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The BBC needs a new Scottish channel

Why isn't there a digital Scottish channel for the 5 million Scots who speak English? Such a move could start to heal the wounds between Scotland and the BBC.

Iain MacWhirter
3 December 2015
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Protest staged at BBC Scotland, 2014. Credit: Demotix / Brian Duffy

There’s never been much love lost between the BBC and Scottish National Party members. Nevertheless, the BBC fringe meeting at this year’s SNP conference in Aberdeen was a torrid affair by any standards. The SNP had just won a landslide in the 2015 general election and delegates weren't going to let the BBC bosses forget it.

Irate nationalists accused the corporation of perpetrating “lies and half truths”, and even – shock horror - distorting Scotland's size on the BBC weather map. The BBC's commissioning editor for Scotland, Ewan Angus, accepted that the BBC had “issues” with news and cultural coverage in Scotland, and that “they would be addressed”. But that only seemed to intensify the anger and disgusted delegates ended up walking out of their own fringe meeting.

Now, I should make clear that the leadership of the Scottish National Party does not endorse these criticisms of the corporation. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon told the Edinburgh Television Festival this year that she did not accept that the BBC had displayed “institutional bias” during the referendum campaign. Though mistakes were made.

Indeed, they were. In the dying days of the campaign, after a You Gov opinion poll had suggested the Yes campaign were in the lead, a legion of BBC and other network correspondents piled over the border as if to a foreign country on the verge of civil war. Many were poorly briefed – often by the UK Treasury – and there were significant errors of tone and judgement, as even the BBC’s former political editor Nick Robinson has conceded.

But not even the leader of the Yes Scotland campaign, Blair Jenkins, has accused BBC of being politically biased. Neither he nor the Scottish Government authorised or led the two noisy demonstrations staged by independence supporters outside the BBC’s headquarters in Glasgow’s Pacific Quay during the 2014 referendum campaign. Nevertheless, Jenkins is the first to argue that the BBC needs to change to reflect the changing constitutional make up of the United Kingdom.

It certainly does. I spend a lot of time speaking to conferences and book festivals across Scotland and I am invariably surprised by the degree of hostility to the BBC from the very people who should be its greatest supporters. These are people who would normally defend public service broadcasting to the death. A large proportion of them, by no means all nationalists, say they no longer trust what they hear on the BBC.

Research by the BBC Trust confirms that more than half of Scottish viewers believe the BBC does not accurately reflect their lives in news and current affairs output. This is not a sustainable situation for a public service broadcaster.  There is a gulf of trust that must be bridged before the various internet-based campaigns aimed at boycott of the licence fee get off the ground.  Indeed, many on social media claim already to be refusing to pay the fee, now it has effectively been decriminalised.

Yet the solution to this credibility problem is readily to hand.  Back in 2008, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission called for a dedicated digital television channel to be set up in Scotland to address the organisational and cultural centralism of the BBC. It calculated the cost at a modest £75m, a tiny sliver of the BBC's annual revenues of over £5bn. The idea won very widespread support. Indeed, the proposal received the only unanimous vote – Labour, Tory, SNP and Liberal – ever recorded by the Scottish parliament.

However, the idea was barely discussed at UK level where responsibility for broadcasting remains a reserved power of Westminster. The UK Department of Media Culture and Sport ignored it and officials I spoke to seemed to regard it as a purely SNP ploy to create a propaganda channel at public expense. But this dedicated channel was very different from the SNP's vision of a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation, which it set out in the Scottish government's independence white paper in 2013.

Indeed, a Scottish digital channel has very little to do with nationalism. A channel that attempted to promote a party line would fall foul of statute and would be so boring that viewers would switch off in droves. Anyway, there already is a dedicated Scottish television channel, which has been in operation since 2008, which has never been accused of promoting independence - the only problem is that it is in Gaelic.

BBC Alba was a joint venture by the BBC and the Gaelic Media Service, a government-financed body that promotes the Gaelic language and culture. It transmits to 35,000 or so who claim to speak the language. The notion that there could not also be a channel for the other five million Scots who happen to speak English is a bizarre form of inverted cultural discrimination.

Why was Gaelic seen as a special case? Well, some believe this goes back to the dawn of devolution when there was a view in certain unionist circles that the Gaelic community might be more sympathetic to the UK than the lowlanders. But mainly it is because supporters of the Gaelic language were well organised and presented a case that was listened to on its own merits. The Scottish digital channel labours under the image of “Alex Salmond TV” - the idea that the former First Minister would decide the running order of the bulletins.

This is infantile. David Cameron doesn’t dictate news values on the UK BBC.   Scotland may have voted to remain within the Union, but it is now a largely self-governing nation within an increasingly federal UK. Yet the BBC remains a monolithic British institution, dedicated to reflecting a unitary United Kingdom that no longer exists.

This was why the former BBC Director General, John Birt, conspired with Tony Blair to oppose the creation of a Scottish Six O’Clock news bulletin back in 1999 when the Scottish parliament was created. In his 2002 autobiography, ‘The Harder Path’, Birt talks openly about this collaboration to fight “separatism”. It was a classic exercise of misguided centralism.

It was self-evident to anyone who had been following the constitutional debate that the creation of a parliament in Edinburgh with primary law-making powers across the range of domestic policy – education, health, justice, environment etc. – was going to require a devolved news service.  But instead, bemused Scottish viewers have been fed stories on hospital trusts, free schools etc. that are irrelevant to their lives. 

The BBC is thought to be now belatedly considering the creation of just such a devolved network bulletin. But I'm afraid things have moved on over the past sixteen years.  The “one BBC” approach is no longer tenable. The corporation needs to build bridges if it is to restore public trust. 

A Scottish public service channel would not end the criticism of the BBC overnight - indeed, it might even intensify it initially. But the point is that this grievance would be repatriated. Instead of the BBC being regarded as a London-based and essentially imperial propaganda service, here would be a service dedicated to covering Scotland in its own right. 

This would not be an exercise in nationalist propaganda or cultural self-flattery, but an opportunity for Scotland to explore the many problems faced by a country in transition, as it struggles to find a place for itself somewhere between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

In a further twist, the Guardian recently reported that the idea of a Scottish digital channel had been seriously considered as part of the BBC’s charter review process. Indeed, the paper reported that the idea had only been dropped because of government funding cuts.

If that is the case, then it should be picked up again - fast. This is one of those ideas – like devolution itself – which is fiercely resisted and even reviled right up until the day it is actually instituted. After which everyone wonders what the fuss was all about.

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