Memorandum submitted by Nigel R Smith
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 contributorsMSPs,
six Parties and the many Scottish interest groups from the Church
of Scotland to Scottish Mental Health who have no natural locus
in Westminsterhas 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 formatNewsnighton
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 NewsWhy 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 relaxthe 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