I’M afraid Gerry Hassan’s relish at declaring the BBC is in crisis is somewhat misplaced (The BBC: Destroy, defend or democratise?). Gerry finds evidence all around to support his doom-laden thesis, deftly weaving fact and fiction to support his arguments, so it may be worthwhile just unpicking some of those.

First, while it may fit the theory nicely, I’m afraid Donalda MacKinnon did not “resign” in the face of that “crisis”: after 33 years with the BBC, she announced her retirement at the point when she had always intended to retire. There’s a difference between resigning and retiring, as I’m sure Gerry knows.

Over three decades with the BBC, she has at various times led teams in Gaelic, in Children’s programming, been responsible for all of BBC Scotland’s programmes and services and has led a ground-breaking pan-BBC review into gender equality. And as the first female director, last year she ushered in another dedicated BBC TV service for Scotland, the second in a little over a decade, supported by the largest financial investment in television programmes and content in a generation. That doesn’t sound to me like someone, as inferred, running from a “crisis”.

On the wider question – is the BBC under threat? – the important point to make is that it has always been under threat of one sort or another, in many different ways and from many different directions. Political parties – of every hue – focus sporadic and sometimes concerted attacks on the BBC – and on BBC Scotland – with cries of bias on everyone’s lips and with a view to influencing decision-making.

READ MORE: Gerry Hassan: The BBC – Destroy, defend or democratise?

In a time when “alternative facts” are the accepted currency of a post-truth world, when people instinctively retreat into their own social media bubbles and when such debate is increasingly polarised and often binary in nature, it is perhaps sadly inevitable that such attacks on the BBC continue to grow in number.

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That’s especially true when people, and particularly those with the strongest political views, find their own, personal world views challenged and grow increasingly uncomfortable when faced with alternatives. That’s not just my view – it’s also that of Ofcom, the broadcast industry regulator.

So challenge, threat, cast doubt – yes, and more. And, frankly, ‘twas ever thus. But no crisis, Gerry. There’s a lot to be positive about. We all know about the rise and rise of the “digital disruptors” in the marketplace – Amazon, Netflix, Google, etc. And we fully recognise the scale of the task ahead, to remain both relevant and desirable, particularly to younger viewers. But we should not forget that 91% of the adult population use the BBC every week. Or that there are more than 20 million iPlayer and BBC Sounds requests for BBC content every day. Or that, in the space of a year, the BBC Scotland channel has reached more viewers than any other digital channel in Scotland, with content supplied by over 70 independent production companies. Or indeed that, worldwide, around 450 million people tune in to the BBC each week.

READ MORE: Media expert calls on new BBC boss to scrap Scotland channel

We know we have entrenched critics who spit with bilious fury every time the BBC’s name is mentioned. Likewise, we know that the vast majority of people consume BBC TV – proportionately more in Scotland than elsewhere across the UK, attracted by quality output and programmes such as the comedy-drama Guilt, the ground-breaking Murder Case and comedy gems such as Scot Squad.

Of course, there is more – much more – to do and we look to improve on our offer to audiences every day of the year.

Gerry also makes the mistake of tarring everyone with the same ideological brushes – the right thinks this about the BBC, the left thinks that. It’s not quite so simple – the recent noises from Number 10 were met with statements from a number of senior Conservative MPs who said they disagreed with what was being said about the BBC. Some Labour MPs believe the BBC played a part in their General Election defeat in December: others have made clear they believe the causes lay elsewhere.

Gerry accuses the BBC of being a “fundamentally undemocratic body” and suggests we are in the pocket of government and politicians. Has he actually been listening to the ideas floated recently about the licence fee and subscription?

About the potential impact on BBC budgets as a result of proposals to decriminalise licence fee evasion? About demands that we copy in its entirety and take on the financial burden of the Government’s free TV licence scheme, with the irreparable damage that would do to the entire creative economy? Has he noticed that UK Government ministers have taken the decision to no longer appear on the Today programme or on Newsnight? And this is the same Government in whose pocket he believes we nestle?

Or is he talking about the Scottish Government? If so, I suspect they, like the BBC, will be somewhat taken aback by such a revelation.

Our accountability is not to audiences, Gerry tells us. He must know something I don’t. Audiences, I can reliably confirm, are at the heart of every strategic discussion that takes place across this organisation.

They are the yardstick by which we judge the value and worth of what we do.

And they are the key determinant for Ofcom, our industry regulator, in its ongoing assessment of how effective we are in delivering on our public purposes and on our Charter commitments.

Undeterred by the facts, and in one of his wilder flights of fancy, Gerry tells us we have no direct connection with audiences in Scotland – to be honest, I really struggle to know where to begin to answer that one.

Gerry then tells us that the problem is also one of management “who have little or no experience of journalism”. That will no doubt come as a surprise to the director-general, who spent 28 years in the BBC newsroom and was responsible for the launch of BBC Radio 5 Live, News 24, BBC Parliament and BBC News Online. What he might have achieved had he been a journalist is something on which we can only speculate.

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And Gerry’s analysis completely ignores the expertise in programme-making, across the board, that exists at the BBC’s top tables. Rather, he tells us he has heard that you could take out every layer above editor and still see the organisation flourish. Seriously?

Another of our misdemeanours, it seems, is our predilection to “hide behind ‘impartiality’” (Gerry, it seems, likes to put “impartiality” in inverted commas at every opportunity). It’s not a dirty word, Gerry – it’s the principle that underpins our journalism and it’s what all of our journalists aspire to achieve in their reporting, irrespective of what you might think of that.

However, there’s more. Brexit, the Scottish independence referendum, even Scottish football ... apparently we “fail to support the game beyond the Old Firm”. Maybe Gerry hasn’t noticed the Championship games live every Friday night on the BBC Scotland channel or the as-live coverage of the Scottish Premiership on BBC Alba every week and the comprehensive Sportsound coverage on Radio Scotland most weeknights? Maybe if he actually watched or listened to the output, he might be able to offer a more informed view?

Scottish culture is simply not represented by the BBC, he tells us. He’s clearly not been watching the BBC Scotland channel … or BBC Alba … or listening to Radio Scotland.

As his polemic progresses, the topics pile up and Gerry’s criticism becomes more withering by the minute. But perhaps there’s hope for this benighted organisation.

His solution is that it should be made accountable, it should be in tune with what audiences want, it should reflect the growing diversity of the nations of the UK.

The answer to that is simple – If we didn’t already do any of these things, Ofcom would be the first to let us know.

The BBC and BBC Scotland have their challenges, as does public-service broadcasting itself, be they financial, editorial, technological, cultural – all set against an ever-evolving social and political landscape.

If attention should be focussed anywhere right now one might hope it would be on defending programmes and services that the general public values and which, as Reith originally set out, continue to inform, educate and entertain. That, Gerry, is what is critical.
Ian Small
BBC Scotland
Head of Corporate Affairs and Public Policy