Has BBC Scotland lost its marbles in fatuous pursuit of a ‘yoof’ audience?

By Graham Grant

IN the brilliant self-satirising BBC comedy W1A, the ‘head of values’ is plunged into an extraordinary row over alleged discrimination.

Ian Fletcher is in firefighting mode as accusations of anti-Cornish bias are levelled at the corporation, sparking multiple jargon-filled crisis meetings.

The series features a public relations ‘expert’, Siobhan Sharpe of the Perfect Curve agency, who uses esoteric phrases such as ‘let’s roll the tortoise here, guys’.

If the show ever returns to television, the new BBC Scotland digital channel, launched just over a week ago, may prove a rich seam of inspiration for the writers.

One wonders what Ian Fletcher would make of a man convicted of an anti-Semitic hate crime being invited onto a late-night discussion show – along with a thug and a dominatrix.

It’s a plot twist that would be too dark for the W1A team, and yet someone at the corporation’s Glasgow headquarters gave the green light to a proposal of quite stunning stupidity.

Mark Meechan, a blogger who presents himself as a free speech champion but is in fact a juvenile hatemonger, was fined £800 for teaching his girlfriend’s pug dog to perform a Nazi salute, and posting the video online.

Hardly a sign of intellectual rigour, yet the ‘creatives’ at the BBC were fully prepared to roll that particular tortoise, before the decision was reversed after journalists inconveniently found out about it.

Whether or not Meechan was paid, or will be paid, is unknown, because the corporation won’t say, while the thug and the dominatrix will still appear on the series, called The Collective: well, what could possibly go wrong?

As part of another trendy BBC Scotland project called The Social, aimed at young adults, the leader of UKIP’s ominous-sounding ‘youth wing’ produced an online video in which he offered his support to English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson, after he was stripped of his Facebook page.

All of which raises an important question: where exactly are the grown-ups at BBC Scotland?

It seems the toddlers have been left in charge of the crèche, and no-one dared to intervene to put a stop to the lunacy – or perhaps they weren’t aware.

Either way, the Meechan row points to more than a mere slip-up: the national broadcaster, once the conduit for the news that Britain was at war with Nazi Germany, was about to be turned into a platform for a man convicted of an anti-Semitic hate crime.

As to why the broadcaster deemed Meechan suitable for inclusion in the first place is anyone’s guess, though one journalist said on Twitter that she was once asked to debate with Meechan for a BBC 3 show on ‘offensive comedy’.

But she declined because she had no interest in ‘rehabilitating’ anti-Semitic views, and concluded that ‘apparently BBC Scotland feel entirely differently’.

The explanation could also be linked to the new digital channel’s stated aim of attracting younger viewers, though presumably it would be satisfied with viewers of any age at the moment, given its dismally low audience figures.

In the race to win them over, it has turned to YouTube stars and bone-headed, bogus celebrities, filling at least some of its air-time with blatant trash – and the rest of it with repeats, which form half of its output.

W1A: the hit BBC comedy that satirises the inner workings of the corporation

And yet as a publicly-funded broadcaster, isn’t it the BBC’s duty to enhance the quality of debate, rather than cheapen it by attempting to give air-time to criminals?

The first night of the new channel on February 24 reached more viewers aged between 16 and 34 in Scotland than any of its rivals, according to a BBC press release (which failed to mention that many thousands more opted for the Antiques Roadshow on BBC One).

Bosses at Pacific Quay, BBC Scotland’s Glasgow HQ, are not unduly bothered by those figures because they have unilaterally decided that the yardstick for judging the fledgling channel should not be anything so pedestrian as whether or not anyone is actually watching it.

That is an arrogant position, but it is consistent with a wider mind-set at the corporation, which operates in a world of focus groups and brain-storming sessions, and yet seems ever-more remote from what viewers actually want to see.

As budgets tighten, London-based executives may well begin to see the channel as expendable, particularly if audiences continue to be so small, and are probably already deeply resentful of its annual £32million cost.

It’s an outcome no-one should welcome because the new channel has created vital jobs, but the probability of its demise can only increase if its current shambolic performance continues.

Nor does the BBC seem concerned about the expansion of its online operations, encroaching into territory traditionally occupied by newspapers, so that ‘long-read’ features, often slickly presented, are now commonplace on the corporation’s website.

And yet the BBC is a behemoth kept alive by the licence fee, meaning it is free of the strictures placed on privately-funded media outlets, such as ensuring that people actually want the product, and are willing to buy it.

The BBC therefore has a built-in advantage, but remains largely dependent – with some exceptions – on the investigative work done by the papers, even if it tries to cover this up by stealing them and dressing them up as exclusives.

This means whenever you see the phrase ‘the BBC understands’, you can generally translate it as ‘someone read this in a newspaper, but we don’t want to admit it’.

The new BBC Scotland channel, in this context, can be seen as a product of the same arrogant perspective: it is bulletproof, it seems, and – for now – enjoys political protection.

There is much that the BBC does fantastically well – despite the rise of streaming services, it is responsible for superb drama, both on television and radio, and innovative comedy (including W1A).

It’s also true that anyone producing debate and discussion shows needs to create provocative content to boost audiences, and that can be a tricky tight-rope exercise.

But too often basic common sense is entirely absent from the equation, as the Meechan controversy demonstrates.

For all its faults, its culture of entitlement, and the all-too-frequent breakdowns in editorial judgment, the BBC is a treasured institution, and deserves credit for poking fun at itself.

It also runs stories critical of the corporation and its bosses on its bulletins and online, though curiously you won’t find any trace of the Meechan row on the BBC website – that’s one newspaper story it clearly doesn’t want to follow up…

Let’s hope the executives who are supposed to be in charge of this shambolic venture quickly realise that it needs to up its game, before even its most vocal supporters reach for the off button.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on March 5, 2019.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper