Two days ago the first minister gave a speech entitled We need greater diversity both on and behind our TV screens at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. To give credit where it’s due, it was a thorough and well-informed job that spoke well, if not of her, then of whoever wrote it for her. Of course, the same could be said of a well-crafted speech by any politician.
It did contain a touch of hubris in her characterisation of August as a time
when Edinburgh and Scotland are the cultural capitals of the world.
I’m not sure they’ll have noticed that in Sao Paulo or Beijing, but maybe it’s the sort of thing politicians have to say about their home turf. I also wondered whether the impossible claim that
viewers in Scotland and around the world … now have access to an infinite variety, or at least an infinite number, of programmes
was a reflection on the state of maths teaching in Scottish schools.
I also found little to disagree with in the part of her speech dealing with diversity and equality. Some of it was predictable from a politician who’s made gender equality the core of her ‘progressive’ pitch. Some I agreed with wholeheartedly, not least her objection to the fact (I assume the statistic is correct) that
three-quarters of new entrants to journalism had done an unpaid internship.
The progressive bit of me is wholly opposed to unpaid internships: they are yet another barrier in the way of young people who cannot afford to work unpaid, even for a limited time.
This was all about projecting the first minister as stateswoman on an international stage. It’s why, I guess, there was a nod in the direction of ‘the different nations and regions of the UK,’ no overt criticism of the UK itself, and certainly no statement of the SNP’s overarching purpose – independence/separation from the UK. It’s presumably also why there was none of the overt hostility towards the BBC specifically and the mainstream media (MSM) generally that characterises much of the Scottish nationalist narrative at all levels – from senior elected politicians to the conspiracy theorists convinced that the BBC/MSM are all part of a gigantic plot to undermine the nationalist cause.
But if the detailed crafting of the speech was likely to appeal to the assembled great and good of the industry, the careful listener could also discern the persistent rumble of discontent in the latter part of the speech, on ‘Television production in Scotland.’
Here a little background is helpful. If you were not aware, the SNP and other nationalists had campaigned for many years for what was popularly called the ‘Scottish Six,’ a proposed hour of news on BBC1 produced entirely in Scotland, wrenching Scottish viewers away from the combined UK/Scottish bulletins that currently fill that time.
The rug was pulled instantly, and adroitly, from under the SNP’s feet earlier this year when the BBC announced that rather than an hour of news from Scotland, they were starting a whole new BBC Scotland channel that would include an hour of news delivered each evening at 9 p.m. Extra money for the channel and for other programmes to be produced in Scotland was announced, along with more jobs for journalists.
Observe how the first minister dealt with this in her speech.
First, while ‘I warmly welcome the BBC’s moves … I called for that new BBC channel when I last spoke at this festival.’ So, you’ll get the point, the idea was really hers.
Second, although the channel ‘is set to have a budget of £30 million … there are already legitimate questions about whether that will be sufficient.’
And third, ‘the fact that the new channel will only be broadcast in standard definition could limit its appeal. For drama, in particular, viewers increasingly expect high definition to be available.’ Hmm, really? It’s not something I would see as hugely limiting. It smacks more of a special advisors’ brainstorming session in which someone said, ‘Come on, there must be something else we can spin against this.’
The comment about the budget reflects a constant nationalist refrain that can be summarised as ‘it’s not fair.’ There’s never enough UK money devoted to Scotland, a grievance echoed in a more general point the first minister makes elsewhere in her speech about the BBC:
approximately 72 per cent of the licence fee raised in Scotland will be spent in Scotland. However in Wales and Northern Ireland, it is 98 per cent. Even with the BBC’s new commitment, we won’t have parity with those countries
and, no surprise to many of us, her statement that
it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Scottish broadcasting – for all the undoubted progress of recent years – is still being short-changed.
Curiously, a similar point about fairness and parity was entirely missing from the Scottish government’s response to the latest GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) figures which confirm, yet again, that public expenditure per head of population is significantly higher than elsewhere in Britain and exceeds taxation raised in Scotland.
The BBC was involved in one more development the first minister touched on, the establishment by the National Film and Television School (NFTS) of a new base in Scotland. The Scottish government will support the base and
the BBC is giving significant support to the venture – the school will be based at Pacific Quay, and will be able to use the BBC’s studio facilities.
The BBC’s own news item on the subject spells out the government’s own contribution a little more fully – £475,000 – and confirms the corporation will contribute with the government to a bursary fund for students. I suspect that, taken together, its commitment and that of the School itself is significantly more than the government’s.
Wouldn’t all this – the news hour, the new channel, further investment in Scottish TV production, the NFTS – be an occasion to say simply and wholeheartedly ‘I congratulate the BBC for their commitment, their actions and their funding’? But no, that’s not the narrative. The facts have to be acknowledged but enthusiasm and gratitude cannot be made explicit. The whole approach remains as grudging as the SNP’s attitude to anything that is British.
A final detail from the speech. Channel 4 are apparently considering, or are being urged to consider, a move of their HQ out of London. Thus the first minister:
One other issue which I know will have been discussed a lot over the last few days is Channel 4’s proposed relocation … Glasgow would be an obvious base.
If you were running a major UK TV channel, would you move it to a city where the main aim of the dominant political party is to put it into a foreign country? Answers on a postcard to David Abrahams, chief executive of Channel 4.