London Calling 3

Knowing your own business is a pre-requisite in any organisation, wouldn’t you say? Understanding what it does, how it works, what works and what doesn’t, who’s who and all that…you have to get it or you really shouldn’t be there at all. Without the basic knowledge, you’re just another waste of space. Worse – you’re probably a block to getting things done.

So you may wonder what a current internal job ad circulating at Pacific Quay says about BBC Scotland management. This is it.

Editor Radio (News and Current Affairs Scotland). BBC Grade 10. Responsible for Researchers, Broadcast Journalists, Senior Broadcast Journalists working on all radio output. This includes editorial responsibility for Radio bulletins, Morning Briefing, Good Morning Scotland, the John Beattie programme, Newsdrive, Brian’s Big Debate, Newsweek Scotland, the Shereen programme and Radio Special Events programming.

Seems innocuous enough. Until you look more closely. BBC managers want someone to take charge of 1) Morning Briefing – a programme that was taken off air seven months ago 2) Shereen – a programme no longer made by the news department at all but produced by general programming 3) Brian’s Big Debate – a show that is no longer presented by Brian Taylor (now the Big Debate with Gordon Brewer) and 4) Newsweek Scotland – a programme that last existed over two years ago when it was presented by…Derek Bateman.

Whoever wrote this hasn’t a clue about the station’s output. Neither has the staff member who posted it and it seems the senior management neither check the content of job ads nor could care less about their own programmes that this could be allowed to go out.

How much faith would you have in a management with such casual ignorance of its own output? The answer of course is very little as evidenced by the BBC’s own staff surveys (publication much delayed). Senior news staff seem not to know the nuts and bolts of their own department. This won’t come as a surprise to radio journalists who for far too long now have had to watch television treated as the senior service, given the lion’s share of dwindling resources and radio treated as an irritating side show. A succession of news heads of department with zero radio experience has shifted the emphasis to TV news. A Head of Radio with no understanding of news has meant consistently underrating its value.

(I also found it revealing that in the last annual report for 2014-15 there is no specific section dealing with Radio News, just some generic statements about number of programmes and network collaborations. A radio highlights section doesn’t mention news at all. In a year that gave us the Referendum and the Games, never mind the Ryder Cup golf etc, it looked like a bad miss that the news department wasn’t even asked to produce a few paragraphs on its busiest-ever year.)

The sickening irony for those of us who love radio is the reason for the ill-informed job ad in the first place. It is for a nine-month attachment or secondment as the existing Editor is devoting all his time to a scheme named Project Spark to find ‘new ways of working’ – BBC code for getting more out of the staff for less money and pretending the quality won’t suffer. It would have been nice if the salami slicers had at least managed to get the ad correct.

New ways of working will be one of the priorities of about-to-be-revealed Head of News to replace the disgraced (presumably in a Michelle Thomson sense) John Boothman. My understanding is that a talented field applied this time and there is no excuse for getting it wrong. I know of 10 applicants – male and female – some with high level experience in broadcast news inside and out of the BBC, some with newspaper or academic backgrounds, at least one with a Labour background (oops) and for the first time in years of senior BBC news recruitment, there are any number of people who look right for this job. So, not easy. It would be a shame though if the crucial role of James Harding, the Director of News and Current Affairs in London, was to dominate selection. When BBC Scotland finally found the balls to propose a truly devolved broadcast network making full use of the budget raised in Scotland, a last ditch campaign by London executives killed off a plan that had already been nodded through by BBC bosses. Only powerful figures could overturn such a decision – people like Harding who wants to retain control of his British empire. He was involved in selecting the short list and was the key person on the interview board so he will have taken a keen interest in Gary Smith,  UK news editor, a London-based Scot who is emerging as favourite. What would be unfortunate would be the impression that Harding was placing his own man in Scotland in order better to manipulate events from Broadcasting House.

He may of course feel that is necessary if it’s true that a Scottish Six O’ Clock news is back on the agenda a mere 15 years after it was first suggested. (Another example of the BBC getting ahead of the curve).

Meantime, this being the soap opera of Pacific Quay, trouble is brewing on the industrial relations front as the date nears for the compulsory redundancy of journalists who have been on Death Row for years in a case that appears to breach their human rights. This incident would the subject of an investigative documentary by the BBC – were it not about the BBC. If the sackings go ahead, the journalists will strike, I hear. In the period of Charter Renewal, that really would send Director General Tony Hall ballistic – another PR disaster in Scotland. You won’t hear about it on the radio though.

The Head of Radio Scotland is Jeff Zycinski.

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