As I See It
Time has come to switch on Scottish Six
The 20-year debate about the so-called ‘Scottish Six’ tells us as much about the wider political environment as it does about Scotland’s ability to edit and present a television bulletin of international news.
Resistance to such a programme being switched from London to Glasgow has naturally inspired the nationalists and conspiracy theorists, though there is broader support for the idea from those who simply feel a disconnection with the current bulletins.
Without wishing to turn this into a Machiavellian plot, there may be some merit in the argument that the political establishment has used the BBC as a unionist ‘weapon’. After all, media control exists even in a liberal democracy. While not necessarily overt, there are subtle ways of manipulating public opinion, and the BBC has not been immune to such processes.
The debate, however, needs to move on from conspiracy to practical recognition of changes that have taken place. Calls for a Scottish Six pre-date the devolution settlement and shifts of power to Scotland in recent years have inevitably moved the issue up the agenda.
This is not just a matter of making the news more relevant and interesting to the audience, but also bridging the ‘democratic deficit’. Viewers constantly fed a diet of news that does not affect them – for instance, about changes in health and education – has the effect of confusing and potentially misleading them. At worst, those issues that do affect them are often overlooked or minimised by a London production team inevitably focused on the bigger English audience.
Let it be said that the BBC is not alone in this. Other channels are equally ‘guilty’, as are many of the ‘national’ newspapers. The short-lived New Day newspaper made the crass error of publishing a front page headline referring to a proposed ‘British schools shake-up’.
Of course, the BBC differs because of the licence fee. Viewers can ignore other sources of news. The corporation, as a public service broadcaster, has a requirement to be universal and fair in its delivery (although it continues to ignore the Scotland-based Daily Business while mentioning other news websites, but that is an issue for another column).
Aside from the political issues around a Scottish Six, there have been debates about Scotland’s ability to produce an international and national television news programme. At one level this is patronising and insulting, though the Glasgow studio has been panned over the quality of programmes such as Newsnight Scotland and BBC Sportscene.
Such criticism may or may not be justified. At least, say the Scottish Six supporters, they address a relevant agenda, and because they are produced in Scotland they can be fixed in Scotland.
Even so, there are practical and logistical issues to consider.
Firstly, and in spite of devolution, Britain remains a unified state and London continues to be the main centre of activity politically and economically. It is the UK’s powerhouse, the source and home of everything from defence and capital markets to culture and the Royal Family.
Whatever shape a Scottish Six takes, it would need to take a considerable feed from London. The question then is whether the option of some form of London ‘opt-in’, dismissed by the Commons Committee, is in fact the most practical, beyond the new programme creating a duplicate London newsroom.
There is also the small matter of budgets. The BBC is undergoing some tough decisions and streamlining. This would present hardliners with a reason not to upset the status quo.
This would be a wrong call. Controlling costs should not be an excuse not to do this. Ensuring the BBC is fit for purpose is a far more persuasive reason for ensuring it does happen. That means shaping the budget to allow the corporation to serve those who pay for it.