Cometh the hour: Can a Scottish Six really deliver?

BBC Scotland headquarters at Pacific Quay. Photograph: John Devlin
BBC Scotland headquarters at Pacific Quay. Photograph: John Devlin
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Facing SNP MP John Nicolson and the culture, media and sport committee last month, BBC Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie and head of news Gary Smith were a study in discomfort.

Nicolson, the former BBC journalist and presenter, slipped easily back into the role of inquisitor-in-chief as he probed and harried the men on that long-standing bone of contention: the Scottish Six.

Questioning them on three already produced pilots, Nicolson kept returning to the least appealing: a programme “topped and tailed” by Jackie Bird in Glasgow, with the national and international news presented from a studio in London. Channelling George Galloway, he suggested any such format would be a “patronising sop”. And though he stopped short of using the word “lickspittle”, the implication was clear: he believed the BBC might yield to pressure to settle for it.

READ MORE: Dani Garavelli: Show some ambition and back the Scottish Six

Last week, the committee – comprised of six Tory MPs, four Labour MPs and Nicolson – said the BBC should instead press ahead with an integrated programme, anchored in Scotland and “with a running order of Scottish, UK and international stories based on news merit, drawing on all the BBC’s facilities, and broadcast from Scotland”; a bit like Good Morning Scotland, but with cameras.

There is, of course, no consensus that a Scottish Six, in any format, is desirable. There are those – mostly unionists – who see an hour-long programme to replace the 6pm news and Reporting Scotland as another SNP land grab (though the idea was born out of Labour’s devolutionary instincts and was last rejected in 2006, the year before the SNP took control of Holyrood).

Supporters of the Scottish Six – mostly nationalists – believe it would revitalise the flagging broadcasting industry and improve the corporation’s coverage of Scottish affairs.

For them, the “top and tail” option makes no sense. It would require two studios and exacerbate the problem it was supposed to resolve: a lack of trust in the BBC’s commitment to represent the country fairly. “Would this not continue the impression that Scotland only does the local stuff, but if you want a window on to the world you have to access it through the conduit of London?” Nicolson asked.

Predictably then, the culture, media and sport committee’s announcement was greeted with cheers (from those who have faith in BBC Scotland’s ability to produce a vibrant integrated programme) and boos from those who forecast a parochial diet of stabbings and animal stories.

Between these two poles, however, are people who, while supportive of the concept, believe a fixation on a Scottish Six is overshadowing a larger debate about political output and fear the programme will not receive the support it requires to flourish.

They point out it is being developed against a backdrop of cuts; if the corporation fails to resource it properly, or BBC Scotland’s senior management fails to rise to the creative challenge, then, despite an abundance of talent, the naysayers’ gloomy prophecies could be self-fulfilling. Since Smith took over as head of news last year, he has announced the culling of Scotland 2016, the Big Debate and Business Scotland.

Although the FMQs (and the coverage thereof) has been extended and Reporting Scotland beefed up, Scotland 2016 seems likely to be replaced by a once-weekly hour-long (or maybe half-hour-long) programme of political analysis.

“Though I want the Scottish Six to work, I am concerned all the focus is on this one news programme, while quietly other cuts are slipping past unnoticed,” one insider said.

Others fret that the Scottish Six is an idea that is past its sell-by date; a shibboleth clung on to because of what it has come to represent (a historic denial of Scottish autonomy). “We are still having the same argument we were having 20 years ago, but news and the way we consume it has moved on,” the journalist said.

“Who is arguing these days – except in this very narrow debate – that people should have a whole hour of news? If anything, the debate is: ‘How can we divide the news into bite-size chunks so young people won’t let their attention wander?’”

The most pressing concern of those working in BBC Scotland, however, is the question of resources and whether or not senior managers, including MacQuarrie, will be prepared to fight for them.

“If you want to make a great programme it’s not rocket science. It’s not that the people who live in London are geniuses , it’s just that they have far more resources at their disposal.

Scotland 2016 was made on tuppence ha’penny and it showed. Good Morning Scotland does what it does very well, but you couldn’t honestly compare it to the Today programme. That’s nothing to do with people’s abilities, and everything to do with the money invested in it. It’s like night and day.”

Such scepticism is rooted in first-hand experience. Take the issue of cameras, a touchy subject, given commentator David Torrance found himself on the receiving end of abuse for raising it last week.

Scotland on Sunday has been told reporters were recently warned to cut down on their use of freelance cameramen. But how can they be expected to produce packages of a similar calibre to London’s without access to them?

“We all want the Scottish Six to work, but we know there are a lot of people out there who want it to fail, who will be delighted if it falls flat on its face, so you have to be careful what you argue for,” the insider said.

“If London says: ‘You can have your Scottish Six, but it’s not going to be properly resourced,’ is anyone in management going to say, ‘Well, we don’t want it then’? I don’t want to be gloomy. A Scottish Six is overdue, but I think there’s the realistic prospect of making a product none of us are happy with, and that will be demoralising.”

These concerns feed into others already raised by former BBC foreign correspondent Angus Roxburgh, a long-standing proponent of a Scottish Six, who last week suggested it could not be delivered without a loss of quality. “If Laura Kuenssberg or Jeremy Bowen is doing a live interview at the top of the Six O’Clock News, they can’t also do it at the top of a Scottish Six,” he said. “They could do it, perhaps, at 6.15pm, but that would mean the Scottish Six is already a poorer relation, having to adjust its running order to suit London’s priorities.”

Broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove – a passionate advocate of increased Scottish output (including a Scottish Six) – believes there are few logistical problems that could not be overcome with creative thinking, and that the issue of resources is being overstated.

“I think what can happen is that places institutionalise over decades. BBC Scotland has been in this mode of: ‘This is what news looks like.’ So you have your big story of the day, your social care slot - and then they’ll pop up with the football,” says Cosgrove.

“There is also a tendency to be diary-led – you see that around electoral politics where, on a particular day, all the main parties are running with housing so the BBC says: ‘We’ll run with housing.’

“Wouldn’t it be a good thing if the person charged with the Scottish Six sat down and said: ‘What can we learn or steal from Channel 4 News?’ But the obsession is already about connections with London. It’s almost as if [those in charge] think it can’t change. But so many things have already changed: the emergence of CNN, the emergence of 24-hour news on the BBC and Sky.”

Cosgrove accepts there are hurdles, but points out that Pacific Quay would have all London’s resources to draw on. “They would be able to take packages produced for the network news and re-edit the content to tell the story from a Scottish perspective; not put a kilt on it, just tell it in a different way.”

Using last week’s story about Andy Murray carrying the flag for Team GB as an example, he says a Scottish Six could have taken all the network footage, but focused on a different angle: the auctioning of his Wimbledon shirt in aid of a malaria charity. “Then, in the studio, you could have had a malaria doctor and someone from the charity, the same way Channel 4 News would hire two good people to talk about the subject.”

Though calls for a Scottish Six date back to the late Nineties, the issue was resurrected in the wake of the independence referendum, the Nick Robinson furore and the Yes protests outside the Pacific Quay. (As I am writing, a Twitter debate is raging over the BBC’s alleged decision to prioritise a story about pine martens over the discovery of two billion barrels of oil in a North Sea well.)

Although the notion of bias may be exaggerated, there are those, even within BBC Scotland, who believe coverage of the referendum was inadequate and that an integrated Scottish Six would go some way to winning back confidence.

Pacific Quay is not short of talent or achievements: in the past few years, it has picked up many awards, including the 2015 RTS Scotland Best News Programme for Reporting Scotland and the 2016 Best Current Affairs Programme. It has also broadcast high-profile investigations, including Mark Daly’s reports on doping in athletics.

“These are not the signs of a broadcaster which is lacking in creativity, commitment or vision and it’s insulting to our staff to suggest otherwise,” said a BBC Scotland spokesperson.

Yet despite the culture committee’s intervention, there is no indication that it is going to reach a decision any time soon. “We are continuing to test a number of options as part of our ongoing review into our news services and we are producing pilots as part of that process,” the spokesperson said. “Ultimately our main aim is to provide the best news offer possible and that is why we’re exploring a number of possible formats.”

NUJ national organiser Paul Holleran says initial unease about the pilots subsided as BBC Scotland journalists saw how well they were working.

“Everyone says the quality was good, but our concern is that eventually the BBC will say: ‘We have done all these pilots and this one – the top and tail format – is the only one logistically that will work.’ But the ‘top and tail’ option is a poisoned chalice: politically it would be absolutely disastrous for BBC Scotland and would create even more anger.”

One of the problems is that BBC Scotland still relies on London for decisions, resources and good will. Last week’s announcement that MacQuarrie and his counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland will no longer have a place on its executive team will have done nothing to reassure those who believe the BBC is playing lip service to further devolution.

Cosgrove, however, believes senior management at Pacific Quay must share the blame for the slow pace of progress. “Way too much time is spent waiting for London to say something, for London to give them permission,” he says. “Why couldn’t BBC Scotland have created these pilots six years ago and then – when they were getting close to something they were happy with – gone down south and demanded to be listened to?”

Those against a Scottish Six continue to insist there’s no appetite for it; they cite polls suggesting 63 per cent of people oppose the plans for an hour-long programme. Different surveys, however, show less than 50 per cent of Scots think the BBC is good at representing their lives, the lowest satisfaction rate in the UK.

So much has changed constitutionally since the Scottish Six was first mooted, it does seem odd that the bulk of our news is still produced in the capital with English-only stories about junior doctors higher up the running order than a failure to hit cancer waiting time targets in Scotland; and Scottish stories that make it on to the national news repeated word for word on Reporting Scotland.

But get the new programme wrong and the corporation will simply hand ammunition to those who say Pacific Quay is incapable of competing with Broadcasting House.

“The BBC needs to open the windows and let the air in and have a much better discussion about what a modern news service from Scotland should look and feel like,” Cosgrove says. “And it shouldn’t be obsessing about the SNP. I mean: who cares?”