Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200
MONDAY 4 FEBRUARY 2002
MSP MR MIKE
RUSSELL, MSP AND
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
(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.
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,
(Mr Russell) BBC Scotland always says that. The reality
is that these figures, certainly last year, have not improved
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 playerand there is absolutely nothing
wrong with that, and I commend any Scottish company that has that
ambitionshould 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 Committeealthough
it is not using current affairs, but it does impact on independent
radiois 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 criticisedwhich
is the best euphemism I can findand 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 competitionand 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.
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
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.
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 audienceand there
appears to be a marginally larger audience for Newsnight Scotlandit
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
(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.
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 hourdifferent approaches to
Newsnight or whateverwould 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
(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.
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
(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 communityit 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 ethnicI should not use
that because it is a divisive wordthe broad variety of
communities that make up modern Scotland and modern UK.
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 somecredit 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
Chairman: Thank you very much for giving your
evidence to us today.