BBC Radio Scotland’s rumoured plan to axe a huge swathe of its specialist music programming has now been confirmed. A news exclusive this week by the Scotsman’s arts correspondent Brian Ferguson extracted a response from the press office at Pacific Quay that neither denied BBC Scotland’s intentions nor offered a convincing argument for the controversial decision.
Widely discussed over the festive season, Ferguson’s story confirmed that both Classics Unwrapped, presented by tenor Jamie MacDougall and Jazz Nights, fronted by singer and violinist Seonaid Aitken (pictured), had been “decommissioned” in response to the freezing of the licence fee and a shift from broadcast to digital output.
Added to the news that pipe music programme, Pipeline, was to lose its broadcast slot – revealed to writer and piper Rab Wallace before Christmas – the changes amount to the cancellation of the BBC Scotland’s commitment to much of its weekend broadcasting of traditional and classical music, opera and jazz.
Although BBC insiders believe that the cost-cutting measure is unlikely to be reversed, political condemnation of the organisation has been swift and widespread. Two of Scotland’s best known musicians, tenor saxophonist and educator Tommy Smith and composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan, have started online petitions opposing the decisions to cut Jazz Nights and Classics Unwrapped.
The new director of the Edinburgh International Festival, violinist Nicola Benedetti, quickly added her voice, and the campaign has also been supported by Creative Scotland’s Head of Music, Alan Morrison.
The justification for the axing of the programmes has looked desperately thin, with Smith and others pointing out that the programmes’ budgets will represent a small saving and Ferguson speculating that sports coverage has been ring-fenced at the expense of the arts.
It certainly looks like an abdication of responsibility on the part of BBC Scotland to curtail its support, reporting and discussion of areas of music that are a distinct national success story and whose funding is built into the political settlement of devolved government in Edinburgh.
Although its main paymaster is BBC Radio 3, it is also true that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is a local asset paid scant attention by BBC Scotland itself, and whose long-term future is hardly helped by the decision.
Few will also be persuaded by the BBC Scotland spokesperson’s glib statement about a shift towards digital, when more thoughtful strategies of parallel development are being pursued elsewhere in the BBC. As the range of formats and platforms employed for recorded music has long demonstrated, consumers do not follow such a linear path but prefer to be able to choose and use the full range of what is on offer.
That it has been left to an un-named press officer to justify the cuts also speaks volumes of a decision that has been made to achieve savings without affecting BBC Scotland’s narrow definition of its core activity and staffing. A senior management representative should be called to account in the face of the vociferous opposition to the changes.