Why Scottish broadcasting matters – part nine – Donald Smith

IN the months since the Scottish Election, broadcasting has moved up the political agenda. This is partly because of a new, can-do Scottish government with its eye firmly on the ball of a distinctively Scottish agenda.

The main cause, though, is a bleak report from broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, detailing the extent to which Scottish broadcasting has slipped back, since devolution, in terms of its share of the ‘creative action’.

Here, paradoxically, is a demonstration of the value of political accountability. With Scotland’s democratic voice now firmly in Edinburgh, but broadcasting run from London, a new kind of deficit has opened up.

Scottish broadcasting matters because it animates and sustains Scottish society by allowing the diverse views and values of its citizens to be heard. That is cultural, but in a broader sense than just the arts. It is about the underlying experiences, perceptions and attitudes which make people tick.

Commentators will pick different areas of activity or knowledge which they feel broadcasting in Scotland should reflect but I would like to focus on ‘ideas’ in themselves.

Scotland has a theoretical commitment to empowering every individual citizen to think and decide for themselves. That idea was born in late medieval society and gradually took on reality as we progressed painfully and slowly to universal education. The 18th century Enlightenment boosted the importance of critical enquiry without yet embracing democracy. That took another two centuries, and still counting.

The pioneers of this struggle are too numerous now to mention, but too important ever to be forgotten. More vitally, their legacy is the inheritance of Scottish broadcasting. To help people think, to air ideas, to give detailed arguments hearing space, to engage with a changing world in analytic and perceptive ways, to put ideas in their social context, to create excitement around intellectual and imaginative discovery – nothing could be more important for broadcasting today.

Is Scotland achieving that now through its broadcasting providers? Far from it. A few shining beacons bob up now and then in a sea of second-hand mediocrity.

This summer, BBC2 screened an excellent documentary on Thomas Telford, one of the greatest engineers of all time, a maker of modern Britain, a modest man from Eskdale, a pioneer of Highland development, a bold visionary… the programme had broad appeal in its landscape, its storytelling and in the visual poetry of Telford’s bridges and canals. But it also articulated the depth of Telford’s creative thinking.

Does Scotland not owe its citizens more of this? And does Scotland not owe itself more of this in terms of global presentation and self-image?

We need broadcasting to stimulate, inform and excite as well as entertain. In politics, it seems that the wheels have finally come off the PR glitz wagon in favour of some necessarily serious thinking about real problems. Is it not also time for Scottish broadcasting to meet the challenges by delving into our society’s literary, scientific and intellectual strengths to shape a new era beyond cheap voyeurism, dodgy phone competitions and chat/muzak shows?

Broadcasting today is a key agent of enlightenment in all its forms. Broadcasting today is the lowest common denominator of the entertainment industry. Which is it to be? At the very least Scottish society deserves a chance.

Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, chair of the Literature Forum for Scotland, author and playwright.