but stead as we go is the death knell for BBC. it has to be alternative, and radical.

  19. Grouse Beater says:

    Interesting, if rather too lengthy to read at one sitting, but some while back it was put to the current head of our national art galleries that we badly need one devoted to Scottish contemporary art. His reply was a languid, “We have enough galleries”. That’s the man in charge of nurturing and developing Scotland’s art. He gets paid to be a Luddite.

  20. Pingback: Paging BBC Scotland! | scotlandstill

  21. xsticks says:

    Superb article GB.

    Despite Donalda’s promises of rebuilding trust in BBC Scotland I see no evidence of any change for the better. If anything the Pacific Quay walls have hardened to any discussion of independence in spite of approximately 50% of the Scottish electorate being in support of that view. BBC Scotland still tries to portray support for independence as a small minority.

    Unfortunately, as you say, it is unlikely that Donalda will bring any significant change to the British broadcasters stance. What they fail to realise is that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant in Scottish politics.

  22. Grouse Beater says:

    Back in the day she expressed frustration at the way BBC Scotland is constrained, but in her new position she’ll discover exactly how constrained it is. I expect the phrase she will hear the most is, do not rock the boat.

  23. Macart says:

    Neatly done Grouse. 🙂

  24. Grouse Beater says:

    I’m glad. Although there are confirmed democrats working in BBC keen on Scotland’s progress I don’t think the others will love me. Then again, that isn’t the goal.

  25. Conan the Librarian says:

    “Yours, reading a good book” Nice one.
    Being an SF fan, I’d like the works of Ken (even though he’s a unionist) Macleod, the late Iain M Banks and Charlie Stross (the other famous English author resident in Edinburgh) added to the list.

  26. Grouse Beater says:

    Will do Conan. 🙂

  27. John Scott Charity says:

    As usual, a really clear analysis of the situation that I couldn’t articulate in a month of Sunday’s.

    It’s great to get a view of BBC Scotland outwith the parameters of its corrupted news and current affairs service – of which I’m in continued despair of, and anger at, and still can’t believe that some of the people that broadcast for them, do broadcast for them.

    “Is that true, or did you get from BBC Scotland?” A wise precaution to bear in mind.

  28. Grouse Beater says:

    Got talking to another ex-BBC employee recently who confessed to being of the same mind, feeling the corporation has run out of the will to do the right thing; it’s all PR and empty rhetoric.

  29. Roy Philip says:
    Having emailed her regarding trust I got a reply from one of her flunkeys saying the usual crap about BBC not being biased in anyway regarding the SNP.
    A very good read Thanks

  30. Grouse Beater says:

    Yes, the BBC has convinced itself it is fair but quite frankly is not qualified to judge itself.

  31. bedelsten says:

    An excellent diagnosis of the malaise within Pacific Quay. However, to paraphrase perhaps, I would expect, ‘answer came their none’. As an adjunct to your blog, a few years ago, Bella Caledonia published ‘The view from nowhere’

  32. Hr Anderson says:

    Jings whit a belter o’ a blog….

  33. Grouse Beater says:


  34. That’s brilliant, GB, superb writing. Creative, smart, witty. Thanks for beautifully articulating exactly what we all feel.

    You know, just maybe I’d start to watch the BBC (haven’t since Sept ’14) if they were daring enough to utilise some of the very obvious talent we have coming out of the Scottish woodwork. Remember that constant flow of ingenuity on the run-up to the Ref? It’s all still out there, waiting to burst-forth once more.
    But, as ‘Xsticks’ points out: “the Pacific Quay walls have hardened to any discussion of independence in spite of approximately 50% of the Scottish electorate being in support of that view”.. I would suggest ‘as a direct result of’ approximately 50% of the Scottish electorate being in support of that view. This is no accident, the BBC are bursting at the seams trying to contain the breach in the political dyke.

    Incidentally, I’m a big fan of Derek Bateman

  35. Grouse Beater says:

    Whoa! Too big a compliment to live up to!

    I hope the Scottish Government’s filmed drama committee allow me to make plain talent abounds in Scotland – if you know where to find it and how to nurture it.

  36. Dear GB, more good will be done by the general publication of this blog than by any effect on the BBC. Sadly.
    They have proved categorically, that they are the remote arm of the London office, as have the Scottish Labour Party, the tories, and the LDs, (incidentally devolution, subsidiarity, is at the very core of the LDs except when there’s a ‘sco’ in the name of the country being served!).

    Alex on RT is second best but streets ahead of the alternatives.

    You, with your talents and contacts must explore the tv equivalent of a Radio Luxembourg, based in an EU country, broadcasting for x hours a day. The ideas you’ve outlined above will have a space as will a voice of honesty.

    There is no point in engaging with the BBC. If you begin to win the argument then, rather like a lizard, London will simply shake off its tail without a thought for those concerned, either side of the screen.

    RT is a propaganda channel. We know it and are forewarned.

    The BBC is insidious because many still don’t know the level of propaganda it puts out.

    All of Scotland is talking about Alex and RT, They’ll whoop with joy when they get ‘Scotland Today’ from Lithuania!

    Keep up your fantastic pressure and thank you

    Christopher Bruce


  37. Grouse Beater says:

    Some good ideas here .. many thanks.

  38. Conan the Librarian says:

    People are using an unfortunate acronym for an independently minded blogger…

  39. Grouse Beater says:

    Do you mean ‘GB? That’s an old one. 🙂

  40. broadbield says:

    Excellent piece. We look forward to you publishing Donalda’s considered reply.

    I haven’t had tv for 40 years, but I used to listen to Radio Scotland occasionally. I stopped listening to any of their news/political output after the referendum and all I listen to now is Out of Doors on Saturday mornings and the rugby commentaries. So I had a look at their schedule. My god, it reminds me of the days in the 50’s when I was a wee boy and off school for a day or two with something and would lie in bed listening to Workers’ Playtime, Mrs Dale’s Diary, Housewives’ Choice. I feel ill just thinking about it.

    A point you made above “the BBC has convinced itself it is fair but quite frankly is not qualified to judge itself” is one that is long overdue in being acted upon. Impartiality is part of their Charter commitment, but there is no means of assessing the extent to which they have or have not achieved it. Prof John Robertson produced a report some time back and was excoriated and traduced by someone high up in the BBC.

    Most public services, such as the NHS, have an Inspection regime that is independent. Time the BBC had one which could look at issues of impartiality, bias and the other issues you discuss. If they, or the government, had any guts they’d commission one. But they haven’t and it suits the government (of whatever colour) that the BBC isn’t exposed to the searchlight of independent examination.

  41. Grouse Beater says:

    Fair remarks, broadbield, interesting experiences too. I listen to BBC Scotland Radio a reasonable amount during car commute hours, and breaks in administration work, but tune in to Radio 4 evenings for specific subjects intelligently discussed. The attitude seems to be BBC Scotland broadcasts provincial material, the serious stuff left to London, which is exactly how drama is handled. What I can’t find on BBC Scotland is anything one could remotely describe as avant-garde, or experimental. And the arts are left to Janet Forsyth to mix in a blender.

  42. ‘Presenters pickled in aspic’.

    Fuckin brilliant.

    More power tae ye man, as aye!

  43. Grouse Beater says:


  44. Thank you. You’re articles are always a delight and I send them to chums to give them another angle on our risible ‘news’ in Scotland. Keep up the good work sir.

  45. Grouse Beater says:

    You’re welcome. Feel free to add comments and exchange ideas with other readers,

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