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