For a Courageous Cosmopolitan BBC Scotland

As we enter the final countdown to the launch of BBC Scotland’s own dedicated digital channel, the nation’s blethering and blathering classes are set to cash in on their very own North Sea oil-style bonanza. Commissioning chief Steve Carson has signalled that two pillars of the new channel will be “talking and laughing”. What exactly he means by that is something not only Caledonian conversationalists and comedians are trying to figure out.

One thing has been crystal clear from the moment of its inception: the £32m of our license fees being committed to this endeavour is Scottish broadcasting’s version of the Barnett Formula – a not insignificant concession by our London overlords to quell the restless natives. Just as additional public expenditure in Scotland was designed to cowp the SNP’s oil-fuelled bandwagon in the 1970s, so the new channel has been rushed to our screens to try to appease those irate independence supporters who gather regularly at Pacific Quay with their anti-BBC bias placards.

Whether adding ‘BBC Scotland’ to the digital menu will have that intended outcome will depend not on light-hearted conversationalists and comedians but on the quality of news and current affairs it serves up.

Pacific Quay spin-doctors have waxed lyrical about the new channel bringing us “the world through Scottish eyes” and BBC Scotland’s news and current affairs chief has promised us “bold, challenging and original journalism”. I have no reason to doubt Gary Smith sincerity in transmitting that noble mission statement. I got to know Gary when we were both undergrads eagerly cutting our journalistic teeth on the Glasgow University Guardian. I owe him a sincere debt of gratitude for encouraging me to contribute to that august journal when he was its editor. Who knows, I might never have gone on to hold senior editorial posts in Scottish and UK national newspapers had he not done so.

Still, I wonder about his (or any BBC Scotland editor-in-chief’s) capacity to deliver on the brave promise he has made to Scottish viewers and voters. My doubts stem not from his (or any of his colleagues’) professional abilities but from the fact that Gary Smith – like all too many populating BBC newsrooms – is a BBC lifer. Since graduating from the famous Cardiff school of journalism (as I did), his career has been confined entirely to that corporation. It would be astonishing if he had not been institutionalised by it. And, as we all know, the BBC isn’t an institution generally associated with editorial boldness – especially since the Hutton Inquiry led to the resignation of its chairman and director-general.

A particularly craven form of timidity tends to creep into all its newsrooms whenever the British state itself is under siege. Confronted by Scottish and Northern Irish nationalist insurrections, the world-renowned public service broadcaster came disturbingly close to being widely perceived as what its harshest critics would (not completely fairly) claim it has always been – Britain’s state broadcaster.

Probably the only way BBC Scotland can redeem itself now in the eyes of political nationalists is by boldly tackling what has become by far the most important running story on these islands since the advent of television in the early 1950s – the battle for Britain. Or the struggle for Scotland, as some of us would prefer.

It is hard for any BBC staffer to deny a conflict of interest when covering the potential break-up of Britain since that could also mean the break-up of the BBC and the total disbandment of current operations at Pacific Quay.

There are some hopeful signs, it must be said, in the plan to screen a major documentary series on the 2014 referendum campaign. Done well, that could offer some valuable insights into contemporary Scottish history. But what really counts now is how BBC Scotland covers the run-up to the next referendum.

Before voters (and viewers) are once again faced with the ominous question on a ballot paper – Should Scotland be an independent country? – far more of us need to become far better informed about how ‘independence’ is actually playing out nowadays in a whole range of small nation-states around the world.

The crying need for such knowledge and insight cannot be met simply through a Scottish version of Question Time. Nor by letting certain prominent members of the Caledonian commentariat wax simplistic about our Nordic neighbours or the supposed second Irish economic miracle.

BBC Scotland would perform a real public service to the people of Scotland if it dug deeply into the myriad challenges being faced, and opportunities being seized, by autonomous (and semi-autonomous) territories too often dismissed as ‘minor countries’ by metropolitan newspaper editors. Maybe even a bit of bold muckraking in places like Bratislava or Dublin.

An audiovisual platform on which provocative commentators from all over the planet can give us their personal takes on contemporary Scotland – and us Scots – might also supply some valuable pointers and insights. The world through Scottish eyes needs to be balanced by Scotland through the world’s eyes.

Such a courageous, cosmopolitan outlook is certainly a far more exhilarating prospect than what Pacific Quay seems otherwise in severe danger of providing us with – a wee frosted window on the world.

Comments (32)

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  1. G says:

    so basically Eorpa in “Weegie” , or , the urban glasgow dialect now spoken between Anderston and SEC

    bereway , i ‘worked’ at GUG ’96 thru 98 . are you , with the CV items you list , honestly
    “post-” those dates

    1. G says:

      i meant to add “. depressing” to that last point…

      i.e. i feel q. old – no doubt with justification

    2. Rob Brown says:

      I was editor of the Glasgow University Guardian 1983-84 so even aulder than yersel, G

      1. Christina Macaulay says:

        Good to see you back in Scotland, Rob… Still in Cardiff myself….

  2. Graeme Purves says:

    Joshin awa, wi oor nebs aa pressed ti the cauld gless!

    1. john Lamb says:

      I don’t hold out much hope for the new channel. It’s written in the DNA of the BBC to be British Nationalist.

      1. Rob Brown says:

        Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, as guid auld Gramsci would doubtless advise us, John. The launch of this channel is proof positive that the BBC’s top mandarins do feel a desperate need to restore trust among Scottish license payers, since severe distrust towards the BBC in Scotland is far from confined to angry demostrators outside their Pacific Quay studios. Let’s wait and see if they’ve learned the real lessons from IndyRef1 and can honourably apply those to coverage of IndyRef2.

  3. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Ssomething of a dig at Lesley Riddoch but let that pass. BBC Scotland has , particularly during our referendum, suffered from London’s man being put in charge to manage the news. I don’t remember his name but was well informed by a BBC insider at the time that his job was to micro-manage the news with an Independence frightening agenda.

    The author may see it differently but come the next referendum I would be astonished if the policy were any different regardless of who they employ. BBC Scotland2 , as promised, is designed to fail. The budget is too small, it’s news output is timed to clash with headline programs rather than compete with the London news. Can you really see it doing any better than the closed STV2?

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Thanks Dougie for your considered response. I really wasn’t having a go at Lesley Riddoch. I worked happily with Lesley on the Sunday Herald and enjoy her feisty crowd-funded docs. But she spends too much time preaching to the converted, I suspect, and is certainly guilty of dodging some inconvenient truths in her glowing eulogies to the Nordic nations. Scandinavia is struggling with some real scourges at present and political ‘independence’ is no panacea for these anywhere on the planet.

    2. Elaine Fraser says:

      I’m not inclined to let the dig at Lesley Riddoch pass.

      Her book ‘Blossom’ turned me on to the whole independence debate in 2014.

      2019 I continue to attend ,when possible, Nordic Horizon and other free events to listen and learn . Heard about Denmark last night, fascinating, A few weeks ago it was Norway. She fills the halls wherever she goes. Talks sense. Encourages everyone to have a go especially women.

      With respect Rob Brown , I’ve never heard of you.

      1. Rob Brown says:

        Glad to hear you’re such a fan of Lesley’s films and books, Elaine. I am also delighted to see my former Sunday Herald colleague has turned into such a passionate and eloquent advocate of Scottish independence – a cause I openly supported some time before her. As for why you’ve never heard of me, that’s possibly because I’ve mainly been living and working away from Scotland for most of the last two decades and took the view (rightly or wrongly) that I shouldn’t stick my neb into IndyRef1 since I was out of the country and didn’t even have a vote in that plebiscite. But I’m well and truly back hame now and determined to speak truth to power (and to the powerless) without fear or favour. Hopefully you’ll have the pleasure of hearing a lot more from me!

        1. Marga says:

          Rob, re. your comment on Lesley – I want more Lesleys, not less – if everyone put so much into pursuing their special interest and making their findings available, we’d all have a lot more food for thought. We don’t have to agree with them, of course!

          It seems you are about to put your energy into your own project, challenging the powerful, now you’re back “hame”. Admirable, all of you , the more the better!

          1. Rob Brown says:

            Agreed, Marga.

          2. Charles L. Gallagher says:

            Amen to that.

  4. Willie says:

    Unless and until the BBC become an independent public sector broadcaster sepate from London and with its own Scottish Board of Trustees, it will ultimately always be nothing more than a political mouthpiece for Westminster interests.

    Anyone working for the BBC knows, and taking a wage from the BzbC knows that ultimately independent editorialism will be a no more than a tartan illusion.

    An alternative SBC, like the alternative media that has sprung up as a foil against the MSM, is what is required.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      I agree with you that the flowering of Scotland’s Fifth Estate is fantastic, Willie, but alternative media can never outmatch MSM so long as they struggle to get by on meagre resources. Make no mistake, the second war of Scottish independence will be won or lost on the airwaves (if that isn’t an outdated term in these multimedia times).

  5. John Cawley says:

    A vision of the new BBC Scotland channel. Shereen Nanjiani and Gary Robertson fronting the Sunday Politics every night with the same recurring cast of characters: Raytheon’s Moray McDonald, Peter (Dark Money) Duncan, Tom (Vote Leave lies and law-breaking) Harris, Andy (Teach First and unminuted meetings) Maciver, Kevin ( Charlotte Street) Pringle and the various representatives on rotation from Scotland’s dead tree media. Any chance of some coruscating political satire or fearless political journalism? No. Simply more of the same from the national broadcaster that fell down on the job during Indyref and helped deliver Brexit. But hey, wall to wall Still Game, repeats of Stooky and a Scottish Question Time knock off. I can’t wait.

  6. Blair says:

    It’s well timed as Scotland prepares for change, we need a HD channel. Hope subtitles are added for the benefit of rUK.

  7. Ian Clark says:

    “so the new channel has been rushed to our screens to try to appease those irate independence supporters who gather regularly at Pacific Quay with their anti-BBC bias placards”

    Much more likely is that it ticks a box in a sub category in an Action Plan. ‘Listening to the Jocks’? ‘Lip service to be paid to the views of those who complain about our Pacific Quay propaganda unit’. I suspect the views of most of the above mentioned protesters to this £32million gimmick will be “Who cares?” and “A turd by any other name …”.

  8. John Cawley says:

    Some programme ideas for the new BBC Scotland channel as part of the BBC’s new open commissioning policy
    River City After Dark – with added bad language, sex and violence.
    Strictly Thingummyjig – Aspiring Scottish singers and dancers try out for a modern twist on the 70s tartan cultural phenomenon.
    Only an Excuse – the series. Just think how funny Scottish football’s comedy favourite can be without a year to prepare.
    This Gub for Hire – A new drama in which an unconventional, maverick ex Labour MP called Harry Thomas sets up a lobbying business monetising his old contacts for shady private sector operators.
    The Undertaker- a new spin on investigative reporting in which BBC Scotland journalists bury contemporary news stories involving regular BBC guests.
    Good Evening Scotland – Gary Robertson introduces a new magazine show in which various members of the Scottish commentariat discuss what they talked about on Good Morning Scotland earlier that day.
    Have I Got Breaking the News for You – A gentle look at Scottish politics in which offence and satire are avoided.
    Gordon Brewer – Panto Dame Superstar- A new series in which the BBC political mainstay exploits his larger than life Sunday Politics persona in preparation for a glittering debut in Babes in the Woods with the Krankies at the Pavilion in December.
    Jack and Victor – The Early Years – A spin off from the popular blockbuster looking at the childhood of the eponymous and much-loved characters.
    Gary -Bank Manager – a spin off from the popular BBC Scotland comedy in which Gary moves into the financial sector after leaving the army.
    Shereen – The grande dame of Scottish broadcasting presents her very own chat show.
    Stooky – The Wilderness Years – a spin off from the vintage drama series
    Bools – A new series based on the sketch from Chewing the Fat which goes behind the scenes of a bowling club.
    The Scottish Six O Clock News – like the real news, but cheaper.
    Art and that- Muriel Gray looks at cultural events in Scotland.

    Feel free to add your own programme ideas for the new channel.

    1. Wul says:

      Hogmanay Everyday! : A daily late-night snippet where Jackie Bird visits 365 different Scottish towns and launches a rocket from a milk bottle in the main street. Sometimes she will stand outside a busy pub at closing time to ask the locals if they are enjoying themselves.

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      One Man and his Wee Dog – a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the post-Parliamentary career of Scotland’s leading pundit and influencer, Tom Harris.

      1. Charles L. Gallagher says:

        Oh God, don’t we see enough of that clown already????

    3. Rob Brown says:

      pmsl, John

  9. Redgauntlet says:

    Who reports to whom? That is the question…

    In Spain, Catalonia’s TV3 reports to the Generalitat, ie, to the Catalan equivalent of Bute House and so has been instrumental in the rising tide of Catalan pro indie feeling. It is very pro Catalan indie, while all the national networks are pro Spanish unity, for similar reasons.

    All of the TV channels in Spain deliver a highly partisan output of events, though no one beats the PP when they are in power for manipulating the news. Shameless and insulting to the audience. Zapatero actually set up an independent body to run Spain’s main national public broadcaster, TVE, but Rajoy got rid of that as soon as he got into power.

    Extrapolating from that, is it a reasonable goal to aspire to an well nigh impossible neutrality? Or is it more honest to just have different channels representing different points of view, like the newspapers? I mean, the BBC is not neutral, it’s staff can’t be neutral. How could the BBC be neutral about its own future in terms of possible indie Scotland?

    It might be more democratic to have a number of smaller channels representing Scottish society than one which claims to be impartial, with public money allocated accordingly…

    Anyway, a new channel is to be welcomed in principle…Let’s hope it delivers.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Fascinating follow-up. If you can supply any links or suggest any readings on the broadcasting battle for Caledonia that would be much appreciated.

    2. Marga says:

      “In Spain, Catalonia’s TV3 reports to the Generalitat, ie, to the Catalan equivalent of Bute House and so has been instrumental in the rising tide of Catalan pro indie feeling. It is very pro Catalan indie, while all the national networks are pro Spanish unity, for similar reasons.” Apologies for long OT, maybe useful for comparison.

      Redgauntlet, TV3 reports to a mixed parliamentary committee not the government. And rather than “instrumental” in the rise of Catalanism, it’s preaching to the converted. Curiously the prosperous top (private) Catalan language radio channel RAC1 reflects basically the same views as TV3, so demand is there. One vital fact – a majority of native Catalan speakers are indy, so you could justify bending service to them in a deluge of unionist Spanish input. Finally, all national networks are fully available in Catalonia, as you know and together take up a hefty majority of Catalan audiences. Why no TV3 Spanish channel? History.

      I’d say TV3 rather than impartial or balanced, tries to be fair. Majority Spanish TV largely doesn’t. Cover varies from patronising (“provinces”) to a hate-fest, as you know. Without a Catalanist bias, the bilingual, multi-faceted Catalan society would be unfairly represented by Spanish national media. Shades of Scotland?

      For Scotland, I think that maybe you should raise your sights a bit when you define “balance”. For example, how Scotland manages to have an indy government so long and virtually no indy media private or public is one of the mysteries of the universe. Is accepting second-tier local spinoffs from national telly going to create “balance”? (The “new channel” is in fact “BBC Scotland”, or have I misunderstood?). The UK system seems stifling.

      Should any media outlet be “neutral” anyway, or is that Blair’s dead-eyed “triangulation theory”. I think your idea of a cluster of Scottish channels is great. Even essential. When I visit Scotland the TV scene looks so empty and the small offer so “regional” I’m truly amazed why people accept it. What’s the answer, though? With apologies as my grip of the Scottish situation and mindset is bound to be limited.

      1. Redgauntlet says:

        Hi Marga

        Thanks for the correction about to whom TV3 reports, you’re right of course. And the Parliamentary Committee TV3 reports to would be of a political composition which would mirror parliamentary representation, right? What I mean to say is that the general point I make is I think a fair one, ie, that nobody really believes that any of the State or National / Regional broadcasters in Spain are “neutral”, their editorial line changes depending on which political party is in power.

        Even the people who actually read out the news – actors as much as they are journalists – are hired and fired depending on who is in power, something I find especially bizarre…

        In terms of the “neutrality” versus “plurality” debate, I find myself increasingly favouring the idea of a plurality of broadcasters covering the political spectrum over a monolithic entity like the BBC which claims to be “neutral” and clearly isn’t, nor can be.

        I’m not a regular TV spectator, but from what I can see on the internet, the only non right wing news bulletin in English is Channel 4 News, whereas in Spain at least you have La Sexta which is more left wing than anything in the UK, wouldn’t you agree?

        Of course, I agree with you that TV3 should be free to follow an editorial line sympathetic to Catalan independence. Why not? As you say, all the Spanish national channels broadcast in Catalunya as well, and people should be free to choose the TV station most in line with their political ideas, as long as they are democratic ideas and there is some kind of regulation to prevent outright propaganda.

        If in Scotland we had had a BBC Scotland sympathetic to independence, we would have won I think in 2014.

        How has Scotland had a nationalist government for so long without barely any kind of a nationalist media? It’s a good question you ask, you could write a book about that…

        Increasingly, I find myself wondering if certain leading figures of the SNP are really for independence at all. I think people vote SNP by default really. Scotland has been anti-Tory for a very long time, and who else is there to vote for? The Labour Party in Scotland is a joke. The Greens “can never win”.

        So people vote SNP…

        1. Redgauntlet says:

          PD: In a nutshell, Marga, I think the SNP have been pretty lucky really, their two historic rivals in Scotland, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, committed political suicide at roughly the same time.

          The SNP hold a huge advantage because they can make policy for Scotland without HQ in London doing something politically suicidal like the Lib Dems did by going into government with the Tories, or the Labour Party going to war in Iraq.

          I think we desperately need another progressive, pro-indy party in Scotland. If one doesn’t emerge, we will live to regret it the day independence comes… I don’t like the SNP very much I have to say. I have one or two ideas in common with them… and there are some individuals I like, but I dislike the patronizing and managerial style they offer and they are deeply conservative in most areas….

  10. Charles L. Gallagher says:

    What I’ve seen trailed gives me the sceaming ‘hee bee jeebies’

  11. Josef Ó Luain says:

    What the fuck does “the supposed second Irish economic miracle” mean?

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Sorry I didn’t expand on that point in my post, Josef, as I wanted to keep my focus on BBC Scotland rather than Ireland. What I mean is that the Celtic Tiger was widely hailed as a Hibernian economic miracle and the country’s post-crash bounceback has been similarly celebrated as a sort of Lazarus-like recovery. I welcome the fact that the land of my maternal ancestors has ceased to be the economic basket-case it was under De Valera – my own grandparents had to flee from Dev’s disaster zone – but I don’t believe any of the Long Fella’s successors have achieved anything miraculous. Their sole ‘development’ strategy has been to slash corporation tax – something other EU member states won’t tolerate for ever. Despite all the money that’s flowed into the Irish exchequer for several decades during its double boom, Dublin (where a third of the Republic’s population reside) is beset by a housing shortage even worse than London’s and Ireland still has an obscene two-tier health service. Not much of a miracle.

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