In My Opinion: Alex Bell: What state current affairs programming in Scotland?

ON Wednesday night, the BBC broadcast a powerful documentary about the death of black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in 1993.

It has set the news agenda and may lead to successful prosecutions. It was what great current affairs programming is about and so happened to be the work of a Scottish journalist: Mark Daly, who has worked for both The Scotsman and the Daily
Record.

Wednesday also saw broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, reassure us that current affairs programming is commanding more hours on the main TV stations – BBC One, BBC Two, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five – than it used to.

It sounds like all-round good news, in stark contrast to the pall of gloom that surrounded the shunting, a couple of years back, of BBC flagship, Panorama, to a Sunday graveyard slot. Now, even Panorama is back to a weeknight slot, on Monday.

Reasons to be cheerful in Scotland? Well, yes and no. While Scottish audiences are treated to more hours of current affairs programming than their counterparts in the English regions, it does seem that the English regions might be producing more of the high-end documentary programming than Scotland. It sounds like a question of quality over quantity, or hard news reporting versus opinion.

Ofcom reveals that 46 per cent of Scottish current affairs is politics, compared to only 21 per cent in the English regions. There’s expensive documentary-making, such as fly-on-the-wall, and there’s Iain Macwhirter interviewing some MSP. Minute for minute, the latter – polished, engaging and vital though it may be – is cheaper to make.

The BBC Scotland strand, Frontline Scotland, continues a long and noble tradition of current affairs programming of the 30-minute long variety, stretching back to include George Hume’s Hume at Large, stv’s Scottish Reporters and Channel 4’s Scottish Eye.

However, you would struggle to learn about modern Scotland if you relied on current affairs TV; it woud appear a dull narrative of political shenanigans and wind turbines.

Precious little would illuminate what life is like in our urban slums or industrial wastelands, nor the quality of living in our rural communities. At this period of political change, it is important to broadcast more than the ritualised exchanges of political interviewing.
It is also important to document how the nation is evolving, and of that we have little.

Our children will think we all live like Tommy or Jack – I don’t, do you?

Alex Bell