Why Scottish broadcasting matters – part 20 – Ian Scott

IT is almost a year since the Saltire Society first voiced its concerns about the present state of Scottish broadcasting and its fears for the future unless something was done… and done quickly.

Since then, of course, many things have happened not least the establishment of the new Scottish  Government’s Commission on Broadcasting in Scotland which had its first meeting last week.

But there were other responses. Earlier in the year, the high panjandrums of the BBC, stv and broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, debated many of the key issues with their critics at a conference in Edinburgh organised by the Society and the Viewers and Listeners Association.

Later, and more privately, BBC Scotland bosses met with a high powered group of individuals from Scotland’s cultural and creative community and, by all accounts, were left in no doubt that – in terms of quantity and, more importantly, quality – Scotland’s national broadcaster was not only failing the nation but missing a great opportunity to tune into the emerging zeitgeist.

And, of course, we have now had nearly 20 articles on this very site, the Saltire Series, asking the question, Why does Scottish broadcasting matter?

Academics, broadcasters, writers, historians – they have all had their say and the threats and opportunities brought by the new technologies, with multi-channel competition and a plethora of new viewing and listening ‘platforms’ have been aired by many.

Inevitably, the question of London control surfaced quickly and often and, with it, predictable political polarisation and even name-calling by those who should be on the same side in this debate.

And linked to this we heard of the declining share of commissioned work available to Scottish producers, the way in which news could and should be brought to the people of Scotland and the desirability, or otherwise, of a completely autonomous Scottish Broadcasting Corporation following the possible devolution of power from Westminster to Holyrood.

Now these are without doubt very important issues and deserve the attention they have already had and will have in the weeks and months ahead. In some areas, there is room for compromise though others seem so intractable and divisive that patience will be required and nothing is likely to happen soon.

But none of them are directly related to the Saltire Society’s greatest concern and the one which brought us into this debate in the first place.

Our contention a year ago, and even more today, is that the broadcasters, especially the public service broadcasters whose duty to educate and inform is surely paramount, are offering an almost unrelenting diet of cheap-to-make, celebrity-driven, football-obsessed trivia.

BBC Scotland, as the national radio broadcaster, is particularly guilty here. One example will suffice.

This year, the MW frequency offers a football programme from 7pm to 10 pm each evening to supplement almost an entire Saturday and frequently most of Sunday – something like 25 hours of prime time each and every week of a long season.

Of course, the poor presenters struggle to find something to discuss that hasn’t been examined already three times the same week.

And stressed producers resort to replays (many) of Saturday’s ‘highlights’ or fill the studio with sports journalists debating how well or otherwise their papers covered the same stories.

It is simply overkill in the extreme and I say that as an avid football fan who looks forward to the Saturday coverage and the excellent commentaries.

Much of the rest of the schedule is packed with mind-numbing phone-ins where anyone with a half-baked opinion and a telephone are invited to comment on a variety of subjects from solving world poverty in thirty seconds flat – “I must hurry you John, we are running out of time on this one”, followed by the price of toilet rolls in East Kilbride and “my most embarrassing moment in a restaurant”. Public service! I don’t think so.

But bad enough as these sins of commission undoubtedly are, those of omission are even worse. In his excellent article early in this series, Professor Alan Riach argued for a return to the proper presentation of Scotland’s rich literary culture, both the fantastic body of work from the past as well as the vibrant and internationally-acknowledged work of today’s  writers. Sadly, if you are looking for Scottish culture on the radio, be prepared for a long hard search or a switch to Radio 4.

As Dr Donald Smith asks in his contribution: “Is it not 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?”

The formula is obvious.

Identify what you think the ‘target demographic’ wants, and, as long as it is cheap enough to produce, dish it out in large helpings. This culture of Walmart programming, ‘Stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ has grown inexorably over the last decade and must be broken if we are to make any kind of progress.

We cannot blame this situation on new technology or on dark forces in far away London. These are Scots men and women living and working in Scotland with the power to do what is required but choosing to take the easy route of chasing ratings.

As the bosses in Glasgow  struggle to make the job cuts demanded by their national overlords, I have a suggestion.    Dish out the P45s to all those so-called producers who have inflicted this torture on the nation and, having ‘dictced the slate’, start again.

We need BBC Scotland to succeed. In the past, we have come to look on the Corporation as something very special in the life of the nation, playing a vital role in promoting the best in our society and helping to educate and inform millions. Our best hope lies with a revitalised Corporation with a renewed sense of its true purpose as our principal public service broadcaster.

If that is one of the outcomes of the soul searching engendered by this debate and the work of the new Commission, then it will have been a very worthwhile exercise indeed.

Ian Scott is the immediate past chair of the Saltire Society and is responsible for its current campaign on broadcasting in Scotland.