My Saturday column in The National, dated August 29th, 2015 (online version). All shares and comments welcomed. Note: ***response to social media criticism of the column, below fold at end of the piece.
Isn’t it time the BBC started taking Scotland seriously?
THE First Minister took the stage at the Edinburgh Television Festival on Thursday, and sought to insert a new Scots cog in the grinding wheels of the BBC’s Charter Review.
Not easy. Between Alex Salmond and the BBC’s Nick Robinson bumping chests like silverbacks, and Armando Iannucci hymning the “British soft power” of public broadcasting in his Mactaggart lecture, there’s not much media-space left for calm, detailed reform proposals from Scotland.
Yet it’s worth putting Sturgeon’s plan – essentially one more public TV station, and one more public radio station in Scotland, with an implicit argument that the BBC as a whole should move to a federal structure – in an obvious European context.
The best example is Germany’s system of federalised TV stations. Do a five-minute Wikipedia search on public broadcasters WDR (serving the state of North-Rhine Westphalia), BR (serving the state of Bavaria) and HR (serving Hesse) – then go to their programming pages.
With a population of six million, Hesse has six public radio stations (digital and analogue); the other two lander (between two to three times more populous than Scotland) have 10 each. Each has at least one public broadcast TV channel, and also contribute material to German national (and international) TV.
Whatever way you want to cut that proportionately – and even accepting Germany’s greater prosperity and taxes – there is clearly room, and precedent, for the very basic expansion of Scottish public media services proposed by the Scottish Government.
With BBC3 closing down, we have the broadcast spectrum available. Even accepting budget constraints, surely a merging of BBC Alba with a new Scottish channel is doable? *** And doesn’t it make blinding sense to separate out BBC Radio Scotland into two channels – one for music and sport, one for news, discussion and features – rather than the maddening tone-and-mood changes you hear in a day’s listening?
But here we come to the content question, so lyrically raised by two archetypal ScotLab representatives over the last 24 hours. On STV’s Scotland Tonight on Thursday, Ken Mackintosh MSP asked, with incredulity in his voice, what we would put on an all-Scottish channel – how would it be filled? Just with Scottish stuff?
And on the BBC, Iain Martin MP reminded us that, of course, Scots must have utterly unimpeded access to baking, dancing and time-travelling programmes from the BBC every Saturday night. Otherwise, naturally, a collective nervous breakdown.
We went round the houses on Martin’s point ad nauseaum during the indyref. One look at the average TV diet in Ireland, in a multi-channel and multi-platform age, should answer those anxieties. But Mackintosh’s mild derision over how a Scots TV channel could even be programmed – displaying all the sensitivity to Scottish national ambition so notable in recent ScotLab leadership – is worth a brief answer.
Only one short strapline would be required for a separate and new BBC Scotland TV channel: Taking Scotland Seriously. And that means, by implication, taking more time and going into more depth with Scottish affairs. Does anyone really believe that the 10-minute rammys and point-scoring of the items on the BBC’s Scotland 2015 (or for that matter, STV Scotland Tonight) cover more than a fraction of what each topic deserves?
It’s a paltry response to the active citizenry that has emerged over the last two plebiscites in Scotland. The citizens have responded themselves, of course. Their appetite for a more substantive discussion about Scotland’s past, present and future sustains – via both clicks and pounds – a growing range of alternative digital media (and of course, this paper).
But I don’t know any of the committed enthusiasts in the Scottish alternative sector who wouldn’t welcome a Scots channel that properly served the citizenry. Something that gave crucial areas (like health and medicine, business and the economy, sci-tech and innovation, energy and environment, education at all levels, our global impact on the world) the dedicated screen-time and journalistic/investigative brio they deserved.
Can we imagine some relationship between Scottish civic media and new Scottish public broadcasting channels? Could a percentage of its operations be more like the early years of Channel Four: a television publisher with an explicit remit for diversity of opinion, and a willingness to prototype new hybrid forms of broadcast and digital media?
But before these cutting-edge matters, there is surely no end of Scottish needs that dedicated Scottish public channels could satisfy. Simply to cover what the French would call our “arts of living” is a task at hand – not just our vibrant art, not just food, drink and recreation, but our sense of history.
That’s not just about putting Tom Devine to service as our Simon Schama, but also televisual history – deploying the Scottish archive we have, using material from both commercial and public resources, to give perspective and context to our sense of ourselves. (BBC4's relationship with its archive is a brilliant template here).
But, as we fondly plan and scheme, here comes the brick wall. The new Tory culture and media minister, John Whittingdale, made matters abundantly clear in Edinburgh the other day. He regarded a No vote in the referendum as a recommitment to British identity – and, by association, a recommitment to the BBC as the “[UK] national” broadcaster.
I enjoyed the brilliant, likeable – still evidently Glaswegian, but also pretty establishment – Armando Iannucci and his Mactaggart Television Lecture [full text here]. But as you listen, it’s easy to imagine the case for Scottish channels being drowned in the grander storm of liberal-left and conservative UK elites, battling mightily for the “soul of the Beeb”.
That’s what happens when you don’t vote to become a nation-state: all that’s left is supplication and reasoned argument to the centre, most likely resulting in a head-pat and a “terribly sorry”. And there you can bundle up BBC Scotland reform with lots of other devolutionary frustrations. But, of course, there’s more to Scottish media than pining after Pacific Quay with an SBC badge on it.
Isn’t it worth stating the obvious – that the resignation of Police Scotland’s Stephen House has come after many months of detailed, pertinacious reporting (and a few well-timed exposes of Holyrood’s back-stage process) by dogged members of Scotland’s press?
Or to remember the bravery of the young members of National Collective, successfully facing down being sued by Ian Taylor of the Vitol oil group, in response to their article raising questions about his funding of Better Together?
So we bide our time, waiting for the constitutional and structural stars to align, and produce a Scottish public broadcasting culture worthy of the name. But, meantime, let’s make sure we don’t forget to support those whose media activity “afflicts the comfortable, and comforts the afflicted”, as the American muckraker Finley Peter Dunne once put it.
“Team Scotland” does not necessarily equal “Democratic And Self-Aware Scotland”. Top-down institution-building and reform does not solve all problems in our good society. And even as we eat popcorn before the political spectacle of the long break-up of the Union, let us remember that the relationship of media to government should be, to some extent, that of dog to lamp-post. And that this is absolutely fine.