The Future of BBC in Scotland

By Alex Grant

How good is BBC Scotland? Ask an Irish comedian.

When the BBC Trust states “our job is to get the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers” it might seem a bit odd that in the opening lines of the Audience Council Review (Scotland) the BBC’s Trustee in Scotland, Mr Bill Mathews states that “programming highlights included Mrs Brown’s Boys”. Indeed this production was so important a photograph of said Mrs Brown was on the front page of the report. It is hardly surprising therefore when later in the report Mr Matthews admits that “Trust research indicates persistent audience concern about how Scotland is represented on Network and BBC Scotland services” That being the case and given that in his statement in Jan 2011, on taking up his appointment, he said “it is vital that public organisations are properly accountable to those that pay for them and one of my priorities will be to ensure that the BBC meets the standards of openness and transparency demanded by license fee payers”, one might wonder what he is doing to demonstrate his success?

It would appear that the BBC Trust’s man in Scotland recognises there is a problem, but if the highlight of their year is a joint production with RTE featuring a totally Irish comedy set in Dublin it is not surprising that Kenneth Roy recently also asked “what is he doing as Scotland’s only representative on the BBC Trust?”

It was with that question in mind that in April of this year, on behalf of the Constitutional Commission I contacted the BBC, both Management and Trust to invite their participation in a meeting to discuss ‘ The Future of BBC in Scotland’.

My first point of contact at the BBC was Mr Ric Bailey, their Chief Political Adviser- famous for inviting our First Minister to feature on the ‘One Show’ and infamous perhaps for excluding him from participating in the coverage of the Scotland v England Rugby commentary team prior to the 2011 Scottish elections, prompting the ‘Gauleiter’ stushie!

Mr Bailey initially relied promptly saying it would be inappropriate for him to take part and suggested that I contact Ken MacQuarrie, Director BBC Scotland. When queried about when it would be appropriate for Mr Bailey to participate in a debate he stated “I am always happy to discuss issues which are relevant to my role – that is, regarding the BBC’s impartiality and independence”.

Meanwhile I had attempted to invite Ken MacQuarrie but was referred to Mr Ian Small, Head of Public Policy and Corporate Affairs BBC Scotland. Subsequent to a telephone conversation with Mr Small he made it clear that the BBC could not” become involved in a debate on possible future models of broadcasting in Scotland” as this “could easily be interpreted as us holding a particular position on the independence debate” However he went on to state “we would, of course, be very happy to contribute to public debate and discussion on the BBC’s current performance in Scotland, and would be happy to meet…to discuss any such possibility”

We met Mr Small in early May and assured him that it was not our intention to ask the BBC to comment on political issues beyond their remit and that we would alter the title of the event in order to solve that problem. However he subsequently confirmed, in writing, that despite our assurances, that BBC Scotland would not participate. Further correspondence confirming our willingness to focus the event on Ric Bailey’s earlier statement that he could discuss “how the BBC approaches the constitutional issues regarding Scotland and the rest of the UK” met with a refusal.

Meantime I had been attempting to meet an elusive Mr Bill Matthews, the BBC Trustee for Scotland.

We finally met Mr Matthews and his political adviser on July 23 where we reminded him of his statement, on his appointment, about ‘accountability’ and his promise to “ensure that the BBC meets the standards of openness and transparency”. We made it clear that we felt that BBC management had “fallen considerably short of these aspirations in its dealings with the Constitutional Commission”. Interestingly Kenneth Roy’s recent observation that “Mr Matthews public profile is so low as to be almost invisible” was endorsed by the fact that in our meeting The Trust’s position was presented almost exclusively by his political adviser, an even more ‘invisible’ representative of the BBC’s accountability, Mr Alan Jack. His opening gambit, with a straight face and no hint of irony, was to tell us that Mr Matthews was, of course, completely independent as he was appointed by the Queen! I suppose she called Jeremy Hunt to recommend him?

The rest of the meeting centred on a continuation of the theme expounded by BBC Scotland’s Mr Small with Mr Bailey stating that he could not participate as he might be asked to comment on areas politically outside his remit! This position was subsequently confirmed in writing and despite our complaint about BBC Management, this was brushed aside.

In summary it would appear to us that the BBC, despite statements to the contrary, does not wish to defend its performance in a public forum. And there are many questions about current never mind future performance? How is it going to deal with a 20% reduction in its budget? How is going to provide and demonstrate political balance in the run up to 2014? Can it enlighten us as the detail or magnitude of “ persistent audience concern about how Scotland is represented on Network and BBC Scotland services”. Can they tell licence fee payers why their coverage of the SNP conference is minimal compared to the UK party conferences? Why can’t we have a Scottish ‘Question Time’? And perhaps they don’t air ‘Scottish Questions’ from Westminster with the same exposure as Prime Ministers Questions because it would embarrass the establishment!

And in terms of accountability nor does the BBC Trust wish to demonstrate how it is ensuring that BBC management is being held to its remit. And remember our dialogue took place long before the much larger question raised by the Savile affair raised its ugly head! You might think an organisation attacked from many directions and with a Conservative Party many of whom are eager to abolish it that it would be eager to have clear accountable independent analysis to demonstrate its impartiality?

Despite the BBC’s refusal to participate we are now going ahead with our planned panel discussion on Tuesday Dec 11 in Holyrood.

What is the Role of Broadcasting in Scotland? Should Scottish Broadcast news focus primarily on “Fitba’, Murder, Government accused, and cute little kittens”

Our illustrious panel includes Iain McWhirter, Tom Devine, Ewan Crawford, Joan McAlpine, and Kate Higgins.

Book here.

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21 replies

  1. The most shocking thing here is saying that Mrs Brown’s Boys is the highlight of BBC Scotland’s programming – clearly this is Limmy’s Show!

    It’ll be interesting to hear what the outcomes of the discussion are. I notice the panel comprises of three independence supporters and two who I assume to be undecided – was it a conscious decision not to have any unionists on the panel, or did they simply refuse to engage?

    • I disagree. I much prefer Burnistoun to Limmy’s Show.

      As it is, the panel looks good although I am concerned about the lack of Unionists on the panel. I know that on the BBC panels tend to be stacked towards the Union but I would rather that the Constitutional Commission try to avoid stacking panels theo ther way.

    • I don’t think Limmy’s been as good this season. But why does all televised Scots comedy focus on social deprivation? Where are the clever situation comedies set in neighbourhoods not dominated by drug addicts or the unemployed? And why stop at comedy? The vast majority of Scots society is invisible on TV. It’s drugs, deprivation and dreary schemes or nothing.

    • Hmmm, I disagree with both of you – I think the last series of Burnistoun wasn’t as good as the previous series (nothing matched the cheap funeral service sketch from last time, that had me in stitches), and I would say this has been Limmy’s best series so far – episode two wasn’t his finest, but the first and third contained some pure unadulterated genius. BUILDING BRICKS!!! – I mean, how the fuck does he come out with some of that stuff?

      To answer G.P.’s point, I suspect there is an element of the BBC thinking that sort of demographic can be better portrayed by England for a wider audience. Let’s face it, deprivation, drugs and dreary schemes are seen as being Scottish characteristics – call it the Taggart Effect if you like. Bear in mind that the same criticism could probably be levelled at TV series set in the north of England.

      When programming chiefs are looking to have middle-class based programmes, they’ll do it in London. If they want gritty “real people” style programmes, they’ll look to Scotland, Newcastle or Liverpool – that way, their targeted audience (south of England) knows it’s a gritty drama/comedy because there are people with accents in it.

      Although of course, no one could accuse Monarch Of The Glen of being dominated by drug addicts, deprivation and dreary schemes!

      • I think you may have accurately depicted the BBC mindset that leads to such stale programming. I’ve not watched Burnistoun so I can’t compare.

  2. One way to make the BBC sit up and notice us, would be for the Scottish government to remove the “criminal” element of none payment of the BBC propaganda tax.

    Make them use civil courts to recover none payment of the licence fee, they would soon sit up and take notice if they thought that £400 ml was going to vanish.

    The fact that I cannot legally own a TV in Scotland unless I pay for anti Scottish propaganda really grates on me.

  3. We asked a lot of broadcasters. Didn’t pursue avowed Unionists I confess but Tom Devine is not declared for Independence, nor is Iain McW. Joyce McMillan accepted but had to pull out at last minute!
    The balance is better than the BBC normally allows???

  4. In my view BBC Scotland should mainly be criticised for its incompetence and inferior content. Impartiality is difficult to prove but it is not difficult to point out incompetence. News programmes that don’t cover major Scottish political stories, studio links that fail, mysteriously poor microphone calibration – never mind bias, it’s incompetence! Appallingly poor Scots sports coverage, shoddy journalism with unchecked facts, zero coverage of the majority of Scots life – take your pick of documentary programmes on the BBC and ask where is Scottish life represented in all its richness and diversity? It’s not wrong to ask, we’re paying for this rubbish content. The BBC is a poorly run, technically incompetent and editorially parochial mess and it needs to be told that.

  5. Cute kittens would be a massive improvement to be honest.

  6. I’ve noticed that very little dialectical materialism is discussed on River City, or Dotaman for that matter – perhaps the panel would like to address this.

  7. “But why does all televised Scots comedy focus on social deprivation?” That’s only one element of Limmy, and I think his take on these issues is far less pantomimic than Rab C Nesbitt. Apologies if I’m caricaturing your point for rhetorical purposes, but the idea of a Scottish ‘Friends’ set in the West End of Glasgow is frightful (says someone who lives in the WE of Glasgow). Who needs more aspirational bourgeois sitcoms, Scottish or otherwise? It’s also not true that there are no Scottish tv programmes covering middle class life – Lip Service springs to mind. Not very good, but hey. While I’d like to see more variety in Scottish comedy and drama (and film), I hate the idea of a moratorium on so called social realism – these are stories that should be told, to speak truth to power, although I do think that The Scheme is little more than exploitative ned-hate.

    • I agree that Limmy is better than some, but the current series has not been that great. I think you know you are caricaturing my point – I didn’t suggest any of the straw men you set up to knock down. Nor did I use the language of class, which I abhor. Nor did I suggest a moratorium on anything. Social realism is fine by me. Miserabilist navel-gazing is not realism. All I’m asking for is richness and diversity. Oh and technical competence.

      • Fair enough – and I quite agree that social realism and miserablism aren’t the same thing.

  8. NewsNetScotland’s current headline is about the BBC refusing to appear before the Scottish Parliament’s Education & Culture Committee. Seems that no public body has ever refused to provide representation when asked – does anyone know if that’s true? If it is, should we be looking forward to an in-depth report on Newsnight Scotland?

  9. Just two things I want to bring up:

    1. Most comments in the blogs I read on the subject of BBC Scotland, in my opinion, fail to answer the one big question; What sort of public service broadcaster do we want for Scotland? After all, in the words of the old song, you can’t get what you want till you know what you want. Say it’s after the referendum and Scotland voted Yes. You’re now in charge of changing BBC Scotland into the SBC, the news department in particular. After you give the Kaye Adamses, the Kirsty Warks and the Gordon Brewers the chop (or if you’re feeling merciful, teaming them with co-hosts with opposing POVs), who would be left? Who would you hire to fill the gaps? Which programs would stay and which would go (and what would be shown in their places)?

    2. I’ve got an idea for either a replacement source of funding, or an additional revenue source for the SBC. Since advertiser-supported networks like STV and the cable stations would still be a part of the media landscape in Scotland, why not replace the TV licence or bolster it with an advertising tax? Why not charge an extra percentage, say 5% or so of all TV and radio ads, and have it go to the SBC?

    • CEMarshall –
      Good point. Perhaps this is such a touchy subject with a lot of folk because they’ve been brought up with the Beeb, are extremely defensive of it, and have never considered what life might be like without it. The whole process of imagining something disappearing from the cultural landscape is so difficult, and raises so many questions, that the only logical way of approaching it would be to initiate broad debates looking five, ten, twenty years ahead, envisaging the type of broadcaster we would be prepared to have the government fund, and what we would like it to do (small example – would it still host a Scottish National Lottery?). Unfortunately, the BBC have made it plain that they will not facilitate or take part in such discussions. It’s a complete impasse – that’s why I, for one, would like to see Scottish journalists taking serious industrial action right across print and broadcast media. They know their livelihoods are at stake here – some honest debate would help air the many grievances of the media professionals and audiences e.g. your second point, as well as Derick’s observations below. The three-monkeys approach of BBC hierarchy is as unsustainable as it is insulting.

  10. Do we actually need a public broadcaster at all? The BBC certainly has been little more than the mouthpiece of the State since forever. I wouldn’t want any Scottish Government to have that sort of power. One way would be to compare broadcasting in Scandinavian countries or other similar sized industrial countries

  11. Ca’n tig BBC Alba a-steach an-seo? Where does BBC Alba come into it?

    Derick above – aye, we do need one. I can’t see greedy private interests giving us a Gaelic channel. And, is Sky really better than the BBC? Where’s the Sky Scotland channel? Where’s their ocvereage of our football compared to English football?

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  1. Public meeting: What is the role of Broadcasting in Scotland? | Constitutional Commission

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