TV debates prove broadcasters see the UK through a London prism

The National, by Stuart Cosgrove
10th November

One of the most common adages of public life is that if it’s not a conspiracy it must be a cock-up. But when it comes to television and elections there are many more variables, and when it comes to set-piece election debates, then do not assume that either conspiracy or cock-up are anywhere close to the truth.

The first week of the election campaign has in part been defined by disbelief that Scotland’s major party, the SNP, could be locked out of representation in televised debates when two or three rival parties out on the streets of Scotland are being given the oxygen of publicity, via publicly licensed television.

While ITV and Sky are commercial organisations interested in profit maximisation, their license to sell advertising or seek subscription is regulated by Ofcom and consequently their right to broadcast comes with important duties – not least obligations of fairness when it comes to elections. So what went wrong and why?

One very obvious point is the balance of political power in the UK which tilts heavily towards Westminster and sees Scotland as, at best, an afterthought. We live in an era of asymmetrical broadcasting, where notwithstanding the efforts made by BBC and Channel 4 to diversify production away from London, key managerial decisions around investment and programme policy are taken within the suffocating provincialism of central London.

That imbalance of power is worsened by a simple arithmetical fact – 50 million always triumphs over five million. No matter what the population of Scotland thinks, it will always be over-determined by the citizens of England, who like us watch the telly, pay their licence fee and change channels when they are bored. They are not the problem, it’s the system.

A key factor in all prime-time shows is the power of narrative. Senior broadcasters want what they consider to be a good story and that favours already established typologies, like head-to-head fights, win-or-lose contests and the aura of bruising encounter. If they get lucky a gaffe or a policy error will “set the agenda” and rumble on for days to come as key moments are replayed and poured over.

There are numerous other formats better suited to electoral analysis but for now it is not what ITV or Sky plan to offer viewers. There’s a forum format of all the leaders in a semi-circle fielding questions from a real or imagined audience and there is the more complex, “hypotheticals” format where politicians are given problems to solve in front of a live or as-live audience. The latter format is the most testing because it takes politicians away from set-piece answers and from their scripted comments and so runs a higher risk of mistakes or a misunderstanding of key issues.

Hypotheticals is a format that political leaders run scared of simply because it exposes them to the rigour of difficult and changing scenarios. Imagine Boris Johnson bungling through a national health crisis debate with, say, Dr Philippa Whitford. It would be like a clown in flat feet arguing with an expert. Politicians rarely agree to this kind of television because it is a high-wire fraught with many dangers.

Another reason that broadcasters stick with what they know is simply because it’s what they know. I have worked at a network broadcaster for 25 years and the vast majority of senior staff see the world through the prism of the London chatterati. They may very well have an instinctive love of Scotland and even a second home here but they are woefully short of any granular understanding of our politics.

I could bore you with hundreds of examples of programmes that have been weakened by a failure to understand Scotland. For example, I recall commissioning a fairly routine biographical programme on Sir Alex Ferguson when he was still the outstanding manager of Manchester United. The typical Channel 4 factual show is only 48 minutes after ad-breaks are accounted for – this film came in at 65 minutes, so in effect a full 17 minutes had to be edited out of the programme. In a near complete film losing that amount of time needs a scythe not a scalpel. In one tense edit we debated what should go. Although there was a patronising respect in the edit suite it became clear that Ferguson’s early days in Scotland were most at risk, not because they were irrelevant or boring – on the contrary, much of it was revealing of his personality – but simply because it was of less interest to an English audience who, as we know, are bigger in number than Scottish viewers. The bit that was felt sacrosanct was Ferguson’s brief life as a shipyard apprentice which gave the show a vague biographical thread to his managerial socialism.

What was ditched were his amateur days at Queen’s Park; his time at St Johnstone when he left after a disciplinary dispute with the club; his free-scoring days with Dunfermline and his eventual move to Rangers. His managerial career at East Stirlingshire, St Mirren and his greatest achievement at Aberdeen were crushed into a barely coherent short sequence until with a sigh of relief the show settled into its main purpose – Manchester United. You could almost sense anxiety lifting as the voice-over artist mentioned names like Beckham, Scholes and Giggs.

My counter argument was that the early days gave you clues to his character contradictions and shifting disciplinary values, but none of that seemed to matter in the rush for material that the audience in England would recognise.

Although this is an isolated story among many and a grain of sand on the beaches of broadcasting, it explains much of the events of last week. The politics of Scotland are only of marginal interest in England and so broadcasters, not withstanding their obligations, are happy to jettison the complicated issues and unfamiliar characters that Scotland wrestles with in order to focus on what they always consider to be the main act – the battle between the Tories and Labour.

t the core of many people’s anger about the flawed plans for leadership debates is the routine argument that Scotland’s majority vote to remain in the European Union is discounted by the fact that “we voted as part of the UK”. Then at the very point of a UK-wide election the distinctive political arguments of Scotland’s elected leader is ignored.

Last week, I read a self-satisfied response from one UK broadcaster that they cannot make special provision for Scotland as they always broadcast the same shows across the UK. This is palpably untrue when STV still has the ITV license in Scotland and can offer an alternative debate. Nor is it true of Channel 4 who offer the same schedule across the UK but sell advertising on a macro-regional basis and have the technical capacity to “opt-out” when it suits them commercially.

All of that said, we are not fighting against technology or individual broadcasters but the asymmetrical map of broadcasting itself. Yes, there has been progress. Channel 4 has opened a commissioning hub in Glasgow to give producers easier access to factual genre budgets, the BBC has launched a new stand-alone service for Scotland, which has produced some fine documentaries and STV has launched a growth fund to stimulate small businesses to access the television advertising market.

These are small steps when giant strides are needed and, by comparison with other small nations across Europe, Scottish broadcasting is in a pitiful state, and much of the blame rests not on embattled individuals but on an asymmetrical system too powerfully weighted to London, the capital city of a neighbouring country. Viewed from the perspective of Europe this is an incredible and impoverished state of affairs.

The electoral debates are not simply about which politicians are represented, they are a symptom of much wider problem within broadcasting that cannot be solved by the current political settlement.