BBC Scotland’s new channel finally takes off: but is it worth it?

Scottish Review, by Gerry Hassan

BBC Scotland’s new channel launched on Sunday at 7pm. There was a small amount of expectation, a countdown, and even nervousness. Sitting, waiting for it to begin, in those last few seconds I reflected how seldom a new TV channel is born on old-fashioned telly. The last I remember was Channel 4 in the 1980s, with Channel 5 not then or since really registering.

Then it came on air. The first night opened with Chvrches and had ‘A Night at the Theatre’ with Iain Stirling and various worthies, followed by a documentary on Asian weddings, ‘Still Game’, ‘Burnistoun Tunes’, and the star of the first evening: the BAFTA winning ‘Nae Pasaran’ about how a group of East Kilbride Rolls Royce workers took on and defeated the Pinochet dictatorship. The second night had the first ever showing of Scottish news programme, ‘The Nine’.

First night audiences came in at 700,000, with a 13% audience share, and at points a big footprint in the 18-34 year olds – particularly during ‘Still Game’. All of which is a good start with the public. The station has got noticed.

First impressions of the station ranged across the spectrum. Some wanted to reach for clichés such as Alison Rowat in the Herald who compared it, like many others, to a Hogmanay special. Ex-ambassador and conspiracy theorist, Craig Murray, within hours dismissed it as ‘cheap, outdated, twee [and] patronising’; while Pat Kane took a whole six minutes of broadcasting to declare it a dud – goodness knows how long he will take to pass a similar withering verdict about an independent Scotland should it come to fruition.

There was in many other places a respect for the new channel. Kenny Farquharson in the Times reflected on its different programmes: ‘There is no one single Scottish taste in TV. We are not one homogenous national blob. Some folk have not thought this through’. Journalist Jenny Constable said: ‘Refreshing to see so many new faces on the telly… Media in Scotland is changing and it is bloody exciting!’.

BBC Scotland does face major challenges. Young people – now defined in an ageing society as anyone under 34 – do not watch match old-fashioned TV with much of their viewing of content via social media. The channel faces significant budget constraints, having to produce 900 hours of TV for £32m a year. And with such tight overheads, how can it break out of Central Beltism and Scotland reduced to Glasgow and Edinburgh, even if it wanted to? 

One of the biggest issues is the BBC’s public statements and how that is seen by large parts of Scotland. In the run-up to the launch, Hayley Valentine, editor of ‘The Nine’, said that she did not know ‘a single journalist who brought any bias to work with them’, and that she would defend the BBC over accusations of bias against independence ‘until my dying day’.

The first of these comments screams BBC bubble talk; and also begs the secondary point of what sort of internal advice is given to BBC people before they speak publicly. All journalists, like all human beings, have biases and prejudices, as well as values – the latter of which can actually be a good not a bad thing. Thus, when a journalist committed to democratic values interviews a leader thrashing them or violating them such as Trump, maybe it’s okay to uphold such values as a belief in the rule of law, due process and politicians telling the truth.

It is self-evident that being in the BBC places you in a certain worldview, one which gets regularly attacked by the radical right and left, and puts the Beeb in the centre looking for consensus – which isn’t a neutral place without its own biases. As Andrew Marr, long-time BBC journalist, said in 2006, there is ‘an innate liberal bias inside the BBC’. 

On the second comment by Hayley Valentine, it is widely acknowledged, including inside BBC Scotland at the highest levels, that it didn’t have a good indyref. The same was true of STV. But the BBC attracts much more public comment because of the nature of its funding – being publicly owned – and its status and importance. The BBC on too many occasions failed in its duty during the indyref – it was scared to take risks and be imaginative, was wary in places of independence, and had the problem of the BBC London high heid yins continually coming up to patronise us. 

After the indyref, BBC Scotland undertook no assessment of what they did, what they could learn, and how they could do things better. There was no sharing of lessons between our indyref and the Brexit vote – even though the two were separated by less than two years. And there has been no scenario planning from the BBC of what they could do differently from the 2014 experience in any future indyref. There is London condescension and insularity in this. But there was also Scottish wariness of being assertive and risk-taking.

There is also the issue of how the channel does its own ‘Question Time’, with Donalda MacKinnon, BBC Scotland director, saying publicly: ‘We just can’t afford to do this. It is the truth of the matter’. By this, she meant that the show, ‘Debate Night’, could not afford to tour the country and leave the confines of Edinburgh and Glasgow. This again begs the question: what kind of advice are senior BBC people getting to say such things with a week and a half to going live? 

BBC Scotland also has a ‘BBC Question Time’ problem. This long-running programme is made in Scotland by Mentorn Media and in recent weeks, in Motherwell and Chester, vocal audience members have included prominent UKIPers: in the case of Chester, an ex-parliamentary candidate. The programme has got into all sorts of tangles about what it views as ‘national’ and what it regards as ‘parochial’, with London local government concerns seen as ‘national’ and Scottish and Welsh government agendas often judged ‘parochial’. 

One strand running through all of this is the issue of missing leadership and communication in BBC Scotland. This, to be fair, is part of a bigger problem across the whole UK organisation, with senior management engaged in a slow retreat since Thatcher. BBC senior figures in London have for decades managed political attacks on them from left and right by accommodating them, by embracing New Labour cosmopolitanism or, with Cameron and Osborne, paying for the over-75s TV license which they are now trying to wriggle out of. 

Missing for years – from John Birt to Mark Thompson and Tony Hall – has been a convincing defence of public service broadcasting in an age of multi-platforms. Notably, all 17 permanent director generals from Lord Reith onwards have been middle-aged white men, so ‘diversity’ has its limits even at the BBC.

There is still in Scotland the strange position of who BBC Scotland is accountable to: which is not its Scottish consumers and audiences, but is still BBC London managers and ultimately, politicians. All of this creates a dysfunctional culture at the top of BBC Scotland with its senior figures reporting and answering to London, while trying to manage different interests in Scotland. It is no wonder in such a climate that we end up with such a timorous leadership in public and private.

Just reflect on how long it has taken the BBC to change with regards to Scotland. The campaign for a ‘Scottish Six’ integrated news (combining Scottish, UK and international content) got serious over 20 years ago, in 1997-98, and would have won the case for change then if it had not been for hesitant leadership here, combined with John Birt and Tony Blair’s fear that this small bridgehead would be the beginning of the end of the union – a paranoia openly admitted in Birt’s autobiography. 

Fast forward another decade, and in 2008, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission made the case for the new channel: an argument that was at the time accepted by all parties in the Scottish parliament. Despite that, it took nearly a decade until the BBC in London under Tony Hall accepted that the new channel made sense.

There is still, despite this 20-year campaign, resistant voices in the media saying that this channel is only a response to SNP pressure, when this has been a broad-based campaign for all that time. This is nearly as over-the-top as the out-and-out nationalists who say they will not watch what they call the new propaganda channel of the British state.

The new channel will face many challenges and controversies – some Scottish-induced, some from just trying to get noticed, and others from the changing ways in which we consume and watch TV. But it does feel like a significant moment which could be a watershed – 24 February 2019 might be a significant moment for Scotland and broadcasting.

Of course, it was only by accident that the channel came into being with 33 days until Brexit – that act of willful self-harm which will do untold damage to millions and to the very fabric of the UK. Irrespective of whether Brexit is delayed from its 29 March D-Day, there is a feeling of an end of days all around us about the UK as we have known it. What better time then to begin a new channel which hopefully will have the ambition to tell new stories about Scotland and its place in the world, and older ones with fresh eyes and insights? 

We need more change, more leadership and more risk-taking, but one thing we can be certain of is that Scotland and the wider world are not going to be standing still.