In today’s Scotsman, Joan McAlpine MSP, argues that the BBC has failed to come to terms with devolution and its programming proves how far from fit for purpose it is for Scots.
Just days after the election I was invited on to the Today programme on Radio Four to discuss the seismic political events. Nobody could take issue with the production team’s commitment to broadcasting excellence. Nothing was left to chance. I was quizzed the night before by a bright researcher keen to test my arguments. This young woman was convinced that Scotland is subsidised by the rest of the UK and was a bit miffed that I challenged what she considered self-evident truth.
It’s a pity my bushy-tailed inquisitor did not similarly cross-examine the star presenter John Humphrys, because he opened by talking about the “Scottish Assembly”, suggesting our political landscape was little changed since the Bay City Rollers were in the charts. It’s just one small example of a wider problem. Even the best-informed London broadcasters struggle to master basic facts about Scotland. This was confirmed three years ago in the wide-ranging King report, which found the BBC was too London-centric.
Even when they get the language right, can we really expect UK-wide broadcasters to do justice to Scottish news and current affairs? Ninety per cent of the audience resides in England. While these viewers and listeners will be interested, from time to time, to hear how Scotland’s health and education services differ from their own experience, they do not want daily scrutiny. Why should they?
Scots are, however, expected to be fascinated by a forensic coverage of domestic English matters that do not apply here. We lack enough programming time of our own to properly discuss how such issues are developing here in Scotland.
Take just one example – the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence. Imagine if schools in England and Wales were getting a new curriculum. We’d have highbrow discussions on Today, the World at One and Tonight as well as Newsnight. The BBC One flagship news at Six and Ten would give it a popular but intelligent treatment and several Panoramas would be devoted to it. We’d get robust debate on Question Time, sofa discussions on the Daily Politics and Radio Five Live phone ins. Breakfast telly would offer even more fluffy treatment. Radio One’s excellent Newsbeat or the television Newsround would take a pupil-centric approach. And if you missed all of that, there’s the News Channel.
This variety of is one of the BBC’s strengths – except for viewers in Scotland. The Reporting Scotland bulletin seems to have a blue light on its head, such is the obsession with crime. Newsnight Scotland does its best but is too little and much too late in the evening.
Our public service broadcaster also has a duty to communicate politics to the non-anorak wearing portion of the populace. It singularly fails to do that. Things improved during the election, with an extended Newsnight. But Reporting Scotland often reduced coverage to bullet points and photo ops. Why, in a six week campaign, did the BBC only manage one leaders debate, broadcast at an ungodly hour on a Sunday? STV managed two at peak time, even though it does not enjoy the BBC’s public subsidy. Remember the hype, pre-publicity and post match analysis of the 2010 General Election leaders’ debates?
It is against this background that we should consider the First Minister’s intention to push for a Scottish Digital Channel. It received cross party support in the parliament back in 2008 after it was recommended by the independent Scottish Broadcasting Commission. The SBC estimated the cost at £75 million, to be funded either from a percentage of the license fee or through the auction sale of digital spectrum. It reflects Scotland’s powerlessness in media matters that an arrangement was made by politicians and BBC executives behind closed doors to peg the licence fee and allocate part of it to S4 Wales.
Things have to change. Speaking on the radio last week, the former head of programmes at BBC Scotland, Maggie Cunningham, said the corporation had failed to come to terms with devolution since 1999. Reserving regulation to London has resulted in some highly political, anti-Scottish decisions. For example, the former Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-Director General John Birt blocked a Scottish Six – a high quality bulletin combining Scottish, UK and international news. Back in the late 1990s, a Scottish Six commanded cross party support from the likes of Donald Dewar, broadcasters such as Kirsty Wark and the then controller of BBC Scotland John McCormick. But the BBC said it was “not minded” to listen because such a move would be “bad for the UK”.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats called it a “classic London Establishment fix-up” and blamed a “control freak tendency”. Professor Lindsay Paterson resigned from the Broadcasting Council for Scotland.
At the time, the BBC assured Scotland it would monitor the situation and ensure our affairs received additional broadcast resources. The opposite has happened. News and current affairs in Scotland has been cut more severely than anywhere else. We make more, non-Scottish network material such as gameshows But at what price? Should we be grateful that Question Time is produced from Glasgow if much of the discussion is irrelevant to us?
It is notable that no SNP representative appeared on Question Time after the recent election. This was because the producers would only accept the First Minister or his deputy. An offer to send the highly articulate education secretary Michael Russell was turned down. The Anglocentric BBC does not regard Scottish cabinet secretaries as appropriate for the UK audience.
As Maggie Cunningham remarked on Saturday, the BBC has failed to come to terms with devolution. The hours devoted to programming for Scots has reduced. A review of BBC2 could accelerate this decline. There is a proposal to remove all the “regional” opt-outs from the channel for cost reasons. One solution suggested by London is that Scottish programmes appearing on BBC2 are suitable for network audience. It’s a one-size-fits all which completely ignores our cultural distinctiveness and democratic requirements. To look outwards, we need to be properly informed about our own country.
Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP for the South of Scotland