IT seems a long time ago, but during the referendum campaign there was almost open warfare between supporters of independence and the BBC. There were two noisy demonstrations outside the BBC headquarters at Pacific Quay. Alex Salmond had a public argument with Nick Robinson, then the BBC’s political editor.
At a rowdy fringe meeting during the SNP conference in Aberdeen last year there were accusations of “Goebbels-style” propaganda and bias at the Beeb. Worse still, there were claims that the BBC’s weather map deliberately minimises Scotland’s size relative to the rest of the UK. Delegates became so worked up, they walked out of their own meeting.
So it may come as some surprise that the Scottish Government’s contribution last week to the BBC’s charter renewal process was so tame. There were no threats of broadcasting UDI. There were no claims of distortion or political bias. Instead, there was a rather constructive proposal for the BBC to honour its commitments to the regions and reform itself along federal lines to reflect the realities of devolution.
Mind you, this didn’t prevent some paranoid voices crying foul, and recycling claims that the SNP are trying to turn the BBC into a narrow and parochial service dedicated to promoting nationalist propaganda. What about War And Peace? What about David Attenborough? Who needs a Scottish voice on American politics?
I can only assume the critics haven’t read the Scottish Government’s proposals, which have very little to do with independence and say nothing about ditching costume drama. Federalism is just another name for devolution and the idea of keeping and using more of the licence fee money raised in Scotland reflects what has already happened at Government level. If anything, this is a Unionist approach to broadcasting reform. It wants more of the £5bn the BBC raises in revenues to be spent on Scottish programmes.
What else would you expect the Scottish Government to say? “Oh, actually, we’d like less money and more programmes that ignore Scotland.” Actually, some people seem almost to want exactly that. There is a deep well of cultural self-loathing in Scotland: a belief that some genetic deficiency prevents Scottish broadcasters from making good programmes.
There are of course many very fine Scottish producers and broadcasters, but they are nearly all in London. One of our leading documentary film makers, Sue Bourne, who has a string of Bafta nominations for films like My Street and The Falling Man, tried to return to Scotland four years ago and found that it was almost impossible. You simply don’t get commissions if you aren’t in the London media pool. She moved back.
Everyone involved in broadcasting in Scotland will tell you the same. I know one investigative journalist who is nominally working now for Channel Four in Scotland, who spends all his time in Birmingham because that’s where the programmes are being made.
Now, no-one is saying that programme-makers in Scotland should never cross the Border, nor should they all be required to make programmes about Scotland. But there needs to be a balance, and there has to be at least an opportunity of creating a viable broadcasting industry here.
The current “lift and shift” arrangements do not fulfil the spirit of the BBC’s own undertakings. This is the practice of shifting the production offices of BBC network programmes, such as Question Time, to Scotland and then calling them Scottish. This neither reflects Scottish politics and culture (why is there not a parallel Question Time for Scotland?) nor does it help build up the production base.
The centralisation of the broadcast media in London is wholly inappropriate to the new constitutional settlement in Scotland. Scotland is a nation with its own parliament, legal system, educational and cultural life, but it doesn’t have a media that is up to speed.
The preoccupations of the south-east of England are just not the same as in Scotland right now. Take Europe: support for remaining in the EU is much stronger in Scotland and “migrant” is not a term of abuse. Issues like taxation have been off the metropolitan media agenda for three decades. Yet there is no more important issue now in Scotland than income tax.
Not even its best friends believe that BBC Scotland as it stands just now provides the kind of service that Scotland needs. The BBC Trust’s own research revealed that a majority of Scottish listeners and viewers believe it fails to adequately reflect Scottish politics and culture. Lord Hall, the BBC’s Director General, has made it clear that there are going to be changes.
Now, the BBC actually takes quite seriously its responsibility to reflect the lives of people living in all parts of the UK. BBC bosses are very good at making speeches to this effect. But like any big and bureaucratic organisation, it needs to be kept under pressure to deliver.
And the good news is that no-one wants to return to the old, monolithic BBC of the past, in which sensible ideas like the Scottish Six O’Clock news were blocked because Tony Blair and John Birt thought it might aid nationalism. That just fuelled paranoia and suspicion that the BBC was an arm of Unionist propaganda. A more diverse BBC will reduce that sense of grievance, not enhance it.
Lord Hall has signalled that something like a Scottish Six O’Clock News will now happen – 17 years after it was first mooted, at the time of devolution. This will still have access the BBC’s network correspondents’ reports from Somalia, Ukraine or Brussels. But it will avoid devoting disproportionate coverage, for example, to a junior doctors strike which isn’t happening in Scotland, or legal issues that are irrelevant here.
However, the Scottish Six is old news. The real issue is whether or not Scotland should get its own dedicated TV channel. This recommendation from the 2008 Scottish Broadcasting Commission received unanimous support from political parties in the Scottish Parliament. But the UK Government ignored it.
The Scottish Government hasn’t given up on the idea, and there were reports that the BBC itself was taking a dedicated TV channel seriously before the latest funding crisis hit. Of course, the usual voices will insist that Scotland doesn’t have enough talent to run a digital channel, even though we already have one and it has received high praise. Unfortunately for most of us, it is in Gaelic and called BBC Alba.
It is no secret that the media as a whole in Scotland is not in the best of health. Newspaper circulations have been falling by around 10% year on year (except for the Sunday Herald which had a boost after the independence referendum). The decline of the indigenous press places an even greater responsibility on the BBC to ensure that the national conversation doesn’t degenerate into sectarian ranting.
We need journalistic organisations that are robust and self-confident enough not to be intimidated by government, political parties or other interest groups. I think one reason the Scottish Government has back-pedalled on criticising the BBC is because it realises this. The BBC is all we’ve got, and public service broadcasting is under threat from Conservative opponents in Westminster. It needs a bit of help right now.
Like so many issues in Scotland, this isn’t really about independence; it’s about ensuring that Scotland gets a broadcasting service that is fit for purpose. It’s not about fighting the referendum all over again. So, for once, gonnae not go there?