Scotland Calling: Time for realism on how post-indy broadcaster would work

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Commentary by Derek Bateman

The retirement of Colin Blane after a lifetime in BBC radio journalism that took him from Beijing to Johannesburg to Brussels to Glasgow is a reminder of the contribution programme-makers have made to our lives.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

We hear them daily from flashpoints around the world, sometimes literally from a front line under fire, giving detailed analysis of perplexing events. Colin was with Nelson Mandela when he was freed. Jim Muir, a Scot from Lochaber, is a lifelong Middle East expert. Another, Alan Johnston, was kidnapped by the Army of Islam. I know journalists from other countries, often living in distressed societies, who cherish the sound of the BBC World Service bringing them valuable information they trust.

Our world has been shaped in many ways by the BBC through documentaries and debates, dramas and light entertainment. The breadth of output dwarfs anything else – 10 UK radio channels, seven ‘national’ outlets and 40 regional stations, a battery of television services from BBC America to BBC Persian. It gives us iplayer and Gaelic language. The scale and diversity makes it the world’s biggest broadcaster.

My personal pride was in connecting people in Scotland through a shared interest in our country and reflecting the wider world. For the first time in my life I felt part of the fabric of the country. Presenting for the BBC was the single most memorable job I had in 45 years.

Which is why I have become concerned at the direction taken by the BBC as it wrestles with a multi-channel digital environment on the one hand and state containment by insecure politicians on the other. I have been vocal on the shortcomings of the BBC in Scotland echoing the worries of many existing staff. And if there is a genuine desire to have a broadcaster we can be proud of we need to pressure it to change because the BBC isn’t going anywhere. Even after independence.

POLICY

The idea that we opt out of consuming the BBC or not pay the licence fee is fine for those who don’t want to be part a diverse and multi-faceted public media. But it isn’t SNP policy to write off the BBC. There is no plan on the day after National Liberation to switch it off. Jackie bird won’t be getting her jotters.

On the contrary. ‘The SBS will continue to co-commission, co-produce and co-operate with the BBC network. The SBS will commission or produce a share of BBC network original productions reflecting the Scottish population share, in terms of both hours and spending. These arrangements will shift commissioning power and resources from the BBC to Scotland, while providing continuity for the BBC, consistent with its recent moves to decentralise from London’, says Scotland’s Future, the government’s Guide to Independence, and still the template for a post-Yes Scotland.

SBS, the Scottish Broadcasting Service, will be established not to replace the BBC but explicitly to work with it. ‘Under our proposals, a Scottish Broadcasting Service, providing TV, radio and online services, will be established as a publicly funded public service broadcaster, working with the BBC in a joint venture’, says the SNP. It will ‘initially be founded on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland, and will broadcast on TV, radio and online.’

Non-payers beware: ‘On independence, the licence fee will be the same as in the rest of the UK, and all current licence fee payment exemptions and concessions will be retained’ and ‘Existing licences for broadcasters in Scotland will be fully honoured.’ They won’t be ditching BBC programmes that drive nationalists mad. ‘Evidence also suggests that people in Scotland want more Scottish programming alongside access to the best from the rest of the UK and the wider world.’ And: ‘Scottish viewers and listeners should continue to have access to all their current channels’. When the document says SBS will ‘have the right’ to opt out of current BBC programming, it implies that services we currently know will be virtually unchanged. And remember, during the indyref how the Yes side scoffed at suggestions we might not get some programmes from the network…

FRAMEWORK

In other words, the plan for independence is to rename the organisation the SBS and base it on the existing framework and arrangements. We will have a new channel in addition to BBC One but there is no suggestion that its news progammes will be served by anyone other than the existing newsroom, at least initially. There will inevitably be changes but there is no provision for wholesale clear-outs of staff. And in any case, recruitment won’t deliver what some critics seem to want which is supportive rather than critical coverage (As in the National). They’ll still get stories they don’t like. The way to eliminate bias is to hire professional staff with effective editorial oversight. Anyone praying for an age of McCarthy at Pacific Quay is in line for a let-down. The Greens are also against breaking up the BBC and instead prefer a federal structure.

Donalda Mackinnon: New Director of BBC Scotland
Donalda Mackinnon: New Director of BBC Scotland

The emphasis on commissioning will change over time with an expectation of more Scottish content. But the SNP recognises that it can’t just start again from scratch even if it wanted to. The BBC, for all its faults, can’t be reinvented and it certainly can’t be replicated in Scotland. What we can do is carve out a specialist service using the existing organisation and we can brand it as truly Scottish. We can scrutinise it at Holyrood and up the Scotland-focussed content. This is realism from the SNP, a typically pragmatic approach miles away from any string-em-up hysteria of the mob. BBC haters are heading for disappointment. Its elimination is a non-starter. And that’s official policy.

As I wrote at the time of the row over the roadside hoardings plan highlighting BBC bias, the constant raging about the BBC sounds scary to those not yet committed to Yes. It makes them wonder what kind of people nationalists are. That doesn’t excuse execrable journalism but it should give us pause about the impression we give to those we need to win over. We are each entitled to hold any view we wish but if we are truly interested in furthering the cause and ultimately in winning, we have to promote our case as rational and balanced. Some of the recent messages here stand in stark contrast to the measured and insightful contributions on, for example, land reform and crofting. There was me thinking we were better than that.

There is a window of opportunity here for Donalda MacKinnon but a short one. The new charter starts in January and yet here is a new Director for Scotland entitled to some leeway being new in post. She must have made her pitch in the job interview and if it included something radical – like a Scottish Six – she is entitled to claim it now. Let’s hope so.

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Everything the BBC in Scotland has done recently has only reinforced the idea that it is a London centric organisation with a London centric agenda.
    Like the London based political parties,it will only gain credence with independently minded Scots when it is perceived to be acting in Scotland’s interests and not following instructions from head office in another country.
    It is the lack of accountability in Scotland that is at the root of the problem and until that happens,nothing will change.

  2. If anyone seriously believes the bbc is not biased about Scottish politics they should hear Sarah Smith’s comment at the end of her wee whine on Radio4 6pm news, Thursday 15th Dec.

    • Give us a break Derek. Like any serial wrongdoer, BBC Scotland would need to show significant remorse if it is ever to seek any forgiveness from many Scots. Maybe they should broadcast the ‘London Calling’ film, for a start? And just because the SNP leadership think BBC Scotland might be useful post-indy does not mean most Yessers agree. Odd that its recent leaders all seem to come from the Western Isles, no?

  3. The world and U.K. news service would alter no doubt but probably too slowly for most of us who who have switched to ch4 for a deeper and modern style of discussion. The dramas are good but so much competition from abroad puts that jaket on a shoogley peg too! All in all people are fed up being forced to pay for a TV licence to watch news they can get from other sources. I know I am.

  4. I know it’s a different world,, but in Spain every one of the 17 Autonomous Communities (regions) has their own public TV and radio, funded from within the region and answerable to local quality and standards boards.

    At present, Valencia is slowly re-establishing its local TV, closed for economic/policital reasons a few years ago – not from scratch, of course, but refounding with all the costs that entails. Of course, there is private and public advertising costed in. And there’s competition from private media as well, with big players like Berlusconi owning shares, for example.

    Why can’t that happen in Scotland? Is it just costs? Why does engineering and technology of any kind in the UK seem to cost several times what it costs in Spain? Why does the UK BBC have to be the basis of a new Scottish service? Why the apparent media desert? I know that as a voice radio adict, a visit to Scotland produces severe withdrawal symptoms.

    Derek is obviously realistic and expert, but I’m genuinely puzzled.

  5. Sorry but as a big fan of the BBC pre-referendum I can’t just sit back and take the daily propaganda, selective reporting, attempts to demonise the Scottish Gov at every turn.
    If it had just been the referendum and they’d eased up a bit on I’d maybe give them a break but they’re still doing it every day.
    And we have to pay for it!

  6. “The idea that we opt out of consuming the BBC or not pay the licence fee is fine for those who don’t want to be part a diverse and multi-faceted public media.”
    Not watching the BBC does not equal not being part of a diverse and multi-faceted public media, it means the opposite!
    The BBC is a dinosaur trying to evolve wings, let it die. The Iplayer is a joke! Don’t want people to view without paying? Have a login that incorporates your license number! No, it’s a better idea to send stooges round council houses harassing poor folk.
    It’s all about controlling the news pure and simple. In this day and age of global interconnection a national broadcaster is their just to spin the news. There is no such thing as impartial!
    Let people access the world of media out there and decide for themselves. Facebook are introducing measures to cut out ‘Fake News’. Who decides what is fake? Shouldn’t we all be able to decide that for ourselves through compare and contrast?
    Fuck the BBC.

  7. My word, Newsnet Scotland has been boring for a long time now. Truly Scottish Scottishness in the media? Good howling Jesus. Are there any new blogs to take it’s place? Or are we stuck with this and a few OAPs comparing marmalade recipes on the Billy Graham scam blog?

  8. “The idea that we opt out of consuming the BBC or not pay the licence fee is fine for those who don’t want to be part a diverse and multi-faceted public media”

    Sadly Derek I do not think that, as today, we can say that the BBC is a multi-faceted public media at all. It is basically a unionist, anti-Scottish and neocon propaganda churning machine, purely and simple.

    As for the remaining channels, being bombarded continuously with old WWII films, ancient carry-on films and traditional British series from many decades ago, or continuous royal crap in many TV channels is not my idea of multi-faceted media. I interpret that as a purely propagandistic device, not designed to entertain but to brainwash and dumb down people attempting to keep them in a time warp of the past.

  9. So Donalda McKinnon is 55 years old and has been part of the BBC set-up for years. If she tries to implement anything in the slightest way controversial like dumping Kaye Adams, or introducing a Scottish Six or upping the Scottish content of programming, her London bosses will simply find excuses to give her “early retirement” before she can do any real harm to the Unionist cause. She will of course be replaced by someone more acceptable to London.
    Cynical-Me?

  10. Then again Bryan, he might just be right and the commenters are the ones in the wrong..?
    Or is Derek’s view not allowed because he once worked for the Great Satan?

  11. The last live broadcast I watched by BBC news was when they were covering one of the ‘terrorist’ incidents in Germany. I was swapping between watching their live commentary and that of sky news, despite little being known about the incident. The BBC online had scrolling information about prior Islamic terror events, and they were interviewing people about those in the studio, while the TV coverage showed police standing about – meanwhile, Sky were reporting on someone who had taken phone-video and conversed with the alleged person responsible, stating he was German etc etc. Fully a half hour later, the same respective news from both outlets were playing.

    At this point I thought ‘hmm, can I really believe the BBC has no one keeping an eye on other news programmes? Why have they not picked up on what is actually, or probably, or even might be, happening?’

    This leads to the thought ‘they should never have been reporting in such a fashion in the first place! They do not need attention grabbing headlines, tv licence pays for their reports, not popularity. So why report inflammatory nonsense in the first place?’

    It is irresponsible, and demonstrates a distinct lack of integrity on the part of the BBC, to start, and continue, to broadcast material that could only cause fear and distress in its viewers, based on zero knowledge, but to continue in this vein when other information was available was unforgivable. I rarely watched live tv anyway, but since then I refuse to even contemplate it.

    I still get my daily dose of propaganda from radio Scotland, which I particularly enjoy after having watched live debates on parliament tv, or committees, or the Supreme Court, to hear how badly they report on it, or not as the case may be. You cannot tell me I am not getting fed hysterical nonsense, it is there every day all day.

    A national broadcaster should be living by their own rules, or legislation put in place to make it easy to prosecute deviations. The bias is there, no doubt about it, and it does not appear to be benign, for anyone, and not just for Scotland or its independence. The notion of the BBC is laudable, but where are the constraints that might ensure its integrity? They are non-existent as proved time and again.

  12. Derek, I often wonder if you actually follow the BBC’s full output in Scotland. I agree with you that the new SBC can use the licencing system as RTE does in Ireland. But your eulogy to the output of the BBC does not reflect the tiny share of Scottish Programming the BBC offers in Scotland

    The BBC licence fees from Scotland exceeds the licence fee take in Ireland for RTE by 40%. BUT look at the huge range of TV and radio Channels in English and Gaelic that RTE are able to run for a population basically the same as that of Scotland. http://www.rte.ie/tv/ And they have loads of independent channels too

    Your closeness to the BBC is affecting your understanding of what a National publicly supported media should look like

    • Because our spam filter didn’t like it. We had complaints from readers as it seems to have been causing problems with certain browsers. You have re-posted it above and it seems to be working fine so far. Sometimes happens, never sure why.

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