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The BBC should show us the Scottish Six

A Scottish six o’clock news? Tartan nightmare. Wall to wall murders, stories about the SNP, couthy human interest tales replacing Nick Robinson and John Simpson – it would be like Newsnight Scotland, only much much worse. Well actually it wouldn’t.

I’m one of the few people in this debate who has actually seen a Scottish Six. In 2004, BBC Scotland produced pilot programmes, for internal consumption only , to show what a Scottish-generated national news bulletin might look like. Surprise, surprise, it worked extremely well. The programmes were well presented and gave excellent UK and foreign coverage while treating devolved Scottish issues with the respect and authority they deserved.

I can well understand why the BBC didn’t show them to the public. As soon as you actually see a Scottish Six, you wonder how we could have tolerated the present arrangement for so long. It doesn’t equal parochialism. All that happens is that irrelevant or positively misleading stories about English grammar schools, A level results and trust hospitals are marginalised. Not excluded, of course, because political events in the largest country in the UK can still be relevant in Scotland even if they turn on devolved issues. But it is a question of the weight given to these items, and the context.

As for the charge, repeated last week by Labour MSPs that a Scottish Six would eliminate coverage of foreign and UK national stories, a look at the running order of the pilots shows this fear to be baseless. With the BBC’s new computerised news gathering, foreign reports filed in advance by BBC correspondents can be accessed by any desktop terminal anywhere in the entire corporation. This means they can be transmitted simultaneously, if necessary, on different programmes or channels. Nor is there any technical obstacle to doing live interviews with BBC foreign correspondents abroad, since the satellite link is already there.

The Scottish Six is not the most important issue in Scottish broadcasting by any means, but it is important – more for what it says about us than what it says about the BBC. There is an assumption that if it is Scottish is must necessarily be inferior, local, trivial. This is understandable given the poor quality of much existing Scottish output, which is systematically under-resourced. But that hasn’t happened by accident. BBC budgets are structured in a way that ensures Scottish programmes are technically inferior, and have lower production values. Funding, like the Scottish Six, is a political issue.

I know this only too well. Back in the 1990’s I presented the BBC 2 network programme, Westminster Live, from the BBC’s parliamentary complex at Millbank in London. This had an entire department devoted to it, with dedicated film crews and editing suites, graphics, transport, countless producers, researchers. The comparable Scottish programme, Holyrood Live, which I returned to present in Scotland in 1999, had a man and a dog. A brilliant man and a brilliant dog, as it happened – highly professional and incredibly hardworking producers, but people who were ground down by lack of resources and constant cuts.

When I complained about underfunding, as I frequently did, the response was always the same from BBC executives: “Well, this is Scotland. We have a tenth of the population so we only get a tenth of the budget for programmes”. I could never accept this kind of regionalist defeatism, which seemed to me an insult to the Scottish people. Why should political programmes be of inferior quality just because they happen to be made in Scotland?

You might have thought that the BBC would be boosting its Scottish output as Scotland becomes more autonomous post devolution, but the reverse is the case. Ofcom figures, quoted last week by the former BBC executive, Blair Jenkins, chair of the new Scottish Broadcasting Commission, indicate that current affairs spending in Scotland has been cut by 45% in the last few years and news spending has been cut by 27% Scotland’s share of total UK spending by the BBC is down to 4%, when it should be around 9%.

Well, we are told, the BBC has to tighten its belts. Yet this is the same corporation that can pay Jonathan Ross the equivalent of the entire BBC Scotland news and current affairs for asking if the leader of the opposition masturbates to images of Margaret Thatcher.

The broadcasting professionals who attended the First Minister’s speech last week at the National Museum of Scotland last week know perfectly well what is going on, which is why there has been not a cheap of dissent from any of them – even from the BBC itself, which has uniquely failed to rebut the charges that have been levelled at it by the new Scottish government. In the past, media folk might have worried at the prospect of politicians, especially Nationalist ones, meddling in broadcasting – not any more. I have never seen such unity of purpose among the Scottish media.

Devolving responsibility for broadcasting to the Scottish parliament wouldn’t solve the problem overnight, might not solve it at all. But it is difficult to see what else the Scottish political classes can do. At least the Scottish parliament would be able to put pressure on the regulators and the BBC, which has charter obligations to the nations and regions. It would also provide a focus for Scottish public opinion, and an opportunity for the creative industries in Scotland to be given a voice. It would emphatically not involve political direction of the broadcasters by Alex Salmond as Labour MSPs implied last week. Westminster has responsibility for broadcasting, but that doesn’t give Gordon Brown any say in programme-making.

I was saddened to hear the former FM, Jack McConnell, attack Salmond’s “separatism” over the broadcasting initiative, for I know for a fact that McConnell was himself profoundly concerned by the state of Scottish broadcasting, and the media generally, when he was in Bute House.. I also know that he approached the then BBC chairman Michael Grade about the nature and quality of Scottish coverage. He had very good reasons for doing so. Labour MSPs and ministers were finding their constituents complaining about the state of their local hospitals’ finances even though they were doing fine. This was because they were watching the stories about bankrupt English health trusts on the Six O’Clock news and assumed that the same problems existed north of the border.

This is the problem every viewer faces in Scotland. Whenever you watch a network news or political programme you have to deconstruct it in your head. Take Gordon Brown’s pre-legislative statement earlier this month. Important story, new prime minister, relevant across the UK. However, his “overarching themes” were education, hospitals and housing – all of which are devolved. Most of the specific bills he announced – a new health and social care bill, a children in care bill and a criminal justice bill – will not apply in Scotland. Even his constitutional reform bill has a radically different resonance here because of devolution.

But the BBC network bulletin that day made no serious attempt to explain all this. And why should it? It’s viewers are predominantly in England. They are not going to accept Scottish politicians popping up repeatedly giving lengthy statements about the situation north of the border. Or lengthy backgrounders on Scottish child care.

This problem will only get worse as the news agenda moves back to domestic affairs post Iraq. The rational solution is to have a separate Scottish bulletin which can place important stories in their proper context. It’s not about a tartan takeover. The BBC should show Scottish viewers its own pilots of the Scottish Six, and then let them make up their own minds.

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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