I’ve been pondering a comment on the so-called Scottish Six news bulletin since the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report on the government’s ‘BBC White Paper and related issues’ was published the other day.
The report is brief, only sixteen pages long, of which just over one is concerned with the Scottish Six (4 paragraphs out of 60). I had intended a detailed analysis of the report itself but others are better able to do that and this is primarily a personal view on the proposed programme itself. Still, it may be helpful to start with a few comments on the report.
We … recommend that BBC Scotland proceed with option two [of three they have been piloting] as proposed: a [6 p.m. hour long] news programme anchored in Scotland, with a running order of Scottish, UK and international stories based on news merit, drawing on all the BBC’s facilities and broadcast from Scotland. (Paragraph 44)
The committee was made up of ten MPs, five Conservative, four Labour, and John Nicolson, SNP, a man with a long career in broadcasting before he became a politician. They took evidence from only a limited number of witnesses, on this subject two senior managers each from BBC Scotland and STV, and a written submission from an academic at Stirling University. The key text leading to their recommendation seems to me to be:
The six o’clock news in Scotland is split into two: the main news stories, whether international or relating to the UK (in whole or in part), are presented from London; while Scottish news is presented from Glasgow. In the post-devolution era, this can lead to network news programmes transmitted from London leading on several purely English stories—for instance on health, justice or education—which have no bearing on Scotland. Moreover in this arrangement, there is little or no scope for presenting a major UK or international issue from a Scottish perspective … this has led to a perception that the BBC has failed to accommodate news of particular importance to Scotland … The BBC has acknowledged that there is dissatisfaction with this situation. (Paragraphs 41 and 42)
I have some problems with this argument and the recommendation it leads to.
First, the reported perception that ‘the BBC has failed to accommodate news of particular importance to Scotland.’ The corporation’s annual report for 2014/15 did state that only 48% of the Scottish audience surveyed then believed that ‘the BBC is good at representing their life in news and current affairs content’ (report, p. 33). It also noted ‘significant concern among a section of the audience about perceptions of impartiality’ on their independence referendum coverage.
Together with persistent and (in my view) exaggerated or unfounded claims of bias by some nationalists, I suspect that this background, doubtless helped by the persuasiveness of Mr Nicolson, led the committee to record the perception of the BBC’s failure to ‘accommodate news of particular importance to Scotland.’.
It is worth noting that the relatively low satisfaction with news coverage was both in the immediate aftermath of the referendum and is not that far adrift from the proportion of the electorate who voted ‘Yes,’ although of course we cannot be sure that these were the same people.
Luckily, we have more up to date information on people’s views about the subject, from two opinion polls earlier this year reported on the What Scotland Thinks web site. I’ve paraphrased the questions and answers to make the text flow here but you can see the original words and data through the link in the previous sentence.
- In a YouGov poll for The Times in March 63% said they would prefer to see no change in how the evening news is broadcast on the BBC, 23% would prefer a Scottish Six, and 14% said they didn’t know which they preferred
- In a separate Survation poll for the Daily Mail in February, 36% said they supported a Scottish Six, 32% said they opposed it, and 32% said they neither supported or opposed it, or had no view
- In the same survey, 14% said they would be more likely to trust the BBC’s news coverage if there were a Scottish Six, 17% less likely, 60% that it would make no difference, and 10% that they didn’t know.
The evidence is not conclusive (it never is, even from properly conducted opinion polls like these). But it suggests strongly that the current public appetite for change in news coverage is significantly less than the select committee assume and the BBC found during the frenzied atmosphere of 2014.
So if the public appetite is either not there (YouGov – nearly two-thirds don’t want it) or at most limited and ambiguous (Survation), where does the pressure for it come from?
Let’s start with the least of the pressures but perhaps the most understandable– the broadcasters. They will respond in part to the pressures they feel under, from politicians generally and the wider public. Part of that public may not be large statistically, as we have seen, but it is very vocal, from the demonstrators who’ve protested at the BBC’s Pacific Quay premises in Glasgow (‘British Biased Corporation’), through lone authors and tweeters like G A Ponsonby (‘London Calling: How the BBC Stole the Referendum’ – free to read on Kindle if you must), to the constant drip feed on social media of objections that someone’s rally or protest wasn’t on the news or that the audience on a current affairs programme wasn’t balanced or Scottish enough (a Question Time earlier this year from Dundee).
There is also a more positive reason that broadcasters might want a Scottish Six. Who wouldn’t welcome the professional challenge of a news programme double the length of the one you produce now, with a much wider remit and a larger budget? If that was my line of work I’d go for it. Note that the select committee took evidence on the specific subject only from four Scottish-based broadcasters – two from the BBC, two from STV.
The select committee brings me to pressure on the news agenda from politicians generally. Of course they want more and better (although not too critical of their own party) coverage of politics. Of course they will see news through a political lens. Of course these particular politicians have been immersed in issues of devolution for more than two years, from the Scottish referendum itself, through the major piece of political work that is now the Scotland Act 2016, to the hugely enhanced presence of the SNP at Westminster and its impact. And of course the committee included the SNP’s John Nicolson, a broadcasting professional of great experience who will have known all the issues around Scottish broadcasting better than any of his nine fellow committee members. He will have spoken effectively, and no doubt emolliently, about the need to recognise the new realities post-referendum and post-Scotland Act.
Which brings me to my third pressure for a Scottish Six, and for wider change in Scottish broadcasting – nationalists generally and the SNP in particular. It is inevitable that people whose main purpose is independence/separation would want more (all) control of Scottish broadcasting to rest in Scotland. The very UK is an affront to them so broadcasting legislated for and, insofar as the BBC is concerned, funded at the UK level (the licence fee) is also an affront to them. UK news brings constant information about institutions and events in places they would prefer to be in a foreign country. The values and coverage of a UK service are not theirs.
It’s at this point that people like me start to see something a little sinister in nationalist pressure for a Scottish Six (a pressure, by the way, that has rumbled on for a number of years). It’s just one example of a whole range of SNP policies designed to ease Scotland and the interest of Scottish people away from anything to do with the UK. The process involved might be characterised as emphasising existing and creating new differences so that eventually people conclude they have nothing in common with the rest of the UK and start to question why they should be part of it. It’s true, for example, of a general conceit that we’re more left wing/liberal/progressive than the rest of the UK, when in fact we share pretty much the same values. It’s true of language, that instead of all speaking varieties of English, we speak Scots, which must be promoted in schools, through the government-funded Scots Language Centre, the creation of the position of Scots makar (poet laureate) and much more. And it’s true of broadcasting and its control generally, of which the Sottish Six is but one small part.
Here I confess that I don’t normally watch early evening news: my routine is to be doing other things at the time that make a background of radio news (BBC Radio 4) more practical. I usually settle down to watch the UK and Scottish news at 10 p.m. or thereby. But since the ‘flagship’ news bulletin is at issue here, I checked the content of the BBC’s 6 p.m. UK-wide news programme yesterday:
BBC1 TV news 6 p.m. 3 August 2016 – content and running order
I would have had less interest in some items than others, but these would be quibbles that anyone might have about the detail of editorial decisions, not fundamental political objections to overall content. Note that:
- half of the items deal with issues that are of UK-wide interest under present constitutional arrangements and impact on the whole of the UK. I am a UK citizen and want to know about them from a UK perspective. I would not, for example, be interested in an item on the UK Border Force filtered solely through, say, a lack of cover in Scottish waters and perhaps the Scottish Government’s views on what is not a devolved matter
- I might criticise the lack of international news, but the one major foreign story presented, the plane crash in Dubai, needs neither a specific UK nor Scottish dimension. It could have been a major disaster and there is graphic footage of it. I wouldn’t want the parochialism of ‘three Britons had a near escape’ or ‘a woman from Turriff just missed the flight’ highlighted in the item
- the bulletin includes a number of less directly political human interest stories from around the UK – a woman from Bradford imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, a lottery winner from Wales, the weather in the West Highlands highlighted. I have no problem with any of these items because I feel part of the UK. Which of them would be omitted in a Scottish Six and what might replace them?
On this occasion at least it seems to me the BBC has by and large got it right in terms of coverage and balance. There are none of the errors that understandably sometimes irritate Scots, especially items that don’t acknowledge devolution or the geographical limitations of information, for example ‘the government today said the NHS’ (… in England) or ‘new data on the housing market’ (… but only England and Wales). These errors anyhow seem to me far fewer than they used to be and can be easily avoided by tighter editing.
In all this there is of course one other significant factor: half an hour of UK-wide news at 6 p.m. is followed immediately by a half hour of Scottish news. Plenty of time here to pick up specific Scottish aspects of UK or international news items (it happens already) and to introduce other material of purely Scottish interest.
My conclusion should be obvious. I neither want nor see the need for a Scottish Six. The evidence seems to be that most Scots don’t want it either. The SNP and some of the more strident nationalists do. For them it’s yet another lever to prise Scotland away from the UK. The Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee seem to have been lulled into believing it should happen, whether by a partial examination of the evidence or the honeyed words of John Nicolson I don’t know. Let’s hope the Commons, the UK government and the BBC understand the wider picture that the Scottish Six is part of and quietly drop the idea.