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.