In My Opinion: Neil Blain: Scottish broadcasting needs structures and strategies

I WILL begin with the planned dispersal of the BBC to Salford Quays next year. Half the staff have agreed to relocate, though not spiritually. Most will live mainly in London. No Radio 5 presenter has been seen buying property locally, though 5 live has an advance party of two-and-a-half people in Salford, already spreading economic benefits to the north.

There’s more fuss among English Tory MPs and the London press about Salford than the £900 million refit of London’s Broadcasting House, equivalent to two Scottish Parliament buildings, with half BBC Scotland’s HQ costs thrown in.

Yes, it’s nuts to move BBC Sport to Manchester a year before the Olympics, but only because London got the Olympics, because it’s the only UK city which can build the requisite infrastructure. London is like this because of policy, incidentally, not Darwinian urban evolution, or Acts of God.

The Salford move is running into London’s sheer centripetal force. This magnetises high value employment. Witness the existential despair of civil servants relocating to places off the Foreign Office safe list, like Wales, and Westminster MPs forced to visit their Scottish constituencies. Salford Quays was even going to get cancelled in 2006 until Hazel Blears frightened the Corporation into proceeding. It took subsequent opportunities for revenge.

The director of BBC North recently noted that Salford should have happened a long time ago, and he’s dead right, but that’s also the problem. The BBC is so embedded as a London institution that maybe meaningful dispersal just isn’t possible, not least culturally and psychologically, perhaps politically.

Likewise the problem for Scotland too boils down to the difference between broadcasting strategy versus tactics and quick fixes. Developments here are the result of strategies made elsewhere, for other purposes.

We talk about getting to x per cent or y per cent of someone’s network production expenditure in Scotland. But we’ll have been there before, and seen it drop off again, because it rose through tactics or fixes. These have also hit the English regions. In the mid-1980s, the BBC proclaimed new regional centres with a slogan, ‘a sense of place’. We briefly knew where Pebble Mill was then (who knows its successor, The Mailbox?). Most of the resource returned to London a decade later.

Two things we need in Scottish broadcasting are structures and strategies, against a background of weakness in many institutions of Scottish life, worryingly, the press in particular.

Meanwhile, BBC funding looks tempting, and the market can’t help. Commercial broadcasters see profits falling, affecting public service broadcasting delivery. The buyout of Scottish indies keeps decisions in London (this happens with Scottish companies).

The Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s proposed digital channel might have to use licence fee money (a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation would use more). It’s true that all alternatives to the BBC propose something counter-factual, and it’s easier to emphasise the risk than the opportunity. Chipping away at BBC financing, even part-privatization, risk the very provision underpinning public support for the licence fee. This is what enemies of the BBC desire.

But from a Scottish perspective I can’t say that current broadcasting arrangements are working for us well (maybe with local exceptions, including Gaelic provision). If we don’t have a new Scottish digital channel, then what – in structural terms, as distinct from temporary fixes – can give us strategic focus?

A competitive infrastructure for broadcasting in Scotland won’t arise through periodic promises to provisionally move this or that resource. Nor do we enjoy the hard and soft spin-offs through which London, as a city, derives competitive advantage from broadcasters.

Part of the argument for funding Gaelic broadcasting provision is about the nurturing of a culture. Perhaps Scottish culture as a whole may need that sort of nurturing too. I don’t know how important the media are in the ebbs and flows of national and local identities, but I wouldn’t like to live here without a significant Scottish media. In present circumstances their survival can’t be assumed.

I have as many questions around the resourcing of a new Scottish digital channel as anyone. But it would represent a real structural addition to the broadcasting landscape. There are moments when possibilities materialise or vanish forever. So whatever scepticism there is in this room either about the mechanism itself, or its funding, we should be clear about what alternatives we have – they really can’t include the status quo – to take us forward strategically.

Neil Blain is head of the Department of Film, Media & Journalism at the University of Stirling.

This is an extract from a reply to a speech given by the chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, Blair Jenkins, at a Saltire Society/Scottish Government summit on the future of Scottish broadcasting, held on February 8 2010.