Don’t Cringe in My Backyard
Ok, in the week that Scotland has shocked international journalism by admitting it doesn’t have a national evening news service, I put forward an argument for greater ambition and proffer the following running order for the Scottish Six:
In the week that Barack Obama announces the closure of Guantanamo a special report on the CIA’s secret rendition flights via Prestwick.
Saville in Scotland
The local fallout of a very British scandal
EU Referendum from North East
A special report from Peterhead on how the fisheries industry will shape the way the town votes on Europe.
Bring Us Your Digital Masses
Are tightening UK Immigration Laws Undermining global recruitment within the Dundee games sector
A set-piece interview with the Lord Advocate on the successes and setbacks of Scotland’s innovative Cold Case Murder Unit
Is the Offensive Behaviour Act Buckling Under The Strain of Football Fan Protest – the law in turmoil.
Travel and Transport News
Helen Fitzgerald’s novel ‘Viral’ begins with a young woman admitting that she given multiple blow jobs on a package holiday. The modern anxiety of young women being humiliated on the web.
Paralympian David Smith and his life or death cancer operation.
Creative Scotland funds bands to attend the world-renowned SXSW events in Austin Texas. Should governments fund rock music? A special report.
I have only taken a few hours to improvise this sample ‘running order’ with no resources and no communication with my valued colleagues in London. I offer it up for three reasons: I believe Scotland is a country rich in stories, that we deserve the dignity of a dedicated news service and that television news is failing to connect with younger viewers and needs to address its own shortcomings. There is nothing in any of these stories that makes me cringe, nothing that patronises viewers nor would any of these stories in their proposed form be covered on the alternative UK news services from London. Each item has a specific story to tell but each has a bigger underlying question that holds power to account – are we sufficiently aware of what secret services do in our country? Has our anti-sectarian legislation failed? Should we publicly fund rock music? Is online sexualisation a threat to teenage girls and if so how do our special units at Police Scotland in Gartcosh police the web? None of these stories soft-pedal on the SNP or on our national institutions, in fact some of them directly question government policy. All of this is what I consider the stuff of a Scottish Six.
This week has been a new low for our national newspapers. As their declining circulation has once again been exposed to scrutiny, almost every title available on the newsstands queued up to sneer at a dedicated evening news service on the BBC. This was particularly rich when waves of negativity came from newspapers that Scottish edition of London-based papers. They seemed to be saying we can do it but you can’t. Many of the daily newspapers, working from leaked documents accompanied their sneering with fanciful untruths the biggest being that the Scottish Six was evidence of a bully and dictatorial SNP. I know this to be fanciful – and probably malicious – since the idea of a Scottish Six is a long-held aspiration of many people in news journalism in Scotland, and is really a child of the Labour-led devolution process. As far back as 1980, the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which the SNP boycotted saw improved news as a bridge to greater devolution of power. Labour and coalition administrations from 1999 onwards have supported the idea. I have been in the company of Donald Dewar, Jim Wallace, Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish when as First Minster, they all variously espoused the idea of dedicated Scottish nightly news. The Scottish Broadcasting Commission established in 2007, reported to parliament where it was supported by all the main parties and carried recommendations about improved television news coverage. More recently, in the context of BBC Charter Renewal, BBC Scotland’s own management team recommended that the time for a Scottish Six had come. To characterise this thirty year journey as a dastardly plot that Fiona Hyslop hatched over a Bacardi and Coke in a lounge-bar in Linlithgow is fantasy.
It is also truly demeaning since it plays to the current publishing myopia that appears to resent Scotland taking actions for itself. There is a dark irony in all of this. Yes the SNP has been on the front-foot about change at the BBC – because there is a Charter Review process and as the government of Scotland they are now part of it. But the SNP has been an ally too. It is by some distance the political party that has voiced the greatest support for the renewal of the licence fee, whilst many unionists especially at the heart of the Conservative Party, would happily lacerate the BBC. All of which brings us full circle back to the simple idea of a dedicated news service.
I have selected a running order that is crammed full of international stories looking out from Scotland in order to challenge the frequently peddled narcotic that a news service from Scotland will be by nature parochial. Very few of the stories proposed are founded on cross-border grievance, and the withering idea that Scottish news is doomed to moan about Westminster.
Where we currently are with a Scottish Six is in what the television industry calls – the pilot phase. BBC Scotland’s staff are charged with turning round three pilot programmes in a short space of time, all of which will be delivered and viewed by the Director General Lord Hall. I have no problem with this referral up, every pilot I have ever been involved in has been viewed by senior management, marketing teams and in some cases external focus groups. It is the way things work. Although the NUJ has voiced concerns about the turn round times, I am less concerned, new is by its nature fast and furious, and in any case the BBC sits on a veritable goldmine of already existing features, reports and documentaries that can be raided and adapted for the purpose of illustration. Improved resource and expertise may be necessary time to ruminate less so. Once a ‘tone of voice’ is agreed there will be many more pilots before the news programme actually goes live. What I would definitely avoid is the current desk-based micro-studio at BBC Scotland, it is too small, to formal and too associated in the mind of viewers with the current opt-out service. This is a time for bolder alternatives, nor are the issues new, Channel 4, Sky and Channel 5 have all had to de-formalise their news services to try to connect with light viewers.
A huge opportunity is staring Scotland in the face. We have the chance to fix a small crease in our democracy – an hour of news that talks to a country and its place in a complex world. What is needed is urgent, ambitious and innovative action not further navel gazing, or worse still the fudged compromises that so frequently blights the BBC’s internal actions.
But change is a two-way street. Those that pillory the BBC from the perspective of the independence movement have to accept that the grievances left behind in the wake of the referendum now need to be laid to rest. We are living in a time when Scotland needs to prove itself, not tear itself apart. Compromise does not absolve the BBC of facing up to its shortcomings either, the pace of events in the last few years has wrong footed Pacific Quay and they now need to rediscover their Mojo and more importantly their purpose. It’s time to sweep the egg-shells from their offices and take a bold approach to this current opportunity. If they make the insecure mistake of looking to London for leadership they will fail in their duty to serve Scottish audiences, and those of us that remain committed to the licence fee.
Stuart Cosgrove is a writer and broadcaster. He is the author of ‘Detroit 67’ and the forthcoming ‘Young Soul Rebels’. He presents BBC’s Scotland’s ‘Off the Ball and contributes weekly to BBC Scotland’s’ Media Review Show.