Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Nigel R Smith (PDB 4)

Former member of the BBC Broadcasting Council for Scotland, former Chair of Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign and former Chair of Scotland Forward

  News and current affairs broadcasting has not been right for Scotland for at least twenty years. Devolution, by requiring the broadcasters to reflect new contributors—MSPs, six Parties and the many Scottish interest groups from the Church of Scotland to Scottish Mental Health who have no natural locus in Westminster—has broken the back of what is still essentially the pre-devolution arrangement.

  The result of this structural failure is the news and current affairs agenda no longer gives a balanced view of the body politic in Scotland or Britain. Backbench MPs have been squeezed out, MSPs inadequately reflected and the audience superserved with news not always placed in a context of interest to viewers in Scotland. Viewers get most of their news from television. Because television is obliged to be balanced, it is four or five times more likely to be believed than newspapers. Thus the inadequate broadcasting arrangements have ceded too much of the political debate in Scotland to the print media and led to a less balanced media coverage in the early years of the new Parliament.

  These effects were entirely predictable. I have tried, without success, since 1994 when Mo Mowlam was shadow Culture Secretary, then with Chris Smith, both as shadow and Minister, with Donald Dewar as Scottish Secretary and of course with the BBC to encourage them all to allow the new constitutional arrangements to be properly reflected in the most important medium of the Age.

  No amendment to the Scotland Act is needed to correct the current situation. The BBC could change overnight if it was so minded. Although the new Director General of the BBC has talked a good game about devolution he has done precious little for it. Should the BBC need encouragement, its Charter contains specific powers allowing the Government of the day to direct the BBC to take account of devolution. Commercial television would have to respond to the competitive situation and in this case the change would have to be authorised by the regulator. Much blame has been laid at the door of the politicians for the present state of affairs. However the failure of the BBC Governors to deal with this situation two years ago was nothing less than an abdication of their public service duty and the single most important reason for current problems.

  The core of the issue is the two part programme format for the evening news designed to allow East Anglia and other English regions to supplement international and British news with local news. The campaign for the Scottish Six sought to rid Scotland of the two part format for the early evening news. The BBC responded by imposing another two part format—Newsnight—on Scotland.

  In both cases, BBC Scotland struggle to make consistently first class programmes from these second class programme formats which are disliked by producers everywhere not just in Scotland or in the BBC. Newsnight Scotland should become a separate programme.

BBC 6pm News—Why the format must change

How the present format works

  The proposal by BBC Scotland in 1998 that the two part format for early evening news be replaced by a single integrated programme revealed an astonishing degree of ignorance about the limitations of the pre-devolution service. Indeed a Downing Street spokesman, went so far as to say there was nothing wrong with the arrangements. The reality is that the faults are manifold and longstanding.

  Back in 1987, John Pollock, General Secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, and I watched from the gallery of the BBC News studio in London as the Six O'Clock News was broadcast to Britain. There was something very strange about it. Not once did the bulletin mention that Scotland's schools were closed by a teachers' strike led by my companion. Instead a refinery fire in Lyons and a whimsical item from New York were deemed editorially more important. Afterwards the producer explained with brutal honesty that a school strike affecting five million people around Southampton would have been reported because it spoke to more of his audience.

  It is not international news that is the problem, for the Braer disaster or the horrors of Dunblane will be broadcast wherever they occur. BBC London news has difficulty reflecting Scotland as British news. Usually the format stumbles over mainstream items like health, education and law, all different in Scotland, but a spy trial in Edinburgh needs to be moved to the Old Bailey and a trawler has to sink off Beach Head to be certain of making National News. It took a riot in a court in Reading to force the Poll tax onto the London bulletins despite the fact it had been a problem in Scotland for a year.

  Practical problems with the format occur on a daily basis. London covers a Scottish item so briefly that it has to be repeated in Reporting Scotland at greater length, or it may drop an item from the bulletin so late in the programme that it cannot be reinstated in Reporting Scotland and so is not reported at all. London may lead the bulletin with a major announcement say by Alan Milburn on health directly affecting only viewers in England and Wales while ignoring a fishing issue from Brussels vital to Scotland.

  Only Scots MPs who are British Ministers or British mavericks will be quoted on the London news. Scottish MPs were, pre-devolution, normally quoted in the regional part of the programme where there is now an oversupply of news.

  It is small wonder that the rest of Britain has so little understanding of Scotland. When a BBC Governor revealed that she did not know Scotland had a separate education system is that her fault or is the picture BBC television news paints of Britain incomplete?

  Switchboards and surveys tell the same tale: the audience in Scotland are irritated by these lapses and less supportive of the BBC than the rest of Britain. A result that weakens the oft repeated BBC claim that it binds Britain together. Perhaps the most revealing reaction comes from English people newly posted to Scotland. Within a few months, they will robustly criticise the coverage of Scotland by BBC London News.

  There is concern about parochialism in Scotland but members should be aware this is not confined to Scotland. Only 1 per cent of the items in The Six O'Clock News will come from Scotland and some of these will be devoted to reinforcing London's view of Scotland. So a drugs item fits their "hardman" perception of the West of Scotland and a quaint item from the Hebrides reinforces the "tartan" image. When the economic, social welfare or health agenda is covered how relevant does it feel to a Scottish audience when the filmed examples are invariably taken from the south east of England? This is to make Scotland a victim of London parochialism.

  These contradictions are insoluble in the current format and there is no middle way. As the Producer all those years ago saw making the programme more appealing to Scots risks alienating the rest of the audience.

The new format

  For many years a solution along of the Scottish Six was resisted by London as technically impractical despite contrary evidence from broadcasters in American cities. The rapid advances of recent years have removed this objection putting the BBC in the awkward position of improving its journalism with innovation on every front except Scotland.

  The new bulletin might reduce the length of the Alan Milburn story and give it a Scottish context explaining its relevance or interest to the viewer. Then there would then be room for the fishing story. It is the editing that changes, not the reporters. John Simpson would still be liberating Kabul. All this news is already flowing into London. But the choice of what is shown and the emphasis given would become a Scottish choice. The elimination of duplication may even shorten the programme. This is not Reporting Scotland writ large. It is a new programme for a New Scotland. All the survey evidence suggests the audience will respond to it.

  The objections that Scotland does not have the skill or enough news to make an hour long programme can be met. The editors at BBC Scotland instead of working in a creative straitjacket will at last be allowed to share the world class news resources of the BBC in a new editorial partnership with London. To protect its brand name, the BBC will ensure the new programme is made to the highest standards. The result will be a massive improvement in the journalistic outcome for Scotland.

  After two years of the Scottish Parliament, politicians can now relax—the issues at stake are journalistic not nationalistic. The Committee are to be congratulated for taking a second look at an issue of such importance.

26 November 2001

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