Brian McNair Writes About Scottish Television

The debate on the future of Scottish broadcasting is heating up. Last week, the SNP again proposed the replacement of BBC Scotland with a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation. Arguments about the need for more Scottish content on Scottish screens were again rehearsed, along with the claim that the main barrier to this happy outcome thus far has been the London-based BBC.

As I argued in the Guardian two years ago, the argument about the future of the BBC in Scotland is entirely bound up with the constitutional debate. It is a proxy war, fought on the terrain of national culture, about the legitimacy of the British state.

If you want to break up Britain, you want to break up the cultural embodiment of Britishness, which is the BBC. The BBC and its programmes are held in as much affection by Scots as they are by the English, notwithstanding the frequent gripes we all have with 'Auntie' and her sometimes imperious ways. Separatists want to break its emotional hold on Scotland, first by blaming it for all the perceived failures and lacks of broadcasting north of the border, and then replacing it with something they regard as more authentically Scottish (whatever that means).

Unionists, for the same reasons as the nationalists want to banish it, wish to keep BBC Scotland intact, even if most agree that it needs reform and revitalisation. The BBC, and the contribution it has made to culture in these islands and globally, is the best advertisement for a United Kingdom they have.

So Mike Russell’s call for an SBC isn’t a realistic policy proposal so much as a nationalist rallying cry. But it won’t go away, and the people of Scotland will in due course have to decide how they want to respond to it.

More urgent last week was the turmoil around STV. Following its recent proposal for an integrated early evening news hour, produced in co-operation with ITN, ITV issued a £40 million law suit over its regional partner’s decision to drop some network programmes. STV will probably counter-sue, claiming losses of advertising revenue. The bitterness of the dispute reflects the severity of the financial difficulties affecting both companies.

Meantime, the integrated news hour, and the public money it might attract in the name of preserving broadcast news plurality, was countered by a pitch from Scotland’s three big newspaper publishers. Tom Thomson  of Herald and Times told the Sunday Herald that “we do not support a state subsidy for news but if this funding is offered we are obliged to seek it”.

They may seek, but will they find? Aside from the unprecedented media ownership and competition issues which might rise from such a move, can we assume that it would require cast iron guarantees that the editorial biases and proprietorial preferences of the three companies, one of which is US-owned, will not be permitted to interfere with content?

Commercial public service TV news operates by the same standards of journalistic impartiality which guide the BBC. That will continue as the price of support from the tax payer (in whatever form it eventually takes). In Scotland, with looming battles over referenda and independence likely to be heated and divisive, broadcast news’ impartiality will be crucial to the integrity of the democratic process.

The acknowledged importance of broadcast news political neutrality owes much to the fact that newspapers can be as partial as they like, and that their readers expect no less. The world as reported by the Guardian is not quite the same as that represented in the pages of the Telegraph. In Scotland, the Herald and Scotsman groups diverge editorially on a range of key issues, not least the constitutional future.

All as it should be in a liberal democracy, but how, one wonders, are they going to submerge these legitimate differences and preside over an impartial news service? Can you imagine the editorial meetings of the proposed  consortium, given the way their newspapers go at each other on a regular basis?

Unless those kinds of questions can be answered to the satisfaction of decision-makers and audiences alike, an integrated Scottish news hour on channel 3, produced by STV in co-operation with ITN, seems the best option currently on the table for an affordable, sustainable post-analogue public service alternative to the BBC’s local TV news. 

And even if a newspaper-led consortium is managerially possible, with all due respect to the proprietors, journalists and editors of DC Thomson, Johnston Press, and the Herald & Times, what they do is not public service news, nor is it broadcast journalism. STV and ITN have more than fifty years of experience in both, and that will count for something with Ofcom.

Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism & Communication at the University of Strathclyde.

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