In My Opinion: Robert Beveridge: Give BBC Scotland more freedom

THE chair of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, states that the BBC needs a radical structural overhaul and that decision-making has to be devolved.

I agree. And that is why I am calling for the BBC to ensure that it is ‘in step with devolution’.

You may remember that, in 1998, the then BBC governors rejected calls for a ‘Scottish Six’ by claiming that the BBC had to stay ‘in step with devolution’ and not be ahead of it.

Since that time, as the late Donald Dewar would no doubt have acknowledged, devolution as a process has meant, and will increasingly mean, that the UK is on a road towards becoming some kind of a federal state.

Whatever the result of the forthcoming independence referendum, Westminster has promised more powers for the Scottish Parliament and Government.

Why should this not include formal, as opposed to informal, oversight of broadcasting in Scotland?

Could not the Scotland Act be amended such that broadcasting be deleted from the list of reserved powers?

After all, the Scottish Parliament already has committees which hear evidence from the BBC and broadcasting regulators, Ofcom. Why should this quasi-informal relationship not be placed on a more secure footing? Such a development need not necessarily compromise the independence of the BBC or the regulator.

The BBC and Ofcom already appear before Westminster committees; indeed, when Patten was appointed chair of the BBC Trust, there was some form of involvement by the London Parliament in the process – alongside the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Number Ten and the monarch.

Cannot a place be found for the Scottish Parliament too?

But there is much more to this issue than constitutional niceties, per se. It is also – as former BBC director-general, John Birt, so usefully reminded us in his autobiography, ‘The Harder Path’ – a matter of the break-up of Britain.

But it is at least arguable that the best way to keep Britain together – and for the BBC to remain as the broadcaster for a social union Britain – is for the BBC to better meet the needs of its viewers in Scotland.

Quite why Birt thought that a Scottish Six – a local, national and international news programme produced from Scotland – would be so damaging to the fabric of the UK, I just don’t know. But I am prepared to accept that feelings run deep on this matter and that, as John McCormick has said, references to it are a bit like Groundhog Day. We seem to keep coming back to the same, old story.

That in itself should tell us something.

It has not gone away fully because there is something wrong with the current provision.

Of course, the BBC south of the border has absorbed some of the lessons of the report, four years ago, by Professor Anthony King – on impartiality and the Corporation’s coverage of the four UK nations. Labelling in news bulletins has improved. But it is still the case that news coverage of the health service in England is of interest – but only limited interest – to viewers and listeners in Scotland.

Moreover, it is irritating to many when Scottish stories in the UK news are then repeated, almost word for word, a few minutes later on BBC Scotland’s Reporting Scotland.

The BBC has carried out research into viewer’s views on a Scottish Six-type answer but, of course, the views of the audience are split, as they are on independence, etc.

In my judgement, a BBC Scotland with enough autonomy would have the courage to launch a Scottish Six – or, even better, a Scottish Ten – and, after a few months, everyone would wonder how we managed to live without it.

It takes time for good programming and journalism to establish itself. Research which only asks about theoretical ideas and proposals suffers from self-imposed limitations and fails to live up to the best values of the BBC which involve professional judgements by broadcasters who take the audience with them to new and better programming.

A Scottish Ten would not be to the detriment of the UK or Scotland but would be clear evidence that the already existing difference in news agendas and licence fee payers’ needs was being recognised. There is already evidence that STV have moved ahead with more tailored news – for Edinburgh, for example -and that is to be commended.

Why not also give BBC Scotland full control over the schedules for viewers in Scotland? BBC Scotland should – on behalf of and in the interests of licence fee payers – be able to opt in to programmes from south of the border rather than opt out.

This would then help to make BBC Scotland more responsive to its national audience. So too, ensuring that the licence fee raised in Scotland was fully given to BBC Scotland – and then spent according to its judgement of what was best for viewers – would help to bring about better accountability to licence fee payers.

Of course, as with both independence and ‘devo max’, this is only the beginning of a debate around both principle and detail. I am conscious that I am raising more questions than providing answers.

Yet what is clear is this. In 2014, there will be the independence referendum. In 2015, we have a projected UK General Election (if the UK still exists, per se). In 2016, we have charter review for the BBC.

If the BBC is to keep the question of the future of the BBC away from party politics – which we all should wish – then the time for the BBC and the BBC Trust is now, to prepare the Corporation for a future that meets Lord Patten’s call to arms.

How better to achieve this than by giving BBC Scotland more freedom?

Robert Beveridge is Visiting Professor at the University of Sassari, Sardinia, Italy. He is also a tutor at the Scottish Media Academy.