Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Scottish Six

Ah, the nineties revival.  I’d always wondered how it would manifest itself.  We’ve had the re-appropriation of Ibiza House anthems as…  er… the basis of so called ‘R&B’ anthems (otherwise known as the Guetta-isation of pop) and the revival of the X-Files.  Now over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen the re-emergence of two ideas from the late 90’s.

John Milne & Alan Douglas, the Reporting Scotland
presenting team circa 1987
The Daily Record were reporting that the Atlantic League, the B & Q Cup of European League schemes, was back on the agenda of some European clubs.  It’s an idea that was first floated in 1999 when Scotland had two large cash hungry and impatient football teams that wanted to play like minded big fish in small leagues.  It fell by the wayside when the interest among sponsors, television companies and the general paying public was somewhat below expectations.

Whether the general public are more eager for the second idea receiving a revival remains to be seen.  The Scottish Six – essentially a Scottish version of the BBC’s Six O’clock News – has come back to the fore due to the ongoing BBC Charter negotiations.  You know, the ones that has seen BBC Sport essentially shred it’s portfolio and reputation as it’s shed key events.  Events like The Open and exclusive 6 Nations rights – events that used to be on the protected list of sports events to be broadcast on free to air television. For some reason, it is this, rather than the destruction of BBC Sport’s rights portfolio (to the benefit of Cameron’s backers – one R Murdoch, still a 39% shareholder in BSkyB via his 21st Century Fox company) that is the controversial proposal.  And it is difficult to see why.

All of the UK’s broadcast media has struggled to come to terms with the post devolution landscape, with most criticism being levelled at the only public broadcaster – the BBC.  It should however be pointed out that both ITV and Sky News have not adapted well to the post Devolution landscape either with too many stories about public services in England being dressed up as UK wide stories.  And don’t get me started with the papers round up late at night which sees the London based print media dominate.  To be fair to BBC News, at least they featured The Herald, The Scotsman and the Daily Record in the run up to the referendum.  Not a pep on Sky News.

It may be that because the BBC is the public broadcaster in this country that they have been seen to have failed the most.  Indeed, the SNP’s proposed devolution of the BBC looks an awful lot like, well, the successful model that ITV had from it’s inception until the 1992 franchise bid process.  You may be old enough to remember the incredibly strong regional identity that the companies that made up ITV had, from STV and Grampian up here, Granada, Yorkshire, Central, Tyne-Tees and the two London franchises that were Thames and LWT.  It’s ironic that while ITV have since 1992 gone towards the BBC model of a centralised organization, through the mergers of the winners of that 1992 franchise contest, that the BBC should be considering adopting and adapted version of the old ITV model.  A Scottish Six programme being a proposal to enable the BBC to enter the post devolution UK is not necessarily the only proposal, but possibly the only workable proposal.

The current BBC way is to have a central cast of correspondents who report on events.  When news events happen in Scotland or Wales, those correspondents continue to report on those events, shunting to one side the local reporters who know the area.  We saw this during the referendum when BBC correspondents from London descended to report on the campaign in the last weeks.  There was a feeling that these London based correspondents were not unlike the foreign correspondents that  had arrived, except they had the arrogance of thinking they knew what was happening in their own back yard without doing the prep.  It was simply unacceptable for the likes of Hodges and Kettle to pontificate from the pages of their newspapers about events here, even more so for the BBC to report on events when hardly any coverage had been given to the referendum up until the last weeks of the campaign.  What this shows is that the BBC’s tendency to impose a central, London-centric view on all events ensures that a Scottish Six is the only workable solution for the BBC.  There are two problems to this though.

The first problem is that if the BBC do go ahead, they should ask themselves what exactly they want to do with that slot.  Do they want to just put out a version of the Six o’clock news filtered through the Scottish sensibility & viewpoint, or do they want to do something a bit more radical with the slot?  It should be not beyond the wit and wisdom of those at Pacific Quay to aim to produce something not unlike the Channel 4 news, a programme which produces reports on current affairs as well as providing the news.  I say that they could be aiming for something a bit more radical for that timeslot in the full knowledge that they’ve never given the impression of knowing what exactly to do with their last creation – Scotland 2014.  I’m not sure you can call it a successor to Newsnight Scotland, because it’s not an exact Scottish equivalent to Newsnight like Newsnight Scotland was.

The second problem is the assumption that the early evening news is the flagship news programme.  There was a time when both the BBC and ITV had their early evening news shows earlier than 6pm.  By a similar token, when the Scottish Six was first mooted the flagship news slot was the late evening slot.  People were home, they’d relaxed and wanted to know the news before bedtime.  It was this argument that led to the BBC moving their own 9pm news programme to 10pm and the slot vacated by ITV and presumably it’s this argument that has lead to the rise in post 10pm current affairs programming.  From personal experience a Scottish Six would not be a programme I’d watch purely from a practical point of view as I’d still be on the commute home.  As would many others.  So for those late commuters, the early evening timeslot would not be the flagship spot for the news.

I said somewhere at the start of this post that I really don’t understand the case against changing the current news structure of the BBC.  The token figure arguing against it appears to be the Eastwood MSP Ken MacIntosh.  His argument is that there seems to be a political agenda for the ‘Scottish Six’ and that “It’s quite clear that for many they’ve got a clear agenda, which is to make things more Scottish and less British  MacIntosh’s thoughts on the dastardly BBC having an overtly Scottish Doctor are alas not recorded for posterity.

The other thing that’s not recorded are MacIntosh’s thoughts on the network BBC’s coverage of previous Holyrood elections.  The election which sticks in my mind, and therefore makes the case for a Scottish Six, was the 2003 election.  The SNP ran under a ticket promoting ‘trickle down economics’ whilst Labour’s Jack McConnell was serenely heading towards a first (and only) full term as First Minister.  Yet the news was dominated night after night by the ongoing Second Gulf War. 

Even away from the war, there was very little coverage of the Holyrood election and even less of the parallel Welsh Assembly elections.  While BBC Wales seems to have benefited from the devolution age, in terms of funding and the infrastructure being built in Cardiff (no doubt the benefit of Doctor Who being filmed there) coverage of Welsh politics on the UK news is worse even that Scottish politics.  The only time events at Cardiff Bay have made the news has been when Cameron attacked ‘Welsh’ Labour’s running of the Welsh NHS, and even then there was only the right of reply from the Welsh Health Minister.

In truth, all of the UK broadcasters are stuck in the pre-Devolution age when it comes to reporting on politics in this country.  Both Sky News and ITV really should be upping their game.  However it is the BBC, as the only public service broadcaster, which has most ground to make up.  Whether it is with a dedicated ‘Scottish Six’ – which would be the easiest option for the BBC to take – or with a fundamental shift in how they cover news stories up and down the country – which would be more difficult for a centralising BBC to facilitate.  BBC News needs to change and adapt, but then again this is change that has been overdue since 1999.  In the meantime, can they decide what Scotland 2016 is supposed to be?

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