Former BBC Scotland presenter describes blanket Duke of Edinburgh tributes as 'extremely problematic' for broadcaster
A former BBC Scotland presenter has described the corporation's blanket coverage of the death of Duke of Edinburgh as “enormously problematic” for its reputation.
Isabel Fraser condemned the BBC for denying viewers and listeners a choice of programming, claimed it had an "odd relationship" with the Royal Family, and said it had taken a "cloth-eared" approach about public attitudes to the Royal Family in Scotland.
She also suggested the blanket coverage devoted to tributes to Prince Philip had cast doubt on the BBC's claims to be impartial.
Her comments have emerged as it was revealed that more than 109,000 complaints have been made to the BBC about its coverage – which saw an identical feed broadcast across BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Scotland BBC Alba, and BBC News, and programming on all of its radio stations interrupted, on Friday.Speaking on the Talk Media podcast, Isabel Fraser said the BBC seemed to suffer from "institutionalised muscle-memory that says this is how it must be done.”
She said the BBC had questions to answer about whether it should continue to "collude" with the Royal Family to sell its brand.
Fraser, one of Radio Scotland’s best-known presenters until she left her role last autumn, criticised the “tone” adopted by the BBC’s royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell, which she said some viewers found “obsequious”.She said she had seen "no evidence" when she worked at the BBC of a recognition from management that audiences in Scotland and England felt differently about the Royal Family.
Speaking on the podcast, Fraser said the Duke of Edinburgh’s death was clearly a “very newsworthy story” which merited extensive news coverage, historical background pieces and analysis.
However she said she had found the “next stage” of the BBC’s coverage “enormously problematic” for the corporation.
She added: "After having done all of those things, the BBC then decides ‘we will keep the prominence of this story and we will deny you, our viewers and listeners, choice in this, and therefore we are going into mourning effectively and require you to follow a pattern of behaviour and be denied normal choice.’
"The BBC will say that a public service broadcaster has a particular role in the life of the nation and that’s fair enough, but why can you not meet the requirements of that role and your viewers’ expectations, by clearing a channel, give it the normal news coverage and say ‘we have far more in-depth over on another channel.’
“The danger is not doing that is that it seems as if you’re in a very odd relationship with the Royal Family – and I think it is an odd relationship in editorial terms.
“We all know that if you’re dealing with the Royal Family they will dictate very specific conditions, which the BBC would never agree with any other news source. Let’s have a think about that and what that means about how viewers will see the BBC in its ongoing relationship with the Royal Family.
“The very big question for the BBC is how should this change in the future.
“What do you do when the Queen dies? What will be the relationship with the Royal Family of the future? Is this kind of behaviour acceptable in editorial terms? Is it acceptable in terms of what your viewers and listeners want to hear and see?
“There’s also a distinction in Scotland. We know they’ve been a bit cloth-eared in terms of how people north of the border feel about the Royal Family compared with people south of the border.”
The volume of complaints to the BBC in the wake of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death is the highest in its history.
Fraser added: "There’s a really important point in terms of the BBC’s reputation and how it wants to be seen by its audiences in the future.
"When it is selling itself and its brand as being impartial that has to be credible across all news sources.
“I don’t know the comings and goings in this. But I just think there is some kind of institutionalised muscle-memory that says ‘this is the way it must be done.’ Nick Witchell has a certain tone that some people would find far too obsequious.
"Fair enough, there will be people who want to look at this in more depth and live through this. Clear one of your channels and put it on there, but do not deny your viewers and listeners choice. That’s not what you’re there to do. You’re not there to tell them we’re going into mourning.
"The Royal Family is selling a brand. It is hyper-sensitive about publicity. It’s very good at manipulating publicity. It’s very good at staging how and when news comes out. The question for the BBC is does it go on colluding in selling this brand.”
Fraser was asked by host Stuart Cosgrove whether BBC Scotland had “relative autonomy” or was “merely following a script that is already prepared at Westminster or Buckingham Palace.”
She replied: “I do know that there has to be a uniform response and Scottish elements will be fed into the overall coverage.
"As far as I know, nobody’s sitting there saying: ‘Let’s have a look at the responses we get in Scotland, let’s take account of the fact that newspaper editors aren’t going to run royal stories front page the way they do south of the border, let’s take a look at the hits on the news sites.
“I saw no evidence when I was there of people saying: ‘There is a different perception, there is a different appetite for this in Scotland.’”
The BBC said in a statement: “We acknowledge some viewers were unhappy with the level of coverage given and impact this had on the billed TV and radio schedules.
“We do not make such changes without careful consideration and the decisions made reflect the role the BBC plays as the national broadcaster during moments of national significance."