After several false starts and hesitations, the BBC now needs to show boldness and a dramatic vision of the future. The Charter Renewal proposals for a devolved BBC Scotland are one option. But they have to form part of a wider debate about the role of broadcasting and the media in Scotland. How do we want to represent our nation to ourselves and the world?

The BBC is one of the main institutions and pillars of Scottish and British public life. It arouses passion in many forms: identification, reverence for some of its past glories, even fury at current and historic shortcomings. Some want to defend it at all cost, others denigrate and diminish it, and a few radical voices want to democratise and open up the BBC and broadcasting.

In Scotland, the BBC has tended to lag behind the curve of change of the nation and society, rarely taking chances or being bold and innovative in leading debate and programming content. The BBC (and STV too) have historically represented Scottish political and public life in a narrow, cautious way, focussing on safe debates and figures, avoiding controversies, and consistently avoiding challenging power and privilege.

This should be of little surprise in a culture which was until recently highly deferential, authority- and permission-based, where domestic autonomy and influence lay in the hands of a few bodies (churches, local government, professions), and in which the BBC and STV came from and saw themselves as part of the dense network of relationships which characterised civil society.

Pre-devolution, political power and scrutiny lay elsewhere, in Westminster, with Scottish politics mostly secondary and often displacement activity. But across other areas of life – whether religion, how professional bodies discharged their responsibilities, and the divisions and discriminations of society – for most of our recent history Scotland’s media, whether newspapers or broadcasters, have had little of originality to contribute.

This wasn’t of course the story they told themselves. Instead, the picture was in Magnus Linklater’s recollection of Arnold Kemp, Herald editor from 1981–94, ‘to reveal to the powerless that which the powerful would rather keep secret’. But seldom did this happen. To use the Herald and Scotsman as examples and summarise a wide and complex historical story very briefly: these two papers were voices of the liberal and unionist classes of the 19th and 20th centuries, which in the 1970s shifted to being pro-devolution, and in the 1980s, anti-Thatcher and anti-Tory. The continuity in this is as being as important as the change: they were from and for a managed, consensual politics and society.

That meant not holding power to account, something the BBC and STV followed in the footsteps of. A recent example which illuminated how this tradition lingers centred on the liquidation of Scotland’s biggest football club, Glasgow Rangers, in July 2012. All of the mainstream press and broadcasters were caught out by this story, having failed to ask over the course of many years difficult questions of the owners and backers of the club. This became known as ‘succulent lamb journalism’ – whereby sports writers became in effect PR agents for the football clubs.

The Rangers story was the biggest media controversy in Scotland until the independence referendum. After not dealing with the first well, and having been outflanked by social media and wounded by tribal passions, you might have thought the media would have seen the warning signs and upped their game.

Instead, the independence campaign of 2011–14 showed the structural, psychological and cultural issues which limit the potential of the Scottish media. Nowhere was this more evident than in broadcasting and in the BBC and STV’s coverage in particular. Neither could be said to have covered the campaign in an imaginative way. Rather, both played safety-first campaigns, trying to make as few political enemies as possible.

The BBC, because of its place in society, ownership and traditions, faced much more scrutiny and attention than did STV. Marches were held to BBC Scotland’s Pacific Quay headquarters by nationalists claiming its coverage was ‘biased’. There was visceral anger at the Beeb in sections of the pro-independence commentariat, with several observers making the charge of systemic ‘bias’, while former first minister Alex Salmond at numerous points after the referendum criticised the BBC and called their coverage ‘a disgrace’.

All this has left a BBC that is shaken, stirred, and unsure which way to turn, while a large section of Scotland feels shortchanged and wants change. To understand and address these feelings we need to see recent events referendum as part of a much bigger picture.

‘BBC Scotland is a fiction’

The BBC and BBC Scotland come from, and to this day are rooted in, a very different UK and Scotland. The BBC’s origins in the 1920s were as a patrician, elite-driven organisation whose motto – ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’, adopted in 1927 – showed that it saw itself as benignly speaking down to the world, at home and abroad, and enlightening it. It was also clear that ‘the nation’ in question was Britain, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as mere regions or outposts.

For the first 40 years, there was no such thing as ‘BBC Scotland’. Instead, there was a unified BBC who broadcast in Scotland. Change came on 1 January 1968, when the newly appointed controller, Alasdair Milne, later to be director-general of the entire corporation, made a mistake on the first day in his new job. Finding nearly the entire BBC Scottish staff absent, having forgotten that New Year’s Day was a public holiday, he set about working out what he could do. That turned out to be deciding to change the lettering on the front of the building from ‘BBC’ to ‘BBC Scotland’.

Thus, BBC Scotland was born: a change that amounted simply to altering the name on the shop window. Nothing else was altered in terms of who called the shots, as subsequent years have shown.

Fast forward to today. One version of future broadcasting recently emerged with the rumoured proposals of the Charter Renewal team in BBC Scotland, backed by director Ken MacQuarrie. Scotland would get a budget of £150 million – a significant increase on what is currently really spent on Scotland and Scottish programmes (which is estimated by observers to be as low as £30 million). There would be complete devolution, a new Scottish BBC HD channel and a second Radio Scotland channel.

Alongside this there would be a major investment programme across public life – in the arts and culture, comedy, entertainment and music. All of this was agreed by the heads of the BBC in London. It was too good to be true. It turned out that after initial agreement was reached, director-general Tony Hall, under pressure from other senior London BBC figures anxious about seeing their empires diminished and divided, backtracked – and now these proposals are not being progressed. Yet, this is the sort of bold and belated step that the BBC and Scottish media desperately need.

The current situation is one of slow decline to irrelevance. One insider put it that, ‘BBC Scotland is a fiction. In a real sense it doesn’t actually exist.’ This has parallels with the Scottish Labour party: there is clearly an entity operating in the here and now called BBC Scotland. But what it touches upon is how it operates, its autonomy and who is it answerable to, in the same way that causes problems for Scottish Labour.

Accountable to whom?

In short, who is BBC Scotland really accountable to? In what way is it answerable to the people of Scotland? The answer is that it isn’t, not in any direct sense. BBC Scotland is formally accountable to the BBC in London, and the only way it can be held to account north of the border indirectly, by speaking to London.

Accountability is one of the big challenges. But that has to address how to answer Scottish concerns without getting into hands-on political management. How does BBC Scotland do that without becoming a plaything of politicians in the Scottish parliament? Could there be a role for a Scottish Ofcom as a regulator with a hands-off relationship with politicians?

Internally, BBC Scotland needs top-to-bottom transformation. It is not an organisation with great pride, a burning mission to do wonderful things, to connect, to educate, to entertain or to enter into a conversation with the people of this nation.

A first step is a different kind of leadership. All the controllers who have headed up BBC Scotland have had qualities, but the clue to the limited nature of the post has been in the title. A semantic change has seen the post recently redesignated as director, but it is branch office manager role. Alasdair Milne daringly retitled the organisation; Alastair Hetherington in the 1970s attempted to take more decisions in Scotland and was quickly shown the door by London.

What is required is an entirely different culture – and that is the sort of thing that doesn’t happen overnight. But if the BBC is to become a more autonomous Scottish body then it needs internal change – with leaders who lead and communicate inside and outside the Beeb, who take staff and the public with them, and who listen, engage and adapt.

One significant move both culturally and in resource terms would be to value and invest in proper and excellent journalism. There is a perception that the organisation hasn’t done so for years. One BBC staffer commented that the whole organisation is riddled with ‘a potent feeling of inferiorism [with] people feeling undervalued and demoralised for years’.

Content and programming is crucial. Recent BBC surveys, both well before the independence referendum and after, have shown a systemic democratic deficit and trust gap in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK. The King report in 2008 found that the proportion of the public who rejected the idea that the BBC news coverage was better than other outlets was 12 per cent in England, 16 per cent in Wales and 21 per cent in Scotland. Asked if BBC news and current affairs related to them and was personally interesting, the south of England split 66:33 in the affirmative, the north of England 52:45; there are no Scottish or Welsh figures available. The report commented that the corporation was widely seen as ‘London-centred’ and ‘with an “us in here” and “you out there” mentality’.

Post-referendum, the BBC found that fewer than half (48 per cent) of Scots were satisfied with BBC programmes, compared to 61 per cent in England (and 61 per cent in Northern Ireland and 55 per cent in Wales). A BBC Audience Council Scotland report stated that some people felt ‘BBC coverage had focussed too much on the official campaigns’ and what could be seen as ‘an “Anglified” perspective’. It did not help matters that the BBC attempted to dismiss these figures publicly, with Ian Small, head of news and corporate affairs, stating that there was no difference between satisfaction levels north and south of the border, when the BBC’s own research showed the opposite.

This brings us to cultural content. Filmmaker Eleanor Yule, co-author of a study of what she has termed ‘cultural miserablism’ with David Manderson, thinks that there is a national problem and a specifically BBC problem. Partly this is about the increasingly worn-out archetypes used in what might be termed the Peter Mullan school of drama: walking-wounded men, run-down estates and towns, and lots of violence. But there are also questions about who the cultural commissioners and gatekeepers are in a small country and, with a lack of ambition and money at STV, the BBC having an effective veto on ideas.

All this is coming to the surface at an enormously difficult time for the BBC. The charter review is underway on the BBC’s future; numerous Tories and right-wingers are out to cut the Beeb down to size, believing it is biased against them. Chancellor George Osborne talked of the BBC being ‘imperial in its ambitions’, in the way its website crowded out competitors. The forthcoming cuts in BBC funding, coming on top of a previous round, are going to involve painful and difficult decisions.

Previous palliatives are now past their sell-by date. A ‘Scottish Six’ – an integrated Scottish news service offering Scottish, UK and international news in one package – was blocked by BBC head John Birt and Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Then came a decade of sticking plasters: first, Newsnight Scotland and the ridiculous opt-out in the middle of the UK Newsnight; then Scotland 2014 (now Scotland 2015), which was launched with next-to-no preparation or proper piloting.

Fighting the conservatism of the BBC and BBC Scotland: IndyRef and beyond

Much of this has been brought to a head by politics and the independence referendum, but it is about much more. The crisis of BBC Scotland’s legitimacy and its lack of a democratic mandate in the country cannot be solved by just more news and current affairs programmes. And certainly not by populist pandering, such as more football and more Scotland internationals on TV.

BBC Scotland, like the big BBC, has always followed behind the curve, behind the nation. It has reflected back to us a set of images that are already historical and which, in many cases, we have outgrown or find embarrassing. It has continually defaulted to the status quo, to caution – a setting which was certainly ‘on’ during the referendum.

It took until 1978 to set up BBC Radio Scotland, when the first devolution debate was taking place. The BBC waited until the end of a near decade-long controversy to act, and when it did it produced something which many thought was better suited to Scotland of the 1950s. The writer Neal Ascherson at the time commented on the pale menu of ‘Radio Kailyard’, which the new channel was serving up. A decade later, the arts journalist Catherine Lockerbie called it ‘the “national network” of a non-nation’.

What does the future hold? The current situation is unsustainable. The status quo, which is still being clung to by BBC senior executives in London and parts of Scotland, will go. Surely it is better to embrace that and start thinking about change and new models now. One missing aspect of the charter review is how the BBC reflects and represents an increasingly diverse UK. This has always been an inherent problem in the BBC, but has grown more acute with devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and been exacerbated not just by the independence referendum but by the rise of London and its economic, social and cultural crowding out of the rest of the UK. (A 2014 YouGov poll found that more than three-quarters of respondents felt the UK media was London-focussed.)

It is not just Scotland that is changing; the UK and the world are shifting. The way people consume media is in the throes of a major transition. We are moving to a more fragmented, competitive, multi-platform environment. This is reinforced by huge demographic moves with people – particularly those aged under-30 – using media in very different ways from previous generations, being less reliant on traditional media formats.

One big challenge in the landscape of tomorrow will be how to pay for good media. People want good-quality journalism and they want branded journalism that they feel they can trust. Public-service broadcasting does not have to remain static or persist in its current format. The BBC could evolve into a hybrid: partly based on some kind of universal fee, partly on an element of choice, perhaps via subscription. There is a debate which needs to be had if the BBC has a future in Scotland and elsewhere across the UK.

This evolution requires a mix of radicalism and subtleness. It requires that the nationalists play an astute game not to knock the BBC down but to aid it becoming something very different. One observer of SNP thinking on this described their position as, ‘the SNP wants to make BBC Scotland real’. That’s not how Nicola Sturgeon – and certainly not Alex Salmond – would articulate it, but it does capture the canny tone adopted by the first minister in her Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the 2015 Edinburgh International Television Festival. Sturgeon is out to play a game of persuasion, to achieve the goals of a dedicated Scottish TV channel and second radio station – goals remarkably close to the BBC Charter Renewal proposals that have stalled.

After several false starts and hesitations, the BBC now needs to show boldness and a dramatic vision of the future. The Charter Renewal proposals for a devolved BBC Scotland are one option. But they have to form part of a wider debate about the role of broadcasting and the media in Scotland. How do we want to represent our nation to ourselves and the world? How would we like to pay for it? How can we best support Scottish producers, creatives and talent in the media to aid them staying in Scotland and having successful careers here? What is the best way all of ensuring all this is accountable to the people of Scotland without politicians having direct control?

Ultimately the role of the BBC, broadcasting and media has to be seen as part of a much broader discussion about public life and the public sphere – which, while always being partly autonomous in Scotland, has become increasingly so, diverging in particularly from the English public sphere, dominated as it is by London. Yet the fragile ecology of the public sphere in Scotland has to be addressed – in terms of resources, places and spaces, and in terms of how it exists in a partially autonomous culture which has had a tradition of privileged institutional voices (the Church of Scotland for centuries, the Labour party until recently).

This is about William Mackenzie’s concept of the public sphere having a ‘community of communicators’ where an understanding of who is speaking and who has voice, access and status – and who has does not – is crucial. This community has seen a lot of change in recent decades, and this has only been accelerated by the experiences of the independence referendum, which should be seen as part of this longer story of change, not as a one-off ‘spike’.

The future of the BBC and broadcasting is an essential debate in the future of Scotland and the UK. Difficult discussions need to be had. Policies and ideas have to be encouraged which recognise this. In this spirit, it would be helpful to begin a public conversation which involves the BBC, other broadcasters, media, creative and cultural voices, and the general public. This should take a variety of forums – from traditional media bodies themselves, to social media, thinktanks, campaigning groups, and the wider ecology of the public sphere.

To aid in this process, below are some suggestions for questions and topics which I believe it would be helpful to begin thinking about in relation to the BBC in Scotland and the role of other media players in our nation.

  • What should be the balance of Scottish broadcasting in Scotland? What kind of Scotland should be represented and reflected back to us?
  • How could the BBC and others best articulate a Scottish take on the world, and help give the world a glimpse into Scotland?
  • How do we avoid central belt dominance, and ensure that the view from Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, is not seen as the voice of Scotland? How could different Scotlands be better represented? This seldom happens at the moment – with the exception of the closing stages of the referendum, and crisis moments such as those brought upon us by extreme weather.
  • What would an appropriate relationship between Scottish politicians and broadcasters look like? How can we best avoid the pitfalls of micro-accountability and comment on the content of individual programmes?
  • Would an independent Scottish regulator – a ‘Scottish Ofcom’ – be the best model for broadcasting? If so, what should be its remit and how should it be drawn up?
  • What is the best means of involving the public in the BBC (and STV as well)? Is it possible to devise more imaginative and participative forums than exist currently?
  • What happens to public-service broadcasting as the legitimacy of the current BBC licence fee declines? Is it possible to see a future hybrid model for the BBC, based wholly or partly on subscriptions, as sustainable?
  • What could a multi-platform media environment look like? How could the state and public funding best aid diversity and pluralism? Could a designated fund to support and promote the multiplicity of voices be envisaged?
  • How can the creative community, and independent producers in particular, best be supported? Should there be a designated quota for independent producers in all broadcasting?
  • Irrespective of whether Scotland becomes independent, what should be done about London-dominated media and institutions and how they impact on Scotland (as well as the rest of the UK)? Is it possible to envisage broadcasters that are more federal or quasi-federal?
  • The independence referendum was the biggest story in Scotland for decades. Many of the claims of BBC ‘bias’ were over the top, but how do the BBC, STV and others learn from this and approach similar stories differently in the future?

This is an age of unprecedented fluidity and change, and one which requires constant adaption and innovation. That is exciting for some but perplexing for others.

The traditional institutions and ways of the media doing things are no longer viable. Change is coming. The big question is what kind of change, pushed by and aiding which voices and interests? On the one hand are even more powerful vested interests; on the other, a variety of democratic, diverse, often less financially secure forces. All of our deliberations in this should be focussed on limiting the power of the former and encouraging the latter. This is an important debate – with important choices and consequences – for all of us.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and academic, co-director of Scotland’s Festival of Ideas, and author and editor of 20 books on Scottish and British politics. He is also an IPPR associate fellow.

This article will appear in a collection of essays on the future of the BBC to be published by IPPR in December 2015.