THE SCOTTISH SIX… ARE WE LIKELY TO END UP CRINGING?

JOHN McGURK

There’s no question that Scotland should have its own Scottish Six news. But it’s not about should the BBC do it. The question is can they do it without viewers cringing and then realising that more of the glue which binds the UK together has become unstuck.

Britain has changed dramatically since the idea was first mooted back in the late 1990s at the birth of devolution when the likes of Scottish health, education and transport were brought under the control of Holyrood making these issues irrelevant to England and vice-versa.

Today the Scottish Parliament has tax powers and will soon be 20 years old while Westminster has become even more remote inside its own bubble. London itself now feels like a country within a country, its inhabitants unaware and uncaring about events in Newcastle never mind Dundee.

Plenty of what BBC network news talks about is meaningless north of the border. That patronising phrase “and now the news where you are” sums it up the problem very neatly.

So over to Reporting Scotland where the studio backdrop suddenly dulls in comparison to the gloss of London and where some of those in front of the camera, understandably, aren’t quite as professional as their southern counterparts.

If the Scottish Six is going to happen, much training is clearly going to be required to try to turn some of them into capable and engaging television journalists although building experience and judgement is another matter.

Then there’s BBC Scotland’s dreary news agenda of murders, court cases and political bickering along with the football and, of course, the weather. This is not a place to find TV journalism at its best or even the odd exclusive to set the nation alight.

This is despite the fact that BBC Scotland has the biggest journalistic resource in the land which runs to some 270 journalists and an £18 million budget at the last count — around the same numbers that The Scotsman newspapers operated with 15 years ago.

But as editorial staffs and budgets have been hammered and circulations have collapsed, indigenous Scottish newspapers have long given up the notion of throwing away the diary and digging up big stories.

BBC Scotland has not filled the gap. It’s late night offering Scotland 2016 has been ditchwater dull often simply repeating packages broadcast earlier in the day. It’s no surprise that the show has been cancelled because of poor ratings, attracting only 35,000 viewers while the rival Scotland Tonight from STV manages 85,000.

Despite the Scottish Parliament providing a huge slice of Scottish news, BBC Scotland is not able to host programming from its Edinburgh facilities. The place is well located behind Holyrood but is poorly equipped even when compared to the STV’s Fountainbridge studio across the city.

Parliamentarians who can’t make it along the M8 get placed in front of a remote camera above the reception desk while everyone working below has to stay silent while they’re on air. If it’s radio, there’s a couple of small rooms not much bigger than cupboards.

Perhaps the biggest black mark against BBC Scotland comes from the news gathering operation in London. If there’s a national story north of the border, then it’s likely to be handed to one of the London stars presumably because it’s felt they will do a better job than a Glasgow reporter not that long out of university.

When Donald Trump, for example, opened his refurbished Turnberry Hotel earlier this summer, the BBC sent their North American editor from Washington to Scotland rather than take the story from even the best that BBC Scotland could offer. It was hardly a vote of confidence in Glasgow.

The ruling SNP clearly see the prospect of the Scottish Six as a tactic to secure another brick in the wall towards building the case for Indyref 2. London-based newspapers who produce successful Scottish editions can do it. Why can’t the BBC?

The campaign has been working and BBC Scotland has bowed to pressure. They’ve recently been making pilot programmes, presumably fronted by Jackie Bird, but the results remain a Pacific Quay secret.

In theory, the Scottish Six could operate like BBC Radio Scotland which merges national, international and Scottish news into its daily magazines such as Good Morning Scotland.  But no matter how hard they try they will never beat the authority, and the budget, of Radio 4’s Today programme.

Then there’s the problem of big London-based folk like the BBC’s (Scottish) political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, not being able to broadcast live for two different programmes simultaneously.

This goes against the grain of modern broadcast news where reporters stand in front of important locations to give the impression of immediacy when the technique is nothing more than cosmetic window dressing.

BBC Scotland will undoubtedly have to hire many more reporters in London and abroad.

There is certainly a very strong argument for the Scottish Six. It gets rid of irrelevant English news. It avoids duplication on the big stories which affect both countries. It placates those viewers who complain about London bias. It helps to define Scotland in the modern world.

But BBC Scotland may well be advised to get its house in order before it embarks on an expensive and potentially disastrous experiment.

ScotBuzz co-editor Bill Jamieson puts it like this:

” I’d rather tune into a six hour speech from whoever’s running Albania than be subjected to the Scottish Six. Why not Scottish 2am – at least that would help get us off to a deep and prolonged sleep”.

 

jcmcgurk@blueyonder.co.uk

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