When people look for a drama in the Scottish media world, the tale they expect is about the decline in newspapers. For my money, the sadder story and greater tragedy occurred in broadcasting, and in the BBC in particular. It is all the worse that no particular failure can be identified, just a general sense of mediocrity that has flowed from the state broadcaster.
The debate about broadcasting over the last ten years focused on political control. Westminster retained powers, while some in Holyrood would have liked them. This issue was made more tangible by the calls, ultimately rejected, for a 'Scottish Six', or a teatime TV news that edited national, UK and international stories from Glasgow.
You can’t help but think the whole row was a set-up, designed to sap energy and
divert attention from the general dullness of the BBC’s Scottish operation. Where to start? Nothing is particularly bad, but where’s the good stuff? The presenters are fine, the content is safe, the news stories are predictable, and the audience figures are respectable. In short, it is the broadcasting equivalent of a beige Volvo being driven by an accountant.
Newspapers have had to deal with technological and economic issues of huge consequence. The BBC is immune from all this. The staff are well paid, enjoy a protective employment which amounts to a job-for-life, get a big pension and are trusted with reasonable budgets. The funding stream, for all the political hoo-haa, is fantastic compared with other media, or independent rivals. In return for this security, we get served mashed potatoes, day after day.
The only big change to the TV schedules has been Newsnight Scotland, and sources tell me that the current management would happily be shot of that. In general programming, River City is the Beeb’s innovation of the last decade, and while it is now doing well, the launch was terrible. As for the radio operation, a former news chief recently told me he blamed the Gaels for the morale-sapping lack of ambition. I don’t buy into a racist attack on some of the bosses, but I think they have been guilty of a lack of vision and courage.
Given the huge privilege of the funding model, it seems to me a basic requirement that the BBC management in Glasgow are subject to far greater scrutiny. Most should probably be on five-year terms, after which they can be thanked for their contribution and new ideas can be introduced. We in Scotland deserve our own speech station. This could be allowed to run Radio 4 material, much as Radio 7 does at the moment to no detriment. The BBC should resist endless political attempts to be portrayed as the embodiment of the Union, and embrace its status as an international symbol of quality. I think the licence cash collected in Scotland should be top-sliced so as to support other producers and online providers. Oh, and I’d cap salaries across the board.
Most of all, the security provided by the licence fee, a tax on the people of Scotland, should be used to envigorate the nation, not sedate it. There is nothing wrong in being dull, but little to be proud of either.
Alex Bell was meant to be writing a series of articles on the founding of allmediascotland.com, but wilfully ignored the brief and wrote the above instead. For this, as for so much, he is very sorry to co-founder Mike Wilson. Bell left this wonderful website some time ago to write a book, Peak Water, which is out in September, published by Luath.
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