There has been no better justification for the existence of the BBC’s separate Scotland channel than its successful broadcasting of the Scottish Government’s daily Covid briefings over the past few months.
A significant number of these watchers – 280,000 on BBC One Scotland and 40,000 on BBC Scotland – are likely to be those who rely on televised news, rather than scouring social media or getting out to buy a paper, including those most at risk from the virus. These are the viewers being let down most.
The briefings, we are told, will run when there is an undefined measure of editorial merit. So what are the factors at play? How many deaths count as newsworthy? In the digital era, are updates from the government no longer considered relevant if there isn’t some shock factor each and every day?
For a channel sitting there waiting to be used, there is never a day when updates on this dangerous virus should be considered less newsworthy than reruns of Bargain Hunt, a prospect so infantilising, so like being spoon-fed mush when the body is crying out for nutrients, it’s difficult to type without laughing in disbelief.
The reassurance of daily updates on an ongoing situation shouldn’t be undervalued. None of us alive today has experienced such a world-changing event with such impact to our daily lives, and it’ll continue for some time yet. To keep on top of this thing, we need all the information we can get.
The timing could not be worse. Here we are, going into a second wave of coronavirus with cases rising by the day. Advice is more specific than ever. No longer a case of just staying inside, we have local lockdowns and different rules for different scenarios. This is precisely the moment we should be paying more attention, not less – not least because understanding why new, localised lockdowns are occurring is a strong factor in public compliance.
Of course, Scottish viewers long know what it’s like to be a footnote in ‘national’ UK programming. The daily broadcast was satisfying and valuable for exactly that reason. The regular broadcast, with journalist questions and critique, has propelled each day’s news cycle. There is a real risk that the move will cause confusion. Blanket headlines from UK news outlets often pertain to English regulations, and have a dominant presence online.
In this axing, under some notion of UK-wide parity, are viewers being penalised for the UK Govenment’s failure to get their act together? By reducing Scottish (and Welsh) broadcasts in line with Westminster’s, we are being dragged down to the level of the lowest common denominator.
Yet whatever the reasoning (is the change about newsworthiness or is it about parity?), it has, of course, been an opportunity for party political gurning. There are complaints from some non-SNP politicians that by virtue of also heading up a political party, the First Minister’s appearances on behalf of the Scottish Government grant her unfair visibility.
Any independent democracy would expect a leader to be visible. That is what it means to head a government. How often is Boris Johnson accused of promoting the Conservative Party whenever he does something as Prime Minister? Perhaps he would be, if he were more competent and more often present. If Douglas Ross is upset the Tory-led UK Government looks bad, perhaps he should look inwardly. The only thing stopping him from querying the details in the Scottish Parliament is not being there.
But who actually wants to be the voice of the pandemic, delivering death statistics and lockdown rules every day? Who in their right mind hears how many people are in intensive care each day and interprets this sad and gruelling information as party political perk?
Even ardent supporters of the SNP must occasionally groan when listening. But I suspect behind complaints is really resentment that whenever Sturgeon is on screen, her no-nonsense manner gains respect, and specifically from an older demographic traditionally resistent to independence.
Unionist parties are prone to castigating the SNP for their own popularity, Labour in particular taking little responsibility for driving away old voters in droves. Could it be they are simply being outshone by a centre-left competitor? That they are failing to take the public temperature while everything around is falling apart?
No, there must, according to a bitter logic, be something unfair going on. It’s someone else’s fault that they’re third in the polls. It’s someone else’s fault that Richard Leonard and Keir Starmer are stuck in tired old referendum denial mode, and that voters aren’t buying it. It’s Nicola Sturgeon’s fault, to be precise, not theirs. The public being kept informed is the problem. And so, like the Queen of Hearts painting the roses red, the Scottish public’s daily briefings must disappear from the schedule. As the months go by, too many seem to be forgetting that we’re still in the grip of the pandemic. Not only has it not gone away, but it’s rearing its head again. This is not the time to become lax, to lower our guard or standards. The public do not want to play party games with politicians while they cannot visit their relatives. It is reprehensible to argue for coronavirus broadcasts to be limited for political reasons, but some seem to be thinking of their own seat in the 2021 election, not the health – or temperament – of the nation.