The hidden story of Scottish television – Scotland’s broadcasting malaise: Part I


Kenneth Roy

On 26 July 2005, a BBC Scotland executive, Donald-Iain Brown, who was appointed ‘head of talent and change’ later that year, took his car the short distance from Queen Margaret Drive to One Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow, for a management ‘awayday’ and charged his employer mileage of 36p, from which we can assume that there was no change.     
     I mention this insignificant occurrence for two reasons.
     First, it clears up the minor mystery, first pondered in this column a fortnight ago, of where BBC Scotland executives go when they embark on an ‘awayday’. The answer is: not far. Clearly, however, these are people of some discrimination, for One Devonshire Gardens, now part of the Hotel du Vin chain, is a stylish hotel of international reputation. I was once entertained to lunch there by the daughter of Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, and we discussed among other things her father’s Calvinist rectitude. Whether Reith would have approved of ‘awaydays’ must remain a matter of conjecture, although even he might not have quibbled at the rather modest mileage claim of the man who was soon to become the head of talent and change.
     Second, 2005 is perhaps of some symbolic interest as the year when broadcasting in Scotland started to go down the proverbial tube. I am about to produce a string of statistics. But bear with me: they tell an astonishing story.

In summary – the spend on these programmes by our two national broadcasters has fallen by 30% in five years.

     The previous year, BBC Scotland and STV had between them spent £72m on bread-and-butter television programmes – the English-language programmes made for viewers in Scotland, excluding the showier material intended for network consumption. But in 2005, the budget for this core programming suddenly dropped to £65m – an unexplained fall of 10% in one year.
     It is tempting to speculate that this disturbing development was raised at the ‘awayday’, if only as an hors d’oeuvre. If it was, very little seems to have been done to correct the aberration, which duly became a trend, as uncorrected aberrations often do. After smaller reductions in expenditure in the following two years, there was another precipitous drop in the first full year of the SNP administration, 2008, when BBC Scotland and STV’s combined spend on English-language television for Scottish viewers fell from £61m to £49m – a decline of 20% in a single year. Last year, it nosed marginally upwards to £50m.
     In summary – the spend on these programmes by our two national broadcasters has fallen by 30% in five years.
     This fact, no doubt shocking to many, is little known and I have never seen it commented upon. Indeed it would probably not have come to light at all had it not been for an obscure Ofcom analysis of Scottish broadcasting where the incriminating figures are buried among the small print. It has been brought to SR’s attention by a broadcasting insider who wishes to remain anonymous – for the usual reasons of self-protection. Not that there is much protection in the first place, given these devastating stats.
     For a long time, critics of Scotland’s television output have depended on personal observation and impression. My own impression is that there has been a marked decline in the output of current affairs, the area that interests me most. Since the admirable ‘Frontline Scotland’ series was abandoned, investigative journalism has virtually disappeared from Scottish screens. Politics continues to be reported and discussed in its own slots, but nowhere as prominently as it was in the 1980s, long before devolution, when George Reid and I co-presented the weekly ‘Agenda’ live on Friday evenings at primetime. The challenging religious current affairs television pioneered by Ian Mackenzie, which opened questions of faith and ethics to a popular audience, has also vanished and Scotland is the poorer for it.

But there is a deeper dimension to this lamentable record. It has coincided with a period of fundamental reform in Scotland.

     Presumably a shedload of cash is devoted to the soap opera, ‘River City’, but very little to documentaries and features, once a source of professional satisfaction – and work – to gifted producers both staff and independent. As it happens, last night on BBC Scotland there was that rare thing, an opt-out from the network, for a 30-minute feature devoted to Jimmie Macgregor. What could have been a serious attempt to assess his role in the Scottish folk song revival, and his wider work for Scottish culture, turned out to be a luvvies’ night-in, complete with a gratuitous plug for the radio station (the BBC’s own Radio Scotland) from which Jimmie Macgregor was unaccountably dropped. If this self-congratulatory scissors and paste job is the best Scottish broadcasting can do, there really is no hope. Or is it simply that the people at BBC Scotland, deprived of opportunity, have got out of the way of producing well-crafted, intelligent features? I prefer the latter theory.
     As I say, once we depended on personal observation and impression. But now we have the graph of decline before us: the factual backcloth to what we are seeing, or rather not seeing, with our own eyes. It seems, in retrospect, barely credible that such a profound withdrawal of creative resources should have passed so little noticed. But there is a deeper dimension to this lamentable record. It has coincided with a period of fundamental reform in Scotland: the early years of the Scottish parliament, a perceptible mood of national self-assertion and renewal, growing dissatisfaction with the Labour establishment, the historic coming to power of the SNP. Yet, just as the Scottish people stirred from their prolonged slumber, our national broadcasters were being deprived of the budget to hold a mirror to our new society. How ironic is that?

Tomorrow part II of Scotland’s broadcasting malaise

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.