Scottish Six: Success will be when it seems ‘normal’ and we take it for granted

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Here is the News: The BBC is likely to launch a so-called “Scottish Six” TV news service, presenting Scottish, UK and international coverage from its Glasgow studio.

Here is the reality: The Scottish Six is most likely the belated answer to a 17 year old question. What a pity the whole concept has become so political.

Maurice Smith
Maurice Smith

In today’s fevered, post-referendum environment, the “Scottish Six” has become much more controversial than it should be. Ironically, the BBC’s critics on both sides – pro Union and pro independence – include elements who respond to the concept by sneering at BBC Scotland’s ability to deliver the programme. They are both wrong to do so, and guilty of the very “kailyard’ mentality that both deride, although for different reasons.

Firstly, what is a “Scottish Six”? Basically it involves taking the 60 minutes between 6-7pm on weekdays and turning it on its head. Traditionally, the “Six” – Big Brother of BBC News services – presents what used to be known as the “main national” news from London, and in the portentous terms associated with “big” BBC News programming.

While less self-important than the “Ten”, which tends to include more international coverage, the “Six” focuses more on “national” news, focused on the UK. So we are served a familiar fare of crime, court cases, government policy, home and social affairs, and sport.

For years this was the bread-and-butter of BBC News. It was how we got our news. Followed in the case of Scotland by Reporting Scotland, which repeated similar content for 30 minutes at 6.30pm. For many years, RepScot was a programme of substance, BBC Scotland’s “flagship”, before the BBC broadened its general activities to cover the 24-hour news cycle. The programme has come to resemble a 30-minute bulletin, rather than a well-produced and planned national news magazine.

Since 1999 and the creation of the Scottish Parliament and other devolved elements in Cardiff and Belfast, the concept of a UK-national “Six” has become less and less relevant. Despite assurances to the contrary, the “national” news can still devote considerable coverage to health and education matters that no longer include Scotland. Whereas the programme’s devotion to mainly-English sports interests such as cricket or the England football team used to be derided here, now leading news headlines might concern the junior doctors’ strike or the free schools’ controversy, neither of them of relevance north of the Border.

NEWS WHERE YOU ARE

There is also the issue of tone. The BBC’s “solution”, where it hands over at 6.30pm to “the news where you are” in the patronising language lampooned brilliantly by writer James Robertson.

The truth is that – while people in Scotland are rightly concerned with the impact of second-level status accorded to Scottish news – the status quo does little for viewers anywhere in the UK. If there is a major development in the doctors’ dispute then of course it should be high up on the news agenda for viewers in Newcastle, Leeds, Bristol and anywhere else where those doctors are going on strike. So the answer is not necessarily to remove it from the agenda or wait until Look North, Newsroom South-east or any of the other RepScot equivalents south of the border.

The shame is that in its metropolitan complacency the BBC allowed the “Scottish Six” issue to become so politicised. When it was first proposed seriously in 1999 by the then Broadcasting Council for Scotland, it was presented – rightly – as an inevitable response to devolution. Those very arguments about the irrelevance of covering devolved issues like health and education from a London angle seemed obvious to everyone except the highly-centralised BBC.

John Birt’s risible and petty over-reaction – calling in the help of Prime Minister Tony Blair, no less – was appalling. In a comment which underlines just how self-important the corporation can be at times, he claimed that the Scottish Six could lead to “the break-up of the BBC”. The rhetoric about the corporation’s public-service role does ring hollow at times as senior executives fantasise about their role as part of the very fabric of the UK.

Lord Birt: Risible
Lord Birt: Risible

There were many moments after Birt’s demise as D-G when the BBC might have quietly gone ahead with the “Scottish Six”, but those opportunities passed them by. The emphasis instead has been on producing increasingly-homogenised news of the “never mind the quality, feel the width” kind, where journalists spend more time feeding content across radio, TV and online, rather than having the time to create better-produced broadcast news. The concept of Reporting Scotland or radio’s Good Morning Scotland as “flagship” programming wears thin when both clearly lack production depth, a situation not helped by budget cuts and redundancies, some of which have been handled poorly.

EDITORIAL REASONS

The corporation’s inaction has led to the situation today. With the SNP firmly in power at Holyrood, and ascendant at Westminster, traditional BBC allies within the Labour establishment have evaporated. Last week’s publication of the Commons’ culture committee of MPs, supporting a Scottish Six, now makes it look like the BBC is being forced to implement the programme by politicians. This is not ideal – any major programming decision should be made for good editorial and audience reasons rather than because a group of MPs support it.

Let us examine what a Scottish Six might actually look like. First of all, this is a solution that can easily be introduced, mainly because the BBC has access to massive national and international resources. The corporation employs thousands of journalists and maintains a network of producers and correspondents worldwide.

A Scottish based editor would enjoy access to those resources. The difference with a Scottish Six is that he or she will be able to select from them to produce a nightly news hour that contains a mix of Scottish, UK and international news that is more relevant to an audience north of the Border.

This means that if a mass shooting in a US school, a terrorist blast in the Middle East or a big row in the Commons is the major news of the day, it can still lead the news. But it also means that on another day the NHS budget in Scotland, job losses in offshore oil or a major incident in Greenock might also lead the news.

That is how the BBC News at Six is managed from London right now. A Scottish editor could access packaged reports via the same file server as any other BBC executive. Similarly, correspondents from Manchester to Belfast, Melbourne to Los Angeles could be accessed, commissioned or interviewed using technology that is used by BBC News every minute of the day right now. The question is whether BBC News has the will to do this, and in the process devolve a little more decision-making beyond London and its satellite in Salford.

TECHNOLOGY AND TALENT

BBC News can do this right now, simply by re-allocating its budgets. It has the technology and the talent to produce a very good Scottish Six. From a practical perspective it need only view the new programme as a new additional service, in the same light as anything on the BBC News channel, or other News & Current Affairs output.

Instead, the BBC has created a situation where it looks like it will be forced into “conceding” a Scottish Six. The perception that this is a political decision will be difficult to escape. The SNP’s critics see this as a major concession to a Holyrood administration that will use it to bully the BBC, a scenario which the corporation should be well-equipped to handle and also one which is frankly no different from the current relationship it has with Westminster.

Gary Smith: BBC Scotland's new Head of News & Current Affairs, has been running various "Scottish Six" pilots
Gary Smith: BBC Scotland’s new Head of News & Current Affairs, has been running various “Scottish Six” pilots

SNP supporters say the current BBC Scotland set-up couldn’t possibly deliver a decent Scottish Six, a criticism which is inaccurate and even insulting to journalists working there. First of all, a BBC News decision would mean that resources and people will be switched to the programme. Secondly, is the Scottish “cringe” so great that people believe journalists here cannot work to the standard of their counterparts in London?

Make no mistake, presenters Jackie Bird and Sally Magnusson have the experience and professionalism to give us a “proper” national and international news, just as Hew Edwards or Fiona Bruce do so now. Critics here mistake the type of news being covered – unadventurous, at times parochial and dwelling heavily on crime and car crashes – with the abilities of the individuals involved. This is an argument of resources, not ability.

Bluntly, some critics attack BBC Scotland’s news output because they do not like it, which is a different argument completely and should not shroud the strong editorial and political – with a small “p” – reasons for a Scottish Six.

FINANCIAL PRIZES

I hope the BBC finally takes the plunge and approves a Scottish Six. More so, I hope it does from a positive perspective, and does not present this as some major financial concession, or that such a decision should meet long-running complaints about its overall spending in Scotland. These are separate arguments from the question of news journalism.

There are bigger financial prizes to be wrung from the BBC – some of them implied in director-general Tony Hall’s important memorandum to the Scottish Government, which was published when the BBC won an 11-year Royal Charter and an extension of the licence fee. Proper spending beyond News could create many jobs and sustain and increase TV production in Scotland as well as improving output in drama and comedy, for example.

A successful Scottish Six would finally reflect the true impact of devolution, albeit many years late. If  delivered well, it could provide an effective solution to some of the BBC’s long-running problems in Scotland, where the audience needs convincing that the corporation’s news and current affairs output actually reflects their lives and concerns.

If it works well, it could quickly become the “norm” for teatime television. With luck we’ll be left wondering why it took so long to happen, and what all the fuss was about.

Maurice Smith is an independent TV producer who was formerly business editor of BBC Scotland for 11 years. He contributes to various newspapers and produces the Newsnet.scot podcast.