First Minister Sturgeon on the media and the future of the BBC

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Yes supporters protesting at BBC Scotland HQ last year

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addressed the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival on the future of the BBC tonight. Before turning to the BBC, she addressed the issues of the media more generally, and her own experience of the media — good and bad — in particular.

This was a wide-ranging speech, followed by an onstage interview with Guardian Editor in Chief Katherine Viner and an audience of delegates from the UK and international TV industry.

The First Minister firmly wouldn’t be drawn into the recently-revived controversy involving outgoing BBC political editor Nick Robinson and her predecessor Alex Salmond. Told by Viner that Salmond had remarked that he may no longer watch BBC TV, she joked: “Put some horse-racing on and I’m sure you’ll get him to watch!”

Sturgeon insisted that she had no preference when it comes to who might win the Labour leadership race, although she added that Jeremy Corbyn’s position had opened up debate in a very positive way. She said she was pleased that three parties in the Scottish Parliament have “strong women leaders” but added that there remains a long way to go in terms of full equality in politics, business and other walks of life.

Newsnet.scot has decided to run the First Minister’s formal speech in full (below) for the benefit of our readers, many of whom want real change at the BBC, an organisation she said she supported — including its funding model — but that she feels can “continue to improve”..

Guardian Media Edinburgh International Television Festival, Thursday 27 August

Nicola Sturgeon: Seeks a federal BBC
Nicola Sturgeon: Seeks a federal BBC

By Nicola Sturgeon MSP

There can’t be many events where the list of former speakers includes Vice President Al Gore, Professor Germaine Greer, Professor Brian Cox and Ant and Dec. It’s a distinguished and very eclectic list – and one which I’m delighted to add my name to.

I’m aware that the last few Alternative MacTaggarts have taken the form of interviews rather than speeches, so I want to make sure that we have a lot of time for questions tonight.

Later in my remarks, I’ll share some of my views on BBC Charter renewal and set out how the Scottish Government will contribute positively to that process. But before that, I thought it might be useful to offer some personal reflections on the media – and on broadcasting in particular – that are drawn from my own recent experiences.

I’ve been a politician in the public eye for 16 years now but over the last couple of years – as result of the global referendum coverage, becoming First Minister and most recently the general election campaign – there has been a dramatic increase in the level of media exposure and scrutiny that I experience.

Those years have also seen the continued growth of social media, which has changed the way that all of us – politicians, media and the public – communicate, interact, source and place stories.

That has taken place alongside a growing and long overdue focus on how the media represents who we are – in particular how women and other minority groups, as well as the different nations that comprise the multi-national UK are presented and represented.

All of that has and will continue to shape my views about the future of the media – in all its forms – and the challenges it faces.

Female voices were heard loud and clear during the referendum campaign
Female voices were heard loud and clear during the referendum campaign

Let me start with diversity – an issue close to my heart and one that I have some personal experience of.

For an industry that prides itself on being creative and innovate, an industry that is driven by new technology and the need to anticipate the changing values and tastes of its audiences, it genuinely surprises me how – dare I say it – old fashioned the media can sometimes feel. The portrayal of women is a case in point.

Challenging the sexist portrayal of women and increasing the presence of strong female role models, in all walks of life, is something I feel very strongly about.

One of the things that really moved me after becoming First Minister was how many women and girls said how much it meant to them personally to see a woman in the most senior political office in Scotland.

And when I see sexist media portrayals of public figures, I don’t get upset on my own behalf – I’ve become personally quite inured to it. But I do feel angry about the potential impact on women and young girls who might be driven away from pursuing a career in politics or public life because of it – and, unfortunately, I speak to many who are.

The fact is that what broadcasters and print journalists portray and say really matters. Even in this age of scepticism about the media, journalists are people who are listened to and who command respect.

And that brings with it great responsibility. And, of course, it goes beyond news and politics. Women make up 52 per cent of the population and yet twice as many men as women feature in TV programming.

Despite the successes of the Lionesses and athletes like Eilidh Child or Jessica Ennis Hill – women in sport receive far less coverage and prominence than their male counterparts.

Older female reporters have had to battle to stay on screen whilst their male equivalents hold premium presenting roles well past retirement age.

None of that is acceptable in 2015.

Young girls and women are entitled – just as much as men and boys are – to see positive, or rather fair, representations of themselves on screen.

And of course diversity issues don’t just relate to women. It’s more than a decade since Greg Dyke called the BBC hideously white, but just last year Tony Hall had to set new targets to increase the representation of racial minorities on screen and in management. The situation is improving, but the pace often seems to be glacial.

This recent New Statesman about 'childless" woman politicians dismayed many, include Nicola Sturgeon
This recent New Statesman about ‘childless” woman politicians dismayed many, include Nicola Sturgeon

What encourages me now is that the absence of women and lack of diversity on screen is being increasingly and often directly challenged by the viewing public.

I know when I’m asked questions in interviews about my appearance, or why I don’t have kids – in other words, questions that a male politician would almost certainly never be asked – there is often a reaction online. And when people make comments that might be considered inappropriate or sexist – or when women are completely absent from a TV discussion – viewers and readers are very likely to use social media to make their opinions known.

Indeed, that happened just this week, when an article by a serious journalist in a serious publication asked – apparently seriously – if Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall have the looks for leadership!

I have to admit, I was one of those who took to Twitter to complain about that particular article. Which takes me to the next of my observations – the rise of social media.

One of the really striking developments that politicians have had to address in recent years has been the connection between social media and traditional media – the way in which they both reinforce and challenge each other.

The power of Twitter

As it happens, I was quite a late convert to twitter. But now I can’t imagine doing my job as a politician without it. Since I started tweeting, I’ve sent more than 11,000 tweets – every single one typed and sent by me personally, I hasten to add – and I’ve received thousands more. The ability to communicate so directly and so quickly with so many people is hugely valuable.

It is also hugely empowering – it allows me, if I so choose, to bypass or, on occasion, challenge traditional media – to point out factual errors or misquotes or get messages out to people without having to wait for the broadcast news bulletins or the next day’s papers.

I certainly learned the value of that during the general election when the Telegraph carried the false allegation that I had told the French Ambassador that I wanted David Cameron to win the election.

Before Twitter, it would have taken hours for my rebuttal of that story, which was published late on a Friday night, to appear in print or on TV – and then, of course, it would have been up to the media what prominence it was given. Instead, within minutes of it breaking, people could read a tweet from me saying that it was 100% untrue.

And not long after that they saw on Twitter that the French Ambassador had also said it wasn’t true.

Though here I should give credit where it is due – although it was on Twitter that people read the ambassador’s response, it was actually a print journalist, a Guardian print journalist, no less, in the form of Sev Carrell, who put it there.

Sev used that old journalistic tactic of phoning up and asking – something the Telegraph never thought to do with me before publishing!

But that’s not the real point I’m making. The real point is that today – because of social media – there is a real chance that a lie won’t have got much beyond the end of the road before the truth has its boots on, tearing after it.

And that is a very good and healthy development. Indeed, perhaps it’s a more effective check and balance on the traditional media than any formal system of press regulation can ever be – and without the same concerns about erosion of press freedom.

So I am a big fan of the social media revolution. But there is a caveat. Just as for sensible politicians Twitter and Facebook will be no substitutes for face to face engagement with the public, nor should they be substitutes for proper news gathering by print or broadcast media. An over reliance by organisations on social media – as a source of easy stories – risks sacrificing some of the best traditions of news gathering and investigative journalism in Scotland and the UK. Traditional and social media should complement and reinforce, as well as challenge each other.

The final – and no doubt more controversial – set of personal reflections come from my experience of the referendum campaign and the role of the media – particularly the broadcast media – in covering it.

It might be worth saying that I don’t venture onto this ground without a degree of trepidation.

Firstly, I’m aware that I might sound like a politician complaining about coverage she didn’t like. That’s not my intention. I would hope that journalists who know me would concede that I don’t do that very often.

Yes campaign protesters at BBC Scotland HQ during the referendum campaign
Yes campaign protesters at BBC Scotland HQ during the referendum campaign

And, secondly, I know that some people might choose to interpret what I say as me accusing broadcasters – and, let’s be frank, the BBC in particular – of being biased in how they covered the referendum.

So let me be clear. I am not saying there was institutional bias in the BBC’s referendum output.

However, there were occasions when its coverage – through oversight, apparent ignorance of the detail of an issue or as a result of simply following the agenda of openly partisan print media – lapsed from the objective output the referendum deserved into what could seem partial and, at times, pejorative.

I don’t doubt the effort and integrity that went into the Corporation’s coverage. And, for the record, I think that the BBC, and BBC Scotland in particular, has some of the finest political journalists in the land. But that was undermined on occasion by those lapses, some of which have been recognised and flagged up by the BBC’s own internal processes subsequent to the vote.

Let me expand on two issues that I think were important.

The referendum was at its heart a choice of two different futures for Scotland – to become independent or stay in the UK. Both had consequences.

But there often seemed to be a significant imbalance in how those two futures – and the consequences that would flow from either Yes or No – were scrutinised.

Independence was heavily analysed – and rightly so. In fact, given that independence was the change option, I’d accept that it was appropriate for it to be the more scrutinised of the two propositions. But the status quo and the consequences of voting No were not really analysed at all.

For example, a news package looking at what might happen to state pensions if we voted Yes would be balanced by giving someone like me the chance to say that state pensions would be perfectly safe if Scotland became independent – instead of being balanced by counter analysis of what the value of state pensions might be in five years if we voted No and let Westminster continue to make the decisions.

That was often compounded by the fact that the daily agenda of broadcasters – and I think the BBC in particular – would often follow what was in the morning papers. And given that most papers were anti-independence, it would be the reports casting doubt on, for example, the security of pensions that made the splash. Any reports pointing to the erosion of pensions as a result of Westminster decisions would be buried deep inside.

So more often than not the attack on independence led the news coverage. The sense of overall balance would have been enhanced if news reports had more often been led by critical analysis of the status quo.

James Cook of the BBC
James Cook of the BBC

In fact, BBC Network’s James Cook, a hugely respected face of referendum coverage, reflected this point in an interview earlier this year when he said that while the Yes campaign was rightly questioned more and proposals for independence rightly put to the test, perhaps more could have been done to ask is it a good thing if we remain in the union.

My second point flows from what was best about the referendum – the extent to which people in Scotland became deeply engaged in the campaign and the sophistication of their knowledge and understanding.

By last summer voters in Scotland had a very detailed understanding of many of the big issues in the debate.

Highly technical discussions about optimal currency zones, lender of last resort arrangements or whether the EU treaties allowed for the expulsion of part of a member state were not the preserve of experts or politicians – they were the topic of conversation at dinner tables, in pubs and cafes, hairdressers, and at bus stops.

So when some network journalists came into the campaign very late on and reported on issues that had been discussed in detail in Scotland for months, what people sometimes heard sounded less than fully informed.

Indeed, the BBC’s Audience Council for Scotland touched on something similar on Monday in its annual report. It said that “BBC network programmes, overall, did not engage with the issues until too late a stage, and that meant some had been less well informed, and that this diluted the value of the coverage at both Scottish and UK levels.”

The point is that to some people, a journalist not appearing to be fully informed can sound like a journalist not being entirely impartial.

Now, I don’t say any of this simply to rake over old ground, but instead to try to offer some rational explanation for why so many people felt so unhappy with how the referendum was covered and so that we can all move forward.

Of course, the easy thing for broadcasters to do would be to dismiss the complaints and the protests as intolerance of a free media or of opposing opinions.

But I think it needs to recognise, as the audience council has done already, that some of those complaints were well founded. The frustration that many felt was not borne out of a misplaced desire to control the media, but from a genuine concern that the playing field didn’t always feel even.

So even if they don’t agree with my analysis, I hope that the broadcast media, and given its unique status in our national life, the BBC in particular, will reflect on that, seek to understand it and respond to it.

Diversity of opinion

Because while last year’s debate is behind us, the need for the diversity of the UK to be reflected in our media becomes ever more important.

And that’s probably an appropriate point to move beyond personal reflections and onto wider policy issues, because the referendum and indeed the general election campaign – which consisted of four different campaigns in four different nations, leading to four different outcomes – illuminate a key question for the media as a whole, and for the BBC in particular.

How do broadcasters which have a duty to cover all of the UK, reflect the differences within and between the four nations of the UK?

That issue has exercised the mind of broadcasting from the very beginning. There is a natural tension between reflecting the diversity of individual people’s experiences, and creating moments that bring people together.

So since this is the first time that the Scottish Government has ever had a formal role in the BBC Charter Renewal process, it’s maybe worth outlining our initial views on how the BBC might adapt to the changes we’ve seen across the UK.

But I want to start by talking about our approach to charter renewal – and our significant concerns about how the UK Government has approached the process so far.

Five years ago the coalition government essentially reduced the BBC’s annual budget by more than £300m, by forcing it to take on responsibility for the World Service, for S4C and for the expansion of broadband services. It made the decision in secret, over the course of a few days, and announced it as part of the Chancellor’s 2010 Spending Review.

That method of decision making was widely criticised. In fact, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee – which at that time was chaired by John Whittingdale – went so far as to say that it “undermined confidence in both the government’s and the BBC’s commitment to accountability and transparency”.

UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale: now in charge of new BBC Royal Charter review
UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale: now in charge of new BBC Royal Charter review

So it is mystifying that within a month of being appointed as Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale has supported a new licence fee settlement which is equally far-reaching in its consequences, and was again negotiated in secret.

That represents a serious breach of the terms of the UK Government’s memorandum of understanding with Scotland. So too does the UK Government’s decision to appoint an advisory panel without any prior consultation.

So a key message from me is that the rest of the renewal process needs to be much more transparent.

For our part, the Scottish Government will do our best to find out what viewers in Scotland want.

We have begun consulting broadcasters, independent producers, the creative industries and the public. And we are speaking regularly to the BBC. We want to understand its views on what is desirable and achievable, as part of identifying the best proposals for Scotland.

That consultation process will have a big impact on the detail of what we propose. But I can set out some key principles just now.

The first is simple. It is important to have a strong and independent BBC. Its services are valued by viewers. And so we want charter renewal to improve the BBC rather than diminish it.

The BBC should continue to provide mass-audience programming. If the BBC does nothing except find niches that aren’t served by commercial broadcasters, it risks losing the widespread popular support on which all of its wider programming rests.

Editorial independence ‘vital’

And of course editorial independence is vital. Every politician in the country will disagree at some point with the BBC’s coverage. It’s entirely legitimate to make those disagreements known. But that does not take away from the fundamental point that independence from government is essential to our public service broadcasters. Charter renewal must protect and strengthen that principle.

The second point is that funding should be universal. We agree that people who use the iPlayer should pay the licence fee. And we are quite drawn to the idea of a progressive, income-based levy, rather than a flat-rate licence fee. So we will consider that proposal very carefully – maybe not for immediate implementation, but as a medium term funding solution.

And, however it is raised, there is no doubt that a fairer proportion of the licence fee should be invested here in Scotland.

My third point is that the BBC needs to reflect the nations and regions of the UK much more effectively than it does. It is after all the national broadcaster for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

_72512900_jamie_clydeMany of you will recall that when devolution was introduced in Scotland and Wales in the late 1990s, John Birt lobbied Tony Blair to block a proposal for the introduction of a specific Scottish six o’clock news programme.

It’s an interesting example of how resistant to change the BBC has sometimes been. But it’s also interesting to remember John Birt’s reasoning. He said in his autobiography that the BBC “should follow constitutional change; it was not our role to lead it.”

Now, I don’t accept that altering one news programme would have been the equivalent of leading constitutional change. But that’s beside the point.

The criticism that should be levied at BBC is not that it has tried to lead constitutional change – it is that it has totally failed to follow it.

The UK has changed dramatically since devolution; but broadcasters are still catching up with its consequences.

And although that poses questions for all public service broadcasters, the issue is maybe most acute with the BBC.

We’ve seen progress in recent years. For example the share of network commissions from Scotland is far above 2006 levels.

But that progress has been slow. It’s striking that in some areas – for example political coverage – it has been STV that has often led the way. STV was three years ahead of the BBC in establishing a dedicated late night programme for Scottish current affairs.

And although network production in Scotland has increased in the last decade, it fell back again last year. Indeed, Ofcom has reported concerns about the sustainability of Scotland’s production sector – not least because increases in production have often been due to “lift and shift” policies.

BBC in Scotland faces

‘serious audience challenge’

But the most serious challenge for the BBC in Scotland is what its own annual report demonstrates. In Scotland, less than half of the audience thinks that the BBC accurately reflects their lives in terms of its news and current affairs coverage. Scotland is the only part of the UK where that’s the case.

The last couple of years have been extraordinary for Scotland – and the BBC has done a lot to reflect the events that have contributed to that. But the figures suggest that it maybe hasn’t reflected them as fully and meaningfully as people wanted.

The question now is what all of this means for the future. There are minor changes that the BBC must make and they are the least we should expect. For example we should have a better informed UK news network, which is as up to speed on issues in Scotland as its viewers. As part of that, BBC editors based within Scotland should have greater ability to influence UK reporting of Scottish issues.

Another important early change would be to ensure a specific Scottish site for iPlayer programmes.

Neither of these proposals require charter renewal – they are practical steps which would benefit viewers and which are long overdue.

We’ve also heard proposals for greater use of opt-outs in Scotland, and more powers for the BBC commissioners based here. They seem to me to fall short of what is needed, but they would definitely be an improvement, and could pave the way for further progress.

If short, these proposals might bring the BBC into line with Scotland as we were in 1999 – but they are not sufficient for where we are today and for the future. They will not deliver a charter that is fit to last until 2027.

So, beyond those practical and minimal proposals, it’s time to be ambitious.

Scotland, the BBC and all the nations and regions of the UK have the right to expect something truly radical from the charter review.

A tight financial settlement cannot be a reason not to do things differently. As the leader of a government in a time of Westminster imposed austerity I know about choices that have to be made to balance the books, but I also know that we are all worse off when we allow our ambitions to be limited by the financial settlement we are dealt.

A BBC that puts forward a bold proposal for Scotland, for the nations and regions, and for the UK will have in us a strong and willing ally. A BBC that offers piecemeal solutions will fail to meet the demands or restore the trust of Scottish audiences.

Some of that is about governance and accountability structures – things which sound abstract but make a real difference to how decisions get taken and what ends up being seen on people’s screens.

Reporting_ScotlandMy strong belief – which of course goes beyond the scope of the BBC Charter review – is that responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland should transfer from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. To those who say this is about the SNP wanting to exert political control over the BBC, I say that is arrant nonsense. This is not a question of whether a parliament has responsibility for the broadcasting framework – it’s a question of which parliament has that responsibility. I think it would be basic common sense for the Scottish Parliament, which already has responsibility for culture and for press regulation, to also have responsibility for broadcasting.

Looking at the BBC specifically, I believe that it should move to a more federal structure, with separate boards for each of the nations and each of the national boards represented on the UK board.

Those changes would have important long term benefits but they need to go alongside improvements to programming. Scotland is an outward looking, internationalist country, intensely interested and active in the world around us – but we also want to see ourselves, our daily experiences and our national story, more fully reflected on our radios and television screens.

Radio Scotland has an ‘impossible job’

For example, Radio Scotland currently has an almost impossible job – it’s one station trying to reflect the life of an entire nation. And it does it well. But a second English-language radio service would provide a greater variety of programmes. And because the two channels could specialise more than Radio Scotland does, they would have stronger and more distinct identities.

And it is essential that we look at television services for Scotland. The BBC has a very successful partnership arrangement with the Gaelic broadcaster, MG ALBA. BBC Alba reaches an audience of 700,000 people across the country. When you consider that census returns suggest that there are just 60,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, that’s a hugely impressive performance on a very limited budget. And it demonstrates a much wider demand and desire for Scottish content.

And so we believe that a distinct BBC Scotland TV channel should be created – empowering BBC Scotland as never before. It would help to secure the sustainability of the independent production sector in Scotland, it would see more of the licence fee spent in Scotland, but more importantly, it would by some distance, be the best way of making a wider and richer contribution.

One of the things the last 12 months has demonstrated, is that the old model of public service broadcasting – important though I think it is – doesn’t work well enough. It no longer reflects the complex, varied and rich political and social realities of the UK.

And so any BBC Charter Renewal which does not respond to the different needs of the nations and regions, simply won’t be sustainable between now and 2027.

That’s why the Scottish Government wants to build a consensus behind constructive change. We will encourage the widest possible level of debate within Scotland on charter renewal. And we will work with the UK Government and the BBC to achieve the best possible outcome for viewers in Scotland and across the UK.

Because by doing that, we will ensure that the work of the BBC benefits our creative economy, enriches our culture, and informs our democracy – and that it does so as part of the strong, vibrant, diverse and independent media that should be so important to all of us.

If we grasp this opportunity, it will benefit all of us, across all of the nations of the UK, for many years to come – whatever our future constitutional relationship may be.