Our broadcasting corporation: it’s time to change the channel

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It’s time to change the channel – not to a new show but to a new broadcaster. Beyond the referendum, there is an opportunity to construct a new Scottish Broadcasting Corporation.

According to the White Paper, the SBC would launch from the Hogmanay bells 2016/17.

I believe that the evidence demonstrates the merits in this approach. A national broadcaster is central to creativity, to culture and to political reporting. It requires us all to look beyond partisanship to consider the democratic duties of the media.

This article aims to highlight some of the evidence in this area, current inadequacies in broadcasting and how they can be rectified with full control over this issue in Scotland.

The sources for this article include the BBC Trust Annual Financial Report, Audience Council Scotland Report, Mark Thomson’s evidence to the Scottish Education and Culture Select Committee, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission Report, the BBC Scotland Management Report, the Scottish Constitutional Convention debate on the future of broadcasting, the King Report on national and regional reporting, as well as the recent Scottish government White Paper.

1) A fair deal and investing in Scottish talent 

Scotland currently generates over £320 million in BBC license fees. In return, the BBC spends around £199 million in Scotland. From 8.4% of the UK population, Scotland receives 5.2% of overall spending.

Due to a lack of transparency, it is difficult to calculate the exact breakdown of this funding. BBC Trust Financial Reports omit BBC Scotland from their figures. In 2012-13 £32.7 million was invested in Radio Scotland, which is only 4.88% of total BBC Radio spending. £7.8 million was spent on BBC Alba, 0.32% of total spending. (page 8)

When Mark Thomson gave evidence at the Scottish Parliament discussions focused on cuts to news reporting in Scotland. Funding for Scottish production faces reductions from £102 million to £86 million. The most concerning impact of these cuts will be felt in political coverage, an area that has already faced criticism for underfunding. The BBC Director General refused to divulge whether news in Scotland was underfunded in comparison to similar media operations in London. Similarly, he refused to provide information on investment in referendum coverage in comparison to UK general elections. This financial information was termed “confidential”.

However, evidence has been acquired through other channels. At the Constitutional Convention debate, Joan McAlpine compared the levels of staffing on news operations in Scotland to those in London. On the John Beattie program with BBC Radio Scotland there were 2 producers and 1 assistant producers. On The World at One lunch-time equivalent from London, there were 2 editors, 2 senior producers, 4 junior producers and 1 assistant. Commentator Iain McWhirter agreed. From his own professional experiences in broadcasting support for production in Scotland is considerably lower than it is in London, and that standards of output in Scotland suffer as a result.

OfCom’s Market Data report, published last August, reported that Public Sector Broadcasting spending on original programming in Scotland has decreased by 6% the year before to £52 million. This represents a 27% decrease over 5 years from £70 million in 2007.

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Furthermore, 55.4% of expenditure on original programming was spent in London. Only 4.4% was spent in Scotland. So London – with around 12.5% of the UK population – receives the majority of its broadcasting investment. And this is the lowest its been in six years! (Figure 2.17)

This lack of funding and support continues to limit opportunities in broadcasting in Scotland. With revenue from Scotland being spent in Scotland, there will be a bigger pot to invest in local talent, programs, reporting and content.

Mark Thomson (centre) ex-Director General of the BBC gives evidence to the Scottish Parliament.

Mark Thomson (centre) ex-Director General of the BBC gives evidence to the Scottish Parliament.

2) Political will, self-confidence and ambition

“If there is a division of interest between resource and attention to what needs to be done, it is the later which is more important. That is not to say that BBC Scotland requires more resources. It does.” – Tom Devine on Broadcasting in Scotland.

In the view of Scotland’s foremost historian, BBC Scotland currently suffers from institutional failings in leadership and purpose. Having spoken to a range of current producers at BBC Scotland, he reported that morale was low among BBC Scotland staff with “virtual contempt for the management”.

One producer said to Devine that the station had been producing “inept pap which is demeaning and embarrassing.” Recently The Sunday Herald reported on a relationship breakdown between staff and management at BBC Scotland. A 60 page dossier of complaints from the news and current affairs team was compiled for NUJ Scotland.

So why did this investigation suggest an institutional crisis within BBC Scotland? Within the Constitutional Convention debate, some argued that this stems directly from BBC Scotland’s status as a ‘regional division’ of the BBC, which clashes with Scotland’s status as a nation. Because of this, the expectations, ambitions and resources of Scottish broadcasting do not match the structures and production of similar national broadcasters such as DR in Denmark or RTE in Ireland. Similarly the will of the media, politicians and public to lobby for such a status for BBC Scotland often falls short. It’s the silence in many quarters that should cause the greatest concern.

This was best exemplified by the embarrassing story that BBC Scotland staff have to ask permission from Worcestershire to move their window blinds. There is limited autonomy for BBC Scotland. This appears in numerous ways – staff are brought up from London to cover ‘important stories’ like the referendum or the Commonwealth Games, international affairs are covered from London not Scotland, establishment figures from Westminster are shown excessive deference, news stories in Scotland are often reported from a London perspective due to simplicity and habit, and Scottish shows such as ‘Newsnight Scotland’ (now Scotland 2014) or Sunday Politics Scotland are essentially the tail-end of the main BBC London versions.

Tom Devine argues that there is an urgent need for leadership from the Scottish Parliament on broadcasting issues. However, the previous honest and cross-party attempts have largely fallen on unlistening ears at the BBC in London.

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The Scottish Broadcasting Commission Report was the most significant manifestation of such efforts. It was bold and optimistic with pragmatic proposals and serious criticisms.

It stated that “Most of the difficulties seemed to stem from the heavily centralised nature of broadcasting in the UK.” Similarly “most of the evidence (the report) heard or received was critical of a perceived lack of ambition in BBC Scotland productions”.

Even before considering these structural challenges of cultural content or political coverage, the simple issues it raised on Scottish broadcasting have simply not been addressed.

1) 300,000 people in the borders in Scotland do not receive STV – they receive Tyne tv – and are therefore disenfranchise and excluded from discussions on Scotland.

2) The Controller of BBC Scotland does not even sit on the BBC Executive.

3) Scotland’s broadcasting groups have no representation on the OfCom board.

4) Scotland has no ability to alter broadcasting legislation. For the Borders to receive STV broadcasts, for instance, Section 28- of the Communications Act 2003 would have to change.

Beyond these straight forward concerns, the report proposed the establishment of a Scottish Digital Network, essentially an online platform for Scottish culture and news content. The issue of a ‘Scottish News at 6’ replacing news from London was also raised as a possible broadcasting development.

Of course, there has been little progress on these issues. In the event of such stagnation, the commission proposed the devolution of broadcasting powers to Holyrood so that these issues could be considered in full. It’s clear that in these cases it is the constitutional structure that holds Scotland back.

Now Scotland has the opportunity to take full control over broadcasting powers following the referendum. Policy changes will allow Scotland to develop a national broadcaster that suits its audiences’ needs and has full and fair representation. Devolving powers over broadcasting has been ruled out by all three major unionist parties.

These experiences suggest that only with a ‘Yes’ vote will broadcasting in Scotland be accompanied with the political leadership, confidence and ambition to improve its current position.

At best a narrow No vote would lead to a crisis for BBC Scotland, which would need to find a new role without any clear road-map. At that stage the discontented staff at BBC Scotland could play an important role in reshaping the institution.

London politicians for laughs leave Scotland cold

Politicians for laughs leave Scotland cold

3) Representing a political culture

Beyond funding and leadership, our national broadcaster has a duty to democracy. The Scottish Broadcasting Report rejected “a purely market-based approach” to broadcasting in favour of “nurturing and sustaining civic society and a participative democracy.” This is a complex challenge. It requires reaching out beyond political elites, providing accurate coverage and in depth content on issues of public importance. Sadly, on all three of these fronts the BBC is failing Scottish democracy.

An incident which represents this failure was the selection of a panel for BBC Question Time in Edinburgh. With a Scottish by-election days away in Aberdeen, Nigel Farage and George Galloway were selected as panelists. Both have been rejected by voters in Scotland.

To make this incident worse, Question Time is a quasi-Scottish production for funding purposes. It is outsourced to Mentorn in Glasgow. Yet decision making was out of touch with Scottish democracy. The Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, all the non-party and civic organisations in Scotland, were ignored in favour of a pantomime with two figures who make their career touring London TV studios. Speed dialing the usual suspects from a London perspective ignores the different political culture in Scotland, which has been transformed by the referendum campaign.

Professor King's BBC report said “a large proportion (of coverage) is vague, confusing and inaccurate”

Professor King’s BBC report said “a large proportion (of coverage) is vague, confusing and inaccurate”

This disregard for Scottish politics and democracy has been recognised in the King Report to the BBC Trust. It identified widespread failures across BBC political reporting to represent differences between UK nations and regions. Often this led to confusion and under representation of Scotland. At a UK level, English politics is repeatedly equated with UK politics. Understanding of the Scottish context was almost always missing from reporting.

At a UK level, political reporting is becoming increasingly irrelevant to viewers in Scotland. Issues such as health, education, policing, justice and law are repeatedly conflated into mono-policies where there are none. According to the King report “a large proportion (of coverage) is vague, confusing and inaccurate”. This referred to presenters describing England as ‘we’ or ‘this country’; the political representatives on BBC being almost exclusively Westminster based; and that during the period monitored by Cardiff researchers all 136 UK-reported stories on health and education dealt with England rather than Scotland.

The coverage for a Scottish audience fails to fill this vacuum. While Reporting Scotland has a reasonable 30 minute slot at 6.30 pm, Scotland is still a short addition or after thought in morning and late night news coverage. There are 5 minute headlines from Scotland following the 10 o’clock news from London. There are 5 minute identical slots every 30 minutes as part of the breakfast coverage.

Scotland 2014 is squashed into the 2nd half of the UK Newsnight slot giving the show a mere 15-20 minutes to cover several issues of national importance. As a result of the referendum there have been several longer editions to attempt discussion of Scottish issues. Yet, in the main, coverage lacks depth by design.

In contrast Scotland Tonight on STV has provided an interactive and innovative news platform with a greater eagerness to engage with its audience.

As a non-regular radio listener, I wouldn’t pass judgement on that coverage. However, from a TV broadcasting perspective there is a real paucity of quality forums for in depth coverage of Scottish public affairs. As television is the main source of information for the public in Scotland, this should be a cause for concern.

David Elstein, CEO of Channel 5 and former Head of Programming at Sky, said Scotland is in need of its own autonomous broadcasting channel and that this would created problems within the referendum debate. It has.

The King Report highlighted the information problem that leads to apparently intelligent people like Andy Burnham, Shadow Secretary of State for Health, who called for “health policies that can be consistent across England, Scotland and Wales“. The No Campaign talk about a ‘UK NHS’ that doesn’t exist as a reason to vote No. In a broad sense, this lack of understanding of a division of powers – what Scotland has control of and what it doesn’t – is a problem for an informed discussion.

Understanding of these issues is also limited within broadcasting. It’s the result of poor political education on Scottish affairs, limited staff and resources, and news dominated by press release and established interests. None of this in conducive to a strong, plural discussion. These problems are in no way limited to the BBC, but they will be substantial challenges for a Scottish Broadcasting Company.

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4) Representing and challenging Scotland’s autonomous culture

Scotland has a thriving arts and cultural life across music, literature, language, arts, theatre, design, film and festivals; as well as in other areas which contribute to cultural life such as history, sport and media.

Broadcasting is a key for representing culture to the population, as well as challenging that culture through questions and discussion.

The case for or against BBC Scotland in this regard is mixed. Some critics bemoan institutions in Scotland (education, universities and media) for replicating UK cultural troupes with a mixed Scottish input. It is, for instance, true that Scottish literature and history has been under-represented or been subject to only shallow consideration by previous generations. (as highlighted by Professor Alan Riach and others)  This is slowly being rectified.

The presentation of Scottish culture based on crude stereotypes and cliches frustrates many who long for a more complex picture. Many of the best criticisms in Scotland of the presentation of culture stems from questions of class rather than nationhood. The likes of Tom Leonard has satirised the use of language and class in the media and Scotland for decades.

BBC Scotland – like every institution – has its share of these faults. Meanwhile some BBC cultural programming from Scotland is excellent. BBC Scotland documentary making, live shows from festivals and comedy shows are great (Chewin the Fat, Still Game, Limmy’s Show and Gary the Tank Commander to name a few). The launch of River City sought to reduce a London centric approach to BBC drama. BBC Radio Scotland also has a wide cultural output, and while Tom Devine was highly critical of its current performance, he said that BBC Radio Scotland has produced exceptional work in previous decades.

Overall, I think it’s unfair – given resource and other constraints – to say that BBC Scotland fails in its cultural output. I don’t have a great deal of experience analysing content or speaking to producers in this area, so I’d welcome any further thoughts. Where there are limitations, I’m sure that BBC Scotland staff are aware – and they need to be presented with solutions.

BBC Scotland: still game or past it?

BBC Scotland: still game or past it?

However, an independent Scottish Broadcasting Company will be in a stronger position in relation to cultural content. More resource means more content – and Scotland is certainly in need of more broadcasting content in drama, culture, film and history.

It is quite shocking – having been through the school and university system – to find out that you are completely ignorant of Scotland’s geography (eg. Lockerbie is in the middle of the UK, the mainland of Shetland is longer than Scotland’s central belt, Scotland has a longer coastline than India, China and Brazil)

It is also quite sad when you wander upon tales of some of your city’s under-celebrated heroes like Mary Barbour, Isabella Elder, Thomas Muir or John Maclean by chance or by meeting keen advocates of social history.

So much of cultural life remains unreported, and that is exacerbated when a national broadcaster is centralised 400 miles away. There is a challenge to renew that rich, cultural history of Scots-European merchants, the makars and William Dunbar, the Friends of Liberty, the enlightenment, the radical weavers and covenanters, the crofters and the land league, Patrick Geddes through to the Scottish renaissance, red Clydeside and beyond.

That wealth of cultural history is vast and largely untapped. And that’s just history! What an opportunity for a new national broadcaster to tell the stories of the people of Scotland.

Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays the lead in Borgen, on her visit to Edinburgh

Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays the lead in Borgen, on her visit to Edinburgh

5) Thinking global: Scotland to the world and the world to Scotland

One of the great benefits of a successful, outward looking national broadcaster is the ability to export shows. Scandinavian countries like Denmark have achieved phenomenal success selling drama shows to the world market. Countries like Sweden and Iceland have also established strong film sectors.

Many of these dramas or films benefit from close networks and resources through the national broadcaster. It provides extra opportunities for producers, actors and writers to establish themselves domestically, before aiming for a wider profile.

In an interview with Aine Lawor of Irish broadcaster RTE she said:

“The way that markets have broken down, it’s an opportunity for smaller nations and stations. The way it’s broken down presents great international opportunities. We’re outward looking, because we work in a small market.”

The case about reaching outward to the world goes hand in hand with Scotland welcoming the world and taking a more international and diverse approach to broadcasting. This is a major benefit of independence for broadcasting – the imperative of taking more responsibility in global affairs and viewing people in Scotland as global citizens.

Once again, Aine Lawor was a voice of optimism:

“You’re a creative and resourceful people. I am absolutely positive that you’ll come up
with great tele the same way you come up with great novels, great festivals…there’s no
reason you shouldn’t be able to have great broadcasting stations.”

That’s the choice that faces broadcasting in Scotland. Yes for control, proper funding, and credible political and cultural coverage. Author James Robertson satirises the ‘News where you are’ below. Is that good enough?

Michael Gray
@GrayInGlasgow

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