Interview with Jim Spence

Question: What made you decide to leave the BBC after so many years?

Jim Spence:
It was a combination of a desire to be less constrained in what I could say, along with my personal circumstances. My two sons are now settled in their careers and that means I’m now able to go freelance and have more freedom in my opinions and thoughts, than was possible in the BBC. I’d also like to have a bit more variety and choice in what I can do and when.

Q: What was your personal highpoint in your time at the BBC?
Working at the Commonwealth games in Glasgow covering a variety of Sports where the financial rewards are in inverse proportion to the effort and commitment of the athletes. The dedication, openness and the general enthusiasm of the competitors made it a pleasure to cover. I commentated on track cycling, judo, bowls weightlifting and more, with varying degrees of knowledge, but plenty of enthusiasm. It was a great fortnight to be in Glasgow, exhausting but exhilarating.
On a more personal note, I had the good fortune to be pitch-side radio reporter and live reporter on the Dundee United team bus when they beat Rangers to win the Scottish Cup for the first time in 1994. I then had the privilege next day to present the team and the cup to thousands of Arabs in the City Square for the victory parade. That was a sweet moment for a United supporter like me.
I also had the pleasure of being the TV reporter just ten yards behind the net in Paris in October 2007, when James McFadden scored the wonder goal to beat France 1-0 in the European Championships.
And there were also a good few trips abroad to cover Scottish clubs in Europe, which were always good craic. A Tea dance in Finland where I was whisked round the floor by a marriage guidance counsellor who had just been divorced, sticks in my mind as a bizarre moment.

Q: What was your low point at the ‘Beeb’?
The now well-known farrago concerning a remark about Rangers during the old club, new club debate. I’d been tipped off by a source at Ibrox that John McLelland would be returning as chairman. I ran the story and a couple of nights later posed a question to two guests on Sportsound, which many other football fans in Scotland were asking.
Referring to the McLelland return I said “John McLelland who was chairman of the old club, some people will tell you the club, well the club that died, possibly coming back in terms of the new chairman”.
It wasn’t the most graceful effort at flowing prose, granted, but in a live unscripted radio discussion, that isn’t uncommon.
There were 400 complaints from Rangers fans that my comments were inaccurate and misleading and the BBC Trust became involved. The situation dragged on for a long while before they ruled that there had been no breach of editorial guidelines.
There was a sustained campaign of pretty vicious abuse on social media with threats directed at my family and myself. On one occasion I was verbally abused while out with my wife. I did offer that individual the opportunity to settle the issue in time honoured fashion, but his bark proved worse than his bite and he declined in a somewhat anxious state before making a hasty getaway. That probably summed up most of the keyboard warriors who were involved in the anonymous abuse.
The upside was the unbelievable support which I Received from fans of other clubs in Scotland.
A petition in support of me with over a thousand signatures was signed by supporters of other clubs and that was very welcome and heartening. In particular the Aberdeen fans were terrific in their backing with their ‘We are all Jim Spence’ banner, which they unveiled at an away game at Firhill and at BBC PQ in Glasgow. It was very welcome backing and to this day I’m greatly appreciative of the support of them and other fans in Scotland at a time which was pretty fraught. The aim of the campaign was intimidation and to get me sacked: They failed.

Q: You have stated, on more than one occasion on Twitter, that there was a campaign to have you sacked from the BBC. Can you explain that?
As outlined above, I’m in no doubt that the aim was my removal from the BBC. It was an attempt to silence anyone who posed questions which some fans of Rangers did not want asked. Other Scottish journalists have been subjected to similar abuse. It has been and still is a blatant attempt to coerce and ultimately take journalists livelihoods away from them.

Q: How did you deal with that situation?
I’d be a liar if I said it was easy. My wife wanted me to pack it in and I came very close. The biggest problem was that as a BBC employee I could not respond the way I wanted to. My hands were tied behind my back and that was enormously frustrating. Privately many folk in the industry sent me messages of support but given the threats and intimidation around at the time it would have been unwise and very dangerous to do so publicly.

Q: Has the job as broadcast sports journalist changed from when you joined the corporation?

Dramatically. The biggest change comes in the shape of social media and the ability of clubs to control the flow of information through their own websites, TV channels etc. An example can be seen here in Dundee. Only a few years ago both United and Dundee were available for the press every day. Dundee have now moved to just once a week and United twice a week. That situation is replicated at most other clubs.
The availability of players and managers has decreased as a result. From a club perspective I can understand it. They want to control what is said and when, and they want to make money from their own output. That has an impact on both the written press and the broadcasters. We are now in direct competition with the clubs for information and they have the upper hand. That isn’t going to change. It’s also a more regular occurrence to be told at a press conference that certain topics are off limits and that questions won’t be taken on them.

I think one effect of all of this may be for more analytical and more subjective and opinionated reporting in future, although some folk would say the press are opinionated enough as it is.
Supporters are also able to have their say on a range of fans websites and social media and are often ahead of the mainstream media with their information. When I wrote for the United fanzine, ‘The Final Hurdle’, it came out every few weeks and took a while to put together. Now fans can voice their opinion instantly and anonymously if they wish. All of that is creating a challenge which the mainstream media has to try to adapt to.

Q: Do you think that broadcast organisations are serving Scottish football well?
I’d like to see BBC Scotland in TV and radio terms, have a bigger budget to do features and promote the game in the way we used to be able to, but the money isn’t available. I’d also like to see more programme time to do those kind of features and stories, but we’re classed as a region not a nation, so that is not likely to happen unless independence occurs or broadcasting is devolved.
If either of those things happen, it would be in my view be necessary to devolve a fair amount of broadcasting outside of Glasgow to other areas, to avoid the parochialism and narrow Glasgow centric view of the world which currently exists.

In radio I still think Sportsound does a great job. It costs a lot of money to produce the programmes in midweek and weekends. Folk outside of the industry would be surprised at how tight resources can be in making the shows and in working to deadlines. If it was that easy the independent sector would be doing it and they’re not.

Sky and BT look to cater to their main audience in England and I feel that Scotland is a poor relation in their coverage. Increasingly the future for the terrestrial broadcasters in Scotland looks pretty bleak up against those two giants.

Q: What do think life as a freelance journalist will hold for you now?
I’ve already had some very interesting offers of work. I’ll take a bit of time to consider some of those but I’d expect to back in harness once I’ve recharged the batteries. I’m looking forward to being able to speak more freely than was possible in a big organisation where there are obvious constraints. I’m also looking forward to having a break. I’ve not had a proper holiday in around five years. After that I’m available for weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs!

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