Let our skilled and experienced journalists go it alone for an hour on BBC Scotland
The National, by Kevin McKenna
There was something inadvertently appropriate about the Scottish Daily Mail being leaked plans for a Scottish Six news programme from a source in London last week. Even if you don’t like its political slant, the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail is a perfect example of how a Scottish news agenda, driven by an expert team in Scotland, can dovetail with its London and overseas offices to produce a successful Scottish news product.
Executives and reporters have a chance to see what stories London is planning to cover and have full authority to throw out or retain those that aren’t suitable for its Scottish audience. Thus, stories about health and education in England and Wales will be jettisoned and replaced with
Scottish stories in those areas written by highly trained and qualified Scottish specialists. London stories about defence or Europe will largely be retained and be included alongside a wide-ranging mix of Scottish stories from a well-resourced operation based in the centre of Glasgow. The Scottish Daily Mail operates like a newspaper version of Scottish independence.
It’s a perfect template for a BBC daily broadcast news hour produced in Scotland that would deploy some of the corporation’s London output when it is deemed to be of interest in Scotland. The problem, though, is that few among the BBC’s management in Scotland or in England believe the Scottish corporation’s highly trained and award-winning journalists are up to the job.
The reaction to the latest plans for a daily broadcast news hour on BBC Scotland has been depressing in the extreme. The usual right-wing commentators have lined up to excoriate it. Few of these regard Scotland as sufficiently able or mature to achieve anything of note unless it is produced under London supervision. Anyway, it’s all a vile Scottish Nationalist plot to get its sticky Stalinist fingers all over the BBC in Scotland.
Even from those you would normally expect to know better, the news was greeted with inexplicable caution and suspicion. On Saturday morning, in what passed for an adult discussion of the issue on radio, I heard one respected critic saying one way of saving money in Scotland was to do away with camera crews, of which she thought there were too many.
I consider myself fortunate and privileged to have been invited to contribute to various political and news programmes made by BBC Scotland over the past few years. As such, I have got to know many of the journalists who work at its Pacific Quay headquarters. At this moment, their morale would best be described as rock-bottom. They are doing a job they love and for which they have trained hard and served testing apprenticeships. But one senior staffer I spoke to last week, whose enthusiasm for broadcast journalism and Scottish culture and current affairs is normally boundless, seemed visibly sickened by the callousness of last week’s events and the absence of leadership at Pacific Quay.
“What you have to understand,” he said, “is that the BBC in London is regarded as having magical powers. I’ve now come to accept that nothing of what is deemed to be important can ever happen outside London unless it goes through the Ministry of Truth at Broadcasting House. It’s all about control. I sat in a staff meeting last week with our new news editor to discuss what was going on with the Scottish Six, as no one had previously thought to tell us. He must have mentioned ‘London’ about ten times in his address to us.”
There is a widespread belief among Pacific Quay staffers that the concept of an hour-long Scottish news bulletin is being set up to fail by London management. On one hand, it looks like the UK management is unwinding to accommodate Scottish aspirations to have its own news hour, but the way it was leaked to a newspaper known to be hostile to the idea aroused suspicions. That the BBC’s Scottish senior management hadn’t thought to inform its own staff about what would be the biggest development in the history of news broadcasting in Scotland defies belief. This failure to consult was principally what prompted talk of industrial action.
Thankfully, this has been averted for the time being. There is, though, a feeling among members of the National Union of Journalists that the two-week timeframe is a far too narrow one for Scottish staff to devise, develop and produce three potential pilots for the Scottish Six. Even one more week would make a difference.
The proposals that were leaked to the Daily Mail and which staff in Scotland were not meant to see stated that the ideal editor for the Scottish Six would have high-level production experience in Network TV news. In other words, any BBC Scotland journalist with no experience of working at London Control need not apply. The detailed plans for each of the three options are heavily influenced by London and it becomes clear, even to the casual reader, that this organisation simply doesn’t think there is enough news happening in Scotland to justify a whole hour. If it did, then it clearly doesn’t trust its Scottish staff to make the right decisions about where English and international stories would fit in the mix each night. It’s an extremely patronising, pompous and badly devised document.
If you’ve never visited Pacific Quay, I suggest you go and have a look; after all, your money paid for it. It’s a quite stunning, terraced, concrete behemoth that dwarfs the headquarters of STV which sit next door. Yet after 6pm, you half-expect to observe tumbleweed blowing through the vast and cavernous spaces that surround you. It could be a thriving hub for arts and culture throughout Scotland. The rooms and spaces which lie empty could be venues and workshops for dozens of cultural projects.
We are talking here though, about a senior management that doesn’t possess the wit or the inclination to support a properly autonomous one-hour news programme in a country of more than five million people. It can hardly be expected to make full use of the wonderful building it has been bequeathed and which is being run down before us.