Inside Arts: BBC Scotland's new channel is more than a political football

SNP making airwaves over new BBC Scotland channel, writes Brian Ferguson

BBC Scotland's new channel will launch next year. Picture: John Devlin
BBC Scotland's new channel will launch next year. Picture: John Devlin

Hardly a day seems to go past without criticism raining down on BBC Scotland over its new channel – quite an achievement, given it is nowhere near the starting-blocks yet. Announced in February 2017, the channel is the centrepiece of the BBC’s biggest investment in Scotland in 20 years. Its introduction will herald the arrival of a dedicated news programme, to be broadcast at 9pm, and the recruitment of around 80 journalists. Its launch was previously pencilled in for this autumn but was pushed back to February 2019 .

The news emerged a few weeks after broadcasting regulator Ofcom gave the channel the provisional green light – and sparked a new flurry of debate about it. Scots may have to wait another nine months to see what the new channel’s £32 million annual budget has bought, but the broadcaster is already in the dock, charged with letting down Scotland. A harsh and premature verdict, perhaps, given that no evidence for the prosecution has been presented yet.

But that has not stopped the party of government in Scotland from raising a host of concerns about BBC Scotland and the new channel it is preparing. Chief among these are that there is no evidence of increased “trust” in the broadcaster in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, the “parochial nature” of its flagship news broadcast Radio Scotland, and a “disparity of focus” in its news coverage.

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    The SNP effectively claims the Scottish and UK governments are treated deliberately differently by the BBC at present. While the SNP stopped short of using the word “bias” it accused the broadcaster of not making “enough effort to scrutinise the UK government. In the same submission to Ofcom the SNP states that BBC Scotland’s new coverage is “predominantly focused on negative aspects of matters concerning devolved powers”.

    The party claims to be speaking on behalf of the wider Scottish public in calling for the BBC to “deliver a product” which helps regain trust in the broadcaster. It says it also wants its news output to “show new thinking that positively changes people’s perception of the BBC in Scotland”. But is it little wonder that some have interpreted all of the above as the SNP meddling with the new BBC Scotland channel and effectively telling the broadcaster what news to broadcast? It is not and has never been the job of journalists to cheer-lead for governments and politicians.

    Yet the SNP’s attacks on the BBC are depressingly lapped up by its supporters and opponents in what appears to be equal measures.

    All this petty politicking about BBC Scotland may be great knock-about for some, but it can hardly be helping the channel’s chances of success. And it is also in danger of masking concerns that BBC Scotland’s publicly-funded expansion could damage the commercial media landscape and the hundreds of jobs it currently supports. The launch of the new channel was put back just before STV’s revealed its new channel was being axed and 60 jobs were to go as part of a major overhaul at the broadcaster, with anticipated competition from the BBC cited in the gloomy announcement.

    Others, including Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop, fear the channel is being under-funded, yet there has been little debate or discussion about what kind of programmes will be aired when the new channel finally comes to life. Unless Ofcom responds to the SNP missive by sending the BBC back to the drawing board and prompts another round of wrangling.