The dead hand of BBC Scotland

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    Robin Crichton

    When I was chairman of the Scottish Independent Programme Producers Association I helped to negotiate terms of trade with the BBC for independent production. One of my non-negotiable demands was for the corporation to contract with Scottish producers under Scottish law.

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    Robin Crichton

    When I was chairman of the Scottish Independent Programme Producers Association I helped to negotiate terms of trade with the BBC for independent production. One of my non-negotiable demands was for the corporation to contract with Scottish producers under Scottish law.
         ‘But we deal with the whole world under English law!’, they said.
         ‘You may deal with the whole world under whatever law you feel most appropriate,’ I replied, ‘but you are the British Broadcasting Corporation and in Scotland you are constitutionally bound to accept Scottish law.’
         There could be no argument, but it took three years to get it accepted. It says a lot about the BBC.
         
    In the late 1990s, when ethnic cleansing in the Balkans was at its height, I developed a six-part drama serial based on the Clearances – following a family who were shipped to Canada. A £70,000 development was co-funded by BBC (London) and CBC, but the last episode of the script was delivered a few weeks late, due to the illness of the writer. In the meantime, the commissioning editor in the BBC had retired, to be replaced by someone from sport who it subsequently emerged needed six months at the level of departmental head before moving up to become a high heid yin.
         The new appointee (with no background in drama) decided not to commission the project because ‘the Clearances would not be of interest to English audiences’. Should BBC Scotland be so exclusively tied to London tastes? There is a wealth of subjects and stories which are of interest to Scottish/Irish, North American, European or Antipodean audiences and can be co-financed. England should be free to opt out if they wish but, at present, anything made in Scotland for network can only be made for a British network and must be of interest to English audences.
         BBC Scotland, or rather the BBC in Scotland, is a colonial outpost of a metropolitian dinosaur. It is a place where you can start your career and hope to move on. At the upper levels, it is the end of the road – you are put out to grass in Glasgow with an enviable salary which is secure as long as you don’t put your head above the parapet. If you rock the boat, there is nowhere to go. When Alastair Hetherington was appointed controller he made a series of four controversial TV documentaries which, when offered to network, were rejected as being ‘not of a sufficient technical standard’. He then entered them for, and won, the Italia Prize and ended up being posted as head of local radio in Inverness. Alastair rocked the boat!
         If a Scottish independent producer submits a network proposal to Glasgow, it has then to be forwarded to London (if it survives the journey through the electronic commissioning jungle), so he might just as well go direct. The BBC will tell you that they have greatly expanded network production in the regions. But for any major drama production in Scotland, you will find that most of the key personnel are drafted north for the duration…So, yes, network programmes are made here but not by Scottish-based key talent. On news and current affairs, Scotland can opt out of the network but there has never been a network news or current affairs programme made from outside London.
         Over 40 years, as a leading independent and international Scottish-based producer, I worked with most major broadcasters in Europe, North America and England, but I never had a commission from BBC Scotland. This did not trouble me. The organisation was, and is, simply irrelevant. But it should not be. It should be a driving force for ideas and debate – a hotbed of talent. Unfortunately the BBC is organised along civil service lines with an invincible complexity of inbuilt mechanisms to resist change and the financial reserves to ride out any passing storms.
         I believe it is simply too complicated to reform. But as views and aspirations in Scotland and London increasingly diverge, a London-centred BBC is increasingly less representatively British. In its present form, it is an instrument of metropolitan cultural domination and political influence. In Scotland it is time to wind it up and start again.
         The structure of BBC television dates back to the creation of new technology and the need to train a new workforce to operate it in the 1960s. But the world of 50 years ago was very different. Television is now a multi-channel, international medium.
         
    Scotland needs a national (as opposed to London regional) broadcaster. It could be funded by at least 12% of the British network budget, which could be varied upwards according to British network success. It should have the right to determine its own programming policies and to co-produce with other networks worldwide – giving England and the rest of the UK an equal right to opt out if they so wish.
         The BBC is out of balance and cultural domination from London is misplaced. Changing the system may be easier said than done, but a structural rethink is long overdue and Scotland should be free to make an international contribution, not as a regional outpost of London but appropriate to her native talent and her status as a nation.

    Robin Crichton was an international Scottish independent producer for 40 years (Edinburgh Films)

    This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of Scottish Review.