2007 - 2021

Joan McAlpine: Time to change Auntie’s Anglocentric channel

The new all-purpose BBC HQ in Manchester

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

Comments (18)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I was watching the BBC news channel last night. The caption on the screen was something to the effect of “Storms in Scotland” but for some reason, the news reader was talking about “The storms hitting North Britain”.

    The SNP get a majority, independence finally comes to the foreground and all of a sudden Scotland becomes “North Britain” on the BBC.
    It’s pathetic.

  2. Frankly says:

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t find anything in this article that I disagree with.

    Meanwhile, in the Iberian autonomous community of Catalonia, here is how they get to bring you the news on television:


  3. Scottish republic says:

    The BBC has actually outlived its usefulness.

    There should be no licence fee.

    The internet assures freedom of speech more than the BBC ever can and it’s time to close it down.

  4. Doug Daniel says:

    That’s shocking that Michael Russell was shunned. I’m fairly certain I’ve seen at least three different Plaid Cymru politicians on Question Time over the past two or three years, so why are the SNP any different? Do the BBC not want people to think “crikey, where do the SNP get all these intelligent politicians from?”

    Ever since the election, I’ve found myself feeling increasingly detached from the news and current affairs on my TV. We have a separate NHS, ably managed by Nicola Sturgeon, and yet every couple of weeks we get wall-to-wall coverage about what Andrew Lansley is doing in his mission to privatise the English NHS. Other than in a sort of Bullseye “look at what you could have won” way, I have no interest in how the NHS is being dismantled down south. Also, look at what has dominated the news over the past week or so: Ken Clarke’s comments and celebrity injunctions. These two matters have been all over the news, and yet they had no bearing on Scotland because of our separate legal system – something that we tend to forget with the blanket coverage, hence why it took so long for the Sunday Herald to remind us about that fact. Question Time last week was devoted entirely to English justice matters, and yet Scotland had to be subjected to it – despite the opposite not being applicable, as was so wickedly demonstrated the last time Nicola Sturgeon was on the show in Glasgow (or has she been on again since? I forget.)

    It’s not good enough. We have a separate legal system, a separate education system, a separate NHS, so why are we continually subjected to updates on the English version of these, despite them having no more of an impact on us than the same systems in Germany, France and Norway? When I turn on the news, I want to see stories that affect me, and that need is not served by a half hour show devoted to the latest wranglings at Ibrox and Parkhead, and news items that are actually trailers for some programme that’s on later tonight.

    Maybe STV can fill the gap until BBC Scotland bucks up its ideas? It’s election coverage was certainly far superior.

    1. Jim Gardiner says:

      STV cant fill gap. They always show England international games live. But dont show Scotland ones. The advert before during & after states “sponsors England matches on STV.

  5. Tocasaid says:

    Not sure I agree entirely. Too much of the usual whinging with few positives mentioned. And, why for a Nationalist MSP is BBC Alba not mentioned at all? With BBC Alba at last about to shown on Freeview, on relatively prominent channel 8, why is this not mentioned? Perhaps Joan’s whinging is a bit…er Anglocentric?

    And, what about the alternatives? Why aren’t Sky and Virgin mentioned? Their Scottish coverage is even worse. Maybe we should be thankful then that the BBC are to some degree accountable and responsive. Could you imagine Murdoch providing a quality service in Gaelic that encompasses radio, internet and tv, providing news, sport and education to Gaels and non-Gaels alike?

    As to the Curriculum for Excellence… I wonder if Joan has a bee in her bonnet about this? After all, even the ‘political shape-shifter’ John McTernan is using Joan’s opposition to it as another stick with which to beat Scotland’s teachers. Hmmm, and this from a woman who apparently sent her kids to private school?

    Maybe, I’m being too Scottish and too left-wing?

    Lets not go down the road of constant negativity.


    1. Holebender says:

      The big, and rather obvious, difference is that we are forced to pay for the BBC if we want to watch any form of broadcast television. Yes, it would be great if Sky or Virgin gave Scottish issues better coverage but at least we have a choice of whether or not to pay for those services.

      As the BBC is taxpayer funded they should be obliged to reflect their entire audience, not just the largest portion of it.

      1. Tocasaid says:

        Canny speak for Joan, but I feel that I get good value for my license fee – media in 2 languages – 3 if I use their Hispanic service. BBC Alba offers excellent value on its own – news, internet, education (and more importantly normalisation) in/of Gaelic for my kids as well as challenging music (see Rapal’s Oi Polloi and Les Ramoneurs des Menhirs coverage) as well as award winning current affairs – Eorpa.

        I can’t imagine that Joan who packed her kids off to posh-school could’ve had much problem paying the license fee. If the BBC is too Anglo, then try the Gaelic side of things. Or is that being to political and parochial for some?!

        Oi Polloi singing ‘Union Jack – Thall is Cac’ on BBC 2? Sounds Scottish enough for me:

  6. Vronsky says:

    The BBC certainly no longer deserves its status as impartial commentator on events, if indeed it ever deserved that reputation. Joan’s complaint relates to Scotland, but BBC misrepresentation of events is not confined to affairs in their most northerly shire – that may be the least of their offences. The constant distortion of reporting of events in the middle and far east, and elsewhere in the world sometimes drives so close to self-satire that one begins to see the genesis of all those old soviet jokes about Pravda and Isvestia. I wonder what ‘few positives’ Tocasaid has in mind that he felt Joan should have mentioned? I can’t think of any – though he’s right about Joan having a bee in her bonnet about the Curriculum for Excellence: (tinyurl.com/3hs77pv).

    He’s also right about the pointlessness of ‘constant negativity’. Can’t we do something? I seem to recollect that in the years after the formation of the Irish Free State people just gradually started sending taxes to Dublin instead of London. We could all send nice letters to the BEEB explaining that we no longer wished them to have our licence fee as we felt they were in breach of their charter, but that as we had no wish to avoid taxation per se we would send the equivalent amount to – oh, Bella Caledonia? – each year.

    1. An Duine Gruamach says:

      Erm, campaigning for a Scottish Digital Network *is* “doing something”.

  7. Vronsky says:

    And there’s this from Medialens: tinyurl.com/34plsdl

  8. Siôn Jones says:

    Good article, with points well made. However, it is not only the BBC who don’t appear fully to understand devolution – you say, Joan, ‘imagine if Schools in England and Wales . . . ‘ as thought they were the same thing. They are not.

    Schools in Wales are fully devolved, and if you think you have a problem in Scotland with the BBC you should think yourselves lucky compared to what we have to suffer in Wales!

    At least you have your own independent press.

  9. David McCann says:

    Our own independent press? Dont get me started! They are worse then the BBC, and that’s saying something

  10. C.Graves says:

    ‘England and Wales!?’ As a Welsh observer of the exciting developments in Scotland over the last 15 years, it is saddening to see the lack of understanding by many commentators in the Scottish blogosphere as regards the rump Uk – a misunderstanding which they often berate themselves. The so-called rump Uk is no more of an entity/union than the *Uk* ever was – and to presume that Welsh attitudes, public opinion, standpoints can be equated with English/Unionist ones shows a sad lack of understanding and effort on the part of (otherwise) fantastic commentators.

  11. C Dunross says:

    As they say Time for Change.
    Another news network well worth looking at and using the better parts when the time comes is TV Canarias in the Canary Islands.

    Again like Catalonia an autonomous entity of the “Peninsula” as they call it.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.