Brian Wilson: Scottish Six not needed or necessarily wanted

A Glasgow-based news hour would be simply one more symbol of division and difference. Picture: Getty Images
A Glasgow-based news hour would be simply one more symbol of division and difference. Picture: Getty Images
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THE proposed ‘Scottish Six’ news bulletin on the BBC isn’t needed, nor is it necessarily wanted by most Scottish viewers, writes Brian Wilson

The debate on BBC charter renewal is following the first rule of Scottish politics – keep talking about powers and process while drowning out inconvenient diversions of substance and content. It has become a source of national outrage, if the voices of Nationalism are to be believed, that there are not enough Scottish programmes and, in particular, that the main television bulletin of the day is not assembled in Scotland.

Give us more powers, they say, and broadcasting will be transformed. We shall see the world through the prism of Scotland rather relying on the London-centric myopia of the hated BBC. We need powers in Scotland in order to achieve “balance”. Aye, that will be right.

It all seems like a re-run of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, one of the SNP’s first creations in government and duly confirmed as a publicly funded front organisation whose principal eminence re-emerged as supreme commander of the unsuccessful Yes campaign. Even the most accommodating BBC mandarin or dame might find a clue in this. These demands are less about broadcasting than the means to a political end. The charter process has breathed life into this long-term agenda. Its objective remains the same – to replace anything which reflects the unity of our island with symbols of division and difference.

It seems the BBC has finally been browbeaten into acquiescence and pilots are to be run of the fabled “Scottish Six”. The new enlightenment will be ushered in. We shall have more breathless commentary about not very much from Holyrood and unchallenged sound-bites from its anointed ones. Nation shall speak trivia unto itself.

Or perhaps I err and there is some higher editorial purpose? For guidance, I was grateful to Stuart Cosgrove, who speculated on what a Scottish Six might have looked like this week. Stuart has utilised his long sojourn among the London-centric enemy to illuminate what a Scottish news schedule might look like.

Under the heading “Don’t Cringe in My Backyard” – sorry, Stuart - he proposed “Savile in Scotland – the local fall-out of a very British scandal; EU Referendum for North East – a special report from Peterhead; Is the Offensive Behaviour Act buckling under the stress of football fans’ hostility?”

• READ MORE: Pilot for BBC’s Scottish Six in in the pipeline

I won’t bore – sorry, excite – you with his full schedule. But take my word. There is not one story which BBC Scotland (or STV) could not be doing right now without any structural change to broadcasting. This is where the argument becomes conveniently confused. What could be a debate about Scottish content and priorities is turned into an entirely unsubstantiated assertion that “the powers don’t exist”. Just like politics.

Both Stuart and I are old enough to remember when BBC Scotland ran a very good progamme called Current Account which would have tackled any of his chosen subjects at the drop of a hat. It featured outstanding presenters, reporters and editors like Magnus Magnusson, David Scott, Brian Barr and Colin Cameron.

It broke big stories and spawned a political offspring in Public Account, presented by Andrew Neil, the Scottish interviewer Nicola Sturgeon declines to face – not in itself a very promising harbinger for the future of “independent broadcasting”.

All of this was in the 1970s and BBC Scotland is certainly not less well resourced now than then. It may have different programme-making priorities and these may well be in response to the tastes of its viewers, not all of whom are devoted to a diet of news and current affairs. The one certainty is that it is neither structure nor funding that prevents BBC Scotland from handling any of the subjects which Stuart Cosgrove recommends.

I’m sure he’s heard of the late Kenny MacIntyre, Scotland’s most influential broadcaster pre-devolution. Kenny and I were old friends. Our fathers went to Oban High School together. But when Kenny switched on his tape recorder, there were no holds barred and his objective was to get the story you didn’t want to give him. Often, he succeeded and repeatedly upset politicians and set the Scottish agenda. He didn’t need a Scottish Six to do it.

Spend money on training a dozen Kennys and you would transform Scottish news output more effectively than through anything currently being discussed. That’s the difference between process and substance. But the prospect would horrify Scotland’s ruling elite. A broadcaster who wouldn’t accept a rehearsed sound-bite or turn off the tape recorder when instructed? Get the Special Advisers on to Pacific Quay immediately to complain, bully and threaten!

The funding issue is interesting. Fiona Hyslop, the Culture Minister who doesn’t seem very successful in defending her own funding territory, claimed the BBC spends just £35 million – about one-tenth of the licence fee collected – on Scottish programme making. This was quickly shown to be comprehensively untrue. The actual figure spent on “Scottish-only” content alone is more than three times that. For the rest of our licence money, we benefit from the whole vast range and quality of BBC programming. There is not the slightest evidence of mass dissatisfaction with that arrangement. As many Scots listen to the Today programme as to Good Morning Scotland. Far more listen to Radios One and Two.

On radio, it is easier to vote with the dial – and that gives no sustenance to the view that Scotland wants to look inwards rather than outwards. If a Scottish Six is concocted, the same division will occur, with much of Scotland preferring the full BBC news if it is available to them. So further division will be promoted on the basis of a grievance about nothing.

If the BBC goes down this route, it will be an admission of its own failure. Every big country in the world has devolved government in various forms and all of them retain flagship, country-wide news programmes. Even the USA, with 51 states and a plethora of diversity beyond our comprehension, recognises the significance of that statement.

It is something that binds countries together, despised only by those who want to split countries apart. The BBC should summon its courage, concentrate on the content and resist the clamour from, essentially, the same people who were fomenting intimidatory outrage outside Pacific Quay, 18 short months ago. They will never be appeased and it is a mistake to try.