Imagine… a future for the BBC in Scotland

Imagine… a future for the BBC in Scotland

Neil Blain (University of Stirling)

The Green Paper has arrived at a time when it’s harder than ever to know how to formulate a satisfactory future for the BBC’s role in Scotland.

Throughout its history there have been relationship problems between the Corporation and its Scottish consumers, and between London HQ and the main outpost of BBC Scotland in Glasgow. But they’ve generally been managed (more or less). Recent political developments, however, intensify areas of difficulty to a point at which past dissatisfactions are being overtaken by urgent pressures. The BBC is a core element of the anomalies within Scotland’s overall media provision which now look acute. There is no Scottish TV channel with editing and commissioning autonomy (the Gaelic channel excepted). Its indigenous productions are delivered in opt-out mode only, ducking out of the BBC/ITV network schedules for very limited periods.

This leaves Scotland with less indigenous TV provision than is taken for granted in European regions that have none of Scotland’s historical apparatus as a nation. It’s not just the SNP earthquake that signals how TV provision in Scotland lags behind political and cultural change (even its largely externally-owned press has been making some adjustments). Findings from recent Social Attitudes surveys are just as startling, showing a substantial majority of Scots declining to affirm even a dual identity. 62% define themselves as ‘Scottish only’, which involves rejecting a ‘Scottish and British’ alternative.

The numerous virtues of the BBC’s performance are as important in Glasgow or Inverness as they are in Birmingham or Swansea. (Though, similarly, reservations about its quality differ little – Victoria Derbyshire on the News Channel looks as ill-judged from Scotland as anywhere. However it’s increasingly difficult to celebrate the BBC’s worth in Scotland when its civil society has democratic, economic and cultural needs which the BBC is less and less well equipped to address.

There is little indication in the Green Paper, or in responses from the BBC, to suggest – despite the new visibility of Scotland in UK politics – that the London broadcasting world or its parliamentary overseers are any more sensitive than previously to the real sub-national complexity of the United Kingdom.

North of the border, the confusions are just as great. To imagine that the BBC is resourced to fill all the absences in Scottish broadcast provision would be absurd (STV is an opt-out channel too, while Channel 4’s ‘nations’ contribution is occasional). Nor does it help that Scottish broadcasting consumers want what other UK viewers and listeners receive, as well as their own programming. It’s not the BBC’s fault that the Scots can’t make their minds up about their relationship with the Union.

None of this lessens the need to ask more of Charter Review from a Scottish standpoint.

These are a few examples (they could easily multiply) of what might, from a Scottish viewpoint, have to be addressed:

  • The BBC’s Scottish operation and it’s programming in Scotland, e. both from London and Glasgow, are by-products of a strategy which is not concerned with Scotland.
  • Despite that, the BBC inadvertently became, de facto, the key patron for the Scottish independent broadcasting sector, which can, however, neither find enough commissioning from the Corporation, nor within a wide enough range of programming, to adequately sustain a Scottish production base. This is why that sector was highly supportive of proposals in 2008 for a new channel (see below).
  • The BBC persists in accumulating figures for ‘Scottish’ production spend which invite scepticism – the definition of what constitutes a Scottish production can be contentious – while over the years there is evidence of at best temporary fixes to maintain resourcing of BBC Scotland at a level which can be made to appear acceptable.
  • In an economic world in which cities and regions compete ruthlessly for investment, the BBC continues to be a prime marketer for London, even though cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh are direct competitors for revenue from tourism, conferences and inward investment. The BBC remains a core contributor to the economic imbalance of the UK. Its rebuttal of that charge seldom engages with the real scale of the problem.
  • The BBC continues to practise a form of reductiveness in which programming badged as ‘British’ is actually about England, or merely about London (these confusions can apply to policy statements too). This can turn an otherwise plausible series about England such as A Very British Renaissance into nonsense (in this case by forcing it to keep referring to a ‘Britain’ and the ‘British’ in the sixteenth century, and even earlier; it’s a recurring problem whenever England on TV pretends to be Britain). The tendency to Londonize everything except the ‘countryside’ is still chronic. The fact that this may be problematic for Liverpool or Leeds, too, doesn’t make it any less so in Glasgow.
  • The habit is at its worst in news and current affairs, in which Scotland as seen from London is a foreign country (novelist James Robertson instructively lampoons the attitude in The News Where You Are.

It is, of course, much easier to point out these difficulties than to know what to do about them.

In 2008, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission proposed the initiation of a new Scottish digital TV network and the follow-up Scottish Digital Network Panel made recommendations about its possible funding in a further report to the Scottish Government in 2011. The Scottish Parliament, however, though ostensibly welcoming such initiatives, does not have media matters within its remit, since these are retained by DCMS in London. Not unnaturally, the attention of Holyrood MSPs tends to be sustained on matters over which they can exercise authority. Various initiatives associated with attempts to match Scottish media provision more closely to the needs of Scottish civil society have found their natural home in the long grass.

The purpose of the proposed new Scottish channel was precisely to provide competition for the BBC in Scotland, which, were such a channel ever to emerge, would take pressure off the BBC as the major provider of public service broadcasting adapted to Scotland. However it would also target some of the BBC’s funding. Now, several years after the SBC report, is a moment even less propitious than 2008 to contemplate where that funding would come from. Nor has the Scottish government shown willingness to borrow from parts of Europe the notion that state funding of quality media provision is more convincing than virtuous words about the media’s democratic role.

It’s worth repeating that the BBC can’t be expected to solve problems older in some respects than the Union of 1707. But now that Scotland has expelled nearly all its MPs from Westminster parties, we might expect increased awareness, not just in the Green Paper or in the BBC’s responses to it, but around the whole debate, toward the BBC’s responsibilities for TV beyond England. (Token resort in the Paper to the superannuated ‘nations and regions’ formula is discouraging.) There was no useful clue to a possible future in the Scottish Government White Paper on independence, whose broadcasting proposals were much less well formulated than the Broadcasting Commission’s proposals of 2008. Nonetheless, the question of shared Westminster/Holyrood responsibility for the BBC in Scotland should be on the table as a basic element of Charter Review. This should apply to Ofcom’s effects in Scotland too, not least if its powers over the BBC grow.

Though, historically, the BBC could much better have played its hand in Scotland, Scots themselves should now be careful what they wish for. Nothing argued here alters the fact that the BBC confers large public service benefit on Scotland, and it might be asserted that in the short term it’s better to close ranks in defence of the Corporation, rather than expand the narrative of its alleged deficiencies. To the extent the Green Paper promises threat, then it’s to Scotland, too.

However, the enduring lack of comprehension in Broadcasting House of the specific shortcomings of its Scottish provision may indicate that only structural change – in whatever form – can rectify, unless simply terminate, an unsatisfactory relationship. Moving departments to Salford was never going to change the BBC’s London-centred soul (cheaper and more effective, surely, to have stayed in London and subjected executives to a few years of neuro-linguistic programming). The Corporation’s critics in Westminster, and most of the hostile London press, inhabit the same restricted metropolitan space as their target; as, unhelpfully, will too much of the forthcoming debate.

Perhaps, long ago, it was just possible to imagine a scenario in which the Corporation might become serious about its ‘nations and regions’ commitment, even just as a tactical element in its public service claim. Presently, senior TV executives in London may glance at the situation in Scotland and feel that they’d be better off ignoring it as a distraction, fighting their corner close to home (if that’s anything new). After all, not even the Labour Party in Scotland knows how to react, let alone in London. But with Holyrood elections in 2016, better footwork at Westminster and Broadcasting House will be needed or else the ‘British’ in the BBC may become as redundant as it is on A Very British Renaissance – even before the term comes under immediate threat at state level.


Neil Blain is professor emeritus of communications at the University of Stirling. In the past few years he has given evidence to various parliamentary inquiries into the media both at Holyrood and Westminster and was a member of the Scottish Digital Network Panel which reported to the Scottish Government in 2011. Past research consultancy work for the broadcasting industry included supervising the principal audience research in Scotland for an earlier BBC charter review. He co-edited The Media in Scotland (2008) and has recently co-edited Scotland’s Referendum and the Media: National and International Perspectives, which will appear early in 2016 (both with David Hutchison for Edinburgh University Press).

Image: Neil Blain