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How the BBC fails Scotland – and its own staff

It’s the little things about BBC Scotland that tell you all you need to know. The way that Jeremy Paxman repeatedly crashes the junction between the UK Newsnight and its Scottish ‘opt out’ forcing Newsnight Scotland to stagger uncertainly onto the air as if it didn’t know what time it was. Hitting junctions is largely what presenters are paid for, and the fact that no one tells Paxo to fulfil his job description shows just how little clout Scotland has in our “One BBC”

There is a particular quality to BBC Scotland output which says: “second rate”. It has a lot to do with subliminal factors like the lighting of BBC Scotland programmes which is often flat and harsh. It gives the output that distinctive ‘regional’ feel, which is helped by the inattention to basic production values. Last time I went to do an interview on BBC Holyrood Live – a programme I used to present – I discovered that they had sacked their make up lady.

That may not seem all that important – why flatter the vanity of politicians and hacks anyway? But an hour long studio-based television programme without any make up is not television – it is something else, something that BBC Scotland has made its own: Jockvision – the benchmark of broadcast mediocrity. At the very least it betrays an astonishing lack of concern about how BBC Scotland programmes look.

This doesn’t happen by accident, and it isn’t the fault of the people making the programmes, many of whom are dedicated beyond reason. It is a structural issue; to do with BBC’s budgeting and editorial policy. It is all about Scotland’s place in the corporation and keeping it there. BBC Scotland is made to look regional – it doesn’t happen by accident. I presented BBC Scotland political programmes for many years, and share the blame for their mediocrity. But when you know what goes on in there, you realise how the system works. The programmes were deliberately made to a lower standard than their London “network” equivalents.

Scottish viewers loathe what they see on the screen because it makes them feel bad, because it tells them that they are provincial. There’s metropolitan orthodoxy that “provincial” Scots just lack the talent. This is said quite openly by media folk like Michael Grade of ITV who told a conference last year that the reason there weren’t more programmes made in Scotland was because Scotland just couldn’t make them of sufficient quality. But there is nothing the gene pool that makes Scots bad at TV – most of the media in London is run by Scots. The real question is why Scots broadcasters are there and not here.

In the 1990s, I used to present Westminster Live, which was a low-budget vehicle vehicle for the televising of parliament, but low budget has a totally different meaning in London. In 1999, I came to Holyrood to present the equivalent programmes from the Scottish parliament. The staffing was less than half that of th Westminster equivalent, there was no dedicated graphics and it was broadcast from a radio studio. Well, I was told, Scotland has a tenth of the population so we get a tenth of the programme budgets. This was of course absurd, and I said so. Why should programmes from the Scottish parliament be made to an inferior standard to comparable programmes from Westminster? The answer to that was: “Well, nobody’s watching and the bosses don’t care so why should we”.

This air of cynical resignation is prevalent throughout BBC Scotland, and it is getting worse. The state of morale in the organisation is lower than any time I can remember. Anyone who can is getting out. Radio Scotland is becoming so dumbed down it is losing the capacity for speech. BBC Scotland has retreated in fear from the new constitutional agenda, and the questions posed by a nationalist government. It has retreated into a cultural laager.

The only thing that BBC Scotland seems interested in is the promotion of gaelic language through the launch of the first gaelic television channel next year. This is admirable, but no substitute for proper English language broadcasting. It always puzzled me that the only programme with a budget to do extensive filing abroad was the gaelic language programme Eorpa. I once offered to have my programmes dubbed in gaelic as a way of getting BBC Scotland executives to watch them, but the idea was never taken up.

BBC Scotland has been a running sore in Scottish society for as long as I can remember. But at last there is changed political environment since the Scottish elections last May. A bomb has been placed under the shiny bottoms and cultural cliques at Pacific Quay. The Scottish Broadcasting Commission under the former BBC head of news and current affairs, Blair Jenkins, has finally given Scots an opportunity to say what they really think about their television, and to focus their thoughts about what a national broadcasting service should do. On Tuesday evening the Sunday Herald is sponsoring an event at with the Scottish Broadcasting Commission at St Andrews in the Square “Democracy and Broadcasting: Is Scotland Being Served” to explore exactly what BBC Scotland should be responding to cultural and constitutional change.

In the six months or so since it was set up the Scottish Broadcasting Commission has already delivered important changes. After revealing how the BBC had failed to honour its responsibility to commission network programmes from Scotland, the Direct General himself, Mark Thompson, came north to promise a tripling of network commissions. This £40 million will help to revive the moribund broadcasting sector in Scotland.

But it’s not just a question of getting a better Scottish share of the network budget. It is about how Scotland is revealed to itself on its own media. The cultural importance of broadcasting is immense – it is how a nation talks to itself. And we really cannot go on contributing so much money in our license fees for such a poor representation of our national life.
For the absurdity of having the supposedly “national” news bulletins and current affairs programmes like Newsnight dominated by stories about English education, English health, English local government, about hospital trusts, grammar schools, London transport. The BBC has completely failed to come to terms with devolution, failed to register in its running orders the new constitutional priorities. Scotland’s subordinate status is embedded in the very architecture of the programmes. The fifteen minute opt out from Newnight is a constant source of irritation.

BBC Scotland suffers from a toxic combination of inadequate funding, poor morale and a failure of leadership. It is , I am afraid, a function of the increasing “localisation” of non-metropolitan broadcasting. At a time when the commercial stations are retreating from public service broadcasting altogether, the BBC is more important than ever. The principle of “One BBC” is supposed to unite the people of the UK in one common television family, but everything the BBC does confirms the suspicion that Scotland is the poor relation. It’s time for BBC Scotland to grow up.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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