Derek Bateman on the BBC’s deliberations over the future of its TV news efforts in Scotland
Ah, the Scottish Six of fond memory. In the 90’s a group of us presenters were actively encouraged by the management at Queen Margaret Drive to campaign for it…John Milne, Ruth Wishart, Lesley Riddoch, myself and others appended our names. Against all BBC rules on impartiality and contractual clauses barring us from publicly commenting on corporation affairs, we were given the nod to write to the papers and point out the advantages of a Glasgow-based national and international news service. I was even allowed to pen a column for…the Daily Record. Mind you, it was still a proper paper in those days.
Pilots were done and the momentum in Scotland was powerful. But, surprise, London was opposed and, as ever, Scotland got what London wanted.
Mind you, even then we didn’t minimise the obstacles. Whatever looks right in principle still needs practical steps to make it work. It will be just as difficult today as it was in the nineties. Just because the management sign up to an idea doesn’t mean they know how to make it happen.
At every level in the BBC there are drones working out ways to stop things happening. Each department will find some reason to resist and reports objecting will be models of obscurantism requiring an Enigma code-breaker to decipher. If the clipboard jockeys in the darker recesses of the BBC don’t want to know…well, they didn’t know about Jimmy Savile, now did they?
The first thing that strikes me about this plan is the programme duration. A full hour is a huge commitment five nights a week requiring a complete re-working of the reporting model. Instead of two-minute packaged reports, the need will be for longer more discursive pieces with more detailed content flagging up the implications in the story to allow a studio-based interview to follow, either a two-way with the reporter or a relevant outside guest. That in itself is new because you rarely, if ever, see a live guest in the Reporting Scotland studio. That also means presenters conducting actual challenging interviews of an articulate (and possibly obfuscating) guest rather than reading pre-arranged questions lobbed to a Brian Taylor. (Most two-way interviews with news correspondents are basically questions written by the correspondent to make them look like interviews when in fact the whole report is scripted in advance.)
A 60-minute programme – without Channel 4’s commercial breaks – requires a skip-load of content. FMQs ain’t going to do it and neither is the Economy, Energy and Tourism committee at Holyrood. Political coverage, which will provide a staple of content, will need much more explanation and narrative linkage to Brussels, London and Edinburgh, so Holyrood is put in its proper perspective instead of popping up in bite-size segments seemingly unconnected to the wider world.
We will require the services of a genuine Rottweiler or at least an ankle-biting Highland Terrier of an interviewer with the detailed knowledge that was once the on-air preserve of Mr Mcwhirter. Talk of Brussels…there has been no BBC Scotland presence there for a decade and more. The last correspondent would be John Morrison whose sojourn was financially justified by the happy coincidence that he spoke Gaelic and therefore the language fund could be accessed. The BBC has got away for too long with ignoring Brussels as if Scotland had no direct connection to the European institutions – a shameful neglect that also meant no Scotland-based staff have been designated Europe watchers learning the EU ropes to inform Pacific Quay journalism.
This in turn opens another Pandora’s Box – will BBC network correspondents co-operate? Where Scotland has no presence on the ground – say in a foreign capital – BBC staff already serving there will be expected to produce for Glasgow. This is the point at which you realise what the corporation’s priorities are. In ascending order the duty of a correspondent is to 1) serve London 2) serve London and 3) serve London. ‘Network’ overrides everything else in all circumstances. The centralisation is eye-opening to any ingénue who imagines this is a truly British Broadcasting Corporation. London holds all and every lever. It gets first call on any correspondent, any story, any available service. Regional outposts like treated as backwaters. You want an interview with a BBC correspondent for your local programme? Form an orderly queue. Sorry, Glasgow, you’re behind Radio Suffolk and Radio Dorset.
That’s how it’s worked in radio which has always had a transnational and international remit, unlike television which is charged with reporting Scottish affairs only – until now. To be fair, correspondents are under a heavy strain as they are serving BBC outlets and many will give short shrift to requests for a separate item for Scotland. Many stories of course don’t actually have a need for a different treatment for Scots and can be taken straight from network – not too many though, otherwise what’s the point of a separate programme?
A lot can be shovelled in towards the end of a programme basically to pad it out. The really important part is the top where a heavy and meaningful item is needed each night. This is where judgment and planning come in. People working off diary, researching and constructing their own news material – breaking stories! – is a key source of lead items but only the small investigations team at PQ really has that experience. In addition pre-shooting needs camera crews dedicated to the job, not being diverted by a news desk panicking about a breaking story that day. BBC Scotland got rid of camera crews to save money just two years ago.
They will have to learn too the craft of building a news item into a story by exploring its ramifications, something you’re more likely to hear on weekend radio than a tea- time telly show with brief items of an intro and a she-says-he-says series of clips. This is something the new Head of News is well-placed to know about having done the job for network.
All this of course should lead to better journalism, new faces, more resources and an informed audience. The early omens are not good because what they need more than anything is a willing and enthusiastic staff. In fact they are already rebelling, incensed at the PQ management’s hallmark approach of failing to consult. Instead of working out the plans with the journalists, as ever they didn’t trust them with the information and then sprung a rush to produce a pilot show on them. No wonder they’re weary.
Two final points. Will a tea-time audience really watch a single hour-long news programme? Same presenters throughout? It will need some bells and whistles to hold ‘em for sixty minutes.
And, to the parochial-minded, moaning that Scots can’t produce a proper programme says more about you than BBC journalism. One reason why the current output is poor by comparison is resourcing. Another is the very agenda you complain about – television has no remit to cover anything outside Scotland. Like Scotland itself, Scottish journalism will grow with its independence.