BBC and STV are falling short in Scotland’s great debate

As the referendum approaches in Scotland, both BBC Scotland and STV are failing to facilitate the national debate as well as is needed.

The BBC and STV are failing the people of Scotland in their coverage of the independence referendum, despite the best attempts of some of the many talented journalists still in these organisations. The reasons for this are deep-seated: historic, structural, and about the failure of management to lead, be bold and creative.

The independence debate could not have come at a worse time for the BBC and STV. It caught both bodies ill-prepared, under-resourced, and basically, not taking Scotland or Scottish politics that seriously.

It never used to be like this. Turn back to the end of the 1980s and early 1990s and both BBC and STV had a reputation for doing news and current affairs well. The early evening news programmes, ‘Reporting Scotland’ and ‘Scotland Today’ (the precursor to ‘STV News at Six’), were seen across the UK as serious, authoritative and popular.

More than this, both BBC and STV did programmes about politics, current affairs and social issues which brought the public into discussions, giving them a platform and voice to question and challenge politicians and experts. Examples of this include, ‘Scottish 500’, ‘Scottish Women’, and ‘Scottish Voices’.

All of these shows were axed by both broadcasters with the advent of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. In their place came a range of specialist programmes which put the Parliament and politicians centrestage: ‘Newsnight Scotland’ and ‘Crossfire’ being the obvious examples.

Looking back this can now be seen as a retreat in how politics and current affairs were undertaken, and a narrowing of the conversation. Programmes such as ‘Scottish 500’ and ‘Scottish Women’ are what are known as ‘mediated access programmes’ to denote that members of the public play an active role in setting the mood and sometimes agenda of these shows.

The two long running examples of this format are (with all their undoubted present day limitations) BBC’s ‘Question Time’ and ‘Any Questions’ currently presented by brothers David and Jonathan Dimbleby. While they regularly infuriate viewers and listeners, it is the cultures and practices of the shows that are relevant to the Scottish debate: in how they tour the country, select their audiences and then work with them pre-show to get them in the mood, and choose their panels and subjects.

All of this is missing from BBC and STV’s approach to politics and current affairs, and hence the referendum debate. This is a manifestation of the retreat of BBC and STV over fifteen years to make politics and current affairs a minority interest pastime – by and for politicians and miniscule partisan audiences rather than the general public.

It is only in this light that BBC and STV’s coverage can be seen and the limitations of last week’s referendum special programmes on both channels: STV’s ‘Scotland Tonight Referendum Special’ with Nicola Sturgeon and Johann Lamont, and BBC Scotland’s ‘Newsnight Special’ with Fiona Hyslop and Annabel Goldie.

STV’s programme was widely panned and called a ‘stairheid rammy’ on twitter and elsewhere. It was such an off-putting, adversarial dialogue that STV’s Political Editor Bernard Ponsonby distanced himself from the whole edifice on the show, commenting that ‘what we got was a lot of words and a lot of noise, and a lot of noise that was spoken over one another, and frankly not a lot of new information’, concluding about his own station’s show, ‘I learned nothing from that’.

The sad thing is this wasn’t a one-off as previous ‘Scotland Tonight Referendum Specials’ have had the same format, feel and mass turn-off. Last week’s show was the fourth in this series, and at least two of the previous three have had a similar aggressive, non-engaging atmosphere: one being between Nicola Sturgeon and Anas Sarwar, the other Sturgeon and Alistair Carmichael; rumour has it on the former, STV experienced a mass exodus audience wise, but still have persisted with this format from which no one is gaining and the democratic process and public are the biggest loser.

The BBC have not exactly had to look for their problems either. Last Monday saw a ‘Newsnight Special’ in which three BBC journalists, Douglas and Isabel Fraser and Gary Robertson cross-examined for fifty minutes Fiona Hyslop and Annabel Goldie. This wasn’t quite the STV car crash, but neither the format nor politicians had the depth of understanding to survive such a lengthy exploration. As a result it sagged, with both politicians engaging in cheap point scoring and the journalists feeling they could not dig deeper with their questions.

Much of the commentary about such programmes is vague about who is responsible for this state of affairs. There is a historical background in the way that the BBC responded to the creation of the Scottish Parliament over the ‘Scottish Six’ with senior management colluding in a centralist interpretation of the UK and minimal one of political devolution; STV while not having the specific focus of the ‘Scottish Six’ responded with similar lack of imagination.

Then there is the story of the retreat from populist mediated access programmes to the specialist, incestuous, self-reverential shows of the last fifteen years. The question that is seldom asked and hasn’t been in the last week, given the talents of many of the journalists involved in these programmes is who is responsible for this failure of format and commissioning?

The answer is the senior management of BBC and STV who have both failed to invest and nurture in the talent, imagination and drive in their stations over the last decade plus. It is BBC and STV management who are responsible for the calamitous choice of formats on the referendum, consistently opting for unimaginative, adversarial, rhetorically empty exchanges which put politicians and partisanship first and foremost. This is a product of the absence of a culture and practice of programmes which put the public first, in the studio, and which takes risks with formats and styles.

STV have been riding on the back of self-congratulation for the last two years on the basis ‘Scotland Tonight’ is better and more lively than ‘Newsnight Scotland’: surely an easy measurement of success and not bothered about its limitations: its superficial character, lack of depth, and the shortcomings of its presenters exploring issues (which has come over in the ‘Referendum Specials’).

The independence referendum has come at a point where the retreat of these institutions had become endemic. They had at a senior level given up trying, and as many of us know from speaking to people inside the BBC and STV, much worse, actively stopping people from doing things imaginative, daring and different.

The BBC and STV are failing their national missions, the people of Scotland and Scotland’s historic debate. The senior people of these organisations, who are paid impressive and hefty salaries for their time and talent, have deliberately brought this about. It cannot be left unstated and unchallenged by the rest of us.

There are just over six months to go. That is still time for leadership, listening to and nurturing good journalism, and valuing and respecting the public. That would need a cultural revolution in the BBC and STV. It would require programmes which go beyond the ubiquitous politicians and panels, to actively involving the public, commissioning interesting films, provocations and documentaries (the latter one of the few bright spots on both channels).

At the moment, BBC and STV are covering the independence referendum with all the care and shoddiness they have of Scottish domestic football for years: treating it as a second rate product which has a captive audience who will watch whatever second rate pap they turn out. The difference is that politics and the independence debate aren’t just a contact sport or some kind of game, but about something much more fundamental.

This debate is about breaking out of old practices, certainties and the idea that politics is a closed conversation of our elders. In this, BBC and STV have so far been found seriously wanting. Are we really content to leave this debate on TV to in Ponsonby’s words, ‘a civil war without the guns’, or can we demand and expect something better?

About the author
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and academic. He is co-Director of Scotland's Festival of Ideas and was awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell). His most recent books are 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' and 'Independence of the Scottish Mind: Elite Narratives, Public Spaces and the Making of a Modern Nation'.