Profile: Ken MacQuarrie

Profile: Ken MacQuarrie

By Maggie Brown,
Friday, 3rd July 2015
Ken MacQuarrie
Ken MacQuarrie
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

Maggie Brown profiles Ken MacQuarrie, the tactful Director of BBC Scotland who needs to keep the peace as the SNP surges

When Tony Hall needed someone to investigate Jeremy Clarkson's attack on his producer, he looked north and summoned Ken MacQuarrie, the calm and reserved Director of BBC Scotland.


As an experienced member of the Editorial Standards Committee, MacQuarrie was an obvious choice. His terse report sealed Clarkson's exit. What the Top Gear presenter made of the enigmatic Scot, his polar opposite, remains the stuff of speculation.

MacQuarrie was also a safe choice: it was he who delivered the Newsnight inquiry, after the programme wrongly accused Lord McAlpine in 2012 of abusing care-home boys.

Even so, some outsiders thought it odd to summon an executive from Scotland to sort out problems in London. "Imagine the furore the other way around. It couldn't happen," opined one Scottish media observer.

But for Observer media columnist Peter Preston, the overriding factor was that: "He's an extremely solid citizen... an honest broker."

Preston knows MacQuarrie, a 62-year-old BBC lifer, from his work at the International Press Institute, where he is an effective vice-chair, with an organised back office, delivering on his promises.

To BBC executives, the corporation politics are simple: MacQuarrie poses no threat to the London-based hierarchy that includes Danny Cohen, Director of Television.

Last autumn, rumours of MacQuarrie's retirement swept Scotland's Pacific Quay HQ following the BBC's lacklustre Scottish referendum coverage – but then abated.

The Clarkson inquiry was a public sign of the respect in which he is held inside the BBC, despite the protesters camped outside Pacific Quay, angry at what they saw as biased coverage.

Former Controller of BBC Scotland Patrick Chalmers says that when MacQuarrie joined in 1975: "He was very much of the Gaelic crofting tradition, a chubby Gael from the Isle of Mull, a bit scruffy, often the tie not done up properly. He's very quiet, very thoughtful, diffident, acute, not the brash BBC producer image at all."

Those who know him or work with him add comments such as: "He's an intelligent man, very well rounded"; "very straightforward"; "emoting is not his way"; and "gnomic, very guarded, a diplomat, who keeps his views to himself".

Another opined: "Hard to speak to. He stutters and stumbles. Actually, very clever, thinking so deeply, as if he has been in a philosophy class."

Given that Scotland is being swept by "nationalist fervour", he will need all of his ability to think deeply in the months ahead. The BBC in Scotland, with an SNP Government in power, seems almost overwhelmed by the party's popular surge and the constant complaints about coverage.

"We turn on our TV in Scotland only to hear about another country's politics, views, music, culture and sport," said one online response under a report on the SNP's general election manifesto.

While supporting the licence fee, the SNP manifesto went further than the Smith Commission, by seeking power over Scottish broadcasting.

MacQuarrie is not a fancy public speaker. There is a sparse trail of utterances, headed by a speech to RTS Scotland in April 2013, when he looked forward to the 2014 referendum.

"What will happen to BBC Scotland should the country vote for independence?" he asked. "I choose not to travel that path," he then answered.

A speech given in October 2014, after the referendum, conceded there would be "much work to do over the next two years" but gave no details.

Critics say this apparent refusal to engage has created a gap in the public presence of BBC Scotland. "Fair comment," concurs John McCormick, the personable BBC Scotland Controller who preceded MacQuarrie.

But MacQuarrie was feisty in countering disputed academic research in March 2014. This claimed to detect pro-Union bias in the BBC's output, compared with STV's, in the run-up to the referendum. "Our desire is to provide the most impartial coverage we can possibly," he insisted to Scotland's Education and Culture committee.

MacQuarrie is also the first Director (the title changed from controller in 2009) of BBC Scotland with no experience of working elsewhere.

Chalmers says of the appointment: "It did slightly surprise me... so narrowly focused." McCormick, however, disagrees: to build a stellar career in Scotland is "a badge of honour".

MacQuarrie, who declined to be interviewed for this article, also sits on the BBC Executive Team and the Online Direction Group.

He is married, has three grown-up children, lives in south Glasgow and enjoys sailing, walking and visiting his house in Tobermory. No one has seen him in a kilt– if he were to wear one, it would, presumably, be in the red and green of Clan MacQuarrie.

After Edinburgh University and teacher training college, he joined the BBC and specialised in producing award-winning Gaelic programmes.

Lesley Riddoch, broadcaster and contemporary, says: "He used to be quite a radical in the days when John Birt came up to give his seminars in the canteen about the internal market. He was quite able to be openly critical."

By 1992, he became both Head of Gaelic and Head of BBC Scotland's Features and Children's department.

We turn on our TV in Scotland only to hear about another country’s politics, views, music, culture and sport

"It was the key to Kenny's career, it went tremendously well," says McCormick. "His teams would do anything for him."

Riddoch, now a prominent Yes supporter, notes: "He just disappeared. He focused on being a manager. There was a sea change".

MacQuarrie was appointed Head of Broadcast in 1996, responsible for all Scottish output.

In 1998-99, Birt, supported by Tony Blair, fought off a plan to introduce a Scottish Six O'Clock News. MacQuarrie kept his views to himself and, a year later, he became Head of Programmes for BBC Scotland. Although there were later moves for trials of a BBC Scotland-­run News at Six and News at Ten, the plans were quietly dropped.

In 2004, MacQuarrie defeated Blair Jenkins (later Chief Executive of the 2014 Yes campaign) and Colin Cameron, then BBC Controller of Network Programming outside London, to become Controller of BBC Scotland.

His early initiatives included cutting staff jobs by 13% and the obligatory radical restructuring to "reduce hierarchy". He warned: "We must produce even better programmes and services on an ever-more-efficient basis."

Many BBC Scotland journalists contested these cuts. They were also critical of MacQuarrie's appointment, in 2011, of John Boothman as Head of News and Current Affairs. Boothman's partner was Susan Deacon, a former Labour health minister. This stoked fears of party affiliation in a febrile climate.

On the other hand, in 2008, MacQuarrie oversaw the launch of BBC Alba, a lively broadcasting service for the country's 58,000 Gaelic-speaking community. It is subtitled and even non-Gaelic speakers praise it.

He also delivered on the long-awaited promise of reception for BBC radio listeners along the entire length of the arterial A9 road.

Since his appointment as Controller, MacQuarrie has paid keen attention to ratings, seeing them as a vital weapon for fighting in London for BBC Scotland's budget. In 2013-14, for the first time, BBC One's audience share in Scotland was slightly ahead of the rest of the UK: 21.2%, compared with 21.0%.

Last year, he proudly announced that nearly 11% of the BBC's total network spend was in Scotland, ahead of the target of 8.6% by 2016.

But the transfer of network productions, such as Question Time – the so-called "lift and shift" policy – has fierce critics. "What Ken didn't get, is that we wanted an indigenous industry in Scotland," fumes Riddoch.

Last month, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon accused the BBC of short changing Scots football teams and fans. She pointed out that it spent only £1m of £68m on Premier League highlights for Match of the Day on Scottish teams.

The SNP general election manifesto argued for a substantial role in renegotiating the BBC Charter.

BBC Scotland was seen to be slow in adapting its coverage as the debate about independence intensified, and STV suddenly smartened up with a ratings success, Scotland Tonight, at 10:30pm. BBC Scotland introduced Scotland 2014 (and, currently, Scotland 2015) opposite it; the Scottish

Newsnight compromise (a separate Scottish segment at 11:00pm) was abandoned.

The big question that MacQuarrie has steered clear of is: how do you see BBC Scotland evolving in the future?

Scotland's sense of itself is supported by having its own, distinctive institutions, from its education and legal systems to an established parliament – and 56 SNP MPs sitting in the UK Parliament. Whether the country achieves independence or merely greater autonomy, BBC Scotland cannot expect to be unaffected.

A source close to MacQuarrie says: "It's a hell of a problem, the aggressive behaviour by Alex Salmond... being shouted at by him.

"The SNP thinks BBC Scotland is in the pockets of the BBC in London. The idea of a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation is rubbish, but no one can say it."

MacQuarrie has been silent about the BBC's future, argues this source, because, "he can't stand up and say anything, because everything he says is distorted, everything is challenged.

"He has to keep quiet. I sometimes wonder how he stands it. He must have had other offers."

You are here