Gerry Hassan: BBC must reflect the diverse audiences it serves

George Entwistle: forced to resign as director-general
George Entwistle: forced to resign as director-general
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SCOTLAND can barely recognise itself in the narrow, clichéd representations broadcast on television and radio,

writes Gerry Hassan.

The BBC is in crisis. BBC Scotland faces job cuts, a strike ballot of staff, and the prospect of industrial action.

At a UK level, the BBC has hardly been out of the news in the last few weeks. There has been the Jimmy Savile scandal, a substantial payout to Lord McAlpine, and George Entwistle having to resign as director-general.

But the BBC’s problems go much deeper than this, touching on what it is, how it sees itself and crucially how it understands (and misunderstands) the nature of the UK.

The BBC in Scotland, ever since it first began broadcasting here, has had controversies over limited autonomy, the quality of programmes, and a management that has to face two ways at the same time: to London and Scotland.

In 1968, Alasdair Milne, then controller of the BBC north of the Border renamed the BBC at Queen Margaret Drive, “BBC Scotland”. He did it, as he reflects in his autobiography, by simply changing the wording on the front of the building. One insider says that “BBC Scotland is in essence a fiction” – an overstatement but an observation containing an essential truth about where power ultimately lies.

The BBC’s distinctiveness was meant to be aided by the Broadcasting Council for Scotland set up in 1953, and the subsequent Audience Council, but these have shown themselves barely adequate.

The Broadcasting Council worked at the time of Lady Avonside and the Earl of Balfour, but it failed crucially when it was most needed. In 1997-98, the debate to develop a more distinct, autonomous Scottish agenda, which centred around the proposals for a Scottish Six developed, namely the principle of an integrated Scottish news and current affairs programme bringing together Scottish, UK and international news under one roof.

There was at this point a conspicuous failure of BBC Scotland leadership, while John Birt, then director-general, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, lobbied hard against what they saw as “a Trojan horse” which they felt would lead to the breakup of the BBC.

Lets look at how BBC Scotland has covered news and current affairs subsequently. First, we got the compromise of Newsnight Scotland as a sop for not having a Scottish Six.

Second, current affairs broadcasting in Scotland is embarrassingly Westminster dominated. Daily Politics broadcasts five hours a week – 4.5 hours of Westminster politics with 30 minutes taken out of the schedule for live coverage of First Minister’s Questions. It is a huge imbalance of resources and reporting.

Third, there is a narrowness in how current affairs is approached on the BBC (and STV too). There are no Scottish equivalents of BBC Question Time. Twenty years ago, the BBC and STV had a phalanx of public participation programmes, such as Words with Wark and Scottish Women, which were all axed when the parliament came about to produce specialist politics programmes.

Where can the Scottish public gather and assess the mood of the nation at critical points such as the al-Megrahi release and controversy? Nowhere on our television schedules on the BBC or STV.

There is a deeper set of issues here about how the BBC understands the UK. The BBC is, as one observer put it, “the guardian of Britain; never in front of the wave of change, always having to be dragged”. That is true when you think of all the big issues: Scotland, Europe, the hollowing out of our democracy, and the crisis of the British political classes.

The BBC is one of the last pillars of the British establishment – a liberal one, but one which is increasingly out of touch with a fragmented, diverse and divided society. It fails Scotland and Wales, but England too, and patronises, belittles and ignores English regions such as the North East.

The BBC national leadership is increasingly part of an old-fashioned patrician order and institution which sits uneasily with and has been undermined by marketeering and management consultant logic, which led in John Birt’s time to the rise of what was called “Birtspeak”, a BBC version of the jargon, buzzwords and processes by which a new centralisation was imposed.

Two sets of changes are required, one British and one Scottish. The BBC needs a new pan-British compact put into the next Charter Review to reflect the different audiences, regions and nations of the UK. This would recognise life in all its varieties beyond London and South East, and a politics which wasn’t insular and obsessed with what happens in the Westminster village. It would understand that diversity was more than moving some staff north to Salford.

Scotland needs a specific Scottish solution to reflect our unique historical context and modern interests – in short, a completely distinct and autonomous Scottish Broadcasting Commission run from Pacific Quay. This will require courage, vision and leadership from people, and it will necessitate all of us beginning to ask what we want from broadcasters and what sort of Scotland we want them to portray back to us.

This is one of the crucial missing ingredients: Scotland can barely understand or see itself in the narrow, clichéd representations on TV and radio.

We are a modern nation and society, rich, diverse, complicated, with huge potential and aspirations, as well as challenges, and yet we barely see any of this in the broadcasting media of Scotland.

Thirty-five years ago, the Royal Commission on Broadcasting savaged what it saw as the stereotypes and hackneyed images of Scotland on TV and radio, the tartan, haggis and shortbread mix, and demanded change. Things have got better, but Scotland has changed so much in this period, and our broadcast media has not even tried to keep up. Wouldn’t it be something if BBC Scotland and STV started to reflect in the politics, culture and life it portrays, the wonderful, creative nation out there?

If they don’t, in an increasing multi-media, digital world, they will find that they lose status and influence as people increasingly create content and platforms themselves.