Putting the Scotland into BBC Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, January 17th 2016

It has been a tough few years for the BBC – with challenges from every direction, and potshots and criticism from every quarter.

This week Tony Hall, BBC’s head, gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament alongside BBC Scotland boss Ken MacQuarrie.

Hall set out the BBC stall. Despite cuts, a range of digital possibilities and platforms were unveiled centred on the iplayer. MacQuarrie answered questions on BBC Scotland’s leaked plan for a new Scottish channel which he said ‘was never a plan’, but a set of brainstorming meetings and emails.

The BBC is in crisis. It is regularly shot at by right-wing opinion. It has long infuriated the left, and it didn’t have a good independence referendum, alienating a whole swathe of Scotland.

It faces a Tory Government conducting a slow war of attrition against it. The BBC has played this appallingly, continually retreating under the fire of Tory attacks, first on the funding of the World Service, and recently on the cost of over-75s TV licences.

The BBC has been behind the curve of change in Britain for the last 20 years. They have become the most centralist public body left standing. BBC Scotland’s leadership hasn’t been much better. Who it is accountable to is a huge weakness – namely London and not Scotland.

The Scottish public are discontented with the BBC – in England 61% are satisfied with the BBC, in Scotland this falls to 48% on the BBC’s own figures. There is a financial gap as well; the BBC raises £323 million in the licence fee from Scotland, but only spends £35 million on TV produced here for Scottish audiences. Radio, digital and UK programmes made in Scotland can be added to increase this, but it still leaves a huge gap.

The Scottish Government hasn’t been as imaginative as it could. A Broadcasting Commission came, reported and was parked. Nicola Sturgeon’s MacTaggart Lecture last year said all the right things, but hasn’t been followed up. Critically, there is no real fresh thinking coming from the Scottish Government, and Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop, seems to aspire to a Scottish version of the status quo.

Tony Hall has indicated that a ‘Scottish Six’ is again under consideration – an integrated news of Scottish, UK and world coverage. This is the solution which nearly happened 20 years ago, and was stopped by Tony Blair and then BBC head John Birt’s efforts. It could have worked then; it is completely inadequate now.

Similarly, Hyslop’s thinking isn’t ambitious enough. It has focused too much on the needs of the producer community: on the logistics of what is produced and how it is produced, with this limited agenda dominating the ‘stakeholder sessions’ which the government has been running.

There is a time lag in Scottish Government thinking which doesn’t acknowledge the pressures on public service broadcasting which will accelerate in the future, and the revolution that is already happening in how people consume, produce and see media.

What we have seen so far is a typical Scottish conservative conversation with institutional players trying to control the market, and take the people for granted. It is insular and old-fashioned and barely adequate for the media of the future.

We have to start talking about programming, audiences and wider international reach. How do we make Scottish programmes which tell our unique stories? How do we sell our programmes to global networks? How do we challenge the predictable diet of clichés and caricatures often presented to us by the BBC from ‘River City’ to often cringe-worthy comedy?

This is about more than news, current affairs and politics. It is about how Scotland represents itself back to itself, has creative conversations, and projects itself to the world.

The BBC in London tend to see Scotland as a marginal issue to be bought off by a ‘Scottish Six’. They don’t see the Britain they present as problematic to most people who live here: an increasingly out of touch, patronising Londoncentric service treating the rest of the UK as an afterthought.

Accountability and power matter. BBC Scotland has for all its existence been accountable on the interests of London. That distorts everything about it: its resources, energy, time and leadership. It is a debilitating democratic deficit.

It needs to become accountable to Scotland, not its government or politicians, but its people, citizens and consumers. That requires a culture and structure which takes us away from micro-issues such as the news order of ‘Reporting Scotland’ and to these bigger issues.

That requires a debate which moves beyond the present limited menu. It requires a bold vision from the Scottish Government and an agenda which is about more than producers. It needs the BBC in London and Scotland to seize the democratic agenda, embracing the revolution that is coming – of more viewer choice, content and plurality.

Change is upon us – and the BBC north of the border can either be part of it, or Scots will just have to do it themselves.