MANAGEMENT at BBC Scotland today outlined plans to revamp its news operation in order to focus on more analysis-led journalism that will bolster its core programmes.
Several television and radio programmes will be culled as part of the revised strategy, described as “the beginning of a new look news operation in Scotland.”
The late night current affairs strand, Scotland 2016, is to be axed later this year and will be replaced by a new weekly programme. Two Radio Scotland programmes, The Big Debate and Business Scotland, also face the axe, although management stress no jobs will be cut.
Instead, they aim to bolster its flagship news programme, Reporting Scotland, which will feature more analytical pieces from correspondents. There will also be an increase in the number of live broadcasts and a greater emphasis on news-led sport items, with fewer so-called “soft” news features.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) welcomed the plans, describing them as a “real step in the right direction” that will improve trust in BBC Scotland among journalists and audiences alike.
The changes, outlined by Gary Smith, head of news and current affairs at Pacific Quay, come as he and other executives continue to discuss wider changes to its news operation.
In an interview with The Scotsman, Mr Smith said the decision to end Scotland 2016’s run was about putting quality over quantity.
The weeknight strand has struggled to compete against STV’s Scotland Tonight. When it launched as Scotland 2014 two years ago this May, replacing the Scottish opt-out of Newsnight, viewing figures were as high as 89,000. Its ratings have fallen off and are now understood to average around 35,000.
Although the BBC Two Scotland programme will return after its summer break, plans are being put in place to replace it with a new weekly current affairs programme, the details of which are still under discussion.
Mr Smith said: “The slot we’ve had for Scotland 2016 has never frankly been brilliant for us. We went on the air in the run up to the independence referendum when STV had established an audience with Scotland Tonight, and we were also up against our own output, principally Reporting Scotland. It was never the easiest start and it has been a difficult slot.
“I want to go for quality instead of quantity, and I think if we can go for a really good weekly programme instead of a nightly programme that is sometimes overstretched, it will create a better offering for the audience.”
Under the changes, a dedicated Scotland edition of the BBC news home page will be rolled out as part of a drive towards a “digital-first newsroom.” Editors in Scotland will decide on the mix of Scottish, UK and international stories that are presented to audiences.
Social media, Mr Smith said, will be a key area of expansion in the coming months and years.
He explained: “We want to reach out to audiences that are probably underserved in Scotland, particularly on social media. There’s a potential audience there, and it is a younger audience than we get for our television and radio programmes, and we can do a lot more for them.”
It comes as BBC Scotland executives continue to discuss future changes to its news and current affairs operation, which include the ‘Scottish Six’, a new peak time national news programme for BBC One Scotland.
Several pilot programmes were produced earlier this year and research is ongoing to determine which format will work best. It is understood a decision will be made later this summer.
The move is aimed at addressing criticism of the BBC’s representation of Scottish life. In a study commissioned by the UK Government published alongside the recent white paper on the BBC’s future, viewers in Scotland were found to be the most critical and least supportive of any demographic group.
The BBC Audience Council for Scotland has also raised concerns with the BBC Trust over Scottish news provision and its representation in network programming, as well as perceptions surrounding the BBC’s impartiality.
Mr Smith said he was focused on delivering what audiences want with changes to BBC Scotland’s news programming.
He said: “The plans are still being looked at and a Scottish Six would be a very big change for us. It’s a big challenge doing an hour-long programme between 6pm and 7pm, there’s nothing really like on the television just now as Channel 4 news is a different type of programme.
“There’s a lot of work do be done on what is the editorial proposition for a programme that does Scottish, UK and international news at peak time. There have been good results from the pilots but once the EU referendum is out the way, we want to do a bit more work on piloting and see what else we can come up with and maybe do a bit of audience research around that.”
He added: “At the moment, Reporting Scotland is the market leader in the 6pm to 7pm news hour, so we have good audiences. We’ve got to get ourselves into a position where we’re comfortable that we’re not going to lose audiences by inventing a new kind of programme which is not what they want.
“At a time when Holyrood is getting extra tax and welfare powers in addition to all the other differences in areas of social policy between Scotland and England, we are asking if the audiences are properly served by the existing structure, or do they need a different kind of format?”
Paul Holleran, Scottish organiser of the NUJ, said: “From the union’s point of view, this is a real step in the right direction. We have not seen this level of transparency and consultation for years and the restructuring will offer people proper training, which we have been calling on for years.
“There are changes with Scotland 2016 and The Big Debate, but by the sounds of it there are plans to put something constructive in place to compensate for that. The discussions are around providing quality journalism with better analysis as part of the hard news agenda, which we welcome.”
He added: “It’s refreshing to see BBC Scotland’s head of news and current affairs focusing on what Scotland wants and needs instead of being driven by a London agenda. If this is the first step towards an expanded news output, that can only be welcomed far and wide.”