BBC Scotland channel: the nationalist case for optimism… almost

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Commentary by Derek Bateman

I’ve just been interviewed by BBC Scotland for their new digital channel.

‘So, Derek. What do you think of our plans for a dedicated nightly channel with a full bulletin of international news?’

‘Well, Jackie, I’m overwhelmed. Frankly, I didn’t think they’d have the guts to do it. But I was wrong. This will definitely settle the Nationalists’ hash.’

‘Have you seen the running order?’

Derek Bateman

‘I certainly have and I’m delighted to see that three of the five hours will be filmed in your lovely home interviewing celebrity guests like Lulu and John Barrowman under the title At Home with Jackie. I also think it’s a real media coup to get David Mundell to present the news hour so we can get his unique take on current affairs. I hear his first exclusive is how he shared an office suite with Alistair Carmichael for all those months but never heard a word about a plan to leak a memo claiming Sturgeon wanted the Tories to win the last election. Apparently Mundell used to dive into cupboards when he saw him coming and locked himself in the loo shouting la la la when Carmichael tried to tell him. Amazing story…’

‘Critics have said it will be parochial and will be used to project a British Unionist view of the country. That can’t be true, can it?’

‘Certainly not. If you can extrapolate the price of oil into an international story affecting Scotland, you can do the same with the price of mince in Auchtermuchty which I understand is £2 a kilo at the Co-op but only £1.75 at Lidl – and they’re German so the Brexit equation looms large there, Jackie.’

‘Eh…I see. But will it do enough to silence SNP critics?’

‘Absolutely, especially the interactive idea. I think fastening GA Ponsonby into an electric chair and asking viewers to press the Red Button to send 300 volts through him will be a ratings hit. And, of course, it will also engage the European Court of Human Rights and possibly the Geneva Convention so there’s an international angle right there.’

‘Are there any drawbacks?’

‘Well, I think naming the channel the Queen Elizabeth Memorial BBC North British BBC One will alienate some and not everyone will wait to hear God Save the Queen played out at midnight but then people said that late night show with Sarah Smith wouldn’t last and look at it now…’

‘I must say, it’s great to have you back in the studio, Derek.’

‘Thanks, Jackie. You don’t think the Union Jack waistcoat is too much then…?’

Donalda Mackinnon: New Director of BBC Scotland

Now, if the BBC really did ask me I’d say what we have here is a platform to launch a whole new look at current affairs, not just Scottish-related news. The danger of the Scottish Six was that it would necessarily follow a certain low-key, hum drum path well worn over the years because it’s tea-time (families!) and the tone has to fit broadly with the UK news which proceeds it. In other words, international or not, it would, if it did its job, merely reflect the normal BBC news agenda – and repeat stories you’d already seen if you watched both.

Creative

But starting at 7pm and with news not on air until 9pm when children are abed – well, certainly mine are – there is a chance for some proper grown-up broadcasting. It could even be edgy, you know, challenging and eye-opening. There could even be adult themes which right now are regarded as taboo in BBC land unless handled by an ironic London presenter. If you have a blank page which this pretty much is apart from the news itself, you have space for the stories that lie outwith the diary-led, PR company, corporate spin machine – and you can get indy people to make them. (That’s independent producers, not freedom fighters). The BBC blurb wants to work with the creative sector. Well here is the chance to commission a whole panorama (pun, there) of ideas from budding film makers who can use today’s accessible technology to tell stories that fall outside the predictable purview of the BBC tram tracks.

They needn’t be 30 minutes but maybe seven minute injects or quarter hours. When you’ve got time to use, you don’t need to be tied down to standard durations.

I do hope they don’t rely on too many existing staff who will bring that deadly sense of familiarity. This is a chance to break with the past and uncover new talent, to take a different approach. The charter will demand balance (ahem) but that doesn’t mean that people with opinions shouldn’t be commissioned to make programmes from their standpoint – so long as someone with an alternative view also has access.

This excites me like the year of the indyref did. I wanted BBC Scotland to step up and project our broadcasters as the best there is. We should have produced the gold standard in reporting in 2014 and made the BBC the must-go place for what was an international story. It didn’t happen that way but here is another opportunity that really can’t be allowed to have the BBC’s corporate chloroform clamped over its mouth.

Let’s start firing in ideas for programmes. Demand access. Insist on new formats and proper budgets. If it’s our BBC channel, let’s claim it. And I’d like it to dovetail closely with Alba because it is through an overlap between the two that a sustained renaissance in Gaelic can grow right across the Scottish media and find its way into every home and laptop.

I know, I know. I’m going to be disappointed. Bound to be. But there can be no excuses for Donalda Mackinnon now. She has the basic kit with which to win back an audience and, with such a low budget compared to Scotland’s licence fee take, plenty of scope for claiming more resources – if she can make a success of it. Come on, Donalda. ‘S urrainn dhut a dhèanamh!