Three-D Issue 25: Keeping the ‘British’ in the BBC

neil_blain_004Neil Blain
University of Stirling

The relationship between BBC corporate headquarters in London and its BBC Scotland counterpart in Glasgow has seldom been without tensions. These are usually about finance and control, against a background, not mutually understood, of the distinctness of Scottish culture, society and politics. More recently, during and after the independence referendum, another element of tension was added in the form of anger in some public quarters about what was perceived as a pro-unionist tone in both London and Glasgow-originated BBC coverage of the campaigns. This was publicly rebutted by the Corporation, but the issue still simmers in a different form, especially in nationalist circles, around the BBC’s ongoing coverage of the SNP generally, and specifically of the SNP government’s handling of Scottish affairs.

BBC Scotland photo by Neil BlainThe Green Paper therefore arrived at a moment likely to provoke split responses in Scotland. Scottish broadcast consumers certainly share the concerns of their counterparts in the wider UK. For example, they may be similarly troubled by the BBC’s sometimes clumsy attempts to popularize output at the expense of quality, or its serial difficulties in managing licence fee revenue. But they also like the benefits which the BBC brings to all viewers and listeners. Scots, too, are keen viewers of the Bake Off (whether Great British or not) and Strictly, and they too contested the proposal to axe Radio 6 Music back in 2010. Continuing dissatisfactions with the BBC’s specifically Scottish provision, however, drives rejection of the BBC’s claims to be truly a ‘British’ service. The value Scotland gets from its share of the licence fee is debated, now more strongly than ever. The BBC produces figures for ‘Scottish’ production spend which meet with scepticism, since its definition of what constitutes a Scottish production sometimes appears to involve sleight of hand. Nonetheless, at a time when risk to the Corporation has sharpened, it doesn’t need additional attacks on the Scottish flank. But they’re growing.

BBC Scotland, like its commercial equivalent STV, offers an opt-out service, comprising small departures from network schedules in the provision of news and current affairs, with programming in further areas, such as factual, and BBC Scotland’s own soap, River City. This provision is meagre by European comparisons. There is at least one autonomous or largely autonomous TV channel in many regions which have neither Scotland’s nation state history nor its current constitutional aspirations. Scotland still lacks, with the exception of the Gaelic language channel BBC Alba, any TV channel with editing and commissioning power wholly located north of the border.

Put simply, there is no strategy in existence for Scottish broadcasting, especially TV. Scotland’s broadcast provision is a by-product of strategies born and enacted in London. And at a time when the Cameron government’s strategic intent for UK broadcasting as a whole is suspect, not least with respect to the democratic needs of civil society, Scottish exceptionalism becomes steadily more problematic. As in other key areas of social, civic, economic and cultural need, disentangling the Scottish case from its wider British context needs the kind of constructive thinking which has been too rarely evidenced in adequate detail. An exception is the work of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission (of which more below) in 2008, which produced a widely supported analysis and detailed recommendations, since left to gather dust. The accumulation of dust on proposals for Scottish broadcasting (and film too, where the dust is even thicker) is normal. This is probably because the Scottish Parliament has no powers of oversight of the media, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport having retained those powers under the devolution settlement. Holyrood MSPs become periodically exercised by media matters, but tend to prioritize areas in which their parliament has authority, and in which they can respond to their constituents’ concerns.

The disconnect between the redevelopment of Scottish civil society and politics, and its fossilized or diminishing media provision, has been remarkable. Scotland’s indigenous press (much is externally owned) loses resource and circulation steadily while London newspapers, sometimes thinly adapted to the Scottish market, have taken advantage of their much greater financial muscle to gain readership. It’s hard to argue that the nation’s democratic needs are answered by its present, fragile media apparatus, not yet compensated by online alternatives.

Some of Scotland’s dissatisfactions with the BBC ought logically to be replicated or paralleled in other parts of the UK beyond London and the south east (Wales is a different matter again). After all, the BBC’s persistent if sometimes incidental marketing of London, amidst fierce competition among British cities and regions for tourism, conferences and inward investment, might be as strongly resented in Manchester or Leeds as Glasgow. Perhaps it is, though the voice of English regionalism always looks from Scotland to be remarkably muted. The Corporation’s presence in Salford certainly hasn’t altered the perception from north of the border that its heart and soul are safe in London. During the referendum and recent general election, the sense grew that London reporters and editors were visiting what for them remains, or perhaps has become, a foreign country. If Scotland is a foreign country, it should have at least one indigenous TV channel.

Other consequences of Scotland’s under-developed media are the stifling of an indigenous production base and the forced emigration of far too much of its media talent. The critical mass problems of small countries are unavoidable, but there is a sense that some of Scotland’s challenges in sustaining and redeveloping a media base could be addressed more effectively. If the Green Paper offers nothing much more than references to the worn-out gambit of ‘nations and regions’ policies, perhaps this is not only because Westminster suffers from myopia beyond the M25, but also because it’s simply unrealistic to imagine that the BBC can be a solution to much larger shortfalls in Scottish media provision. In 2008, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, set up by the Scottish Government to undertake a wide-ranging review and make recommendations about the future of Scottish broadcasting, pursued its task under three headings, addressing the economic, democratic and cultural needs of the nation (http://www.gov.scot/Topics/ArtsCultureSport/arts/Archive/Broadcasting/SBC). It concluded that there was no satisfactory answer available from present institutional provision, and that there should be a new Scottish channel to provide competition, not least, to the BBC. It took a great deal of evidence from interested parties across Scotland and beyond. Among many indications from witnesses was almost universal support from the Scottish independent sector for such a channel, which would (putting this constructively) relieve BBC Scotland of its responsibilities as nearly the sole patron of the Scottish indie sector.

The SBC report was very widely welcomed in the Scottish Parliament and beyond. There was much cross-party support. A follow-up initiative, the Scottish Digital Network Panel, reporting to the Scottish Government in 2011, made further recommendations, including funding mechanisms (http://www.gov.scot/Topics/ArtsCultureSport/arts/Archive/Broadcasting/sdnpanel).

Yet, such is the lack of continuity in the debate about the Scottish media (which variously appears circular, or just frozen) that when the independence White Paper emerged in 2013 , its broadcasting proposals did not resurrect the Broadcasting Commission recommendations, but instead offered a half-baked idea of a partnership between a prospective Scottish broadcasting body and the BBC, an idea to which the latter was not party (http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2013/11/9348/0). The SNP seems strangely preoccupied by the BBC as the answer to Scottish broadcasting needs, despite its government having commissioned a report which had explicitly rejected the idea of the BBC as a solution. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in the Edinburgh TV Festival’s Alternative MacTaggart Lecture in August 2015, proposed that the BBC should provide a separate Scottish channel. Simultaneously, the Corporation leaked a story to the Guardian newspaper that a blueprint for just such a channel had existed before the latest round of cuts to the BBC.

Given that the ground is shifting under the Corporation as the Cameron government flexes its ideological muscle, it is doubly optimistic to expect the BBC to be the answer to Scotland’s broadcasting deficiencies, except in the limited sense that there remains a good argument that the BBC could spend more of its revenue from Scottish licence fee payers in Scotland. That could conceivably take the form of some subsidy to an independent Scottish channel, which is not at all the same thing as actually providing the channel. But the difficulty is not only that the BBC’s income in the medium to long term, not least from a licence mechanism, may be uncertain. More fundamentally, why the SNP would expect an organization they criticize for its London-centric nature to be able to run a Scottish channel – when even that modest operation which is BBC Scotland has often been at war with its London masters over the latter’s incomprehension of Scotland – is baffling. It’s hardly a radical response from Ms Sturgeon. Perhaps it’s at one with the SNP’s mixed messages about the monarchy, a limit to radical thought about a new Scotland.

Should there in the shorter term develop a more devolved rather than independent Scotland, then transfer from Westminster to Edinburgh of media oversight is, merely for democratic reasons, still requisite. This will have to include a mechanism which enables the BBC to be accountable to both parliaments, as to an extent envisaged in the Smith Commission proposals (https://www.smith-commission.scot/). Over these various questions hang two uncertainties, about the future both of the BBC and the Union.

Posted by Einar Thorsen