By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, November 24th 2012

The BBC is in crisis. BBC Scotland faces significant job cuts, a strike ballot of staff, and the prospect of industrial action.

At a UK level, the BBC has hardly been out of the news in the last few weeks. There has been the Jimmy Savile scandal, a substantial payout to Lord McAlpine, and George Entwistle having to resign as Director General.

The BBC’s problems go much deeper than these immediate problems north and south of the border, and touch on what it is and how it sees itself, and crucially how it understands (and misunderstands) the nature of the UK.

The BBC in Scotland ever since it first began broadcasting here has had controversies over limited autonomy, the quality of programmes, and a management which has to face two ways at the same time: to London and Scotland.

In 1968, Alasdair Milne, then Controller of the BBC north of the border renamed the BBC at Queen Margaret Drive, ‘BBC Scotland’. He did it, as he reflects in his autobiography, by simply changing the wording on the front of the building. One insider says that ‘BBC Scotland is in essence a fiction’, an overstatement, but an observation containing an essential truth about where power ultimately lies.

The BBC’s distinctiveness was meant to be aided by the Broadcasting Council for Scotland set up in 1953, and the subsequent Audience Council, but these have shown themselves barely adequate in the modern age.

The Broadcasting Council worked in an age of Lady Avonside and the Earl of Balfour, but it failed crucially when it was most needed. A key moment for it and the BBC was 1997-98 and the debate to develop a more distinct, autonomous Scottish agenda which centred around the proposals for a ‘Scottish Six’, namely the principle of an integrated Scottish news and current affair programme bringing together Scottish, UK and international news under one roof.

There was at this point a conspicuous failure of BBC Scotland leadership, while John Birt, then Director General, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, lobbied hard against what they saw as ‘a trojan horse’ which they felt would lead to the breakup of the BBC.

Lets look at how BBC Scotland has covered news and current affairs subsequently. First, we got the compromise of ‘Newsnight Scotland’ as a sop for not having a ‘Scottish Six’. Despite the best efforts of many BBC staff it increasingly looks and feels like an anachronism.

Second, current affairs broadcasting in Scotland is predominantly and embarrassingly Westminster dominated. ‘The Daily Politics’ broadcasts five hours a week – 4.5 hours of Westminster politics with 30 minutes taken out of the schedule for live coverage of First Minister’s Questions. It is a huge imbalance of resources and reporting; we get masses of Westminster drama and theatre, most of it entertaining, but much of it irrelevant to Scotland.

Third, there is a narrowness in how current affairs is done on the BBC (and STV too). There are no Scottish equivalents of ‘BBC Question Time’. Twenty years ago the BBC and STV had a phalanx of public participation programmes such as ‘Words with Wark’ and ‘Scottish Women’ which were all axed when the Parliament came about to produce specialist politics programmes.

Where can the Scottish public gather and assess the mood of the nation at critical points such as the al-Megrahi release and controversy? Nowhere on our television schedules on the BBC or STV.

There is a deeper set of issues in this about how the BBC understands the United Kingdom. The BBC is as one observer put it ‘the guardian of Britain, never in front of the wave of change, always having to be dragged’. That is true when you think of all the big issues: Scotland, Europe, the hollowing out of our democracy, and the crisis of the British political classes.

The BBC is one of the last pillars of the British establishment – a liberal one – but one which is increasingly out of touch with a fragmented, diverse and divided society. It fails Scotland and Wales, but England too, and patronises, belittles and ignores English regions such as the North East.

The BBC national leadership is increasingly part of an old fashioned patrician order and institution which sits uneasily with and has been undermined by marketeering and management consultant logic, which led in John Birt’s time to the rise of what was called ‘Birtspeak’, a BBC version of the jargon, buzzwords and processes by which a new centralisation was imposed.

Two sets of changes are required, one British and one Scottish. The BBC needs a new pan-British compact, put into the next Charter Review to reflect the different audiences, regions and nations of the UK. This would recognise life in all its varieties beyond the London and South East, and a politics which wasn’t insular and self-obsessed with what happens in the Westminster village. It would understand that diversity was more than moving some staff north to Salford.

Scotland needs a specific Scottish solution to reflect our unique historical context and modern interests, in short, a completely distinct and autonomous Scottish Broadcasting Corporation run from Pacific Quay. This will require courage, vision and leadership from people, and it will necessitate all of us beginning to ask what do we want from broadcasters and what sort of Scotland do we want them to portray back to us.

This is one of the crucial missing ingredients in all of this, which BBC and STV contribute towards, namely, that Scotland can barely understand and see itself in the narrow, clichéd representations of itself portrayed in TV and radio.

We are a modern nation and society, rich, diverse, complicated, with huge potential and aspirations, as well as challenges, and yet we barely see any of this in the broadcasting media of Scotland.

Thirty five years ago the Royal Commission on Broadcasting savaged what it saw as the stereotypes and hackneyed images of Scotland on TV and radio, the tartan, haggis and shortbread mix, and demanded change. Things have got better in the intervening years, in that some of these old images have been dropped or weakened, while ‘the cultural cringe’ has dissipated.

Yet Scotland has changed so much in this period, and our broadcast media has not even tried to keep up with or reflect change. Wouldn’t it be something if BBC Scotland and STV began to recognise that things can’t go on as they are, and started to reflect in politics, culture and life the wonderful, creative nation out there? If they don’t these analogue providers will find in an increasing multi-media, digital world that they lose status and influence to new initiatives as people increasingly create content and platforms themselves.

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan -


# UpSpake 2012-11-26 07:40
Forget trying to replicate the past Gerry. An independent Scotland should keep the Church and Propaganda well away from broadcasting. Why create a Scottish version of the BBC when we see what that has become, a leviathian, un-responsive and up its own ****.
If the BBC wish to pump out more of its Great British nonsense then it can encrypt itself and sell its service to those of free choice who wish to pay.
No more License Tax.
While on the subject of money. This is almost a poll tax as it were. Scotland's population is actually rising somewhat so the pot of gold the BBC get is rising - surely so, why the cuts ?.
If the BBC is independent of state then surely they should be investing more ?.
The BBC Trust in their charter review were alarmed that the ONS have listed them as a 'Department of State' and the License Fee as a Tax. Ooops, stating the obvious.
# Angry_Weegie 2012-11-27 01:20
Quoting UpSpake:
While on the subject of money. This is almost a poll tax as it were. Scotland's population is actually rising somewhat so the pot of gold the BBC get is rising - surely so, why the cuts ?.
If the BBC is independent of state then surely they should be investing more ?.

The population is indeed rising, but the number of households is rising faster, so the number of licence payers is increasing at a faster rate than the population. Makes the argument even more obvious.
# Breeks 2012-11-26 08:29
I want a new broom too, the BBC is tainted goods, unfit for purpose.

Scotland deserves a modern, accountable broadcaster which isn't obsessed with London markets and share price news and which forever uses finance as the coverall yardstick to measure the significance of every living thing which happens in the world. Some people might need to know the FTSE or exchange rate of the £ hour by hour and minute by minute, but I don't, and it's very tiresome 'news'. - Rather like cricket continually featured as headline news.

I want a complete new era in Scottish Broadcasting, not the reheated remnants of the rancid BBC.
# Robabody 2012-11-26 09:58
Hear Hear Breeks (and Upspake)
# gus1940 2012-11-27 08:39
Re cricket scores - are you old enough to remember the days when BBC News Bulletins used to contain the score card for EVERY single County Cricket Match - at least there has been some improvement compared with that.
# hiorta 2012-11-26 10:11
""There was at this point a conspicuous failure of BBC Scotland leadership, while John Birt, then Director General, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, lobbied hard against what they saw as ‘a trojan horse’ which they felt would lead to the breakup of the BBC""

Of course the BBC is a trojan horse - a foreign cuddy trained by Westminster, only fit for depositing Unionist manure in our fair land.
# X_Sticks 2012-11-26 10:38
"One insider says that ‘BBC Scotland is in essence a fiction’"

Never a truer word...

BBC Scotland is as Scottish as "Scottish" Labour Party, "Scottish" Conservative Party or the "Scottish" Liberal Democrat party! None of them actually exist. They are a figment of their own imaginations.

Still, things will change in 2014 when we regain our independence from all these "Brigadoon" hallucinations!
# InfrequentAllele 2012-11-26 15:13
I keep saying this - but it bears repeating.

Gagauzia has control of its own media. It's a tiny autonomous territory with just 160,000 inhabitants in the poorest corner of Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. And it's got 2 TV channels of its own and a radio network.

We've got Reporting Scotland.
# art1001 2012-11-27 16:38
I would imagine they have better productions as well.

I have seen the same thing all over Europe. Each little area of Spain, Holland, Germany, Austria etc seems to have a local and regional TV station. It has actually got worse since we got our Parliament back with virtually Scottish programming made for a Scottish audience beyond fitba and murrdurr related news items.
# DoricBob 2012-11-26 17:03
We are poorly served by the BBC. For instance, breakfast TV on the BBC, gives Scottish news something like 2 minutes for each bulletin. Blink and you'll miss it, yet last week they spent 3 minutes plus, talking about women bishops in the Church of England. Most of the news reported is entirely irrelevant to Scotland. Test march reports and scores for instance, bleurgh!!!
# scots Highlander 2012-11-27 01:50
BBC ALBA SHOULD allowScots productions in Scots. As a Gaelic speaker I resent being pushed into a Gaelic Ghetto by the BBC.

We were working to establish media in Scotland , gaelic funding has been usurped by the BBC......START DEMANDING ACCESS, and free us from the ghetto !!
# bruman 2012-11-27 05:51
And if you're watching the morning news in HD you'll miss the Scottish content anyway as Pacific Quay seems to be stuck in the Dark Ages.
# scots Highlander 2012-11-27 07:09
BBC ALBA should also host Scots programs...that would free Gaelic from the ghetto they have placed us in, whilst busy airbrushing Scotland off the airwaves
# Independista 2012-11-27 10:00
Nicky Campbell's programme The Big Questions was all about women bishops in the Church of England, a subject which has absolutely NO revelance in Scotland, apart from the side issue of why the CoE is THE established church in the UK Parliament. The series is to have an extended run starting in January 2013. Will they discuss Scottish issues? I very much doubt it. One again, the BBC conflate English news with UK news. Its just not good enough
# Clydebuilt 2012-11-27 23:19
MSP's hit out at outrageous disrespect from BBC chiefs who snubbed broadcasting inquiry

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