By Andy Maciver, Director, Message Matters
It’s here. After much hype, much anticipation, and much expenditure, the new BBC Scotland channel is now in its second month and the political bubble has been active in debating the good and bad, rights and wrongs, fair and unfair.
It is right to do so. It is important to get programmes such as The Nine and Debate Night right, if they are to play an enduring part in Scotland’s political and media landscape for the foreseeable future.
I know, and like, a lot of people at the new channel. I’ve worked with many of them, as a commentator and in a PR capacity, both at the BBC and other outlets. And I am glad that the channel exists, because Scotland’s media lacks sufficient breadth and depth for a nation with the history, diversity, power and significance of Scotland. Broadcast outlets with a Scottish focus are severely limited, the indigenous press continues to haemorrhage readers, and the moderate online news community has failed to take off as we have seen in other parts of the world, including in the UK as a whole.
The problem and the solution
We need more. More broadcast outlets, more press (including quality pro-independence press) and more credible, reliable online outlets. We need these not just for the sake of having them, but to assist the public in scrutinising a Parliament and Government which now has significant power over most aspects of our lives.
That’s why I am glad we have this new dedicated channel. However, hard as I try, I just cannot shake off the feeling that the solution and the cause are one and the same - the BBC. It is too easy to blame the BBC for the ills of the rest of the media, and furthermore it is too easy to presume the BBC is some form of malevolent force. I do not subscribe to either of these assessments.
But I find it difficult to argue with the local and regional newspaper editor who says that his or her publication will never again be the default outlet for local news when the BBC website has localised its coverage city-by-city, area-by-area. For ‘free’.
And it is hard to argue with the national newspaper editor who would, by now, have been forced by technology to move his or her paper to an online subscription model if it wouldn’t have had to compete with the Scotland section of the BBC website, which gives news, politics, business, sport and everything else away for ‘free’.
And it is not hard to understand the frustration of those next door on the Clyde, who tried to make a success of STV2, using a similar formula to BBC Scotland, only to see it collapse under the weight of the commercial realities of broadcasting, to which the BBC is immune.
Yes, the BBC has provided the solution. But it has caused the problem. We feed the beast.
Cracks in the concept
The licence fee - a compulsory tax on owning a television - is the source of the BBC’s ability to create this monopoly position. It has removed the need for the BBC to concern itself with such grubby concepts as ratings, quality or innovation. That is not to say it lacks these attributes - its programming is often world-class - but for every stroke of genius in the BBC’s line-up, there is something lazy and stale, which would have been long since cut at any other broadcaster.
This has a shelf life. It must. As well as the obvious competition of on-demand behemoths such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and the plurality created by Sky, BT and others, the notion of being forced to pay for something which you may not like, or may not agree with, surely belongs in the 20th century.
It is the latter notion - of paying for something with which you don’t agree - which is being tested more now than ever before. In Scotland in particular, the fallout from the independence referendum and the EU referendum has led to many fingers from many sides, all pointed at the BBC.
This stems from a disconnection from reality. The BBC’s requirement to be both balanced and impartial is more than just a thankless task - it is an impossibility. The BBC is neither impartial nor balanced. It never has been, and it never can be. The BBC is staffed by people; people make judgements; judgements are not impartial.
Every day, all the time, in all formats, BBC staff make editorial judgements. Which story gets top billing on the website? Who is asked to respond to a government announcement? What questions does an interviewer ask? All natural judgements in an unnatural format, with the inevitable outcome that large swathes of consumers are left unhappy, upset and angry.
The BBC does not have its head in the sand. It clearly understands its problem, and it has been markedly exacerbated post-Brexit. It tries incredibly hard to fix it, by balancing stories, questions and panels.
With respect to the latter, I’ve reflected on the difficulties those at the BBC Scotland channel must have in creating guest line-ups and panels. Balancing the political and social views of Scotland has become complex. Even at a high level, there is now a permanent need for at least four layers of balance: (1) gender; (2) political party; (3) independence yes or no and (4) Brexit leave or remain, and that’s before introducing any other elements such as age or race.
This has led to the creation of tiny pools of potential guests who fit those excruciatingly specific criteria. This is not a criticism of the producers or the guests. It is a fact of life: the more specific attributes you require, the smaller the group of potential guests you have.
The inevitable result is that quality is sacrificed at the altar of balance. To get past this, we need to give the BBC a break. We need to stop expecting it to be impartial - it isn’t. We need to stop expecting it to be perfectly balanced - it can’t be.
This is emphatically not a plea to create panels full of middle-class white men, or full of unionists, or full of Remainers. Programming has to reflect the broad views of the population.
But can’t we agree that it is corrosive to expect every segment on every programme to reflect every attribute, background and view held by every person in Scotland? And in return, can’t the BBC and our politicians agree that time’s up for the licence fee?
By Andy Maciver, Director, Message Matters
RAIL REVIEW, BBC, PLANNING BILL, TRANSPORT IN EDINBURGH, AND MORE PLANNING
Tom Harris is Senior Counsel for Message Matters; a former MP and Transport Minister in the Labour Westminster Government; and member of the Expert Challenge Panel supporting the government's Rail Review
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