BBC Scotland’s unbalanced Scheme

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by Margaret Little

No one can fail to notice the plethora of television programmes that look at how people can aspire to a better life and perhaps even move to a new location.  Families and individuals search for the ideal home trying to take in all the important elements for their future happiness.  For those with families, the local school is always high on the agenda.

Imagine the delight of finding a primary school with such glowing references as having four classes starting primary 1 next year as the school is so popular.  The attached nursery has just had a great report highlighting the good support offered by parents.  The school has had a number of sporting successes – the school football team reached the final of their county cup, the school came top in an athletics competition out of all 46 primary schools in the local authority area, pupils are also competing for their county in athletics and one pupil was in Russia recently for a karate competition.  

In the arts, a pupil has just won 1st prize in the National Mod for poetry and the school has been praised for putting on a full scale production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat featuring pupils from P5 and P6.  Topping that all off with a recent independent report saying the local authority should be a “blue print for Britain” in showing how to get real results in getting children trim and fit with their award winning school meals and positive programmes of nutrition and exercise.

It is just the sort of school that programmes like the BBC’s Escape To The Country like to feature in these aspirational living programmes where they find properties for prospective buyers to view.   The only problem is that in the world of the BBC, this school is not placed in that pigeon hole as it is one of the three primary schools serving the area of Onthank in Kilmarnock, featured in the notorious television series “The Scheme” now also being shown outside Scotland.

The successful, popular primary highlights the unbalanced nature of reporting by the BBC and the programme makers in this series.  The anger and damage that has been done to the area is incalculable.  The deep felt resentment of the portrayal of the area and in general to this type of programming often referred to as “poverty porn” has drawn criticism across the political spectrum.  At a recent debate in the Scottish Parliament secured by local MSP for the area, the SNP’s Willie Coffey, speaker after speaker condemned the programme.  No one spoke in favour of the programme or the programme makers.

Willie Coffey, who himself grew up in Onthank commented that if the programme makers wanted to make a programme about drugs, crime and violence then they should have drawn examples from the wider community and not tried to demonise one community by calling it “The Scheme”.  As an example of the stigmatising of the young people of the area, he added that the local children’s football team were recently jeered at and called “The Scheme Team” when they took part in a tournament.

Margaret Burgess who was manager of Kilmarnock Citizen’s Advice Bureau until her election to the Scottish Parliament in May also added her condemnation.  “The name The Scheme was not focusing on a problem but an area.”  She added that she had worked in Kilmarnock for 26 years and had soon learned not to say that people from Onthank were from Kilmarnock but to say they were from Onthank.  They were proud of their community and wanted to be associated with it in particular.

Paul Wheelhouse SNP member for the South of Scotland also commented that if, as the BBC claimed, the programme makers thought people were interested in the problems that were highlighted in the programme rather than the people featured, why did the programme discussing the issues have an audience of half a million less than the actual series.

If any more confirmation of where people’s interest in this type of programming commonly lies, it is reflected in the Facebook pages that have sprung up as a result of the series with this comment reflective of many posted before the programme was restarting this year: “love watching this bunch of horrible t***s struggle for survival, here’s hoping the sh**hole gets worse afore part 2 gets on eh go ;)”

There is no doubt that areas such as Onthank have their problems but no one can imagine the BBC having an episode of Escape to the Country where camera angles are routinely shot from the gutter,  highlighting a piece of litter or of rain running down a drain pipe.  Nor will a derelict block of flats owned by a private landlord been seen as an eyesore but will be classed as a potential “conversion” or “development opportunity”.  Indeed an episode of Escape to the Country is yet to feature violence, drug taking or criminal activity even though no community is immune to this.

The programme makers Friel Kean Films themselves appear to have been stung by the criticism with Michelle Friel calling Willie Coffey’s comments “disappointing”.  However when they were thinking up this programme they cannot claim that they had no idea of the impact of such programmes.  

Jules Kean was director of “Chancers”, the documentary that filmed the Airborne Initiative, a boot camp style unit to rehabilitate young men aged 18 – 25.  It was portrayed in such a negative way that it led to the Lab/Lib Dem Scottish Executive closing it down due to the reaction to the programme.  Labour’s Hugh Henry who was in charge of the closure and his Scottish Executive colleagues were roundly criticised in an independent report for being swayed by a television programme without actually ever visiting the unit themselves.   Kean is said to have refused to discuss what happened to Airborne but he can certainly not claim to not realise the far reaching repercussions that this film styling has.

Indeed, one of the criticisms of the Chancers was that the young men were playing up to the camera and this gave a false impression of how the unit normally ran.  It is known from Friel and Kean themselves when they were filming in Cornton Vale for their series on women prisoners, that they were asked to stop filming sometimes because the staff felt that inmates were playing up for the cameras.  The same accusation has been levelled at The Scheme with several local residents claiming that the two young women featured fighting in a garden, were playing up for the cameras.  Also that the scene where one woman did not get up out of bed to get their child ready for school was staged as no one was would have been available to let in the camera crew if everyone was asleep in their beds.

The BBC appear to have a real problem in reporting in a balanced way.  Ewan Angus, Commissioning Editor at BBC Scotland who commissioned The Scheme always states his defence of the programme as being the high viewing figures.  A programme that has better viewing figures than Eastenders does not make it a good programme.  This does not bode well for the future direction of television output at BBC Scotland.  

The people of Onthank have many politicians and others in the wider Scottish civic society to defend them so some redress is available at least.  However with the series now being shown in the rest of the UK and with BBC Scotland touting these unbalanced images of Scotland to the highest bidders elsewhere, there is a question to be answered.  With BBC Scotland determined to peddle a negative image of Scotland around the world and with broadcasting a reserved matter, who is going to defend Scotland’s interests?