8 May 2011

Is British TV failing Scotland?

I’d forgotten how English the British media is. Having started my career in BBC Scotland it used to be something I was quite aware of.

I’d forgotten how English the British media is. Having started my career in BBC Scotland it used to be something I was quite aware of. The inevitable concentration in TV news programmes on English concerns, English politics, English culture was always a bit irritating to those living north of the border. 

After devolution that seemed more noticeable. And having spent just a couple of weeks north of the border in the last month it seems blindingly obvious that the status quo doesn’t make sense anymore. The new political situation in Scotland seems to make the demand for change stronger and digital technology means there are few excuses for not meeting it.

Turn on the BBC News channel, or the main TV news programmes and they are full of stories about education, politics, policing and many other things where life is simply different in Scotland. The word “parliament” always means Westminster.

The political rows are about the coalition in Westminster, not the government taking big decisions in Edinburgh.  BBC Scotland and STV conducted their own election night coverage and election TV debates – but most of the time Scotland has to rely on perfectly decent but obviously under-resourced opt-out programmes (don’t dare call them “regional news”) that confine Scottish perspectives to a small slot.

Read more: SNP wins majority in Scottish elections

So it seems all the more strange that the long debate over creating a “Scottish Six” has largely gone away. The idea was simple : Scotland should have its own national and international news programme at six o’clock without the English bias that is inevitably entrenched in the current UK offering.

It would decide its own priorities, have access to all the same BBC international news and correspondents, and bring Scottish sensibilities, values and culture to the programmes. Amid arguments that a Scottish Six would be parochial, divisive, a political move in itself and that Scottish viewers would miss out on the BBC’s best offerings crafted in London the Corporation rejected the idea. Instead of a mainstream Scottish news at teatime on BBC1 when large audiences watch they went for an opt-out at the end of Newsnight on BBC2.

Technology has come a long way in the five years since. Television news is now produced largely on computers, pictures can be loaded in one city and accessed in another. So producing new programmes with a Scottish flavour would be much easier than it ever was.

Viewers now mostly have access to digital television and the internet so if people in Scotland really wanted to watch the London offering instead of the Scottish one they could. Nobody would have to miss out on anything. In fact it is so easy that there is no reason why a Scottish offering should be restricted to six o’clock.  A Scottish Breakfast, One, Six and Ten are perfectly possible. If you listen to Good Morning Scotland on the radio you will rarely miss the Today programme. The same could be true on television, if the will was there.

Of course money is the big issue. ITV simply couldn’t afford to do it. The BBC is facing cuts. Yes there are licence fee payers in Scotland, but a lot less than there are in England.

A new beefed-up Scottish news service that could compete in quality, resources and production (not to mention talent) would cost tens of millions more every year and presumably have to be paid for from general taxation. In the current climate there is unlikely to be any easy way of explaining why TV is a priority over other public services.

Nor does it make sense for UK news programmes to suddenly start devoting vastly more time to Scottish affairs that do not affect the majority of their viewers.

I am sure Scotland will feature more in the UK network news offerings, as the independence debate finally takes off, but it will be covering Scotland for a UK audience, and that inevitably means missing some of the detail and nuance that Scottish viewers deserve. So there is no doubt that the TV offering is failing to keep up with the realities of life in Scotland. But unless Scottish taxpayers would like to pay for it there don’t seem to be any easy, affordable, answers.