Commentary by Bernard Thompson
I have to confess that I didn’t watch the BBC debate on Scotland’s future on Monday.
Somehow, the chance to be enlightened by the contributions of Adam Tomkins, Jackie Baillie and Tom Harris seemed like an education I could do without, with Fiona Hyslop’s inclusion – and no invitation to the Scottish Greens – hardly offering the prospect of balance.
That was a personal choice, but the reaction of many others to a national broadcaster producing a show in which unionists outnumbered pro-independence representatives by three-to-one highlights increasing concerns that have been raised about the BBC, especially since the Scottish independence referendum.
Many people feel that there is sustained and deliberate bias on the BBC allowing the “impartial” broadcaster a huge opportunity in shaping opinions.
The internet has allowed for the dissemination of information and political dialogue on a hitherto unimaginable scale but its reach and influence may have been overestimated in some quarters.
Thinkbox, a marketing body for commercial TV in the UK, estimates that television accounts for 76% of video consumption (including live, playback and on-demand) in the UK, compared to 4.4% on Youtube. 61.6% of that TV was viewed live.
As a brand, the BBC dwarfs every other broadcaster and newspaper in terms of reach. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2015 found that, on a weekly basis, BBC output is accessed by 72% of people across the TV, radio and print sectors, compared to 32% accessing its nearest rival, ITV. (The corporation also dominates in online media and mobile apps).
The report also found that only 51% of people in the UK trust the news in general, but that 64% trust the brands they use most often, so we can infer from this, despite criticisms of reporting, that the BBC remains by far the most influential brand.
Ofcom’s News Consumption in the UK 2015 report found (pp. 24-5) that the most common way to access news about Scotland is via a TV set (58%), followed by newspapers (31%), radio (26%) and social media sites (21%). The most popular news source used to access news specifically about Scotland is BBC One, with a third of news users in Scotland saying they use it.
All of these statistics stress, not only the influence of the BBC, but the importance of TV as a platform yet it is the one least accessible to independent media.
However, conventional assumptions that the established media simply hand down news, commentary and analysis have changed and that surely calls for creative approaches in disseminating a wider range of views.
The growth of new media is helping but, at present, having access only to online media leaves non-establishment news outlets and commentators at a marked disadvantage, particularly in terms of reaching older people.
Figures for 2015 from the Office of National Statistics showed that three-quarters of people under the age of 45 read online news, newspapers or magazines, but that number starts to drop dramatically in the older demographics with 63% of people aged 45-54, 53% of those aged 55-64 and just 32% of those aged 65 or older.
And yet turnout in the independence referendum was highest for over 55s – 92% according to the Electoral Commission (p.64), with the highest percentage of No voters being found in the age groups of 60 or older.
It is worth noting that other figures from the ONS show that 14% of people in the UK still do not have internet access at all.
These statistics are significant. While the democratic aspiration that 100% of people should have access to all relevant information is unlikely ever to be achieved, those disconnected from the full debate would have had the potential to profoundly affect the outcome of a vote in which a 5% swing would have delivered a different result.
So how do we in any way redress the imbalance? Devolve control of the BBC to bring it directly under the direction of the Scottish Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs?
That would be problematic, not least as any attempt to divide the BBC would immediately be seen as an attack on the state broadcaster and any suggestion of realigning the sources of influence would be viewed in many circles as imposing political interference, rather than ensuring balance.
There have been some suggestions that Scotland should have its own state broadcaster but that option is equally fraught with difficulties. Apart from the sheer cost of setting up and maintaining such an organisation, there would be the vexed issue of funding.
It is highly unlikely that the Scottish people would welcome a second TV licence or an increased licence fee to support two state broadcasters and equally unlikely that a partial reallocation of the current fees would take place.
Direct funding from government would surely be a non-starter due, primarily to its expense, but also to the fact that where there is a single source of funding, the threat of withdrawing it is invariably seen as undue influence on editorial integrity.
And it is difficult to see how a commercially funded broadcaster would offer anything different to the existing STV.
There is, though, another existing option that is discussed relatively infrequently but may be ready to come into its own – Public Access Broadcasting.
Long the inspiration for comedies such as Wayne’s World, public access TV has allowed citizens in the US to use the cable network (strictly speaking, narrowcast) to air their own shows and began before digital broadcasting allowed for a proliferation of channels transmitted over the airwaves.
It has often been seen as the preserve of hobbyists, cranks, zealots, extremists and egotists longing to bring their niche ideas to a largely disinterested audience. In that, it is not unlike internet publishing.
However, I believe the conditions now exist to consider a form of public access broadcasting as a viable way of presenting alternative perspectives to those demographic sectors that are still largely disengaged with new media. And quite simply bring independent media to the TV screen.
Firstly, the talent is out there. Recent years have seen the costs and technological barriers to creating broadcastable content diminish and thousands of students have gained at least some experience of programme-making during their studies.
As well as the independent media that have come to the fore during the referendum discussions, most print news titles are now at least dabbling in some form of video through their own websites and/or Youtube channels.
These titles already have journalists with the training and editorial experience to distil complex information into an easily communicable form.
They are, however, still restricted to the online audience, which fails to fully address the issue of outreach and can act as a disincentive to media companies to invest in an area of output that is still not considered central to their mission.
Even the established titles with multi-million-pound revenues, are inhibited when it comes to investment in an area which they may feel they should be exploring but which offers no guaranteed return.
The type of public access platform I would advocate – at least partially funded by the Scottish government – would offer the potential for established print media titles as well as true independents the opportunity to bring their messages to front rooms across the country, requiring the familiar technology of a television and a remote control.
There would be some immediate questions – and funding is an ever-present – but a public access model need not mean conflict between finance and editorial integrity as the awarding of broadcast slots could be decided by an independent body overseen by an ombudsman.
The body would consider such issues as public interest, diversity/offering a platform to under-represented views or cultural groups, demonstrable ability to provide quality content, as well as evidence of public demand.
An established website or group with a viable plan to contribute regular, varied content of a high quality, for example, could apply for a regular slot. Individuals or small groups could apply for one-off slots for single programmes and films.
The commitment from government would be chiefly to provide facilitation, training and support.
Facilitation would include the technical broadcast mechanism, which would not be problematic given that digital broadcasting allows for a multiplicity of channels and would likely be licensed out to the private sector. Facilitation would also extend to, crucially, training in the essentials of media law such as copyright, contempt of court, defamation, etc. However, some editing and production support would also be desirable in order to improve output and assist in making the service accessible to broadcasting novices.
The third main area of facilitation would be in the form of access to studio facilities, where needed, as well as cameras, sound equipment, editing suites, etc.
There would, naturally, also be concerns about content. Do we really want the aforementioned cranks, including bigots and assorted pedlars of hatred to pollute our digital airwaves?
Well, firstly, I would argue that we do need to hear from the extremes of the left field, as giving people a chance to put a case is precisely what the diversification and democratisation of the media seeks to achieve.
It is not so long ago – 1999, in fact – since indymedia started, something that was often thought of as “very niche” amongst mainstream circles. However, it is now far more widely recognised as an imaginative project that gave voice to many people who were simply unheard prior to its existence.
Go further back and you could cite the incredulous mainstream reaction to Ken Livingstone and the “loony left” with their equality agenda that would go on to define what we now consider to be mainstream progressive politics.
Certainly, there would be disquiet about some groups having access to TV sets but every programme would have to abide by Ofcom standards, which would offer some protection against the worst excesses that might be anticipated.
The other side of the coin is that there would be the prospect of flicking channels after Reporting Scotland to programmes by Newsnet, Bella Caledonia, the Common Space or Wings Over Scotland, offering immediate reactions and more considered analysis of news stories of interest.
And, of course, this would not be restricted to social or political comment. Cultural diversity in all its forms could be given a public airing, representing communities and artistic groups that often struggle to find the chance to tell people they are out there.
The experience of the Scottish independence and European Union referendums has highlighted the fact that there was an overwhelming media imbalance in the reporting and discussion of the most vital facts.
It is also surely beyond dispute that, when voters are to make a decision based on complex information, the withholding or misreporting of facts, artificially “weighting” coverage of the argument or holding opposing sides to differing standards of analysis is not just bad journalism – it is a subversion of the democratic process.
It seems to me a wholly appropriate function of government to assist its own people in having their opinions heard on matters that affect the whole country.
In my opinion, some form of public access model could unmute the voices of those to whom the current system acts as a barrier to access and provide balance where there is currently at least a perception of unfairness.
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