by Paul Kavanagh
What does Catalunya have six of, Galicia has four, Bavaria has seven and the Basque Country five? The Frisians of the Netherlands are quite modest, they manage with just one. Even Gagauzia – an autonomous region within the impoverished republic of Moldova, a tiny speck of a nation in the poorest corner of the poorest country in Europe – they’ve got one too.
What am I referring to? Publicly owned TV channels. Scotland has but one, BBC Alba. Although BBC Alba is an excellent channel which makes a fair fist of scant resources, it does not broadcast 24 hours a day, it is limited in its budget and it broadcasts in a language understood by less than 2% of the population.
Getting the channel established required a lot of political pleading and an Act of Parliament – the Westminster Parliament not the Scottish one. And even then it was only achieved because the British government was obliged to create a Gaelic channel due to international European treaty obligations. Broadcasting, even in Gaelic, is a reserved matter for Westminster. It must be because broadcasting in the Gaelic language in Scotland is a controversial topic amongst members of the North Dorset Conservative Women’s Club (motto: Jam, Jerusalem and Dìmeas*).
BBC Alba has been on the air for over 2 years now, but still can’t be received on the Freeview platform used by the vast majority of digital TV viewers in Scotland, though after many unmet promises and false starts by the BBC that may change soon. Or so we’ve been promised again.
For the Scots language the situation is even worse. Apart from bits of dialogue in the occasional comedy series, there is effectively no broadcasting in the language at all, though the print media is scarcely any better in this regard.
Yet this is not an issue about minoritised languages and this article is not a plea for better treatment for Gaelic or Scots. This issue is profoundly important to Scotland as a whole, whatever language we speak. Scotland does not have a national TV channel broadcasting to the entire nation in a language most of us can understand.
The absence of Scottish English language public broadcasting sticks out like a sore thumb when Scotland is compared to other European nations which are a part of a larger state. No other self-governing nation or polity in Europe is denied its own TV channel broadcasting in the language which the majority of its citizens actually use in their daily lives. Except in Italy, where Mr Berlusconi with his vast media empire and his questionable political ethics is strangely reluctant to permit the establishment of a Sardinian TV channel.
And that’s where we are. Scotland’s broadcasting is run by Berlusconi Mini-Me’s. All we’re missing are the nude newsreaders, although the thought of Glenn Campbell naked is a distressing mental image and I need to go have a wee lie down in a darkened room to recover. The Berlusconi Broadcasting Corporation denies Scotland any control over broadcasting. It’s something too dangerous for us to touch. We might break it or something.
So while the Catalans have their very own 24 hour news channel, where issues which arise in Catalan elections can be fully aired, discussed and debated, we get Reporting Scotland where Scottish election issues get squeezed amongst local stories, couthy tales of returning ospreys, reports on the latest murrdurr, and of course a whole lot of fitba. This repast is delivered to us at dinner time, just after we’ve been invited to tuck into a lengthy discussion of education policy in England which occupied one third of the supposedly ‘national’ news.
Now don’t get me wrong, the issue of education in England is of vital importance, for viewers in England. But for viewers in Scotland it has about as much interest as indoor bowling from Coatbridge. And is probably less directly relevant.
Once the ‘national’ news is finished, viewers in England get a half hour news programme from their local region. They hear about goings on in local councils, proposals for new bus services in Cambridge, or sea-defences in Lowestoft. Then there are usually a few minutes devoted to the challenges and successes of local sports teams.
Reporting Scotland is supposed to be doing all that too. It’s supposed to be our ‘regional segment’. But the whole of Scotland is a region when seen through the distant and glazed eyes of the London media metropolitariat. People from Aberdeen or Inverness don’t need to hear their own local news, they can watch Reporting Scotland tell them about the Central Belt instead.
Yet at the same time Reporting Scotland is supposed to be reporting on Scotland as a nation, a nation which is currently in the middle of an election campaign. Reporting Scotland is meant to fulfill two conflicting roles, and like a Janus-headed beast facing two opposing directions simultaneously. Pulling that off successfully would be no mean trick, and one I suspect that would lie beyond the talents of BBC Scotland’s managers no matter how well we paid them.
But caught between the impossible demand from bosses in London to be a regional programme, and the reality of Scotland as a diverse nation containing its own regional differences with its own parliament, legal system, health service, educational system and its own sporting leagues, Reporting Scotland just gives up the ghost. It retreats into a cosy journalistic Alice in Wonderland, the topsy turvy world of BBC Scotlandshire. Without any democratic responsibility to its viewers, without being answerable to any elected Scottish body, cronyism and links to certain political parties who shall remain nameless (Labour! Labour!) rule the day and determine the scheduling. It all becomes a merry go round of back scratching and favours for the boys. The news becomes the non-news, current affairs become the affairs that interest the cliques who run the show. There’s no one to keep them in check. The flagship news programme for the BBC in Scotland morphs into a live action version of the Daily Record without the satellite telly listings, the only useful part of the paper.
Anyone outside the clique is treated with immense suspicion. Take Newsnet, it works hard to present alternative Scottish perspectives on domestic news, tells the international news from a Scottish point of view, carries pieces on the economy, culture and sports. The editors go to immense pains to ensure all content is legal and decent. But mention of this site on the BBC’s blogs and forums is banned. You can link to the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Hootsmon or the Here-Lad, but not here. This is a spam site according to the Beeb. I’m not discussing broadcasting in Scotland, I’m really trying to sell you Viagra.
As a election which is crucial to the future of Scotland approaches, the effects of Scotland’s lack of control of broadcasting became starkly apparent. There is no national forum for debate, discussion and the broadcasting of information, information which is essential for voters to make an informed choice. You’d hardly be paranoid if you began to wonder whether some people don’t want us to make informed choices at all. Perhaps the same people who tell us Scots aren’t bright or aware enough to be independent.
There is still little public demand for Scottish control of broadcasting. Yet it’s an issue of fundamental importance. But it’s hardly surprising there is little public demand when the media takes great care to ensure the issue of the media itself won’t become a public issue. It’s not in the interests of BBC Scotland to broadcast a programme entitled BBC Scotland: It’s really pretty rubbish isn’t it. That’s not what the editors at luncheon meetings with the high heid yins on the council Labour group want us to discuss.
Where there is no means for a society to engage with itself as a society, there can be no democracy. Where there is no public and democratically accountable control of broadcasting, there can be no freedom of information. It really is that simple, that stark.
A proposed separate Scottish hour long six o’clock news programme on BBC1 was a modest initiative which was rejected by the BBC as unworkable. Yet as proposals go it was way too modest. It was modest to the point of self-effacing cringery. At the very minimum Scotland should have four national channels, one in English, Gaelic and Scots, plus a 24 hour news channel broadcasting mainly in English. And these channels should be directly responsible to and overseen by the Scottish Parliament, which should also oversee private broadcasters which operate on Scottish territory.
This should not be a place to start negotiations from, it should be an absolute minimum demand. It’s what citizens of any self-governing nation expect as their right and as their due. We pay for public broadcasting. That broadcasting should be a reflection of us as a society, not the distorted looking glass of distant mandarins.
If Catalans can manage it, if 150,000 Gagauzi in the poorest corner of Europe are able to cope, then there can be no practical barriers to prevent it. The barriers are political, the refusal of Unionist parties to surrender any democratic control to the Scottish people.
Because deep down in their heart of hearts, they know that if we are allowed to inform ourselves, we might start to ask them difficult questions. If you don’t ask you don’t get, and now, at election time, it’s time we started asking.
*dìmeas : pronounced roughly ‘jeemuss’, Sc. Gaelic for ‘disrespect, contempt’.