Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 209)



Mr Carmichael

  200. The problem is that back in the real world you do not get that sort of perception from London broadcasters, and the figures might support that. Does that not lend weight to the argument that says we have this gap in broadcasting at the moment which is national and international broadcasting from Scotland?
  (Mr McAveety) Probably that is something you would explore as a committee, to get that balance right, because equally there is a strong point of view that if you narrowed it down you might miss out. Some of the evidence you have taken so far has indicated that you would miss out on other key issues that impact on people in Scotland because of the perspective based round the Scottish Six or the Scottish output. There is a need to take the battle further and continue that. Maybe some folk think that is naive of me but I think it would be worthwhile and would be a useful exploration.
  (Mr Brown) However you do it, there are compromises in all of this. My father lives in Carlisle, and Border Television straddles the border, and there are also questions of where Carlisle and its hinterland is: does it link to Newcastle; does it link to Scotland or does it link to Lancashire? There is an identity problem in that part of the country, in England, which is not all that effective. They get local news from bits of the country that they do not know. You are not going to get all these things right. You cannot have local news programmes particularly slotted to totally individualistic areas in a national broadcast framework. We have to be careful to take on board the structures, in terms of the boundaries of franchises, that are realistic and do a reasonable job, although you will not satisfy everybody in this context.

Mr Joyce

  201. If I could correct an imbalance, Mike Russell made a comment earlier about the limited coverage of Scottish issues on Network UK. The evidence of the BBC contradicted that entirely. BBC Scotland said there was no greater inclusion of Scottish material on the network at 6 pm and there was a tripling over the last year. I think you were talking about a year ago, last February.
  (Mr Russell) BBC Scotland always says that. The reality is that these figures, certainly last year, have not improved substantially.

  202. These are the statistics.
  (Mr Russell) With the greatest respect to them, they said when this was published that these were inaccurate because they tripled them in the previous year. You just have to watch the television to know that is not true, but I think another survey would be worth commissioning.

  203. My real question was about the Scottish Media Group. You have all alluded to it to a certain extent, but how do you strike a balance between giving the Scottish Media Group its head to operate as a company in a very large marketplace in which it is not a large company, and ensuring there is a degree of the Scottish dimension reflected with independent television delivery as provided in Scotland? The comments at the moment seem to orientate to hamstringing SMG and its ability to compete with competitors outside Scotland, and towards regulating so tightly that you would have a number of providers across what is quite a small population in Scotland.
  (Mr Russell) That is the nub of the argument: how that could effectively be done. Taking it from a slightly different perspective, if the Scottish Media Group's ambition is to be an international media player—and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I commend any Scottish company that has that ambition—should they do that while maintaining a stranglehold on a particular aspect of Scottish broadcasting, on a particular aspect of the Scottish press and on a particular aspect of Scottish radio? In other words, should they hold what they have and say, "nobody should interfere with this, and while we have that we are going elsewhere to play"? That is the question. Maybe you should open up more vigorous competition in Scotland because they have chosen to play elsewhere, and if they manage to do both things, well and good. However, if you simply say that the marketplace will always correct this, and that therefore any company in the media now will have to become an international player with very loose local servicing roots, then you are damaging the service that your constituents and all Scottish constituents get from broadcasting, and you are actually undermining a very important part of people's lives by accepting that the marketplace rules all the time. One of the groups that has sprung up in Argentina that is concerned with politic instability has a slogan, "forget reality; we want promises". There is an element in that to enable one to argue that all the emphasis on economic reality in the international marketplace is to forget the promises that each of us, as politicians, should be making to our voters, which is to make sure that they get a good local service. They should be well-informed, and they should get the most basic thing of all, which is help in developing informed and educated citizenry, which would take us full circle back to Mohammed Sarwar's question about how we get people involved in the political process. Maybe people become less involved in the political process the more that there is a roll-over and acceptance of the inevitabilities of globalisation of the media. It is not inevitable; it is only inevitable if politicians say they will allow it to happen and that they are not worried about local audiences.
  (Mr McAveety) I genuinely do not know the answer. That is part of the reason why I wanted to come here today, to look at the evidence that has been furnished. I do think that there is a complex difficulty between the international development of a company and also whether or not you reflect some of the local audience effectively enough and get a balance within that. I would like to see the evidence across Europe and in the different states in the USA about whether or not you should regulate the policy framework in ways that are best tailored to allow them to develop as a company. One of the other aspects of the Education Committee—although it is not using current affairs, but it does impact on independent radio—is the way it reflects capacity for the Scottish music industry to reflect the kind of Scottish talent that is contained within that. There are concerns that have been repeatedly placed to ourselves as MSPs, and also to myself as a member of the cross-party group on music, about the failure of that to be reflected in broadcasting output. Clyde has a very dominant audience, in terms of the audience as a whole, and is the dominant broadcaster in west central Scotland, but whether that is reflected in development of new talent and reflected in terms of its contribution is fairly criticised—which is the best euphemism I can find—and that may be starting to emerge because of the way in which companies develop over the next few years. It strikes me, though, that there is an issue of trying to get that balance right and being given the information to make a proper informed judgment.
  (Mr Brown) I agree with what has been said by Mike and Frank. There are two concepts that may be worth mentioning. One is the issue of monopoly, which is what we are talking about here. It can be dealt with in a number of ways: it can be dealt with by increased competition—and maybe there are market size problems, as Eric touched on, with Scotland; or it can be dealt with by way of regulation and franchising and new techniques to draw out the quality issues that Frank is concerned with, quite rightly. The other thing is just a thought, based on Mike's contribution, when he talked about people switching-off from the political process. It seems that the whole issue of powerlessness and the ability to have some degree of control over the affairs which dominate one's own life is part of that, and in a sense, if we are able to show in the broadcasting media level that it can be framed in a way which does bring out the cultural, social and other objectives, that is, in a minor way, a blow towards power for the people against these globalisation trends.
  (Mr McAveety) Mohammed Sarwar mentioned this earlier. The problem is whether you reflect in political news coverage the dominant political social culture that exists and whether that excludes other identities and cultures. That is a complex issue that does not bear great examination, about how you communicate. We should get agreement on what is "Scottishness" for a start, never mind the whole issue of what makes the contribution in Scotland. That is something that genuinely needs to be looked at very, very carefully.

Mr Lyons

  204. On the question of Reporting Scotland and the Newsnight opt-put, when the BBC gave evidence, they spoke about their successful viewing figures for both programmes and almost spoke about an increasing audience share for both. If that is the case, are they not entitled to claim that the public are quite happy with what they are giving us?
  (Mr McAveety) In the recent painful period in terms of current affairs, if the audience did not go after some of those events you might as well chuck it in the air in terms of trying to be appealing and get some sort of soap opera story for the wider public. In reality, that was because of how the news was framed, and some of the events. Some of you may take a different view, but I do think the quality has diminished in the last few months. There are occasions when I have thought, "that is the most useless waste of twenty minutes I have ever seen in my life" when I have come from the heady heights of watching one programme to watching Newsnight, thinking I would be further stimulated, and the piece was poorly done editorially. This is over a period of two or three weeks and six or seven shows. I am an eternal optimist, but I thought it was very poorly done, and I am worried about whether there has been a diminution in editorial quality.

Ann McKechin

  205. Do you feel there is an increasing trend of journalists interviewing journalists these days in these types of programmes? I went to watch Newsnight Scotland one night and there was one journalist interviewing three other journalists.
  (Mr McAveety) The tragedy is, he got paid for it and you do not. I think it is true. There was also another case not long ago on a very important issue about the appalling problems in terms of income levels and poverty in parts of Scotland. The two contributors reflected none of the broad-based opinion of all the main political parties. You have someone speaking on the issue that has less than 4 per cent of the vote across Scotland, and someone who has not even set themselves up as a political party yet was speaking on an issue of central experience for people in central Scotland. There is a story to tell, and there is a real argument there, but I would not have thought those were the two most appropriate individuals to pick for that. They are not representative of the narrative of the politics across this table here. There already are political parties and others who have been able to make a contribution.

Mr Weir

  206. Do you think that part of the problem, Frank, is that you do not get long enough on Newsnight Scotland?
  (Mr McAveety) It depends what the issue is, but I think there is a real problem. I have been in a programme where you have four and a half minutes, and there are other representatives of political parties, from the SNP and the Conservative Party; I only have a minute and a half, so I am only going to casually go over what I think is the important message, and keep it at that. I find it quite worrying that we have such a limited time for that. Some things are squeezed in, for example two items into the same piece where the parties would have benefited from a much larger analysis. Those are just my personal views.
  (Mr Russell) We must be very careful not to confuse poor journalism, which exists right across broadcasting and newspapers, and in every profession. There are, presumably poor politicians, though none in this room! They confuse poor practitioners with the questions of the proper structure for delivering what we are trying to deliver. I know that Frank has objected to some Newsnight programmes, but most of the ones he was on, I must say I enjoyed. I thought the journalists did a very good job. But the reality of the situation, to turn to John's point, which is a substantive one, is that if there is an increasing audience—and there appears to be a marginally larger audience for Newsnight Scotland—it might suggest something else. It might suggest that there was a thirst for a Scottish-focused news and current affairs programme, and that the BBC should go much further and have a proper Scottish news and current affairs programme at that time of night, or earlier in the day. It could suggest either. Certainly, there are occasions on which Newsnight Scotland and the BBC News and, dare I say it, Panorama and all the other programmes, have bad journalism, bad standards, too many stories and not enough time for politicians, who always talk more than they should. The reality is that the structures are the important things, not individual day-to-day decisions.
  (Mr Brown) I think it is in the realm of, if I may say so, lies, damn lies and statistics, as far as the BBC's evidence is concerned, because it effectively said this: "We have got an increasing share of a diminishing audience for Newsnight". That seems to me to be capable of a range of interpretations, without having to go too far on that. If I may say so, Mike's point about the length of Newsnight is relevant because I have been on once or twice where you get one entry, one sentence or a sentence and a half, and then they are off on to something else, and it is not long enough to allow a sensible discussion of the issue. In the one you referred to, there was not even a Liberal Democrat on to have the one and a half minutes in the first place, so there is a broader issue with regard to that as well. There are issues, not just about the structure but about the content, shape and size of the programmes as well.

Mr Lazarowicz

  207. I am not sure from the answer as to whether the Scottish Newsnight for 45 minutes, equally divided between the four political parties would work. It might be a good way of reducing audience figures even further! It seems to me to raise a number of issues. How far is this debate between the Scottish Six or opt-in, opt-out arrangement for Newsnight matter for the future debate? Is there not a real possibility which is now on the table, of new types of broadcasting media, so that people can pick and choose? If people in Scotland want to watch Scottish Six for one hour, they can do that, and if they want to watch BBC News or CNN or whatever, they can do that. They can pick and choose more and more. How far do you think that going in that type of direction is going to provide us with the solution to the kinds of choices you have to make; and, specifically, how far do you think we should see regulation in the UK and in Scotland to provide that range of choices?
  (Mr Russell) I think that that is the crucial point. When the Welsh 4 channel was established in Wales, it meant that a large group of people in Wales could not see Channel 4 and there was absolute outrage. A lot of people who were not Welsh speakers wanted to see Channel 4 and they were deprived of it. Broadcasting change should not deprive you of any existing option; it should add to the list of options available. Current analogue technology does not allow you to do that, while digital technology does. Some of the very curious regulations that digital companies apply, and that the BBC applies, are a barrier to it. For example, if you are a Scottish subscriber to digital satellite and you want to see BBC Wales, you have to pretend that your address is in Wales in order to get the card that allows you to see it. Similarly, if you are a satellite subscriber in France and you want to see BBC Scotland on digital, you have to pretend you live in Scotland. That strikes me as daft, and that is one of the things that the Committee could do; it could state strongly that that is insane. You need to have a range of choices. You cannot have them if the Scottish Six does not exist. You have to establish that as part of the range of choices that people have; and then people will choose them. In regard to analogue, unfortunately, you have to make decisions, and that cuts out other decisions, but certainly to be able at home to watch News 24, CNN, Sky News, a Scottish perspective news hour—different approaches to Newsnight or whatever—would be wonderful. It would give people a real range of choices and they would enjoy it. I do not think, however, that we should wait until 2010 or 2012 for that to happen. That has been one of the delaying arguments in this debate. We should get the Scottish Six which is shorthand for editorial control within Scotland on news and current affairs. That is what we are talking about. Get that in place, and then we will see what happens.
  (Mr McAveety) If you have an aspect of a variety of options, there is the issue about social coherence and getting continuity of that message. If you have a proliferation of those views, you have to recognise somewhere down the line the potential dilution of social cohesion. Whether it is a fake Britishness or a fake Scottishness, I think people move around in both those boxes. The other issue is that it depends who presents that news. There is evidence that indicates that the quality of the presenters and the way in which they handle those news items means that folk will be more engaging with that broadcaster. Again, that goes back to the area of quality in journalism generally. There are Newsnight UK presenters who have better aspects, and others, and equally Newsnight Scotland presenters handle some stories better than others. The evidence from BBC Scotland last week on that identified that a number of folk felt they had more audience reception. As I said, it is about getting the message right and understanding the diversity of issues. That is going to work against the ideal of some central coherence of broadcasting across the UK.
  (Mr Brown) I am instinctively against Frank's view about the importance of social cohesion coming down from the centre. We do not share Frank's view about proliferation of channels either. On the radio, people opt in and out. I listen to Radio Scotland or Radio 4 as it suits me, and I go in and out of the two. I am sure that many people do the same. New radio channels come on board, and their audience share reflects the success of that particular product, and that will continue to be the position. I do not think these issues of structure are, at the end of the day, the only things. There are issues about content, and I will touch briefly on one thing we were talking about before. Having been a member of the corporate body since the beginning of the Parliament, I have been at the heart of a lot of issues about allowances in the Scottish Parliament building, etc. I have been struck by the intensity of the scrutiny that these things have had compared with, for example, Portcullis House, MP allowances and that kind of thing, which have pretty much passed by the Scottish Parliament, without needing the same level of scrutiny.

Mr Sarwar

  208. Do you believe that there is a fair representation by ethnic communities in broadcasting? If not, how are we going to improve this situation, and if possible in the Scottish Parliament too?
  (Mr Russell) Well, of course, on both counts the answer is "no". In the Scottish Parliament we have to do a great deal better than zero, and all the parties have to do better. You have heard me arguing in the past very strongly that the way to do it is to have very strong training development programmes, to get candidates into good seats and to make sure they win. I work very hard on that, as you know, and will continue to do so. The media still tends to be very exclusive. Now, certainly, it is made up of clever young people who think that they can make their careers out of it. I think that the media has to be much more representative, and I think that minorities are not represented essentially at all. Where they are, they are often very good journalists and very good performers. I would want to see much more thought about the Scottish media and how it represents Scotland, the real Scotland, the modern Scotland.
  (Mr McAveety) This is a consistent debate, Mohammed, and it is the kind of debate we have had in the past with each other. The parties need to do much more to reflect the wider Scottish society at local authority level or at parliamentary level. That is something that should be worked on consistently. My worry is that folk have been trying to be placed in the role of being a minority, so if STV or BBC wanted to do a story about an issue, they would say, "I will go to Mohammed Sarwar because that is the race-related issue." You have been probably very frustrated yourself in wanting to put the legitimate interest in itself, but not being allowed to express it because they took an exclusive view. Thirdly, to get faces and individuals on the screens who are representative of Scottish culture, who just happen to be someone from the Pakistani community—it is a fact they are there and does not say they do not have the necessary neutrality. We should try to ensure that that happens much more. I do not know if someone has done any audit on broadcasting companies in relation to that, but it would be worth exploring to see if they have taken measures.
  (Mr Brown) In the news field there are a number of people at the Scottish and UK level who are represented on a wider basis by a member of the different minorities within the country. Whether that produces a result which concentrates on issues seen as relevant to larger communities is a slightly different issue. That is a matter of structure and getting people with particular perceptions and different backgrounds. The ethnic community is very under-represented in the media, and there is capacity-building involved in all of that. Needless to say, the political parties' reputation and achievements are pretty poor and more could be done by all of us to enhance the ethnic—I should not use that because it is a divisive word—the broad variety of communities that make up modern Scotland and modern UK.

Mr Joyce

  209. I can never ever remember being interviewed or meeting a black, Asian or any journalist working for the BBC in Scotland. I literally have not met any. I do not know if that is your experience. It is probably an issue we should have asked the BBC about when they gave evidence, but it looks like something they really should be addressing urgently.
  (Mr Russell) I can think of at least two. What would road reports be without Ali Abassi? You are absolutely right that there are not enough, but there are some—credit where credit is due. I do not think the BBC is operating a colour bar.
  (Mr McAveety) I have met one or two, but it is not acceptable. What we do not have is information about the statistics and how that reflects across other public or private organisations. It might be worth finding out, and if there is an issue perhaps measures should be taken. I would have thought that was a more compelling issue if you are working in London as well, given the way in which London is changing in terms of its make-up and diversities of culture.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for giving your evidence to us today.

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