Rejected blueprint provides a glimpse of what BBC Scotland could be
The National, by Kevin McKenna
Throughout the Scottish independence campaign I observed many BBC Scotland journalists at close quarters on those occasions when I was invited to chip in my tuppence worth on air. There are some big personalities among this band and some very bright and gifted people, yet never did any of them forget that they were journalists first and last and that, working for the national broadcaster, they had a moral duty to be impartial. Being human, they didn’t always achieve this goal but, under immense daily pressure from spin doctors from either side of the debate, they performed admirably and often made me proud that they shared my profession.
The issue of what we want the BBC to look like in Scotland is once more vexing the country. Ahead of the corporation’s charter renewal, London BBC’s upgrading in status of its Scotland Correspondent to Scotland Editor is merely condescending. It’s like giving a child a toy catapult to replace his pea-shooter. BBC Scotland, in its coverage of news and current affairs and in its unique position to alter the face of how drama is written, acted and produced in Scotland, ought to be at the very centre of Scotland’s cultural life. Instead, it remains on the sidelines, waiting meekly each month outside a door in London marked “senior executives only” to find out if it has received permission to commission a new programme or make grown-up changes to its news and politics coverage.
The news-gathering and editing infrastructure in Scotland is piecemeal and inconsistent while a macho, 1970s working culture has been allowed to flourish in the newsroom. As such, many fine journalists have become de-motivated and reluctant to contribute ideas for fear of being ridiculed. Some programmes I’ve observed being made look like they’ve been edited in a bar at the end of the universe.
A mere glance at what we know about how little BBC Scotland receives in crumbs from London’s table reveals much. The BBC has an annual budget of around £3.7 billion and licence fees in Scotland bring in more than £300 million. BBC executives insist that BBC Scotland gets between £100m and £110m every year, a figure which is seriously misleading.
A sum of between £75m and £80m forms part of the “Network Supply Review”, under which a number of programmes are produced for the UK network. These include Question Time, Homes Under the Hammer and all the lottery game shows.
They are known as “lift and shift” programmes: they did not originate in Scotland; their teams are not based here and often their crews and technical studio staff are flown in from England in a Monday morning ritual derided in Pacific Quay as “the trundle of the trolley-bags”. They are not Scottish programmes, made by Scotland, about Scotland and for Scotland. So the true budget for Scottish programmes lies between £30m and £35m.
A tantalising glimpse of what a fully functioning BBC Scotland could look like – deploying to the full the creative gifts of Scottish journalism, Scottish screen-writing and Scottish production expertise – has recently emerged from inside Pacific Quay. Unfortunately, several unionist commentators would have you believe that Scotland does not have sufficient native talent to match anything written and produced in London. This is a lie advanced by people who obviously never watched BBC Scotland specials such as The Great Tram Disaster, Portillo on Salmond and Iain Banks – Raw Spirit.
THE Charter Renewal team in BBC Scotland have produced a blueprint for the future of the BBC in Scotland which is nothing less than a broadcasting Magna Carta. In preparing it, they commissioned research based around European models such as Finland and Denmark. These are similar-sized nations whose national broadcasters get audience shares three to four times the size of BBC Scotland. They are small countries making programmes for which their audience has a huge appetite, and the best of which are sold across the globe.
The blueprint has been backed by the entire Scottish executive team, led by Ken McQuarrie. Everything they asked for was accepted by London senior management. Overnight, BBC Scotland’s programme-making budget would have grown five-fold to more than £150m and would have devolved all programme-making to BBC Scotland, with the emphasis on serving Scotland first, but being able to show any programmes on the network, and sell them to other nations. A Scottish BBC channel broadcasting HD to Scotland every weekday night between 1800 and midnight would be created.
Reporting Scotland on BBC One would be retained but an hour-long news programme would be added, broadcasting at peak time every night, covering Scottish, UK and world affairs from a Scottish perspective. This would require extra staff, and the building of a new studio. There would be overseas and London bureaux, along the RTE model.
A second Radio Scotland channel would be created too, while there would be huge investment in commissioning Scottish drama, comedy, entertainment, factual and music programmes. There would be proper investment in education content.
Such a package would have transformed Scotland’s cultural life at a stroke. Currently, there is little drama worth speaking of commissioned, written and produced in Scotland. What little there is depicts the country as a land that never sees sunlight where wee hard men who always look like Peter Mullen walk around chibbing people all over the shop. Other than that, we are force-fed a diet of some of the worst comedy in the English language such as Mountain Goats (if this had starred actual mountain goats it would have been funnier) and the infantile Bob Servant, which is about as funny as dooking for chips. Who needs England to misrepresent us when we seem perfectly capable of doing it ourselves?
Since the Scottish Charter Renewal team’s blueprint was first accepted enthusiastically it has since been quietly pulled and re-written. Tony Hall, under pressure from £250k London executives who are all defending their little metropolitan fiefdoms, is now saying it will never happen.
He must think again, under pressure from every political party in Scotland. The decline in the newspaper industry means a BBC Scotland providing high-quality, cutting-edge journalism and world-class Scottish drama has never been more needed.