The BBC is a global institution which has its headquarters in London. All major decisions are taken there.
It is officially free from interference from the Westminster government of the day and by extension is apolitical – or is supposed to be. At the time of writing, it is policed by an organisation called the BBC Trust.
The BBC is renowned the world over, it was the first public service broadcaster. For decades the BBC was unrivalled as its global reputation grew.
The arrival of other broadcasters such as the US based CNN and the Middle East broadcaster Al-Jazeera has witnessed a gradual decline in the status of the BBC. Nevertheless, for most people across the world it remains a trusted and respected source of news and information.
This image of the BBC is one that endures in the minds of the UK public who, by and large, trust the corporation to report matters honestly and without fear or favour. For many the BBC doesn’t just report, it validates. The broadcaster’s reputation has survived several scandals. Andrew Gilligan’s infamous ‘sexed up’ dossier report relating to the role of the Blair government in the lead up to the Iraq war ended with the resignation of BBC Director General Greg Dyke. More recently the BBC has had to endure the fallout over its role in harbouring sex offenders such as Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall.
It’s a testimony to the power and influence of the BBC that it has managed to emerge virtually unscathed from each and every scandal. People across the UK seem content to pay an annual licence fee, essentially a tax, of £145.50 in order to ensure the BBC continues in its role as the main provider of news and entertainment. In Scotland however, that contentment is showing signs of cracking.
The broadcaster’s Scottish branch is called, not surprisingly, BBC Scotland. It has its own headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow. Its presenters are part of everyday life north of the border with familiar faces and voices presenting a daily snapshot of the country.
The main evening news programme is called Reporting Scotland. Broadcast at 6:30 pm each weekday evening with shorter bulletins at the weekend, it rarely ventures beyond Scotland’s border for the days’ news, which means it has limited scope in terms of content. An over reliance on central-belt violence and football has earned it the nickname ‘the murder and fitba show’. [The murder and football show]
In 2004 a bid to replace Reporting Scotland with a ‘Scottish Six’ news programme, produced and edited in Scotland, led to a pilot being commissioned. The plan was to provide Scottish viewers with a news programme that presented national and international events through a Scottish lens. It would re-place both the UK national news programme and the out-dated Reporting Scotland.
Scotland had voted in favour of devolution seven years earlier and now had its own parliament. However despite this political evolution, broadcasting had remained firmly stuck in the pre-devolution age. A ‘Scottish Six’ news programme would partially address this devolution deficit. According to those who saw the initial pilot, it was a success. However the plan was shelved after bosses in London refused to give it the green light. Writing in 2007 respected journalist and broadcaster Iain MacWhirter said:
“I’m one of the few people in this debate who has actually seen a Scottish Six. In 2004, BBC Scotland produced pilot programmes, for internal consumption only, to show what a Scottish-generated national news bulletin might look like. Surprise, surprise, it worked extremely well. The programmes were well presented and gave excellent UK and foreign coverage while treating devolved Scottish issues with the respect and authority they deserved.
I can well understand why the BBC didn’t show them to the public. As soon as you actually see a Scottish Six, you wonder how we could have tolerated the present arrangement for so long.”
MacWhirter went on to lament the lack of funding for the corporation in Scotland, which he said led to inferior quality productions.
“There is an assumption that if it is Scottish it must necessarily be inferior, local, trivial. This is understandable given the poor quality of much existing Scottish output, which is systematically under-resourced. But that hasn’t happened by accident.
BBC budgets are structured in a way that ensures Scottish programmes are technically inferior, and have lower production values. Funding, like the Scottish Six, is a political issue.
I know this only too well. Back in the 1990’s I presented the BBC 2 net-work programme, Westminster Live, from the BBC’s parliamentary complex at Millbank in London. This had an entire department devoted to it, with dedicated film crews and editing suites, graphics, transport, countless producers, researchers.
The comparable Scottish programme, Holyrood Live, which I returned to present in Scotland in 1999, had a man and a dog. A brilliant man and a brilliant dog, as it happened – highly professional and incredibly hardworking producers, but people who were ground down by lack of resources and constant cuts.
When I complained about underfunding, as I frequently did, the response was always the same from BBC executives: ‘Well, this is Scot-land. We have a tenth of the population so we only get a tenth of the budget for programmes’. I could never accept this kind of regionalist defeatism, which seemed to me an insult to the Scottish people. Why should political programmes be of inferior quality just because they happen to be made in Scotland?”
It later emerged that senior Scottish figures in the Labour party had fought against the plan. One of those was Blair McDougall, a Labour party special adviser who would later go on to become campaign director of the anti-independence group Better Together.
In November 2007 McDougall sent an internal memo to the then Secretary of State for Scotland Des Browne. In the communication McDougall warned against allowing BBC Scotland to create an evening news programme that would have presented events home and abroad from a Scottish perspective. Six months earlier Alex Salmond had led the SNP to a narrow one seat victory over Jack McConnell’s Labour party. The new First Minister was keen to address what many felt were shortcomings in the BBC’s output in Scotland. This worried the UK Labour Government.
“We also need to be clear about what he [Salmond] means by the ‘Scottish Six’. They [Scottish Govt] do not mean Scottish news first followed by UK news (as STV does at present).
They want a totally separate programme where the world and some UK news is covered but by (sic) a Scottish perspective.”
The Better Together Chief added:
“The argument against it is best made by anybody who ever watches Newsnight Scotland – that in a TV and internet age people access news in a range of different ways and plenty of people will find what they want without having a parochial and expensive duplication of what they have already with some stories cut out.”
Labour party opposition to the ‘Scottish Six’ had been confirmed by former BBC Director General John Birt who admitted in his own memoirs that he “worked hand in glove” with Tony Blair in 1998 to stop the creation of a Scottish Six main evening news bulletin.
Birt revealed he had made a direct approach to the Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to keep the powerful cohort of Scottish Labour MPs on side. A Scottish Six would “encourage separatist tendencies“, Birt argued. Blair agreed, and asked Peter Mandelson to marshal Labour’s forces; later James Purnell, then an adviser at No 10, and now the BBC’s director of strategy and digital, took on the task.
In The Harder Path, Mr Birt’s memoirs, he claimed that Blair agreed to ‘fight’ against a ‘Scottish Six’ for political reasons – even though the proposal carried broad support in terms of improving the BBC’s output in Scotland, including the support of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland.
“I was deeply resistant to the proposal (of a Scottish Six) It could have dire consequences for the BBC and unintended consequences for the United Kingdom … once the Six was conceded there would be no argument for resisting the takeover of the One and the Nine as well.”
By the time of the independence referendum, and fully seventeen years after Scotland voted for devolution, the BBC remains firmly controlled from London. News and current affairs output at BBC Scotland had regressed in terms of quality and quantity.
‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum’ can be purchased HERE.
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