Why Scottish broadcasting matters – part 17 – Alex Bell

When First Minister, Alex Salmond, launched his Scottish broadcasting commission, in August, The Guardian newspaper posed the question whether Scotland should get its own publically-funded TV and radio service. On one side of the debate, Brian McNair said No, while Alex Bell said Yes………

‘PAROCHIAL’ has a particular meaning, or meanings, in Scottish politics.

Unionists use it as code for dismal and second-rate.

For nationalists, it implies a lack of ambition.

These definitions may sound similar, but they describe very different things. The Scottish broadcasting industry is in danger of becoming ‘parochial’ to the nationalists, while unionists believe any change to the status quo will lead to parochialism.

On such semantics the future of Britain apparently hangs.

The proposal for an hour-long teatime news programme produced and presented from Glasgow – the so-called ‘Scottish Six’ – would reflect a mix of national (Scottish), UK (English, Welsh and Northern Irish) and international (nations with bigger things to worry about) news.

From a technical point of view, it would be easy, and join the many platforms that use BBC content to present a picture of the world. The peculiar level of hostility to the idea comes not from journalists but from politicians.

The teatime TV news is, remarkably, either a flagship of Britishness or the ice-breaker of nationalism.

Who would have thought that Natasha Kaplinsky bore such a constitutional burden? Labour argues that if the evening output changes, the Union will unravel, while the SNP says that change is both inevitable and desirable, as it will boost the creative industries.

So which definition of parochial looks the most credible? The broadcasting sector in Scotland is weak; its share of BBC and ITV output is down, its profile among commissioners is poor and, because RDF owns two of the most successful independents, IWC and the Comedy Unit, it suddenly feels vulnerable.

The embargo on new commissions from RDF following the row about the Queen’s ‘walk-out’ has had the creatives in Glasgow choking on their lattes.

So the Scottish Government is responding to genuine concerns by establishing an independent commission to look at the future of the industry. Our economy cannot survive on banks and whisky alone, so helping the creative sector looks like sensible planning.

As to providing a view of the world from Glasgow rather than London, which is what the Scottish Six amounts to, it is hard to understand, in a multi-platform world, why this is perceived as such a threat.

BBC Radio Scotland and the Scottish newspapers have always worked with the same mix of national, UK and international news that is proposed for the TV project.

In more grown-up political environments, the Scottish Six would simply be seen as another way of using content.

David Cairns, Scotland Office minister in the UK government, called the plans for the Scottish Six “parochial”.

What he hopes to imply is that anything run by nationalists will be dismal and second-rate compared with the high standards offered by the Union.

It is hard to discern the logic behind his essentially emotional appeal. Calling the idea “the Little Scotland Broadcasting Corporation”, as he did, only invites the notion that the current programme is for ‘Little Britain’. Is he saying that only national news programmes with large audiences are international?

In which case, he can never have witnessed the insularity of American network news. Alternatively, he is suggesting that “parochial” actually means ‘Scottish’, which opens up an unpleasant line of argument.

This discussion could be more creative. While it is SNP policy that, post-independence, there will be a Scottish Broadcasting Service, there is no assumption that relations with the BBC should end.

If you look on the Beeb not as a symbol of Britishness, but as a world-beating broadcaster guided by the Reithian mission to educate, inform and entertain, then why not share the institution, even as the constitution changes? That doesn’t sound parochial in anyone’s language.

Alex Bell, director, allmediascotland.com