In the first of a two-part series, Christopher Silver discusses the implications of the Scottish Six which the BBC is considering as a solution for TV News north of the Border
When the debate about the Scottish Six first kicked off in 1997 I was still at primary school. Remarkably it’s taken 18 years for us to get within touching distance of the flagship nightly news programme.
The reasons for this drawn out process are not really about the practicalities of production or squaring the theoretical Sixwith the demands of the wider BBC network.
Rather, they’re about an assessment of whether the whole exercise would be worthwhile. But also about how Scotland sees itself in relation to the rest of Britain.
This legendary and potent Scottish hour of news has been a strange proxy for the kind of cultural and constitutional debates that have defined Scottish politics for decades. Partly because the BBC moves at a glacial pace when it comes to contentious issues, the debate about the Six has become part of a wider debate about Scotland’s self-image.
Much of the delay is down to one of the original protagonists. When it was first mooted, the concept of the Six was met with outright horror by the then BBC Director General John Birt, who did everything in his power to ensure broadcasting was reserved to Westminster — despite the fact that many prominent Labour figures — including Donald Dewar, had thought it would fit within the remit of the new parliament.
In his memoir Birt was explicit about his deeply political his motives for preventing the Six:
“I argued that we were one of the few institutions which bound Britain together. BBC news was iconic. Opting out of the Six would be a powerful symbol of Scotland moving away from UK-wide institutions. Scottish viewers would be deprived of UK-wide and international news that formed the common knowledge underpinning a UK-wide democratic system. The end of a single, common experience of UK news, would, moreover, encourage separatist tendencies.”
Despite this view from the upper echelons of the BBC, there was a broad consensus within Scotland that favoured the move. With devolution on the cards it was understood as a necessary step that naturally aligned with the revival of Scottish democracy. Yet much like the Scottish Government’s Broadcasting Commission of 2008, cross-party support in Scotland was not the issue — it was the view from London that was intransigent.
However, while we may disagree with Birt’s unionism, he does have a point. A particular idea of Britishness is fundamental to the BBC. Because broadcasting emerged in the early 20th century — the era in which Britain became a highly centralised, unitary state — the BBC carries the stamp of those times in its DNA.
Promoting British culture and bringing the nation together remains a key part of the BBC’s remit. Landmark moments in history — the general strike, the abdication, the wartime struggle, the coronation — went hand in hand with the development of broadcasting technology, culture and the BBC’s distinctive ethos. Britain was made on the airwaves, in London, naturally.
All of this considered, it’s not surprising that when the beeb first set up shop in Scotland signals of anxiety about Scottish nationalism did not take long to register. The removal of the first Scottish Regional Director David Clegorn Thomson in 1932 was an early example. Four decades later the needless sidelining of the maverick Alistair Hetherington — when he proposed a far more autonomous BBC in Scotland — hammered this message home.
Lord Puttnam’s backing for the Six, alongside the seal of approval from the Culture and Media Select Committee, has gone some way to reverse this trend. The logical case for devolving more television news under devolution seems to have won out.
Yet partly because the constitutional question has moved on so rapidly, the cultural elements of Britishness have become more salient. As the political capital of unionism wanes, the cultural ties that bind the union are guarded all the more jealously by some. As a result reactionary responses to this move have not been in short supply.
For the Scottish Conservatives culture spokesperson Jackson Carlaw the programme could have sinister consequences, noting, “Nationalists will very much see this as an opportunity to shove propaganda down the throats of a dinner-time viewing public north of the border.” In a similar vein Tory MSP Brian Monteith, clearly still thinking in analogue, claimed, “It’s actually a form of censorship to make you feel less British”. The Mail responded with a story about an ex-BBC lawyer who claimed that the Scottish Six would offer an opportunity for the SNP “to interfere with the editorial independence of the BBC”. He didn’t explain how.
David Torrance’s input has now become lost in a row about the deletion of his twitter account (did he flounce or was he pushed?) but there’s something remarkable about the idea that any Scottish journalist would not welcome an expansion of current affairs coverage in Scotland. Not least because it is a move that would demand a re-injection of staff and resources into Pacific Quay at a time when the BBC in Scotland is still reeling from successive waves of cuts.
These responses, to what ought to be a relatively mundane issue, reminds us just how significant debates about the media have become. The world of politics and decision making is, in a sense, less salient than the media and culture we consume. These issues are strangely more political than politics itself, precisely because they have the capacity to frame the basic perspectives and assumptions that underpin public life.
Perhaps the trolling about SNP propaganda and censorship masks something that the Six’s detractors are not quite prepared to admit to — that they believe news from a parochial backwater will be inferior by definition. At the other end of the spectrum there are those so outraged at the BBC’s craven complicity with the British establishment that even the testcard must be checked for signs of coded unionist propaganda.
Focusing on the extremes can allow us to forget that, however moderate or reasonable our intent, we can’t escape this ‘binary’ Scotland. We can’t sit outside the deeper cultural divisions, even if we’d like to and even if we freely associate with folk on both sides. This is all part of a wider culture war being fought around the question of what Scotland is. In this sense, what happens to the Scottish media is a far more existential question than you might think.
Nations are essentially communicative spaces and the rise of the nation state was premised on the development of mass media. Producing and consuming media is a daily representative task that allows people who will never meet each other to develop a sense that they share something in common. Who would want to live in a nation incapable, or unwilling, to perform this task?
But perhaps in an era when nations are becoming more fragmented anyway, the old idea of the broadcaster in a clearly defined centre transmitting its content to passive “regions” is obsolete. As new tribes, movements and identities spring up with uncanny alacrity online, the advantages of being concentrated in a capital city and close to the corridors of power are starting to feel compromised, detached and (whisper it) less current. The Six could be an opportunity to innovate.
Meanwhile, the partisan sparring, twitter storms and op-eds about twitter storms that we’ve seen in the wake of this announcement remind us that the great divide in Scotland is not so much constitutional as cultural.
For a section of the Scottish commentariat, twitter based antics are becoming the standardised cycle for coping with every potent question —invariably ending in the same calls for a better, less tribal debate. But the only way to deal with the ugly side of social media is to get people off it — via links to more informed, discursive and credible media.
The only way out of this cultural stalemate is to establish a greater bandwidth of debate and coverage that is focused on Scotland. Inevitably this will require a massive culture shift within BBC Scotland itself, with its seemingly chronic failure to innovate or invest in Scotland. But perhaps, with this long waited hour of news on the horizon, we’re starting to see the first signs of movement — of a shift in perspective.
Coming soon: Maurice Smith discusses the practicalities of a Scottish Six and argues that expectations of a politicised news programme are misplaced.