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Bye Bye BBC Scotland

I’m mad as hell and I’m just not going to take it any more. So cried the suicidal anchor man in the 70s film,’Network News”. After nearly thousand live political TV programmes, I was freeling much the same.

Every live presenter has the same fantasy of going berserk on air, even when your audience is a daytime handful of students, hacks and old age pensioners. Not that I have anything against retired people – at least they still vote, read newspapers and have some connection to the old virtues of public debate and political engagement. The viewers I didn’t have a lot of time for were the Scottish Labour MPs in Westmnster who spent an inordinate amount of time and tax-payers’ money lobbying to have me removed from the screens on the grounds that I was nationalist/anti-war/anti-Labour. None of which I am.

Odd that it was WESTMINSTER Labour MPs which found my face so obnoxious on the box. Since I was presenting, er, Holyrood Live, you might have thought it would be Members of the Scottish Parliament who’d be writing poison pen letters to the Director General. But in seven years of Holyrood coverage, in which I have not been wholly uncritical, there was scarcely a murmur from Holyrood. Or rather there was, but MSPs tended to take matters up with me face to face and up-front. Perhaps they’re just too busy in the Scottish Parliament to bother trying to do the BBC’s job for it.

You might have expected Westminster Labour MPs to have been targeting my Westminster equivalent, Andrew Neil, who presents (brilliantly) the Daily Politics. After all, Mr Neil is a prominent right wing Conservative, who has repeatedly expressed his views in colums and through the editorials in the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday, when he was editor in chief and publisher. A greater Labour hate figure would be hard to imagine.

But hey, I’m not bitter. BBC Scotland resisted these malign political representations on the grounds that it was their job to decide who to put on the telly, and that if they had no problems with my professionalism and impartiality, then they were not going to be told otherwise by politicians. In a curious way, the criticisms made my position more secure, because the BBC couldn’t be seen to bend to political pressure. So – thanks Tom.

I hung up my microphone in a wholly amicable separation from the BBC last week to pursue what has always been my real interest – writing political commentary. Indeed, I only recount this story because of what it says about the condition of broadcasting in Scotland. There is an obsessive sensitivity, verging on paranoia, in London Labour about what goes on in Queen Margaret Drive.

MPs seem to believe that there is some deep-rooted nationalist conspiracy at the heart of BBC Scotland. There is not – though there may be a Gaelic one (that’s a joke, honest). It really isn’t a hotbed of separatism. But neurotic attempts to suppress this nationalist phantom are in danger of making it one.

The present state of impoverished dependency to which BBC Scotland is consigned, a kind of cultural house arrest, is the surest way to generate a political resentment. The hostility to the perfectly sensible proposals for a Scottish Six O’clock News have – I believe – ensured that, within a few years, Holyrood will wrest control over broadcasting from Westminster. Not because it wants to, but because it has no alternative.

Consider the absurdity. Up to sixty percent of the main evening news bulletin is now irrelevant to Scotland. Ok, perhaps not irrelevant, but of secondary importance. I’m thinking for example of the recent troubles in the English health service. These deficits and ward closures are a by-product of market reforms which not been introduced in Scotland. Doesn’t mean that NHS Scotland is better – just different. However, it means that the Scottish Executive is being blamed for problems which aren’t actually happening here. This is because it is not made clear that these health stories are about England.

One need hardly add the lunacy of turning the national UK news into an intoxicated, hyperventilating, cheerleader for the English football team in the World Cup. This indifferent squad was accorded the coverage of heroes, much to Scottish irritation.

And it happens the other way round too. Such is the metropolitan myopia that the Shirley McKie fingerprint affair was given minimal coverage – even though it is the most important single case in the hundred year history of finger print evidence.

The Six misrepresents the priorities of Scottish public life. What Scotland gets instead of a proper service are patronising ‘opt outs’ from programmes like Newsnight and the Politics Show. More and more local news. Oh, and the programmes I used to present, like Holyrood Live, for which mea culpa.

However, having presented the equivalent BBC network programmes in Westminster before I returned to Scotland in 1999, I was acutely aware of how miserable are Scottish political programme budgets. A tiny fraction of the resources that go into equivalent Westminster programmes. When I asked why, I was often told – ‘ Scotland has a tenth of the population so we get a tenth of the money”.

This is a grotesque argument. If programmes are worth doing, they are worth doing properly. You don’t give a Scottish hospital patient one tenth on the care or Scottish schoolchildren one tenth of the books. This patronising centralism is doing the SNP’s job for it.

I have great respect for the people who work in BBC Scotland- some of the best journalists in the entire corporation. Producers like John Boothman who have a rare commitment to breaking stories, and correspondents like Glen Campbell, one of the sharpest tools in the BBC box . But they are ground down by relentless, tedious, mindless cuts. The only indigenous political programmes which seem to get proper money spent on them are in Gaelic – like ‘Eorpa’ because there is political clout behind the language.

What BBC Scotland manages to put on the screen is amazing, given the constraints. But it eats people up, destroys commitment drains creativity. It can’t go on. The BBC is in serious danger of destroying what it is trying to protect – the unity of the UK broadcasting culture. It’s time for Scottish viewers to get up and say they’re mad as hell too.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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