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8 January 2013

Failing the nation?:
The decline and fall
of Radio Scotland

Tom Devine

Pacific Quay: photograph by Islay McLeod

What follows is written in a spirit of support, concern and loyalty for the traditional values of the BBC and its many members of staff in Scotland, present and past, who have admirably served the institution over the years, despite the malign impact of forces over which they have had little or no control.

Recently, I took part in a panel debate in the Scottish Parliament sponsored by the Scottish Constitutional Commission on Broadcasting in Scotland. My special subject was Radio Scotland. What follows is a fuller version of the comments I made at that event.
I tried to approach the subject as an historian, ie I sought evidence and insights from past and former BBC staff whose opinions I respect and who were and are of sufficient seniority to have a broad knowledge of what is and was going on in the organisation and then arrived at my own considered judgements. In this analysis I see staff at producer level and all other levels below as victims of the processes which I describe, not as causes  in any way of current problems. Indeed, one of the reasons I have written this is because I truly believe there can be a better future both for them and for an institution which should be at the heart of the national conversation at this historic time for our country and has the potential to be so.

The good times of the 1990s?
It is easy to invest the past with a glow of nostalgic approval and paint a picture of a golden age now gone. That temptation can and must be resisted. However, even when all the qualifications are made and the evidence is sifted with care, Radio Scotland did then have a real importance and relevance to the life of the country. The national press regularly commented on the strength and imagination of much of the output.

The station's flagship current affairs programme, 'Good Morning Scotland', was runner-up to 'Today' in the Sony awards (radio's equivalent of the Oscars), a remarkable achievement given the imbalance of resources between them. Radio Scotland also won the title of Station of the Year in the same awards in that decade.

The nominations and accolades which came at regular intervals were tributes to the cutting-edge nature of much of the journalism which emanated from the network in the prelude to devolution. Any such recognition nowadays is rare in the extreme. The rest of the BBC approved then. One of the heads of Radio Scotland at the time, James Boyle, was promoted to the influential post of head of Radio Four in London. Perhaps above all, according to my sources, morale was high among staff: 'There was a simple reason for this energy and success 15 or 20 years ago – attention from above. Radio had a separate structure and those who worked for radio were proud of their output, proud of the national and international agenda they covered and proud of the way in which Radio Scotland was regarded'.

Into the doldrums
Radio Scotland should be more important to the life of the nation today than in any previous era. Scotland's quality print media are in dire financial straits at one of the most momentous periods in the history of the nation. Hence the responsibility of the broadcast media has never been greater for information, comment, debate, the clash of opinions and the investigative power of first-class journalism. There remain pockets of excellence in what should be a great national station. But they are now unrepresentative of the whole. There remain presenters and interviewers of weight and authority, such as Derek Bateman, Izzy Fraser and Brian Taylor, but they are unrepresentative of the whole. A partial check list of decline into general mediocrity would include the following evidence :

* The Scottish Broadcasting Commission of 2009 concluded that only one in 10 of the sample of the  public interviewed were 'very satisfied' by the service provided by Radio Scotland.
* A contributor at a panel discussion on Scottish topics at the Aye Write book festival in Glasgow in March 2012, before a packed audience in the Mitchell Library, described Radio Scotland as 'a national humiliation'. The response was prolonged and enthusiastic applause.
* Apparently as many Scots now tune in to 'Today' (with infrequent and minimal Scottish coverage) on Radio Four as to 'Good Morning Scotland'. Anecdotal evidence suggests that whole swathes of the Scottish population from the professional and business classes no longer listen to the national station.
* Insiders, both past and present, report: 'listen to the output and what you will hear is stale, dull and repetitive whereas what the listeners need to hear is fresh, innovative and challenging'; 'inept pap for the most part which is embarrassing and demeaning'; 'we have become a poor man's Radio 5'; 'a range of banal, lacklustre and tedious programming which is shaped around comics who are mainly not funny and sport that is for the most part football'; 'ambition there is little evidence of, drive to engage the nation at a time of huge change is almost entirely lacking.'
* Rampant demoralisation which is obvious to any aware observer, sensitive to the background visiting Pacific Quay, and who peers below the surface veneer. All respondents refused to blame staff: on the contrary 'the producers are running way beyond empty.'

The most obvious explanation for decline has been the reduction of resources available to the station in recent years and this reason may well be the basic factor which has resulted in the implosion of morale as staff await the next round of redundancy notices and the haemorrhage of valued colleagues and friends. However, one of the most interesting findings of my enquiries was that the approach of management was in the views of several at least as influential as cutbacks and retrenchment; in other words, although financial times are indeed very difficult, much more could be done with the existing resource.

Here are the major reasons advanced by those who have experienced the sad decline of a once influential organisation:

* The coming of bi-media leading to resources, talent and managerial interest being drained away to a considerable extent to TV. Rotas were shaved and a spiralling sense of depression began to set in.
* The network was regarded by London as regional and provincial not as the national broadcasting voice of a nation. Hence, the protection afforded Radio Four as a national asset, leaving it largely sheltered from reductions in staff and resource allocation, was not afforded Radio Scotland. The 'Today' programme, for instance, is mainly insulated from any draconian cuts for that central reason, not so the Scottish current affairs flagship, GMS.
* No senior radio person sits on the news and current affairs management board where the voice of Radio Scotland should be heard.
* A universal view that the current head of Radio Scotland is unable to defend his fiefdom against predators, has accepted the neutering of a once formidable newsroom, and has implemented an overall strategy of 'dumbing down'.

Can anything be done?
The present lugubrious situation has come about by human decision; therefore human goodwill and effort can, over time, restore the status of Radio Scotland fit to be the network of a vibrant modern nation. What follows is partly based on the views of my respondents but also on my own reflections on what might begin the long road to recovery:

* The senior management of BBC Scotland have finally agreed to come before the culture committee of the parliament. They should be treated courteously but experience a hard time as they are subjected to incisive and robust interrogation. The committee should be briefed by individuals with relevant expertise before the grilling.
* That should not be the end but the beginning, however, as the committee ought to launch an inquiry involving staff past and present of the BBC as witnesses, who must of course be protected from any managerial retaliation.
* BBC Scotland to be devolved asap; note, this will only be a necessary, but not in itself a sufficient cause of amelioration.

The following actions are also necessary.
* A phase of budgetary protection provided by the Scottish Government post-devolution to allow for recovery in standard of outputs and staffing.
* A new head of Radio Scotland appointed with leadership qualities and a commitment to defending the station against cuts demanded from south of the border.
* A senior management structure in Pacific Quay where radio at news level is guaranteed representation.
* The BBC-appointed Audience Council scrapped and a new independent body with teeth and a membership of national standing with a remit to scrutinise output and report annually without fear or favour.

Tom Devine is a senior research professor in history and director of the Scottish Centre of Diaspora Studies at the University of Edinburgh