The future of broadcasting in an independent Scotland was a major topic in the run-up to last year’s referendum. The subject has since disappeared from view. But it remains true that the current situation, particularly regarding the BBC’s news broadcasts, is far from satisfactory even in a devolved Scotland – and with Holyrood gaining further powers soon, the mismatch between the political reality and the way it is covered on television will only get worse.
The problem is easily described. The BBC’s main news programmes, at 1, 6 and 10pm, are all broadcast from London, and are followed by “news from where you are”. This is a system made for England, whereby all the major international and national news is covered in the first half hour, followed by less significant “local” news in the second half hour.
But in Scotland (and in Wales and Northern Ireland) devolved politics is not a “local” matter, on a par with, say, stories covered on Points West or Look North. The devolved areas – health, education, policing and so on – are arguably the most important subjects Scottish viewers need to be informed about. But, with the current set-up, we must wait thirty minutes before, say, Reporting Scotland comes on, and we finally hear about some of the most important decisions affecting our lives.
On days when the London Six O’Clock News is dominated by English health, education or home affairs, Scottish viewers must sit through the best part of half an hour, being informed about policies and debates that have no direct impact at all on their lives. Announcements by Jeremy Hunt on health or Nicky Morgan on education are of only passing interest to most Scottish viewers. Indeed, one wonders how many of them blithely watching discussions about English-only issues are aware that this is the case or indeed that the heated debate on their screen is about (only fleetingly sign-posted) reserved matters.
The situation on STV is simply reversed, with half an hour of Scottish news preceding ITN’s “national” (i.e. UK) and international news. But that doesn’t alter the fact that instead of an integrated news programme, in which international, UK and Scottish news is mixed and prioritised according to the editors’ news values, we have a quite abnormal system of broadcasting. The devolution of so many policy areas to Holyrood simply demands a different broadcasting set-up.
Radio is a different story
BBC Radio Scotland shows how this can be done. All the radio sequences – Good Morning Scotland, Newsdrive and the short news bulletins – treat Scottish, British and international stories on merit, and rightly pay little attention to purely English political matters, on the grounds that unless they have any spin-off effect they are of marginal interest north of the border. Moreover, Good Morning Scotland does a good job. As a BBC correspondent I often heard my colleagues say they preferred to be interviewed on GMS than on Radio 4’s Today programme because they were given longer to explain issues and were “asked more sensible questions”.
Ideally, Scottish audiences should have the same kind of mixed news programmes on television. But here’s the rub: transferring the model of those radio programmes to television is exceedingly difficult, both for financial and – above all – technological reasons.
Radio Scotland has access to all the BBC’s national and international reports, and reporters. Radio “packages” are stored centrally and can be played out during any programme. BBC correspondents are expected to do live interviews with Radio Scotland if it is at all possible (though the standing instruction ranks Radio 4, Five Live and World Service as higher priorities).
Congestion on the satellite
But on television things are much more complex, especially as in the last decade or so the majority of TV packages contain a live element – in other words, the correspondent introduces his or her pre-prepared package, and sometimes concludes it, live, by satellite link. If a “Scottish Six” were to be broadcast at the same time as the London Six O’Clock News, those correspondents would physically be unavailable to provide the live elements – and their pre-edited packages rarely can stand alone: they are created with the “live opener” in mind.
With breaking news stories, where the reporter has not even had time to edit a package, and only does a “two-way” (a live interview with the presenter), the situation would be even worse. Correspondents working for the national news would be expected to appear first on the Six (and maybe also on BBC World TV), leaving a devolved Scottish Six in the ignominious position of having to slot them in later in the programme when they were finally “free” – something that would completely distort the running order and mean that an important story could not be given the priority it deserved.
The only way out would be for BBC Scotland to have its own pool of reporters to cover all international and UK-wide stories – something that would be financially crippling. There is also the question of where the talent would come from to provide a top-quality service. Reporting Scotland – despite its best efforts – already looks like a poor relation to the national news, and audiences would not be happy if their entire news programmes dropped to that standard. If a tsunami hit south Asia, or war broke out in Ukraine, a Scottish Six simply would not have the staff or the means to deploy on the scale needed to match the BBC’s national coverage. Yet that is what Scots would expect.
It’s an old story, actually
It’s a conundrum that was already much debated in the early days of the Scottish parliament, when the question of a Scottish Six was seriously considered. (The Scottish Broadcasting Commission, headed by Blair Jenkins, sidestepped the issue, recommending in 2007 that a wholly new digital television channel be created – something that, while an excellent idea in principle, would spread Scotland’s broadcasting talent even more thinly.)
The reason the idea of a Scottish Six was dropped in the end, however, had nothing to do with the practical problems I have outlined above, but was purely political: it was seen as cutting Scotland adrift from an institution that binds the UK together.
In May 2006 Mark Thompson, then director general of the BBC, said he didn’t “detect any public clamour for it”. He suggested that “extreme” advocates of a Scottish Six were arguing that “people don’t want to know what’s going on England and Wales”. I would argue that, of course, Scottish people want to know what is going on in England and Wales, but – from the point of view of a functioning democracy – they need to know about what is going on in Scotland first.
In today’s world of instant news, brought to our screens by top correspondents at the drop of a hat from anywhere on the globe, a Scottish Six, struggling for talent and resources, would look pale and unsatisfying. But without it there is a serious democratic deficit. It is unsustainable – and illogical – to devolve most domestic policy-making to Holyrood, while continuing to inform viewers in the main news bulletins largely about peripheral English matters and obliging them to wait half an hour to hear about the real issues.
The Smith Commission gave Scotland’s parliament even greater powers, but had little to say about broadcasting (which remains a reserved issue) – and nothing at all about the essential problem of whether the current BBC news bulletins, designed in an age before any devolution of any sort, can adequately inform the Scottish public about the political processes closest to their own lives.