"Edinburgh's disgrace", Calton Hill: the lack of a national 6 o'clock news is a big problem for Scotland. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The lack of a Scottish Six O’Clock News is a major democratic flaw

Viewers in Scotland have to sit through half-hour bulletins that may have no domestic news relevant to their lives, before Scottish news is broadcast as a budget regional news programme. 

In last week’s New Statesman interview, Alistair Darling likened Alex Salmond to Kim Jong-il for remarking that Ukip’s unexpected success in Scotland was partly due to the extent to which Nigel Farage had been “beamed” into the country during the European election campaign. Yet Salmond’s observation was spot on. It highlighted a fundamental problem affecting Scottish television. This used to revolve around the argument over whether there should be a separate Scottish Six O’Clock News, given that since devolution national BBC News coverage of health, education, policing and many other matters has been irrelevant north of the border. Now, the problem has got much worse.

The blanket coverage of Farage in Scotland almost certainly helped Ukip enjoy its first success here – and it is not the SNP that might have won that sixth European seat but the Greens. Ukip won 10.4 per cent of the vote, the Greens 8.1 per cent. For anyone to argue that the two parties had equal coverage is preposterous. I rarely saw a Green candidate on television, whereas Farage was rarely off it. This is because the BBC’s priorities and allocation of airtime reflected the parties’ positions in the UK as a whole (read England), so we in Scotland had to suffer wall-to-wall Farage even though before the campaign his party barely registered in opinion polls north of the border.

The lack of a Scottish Six O’Clock News is a major democratic flaw. Every night, BBC viewers in Scotland have to sit through half-hour bulletins that may have no domestic news that is relevant to their lives. We have to wait for the end of the bulletin before the most important stories get aired – and then on a regional news programme starved of resources and talent.

The independence campaign has thrown up a new problem, quantified by Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland as a bias in BBC coverage of 3:2 towards remarks favourable to the No side. Now that the official campaigns have started, there are rules governing how much time is given to each side; however, practice shows that it is not about minutes measured with a stopwatch but about attitudes and assumptions.

I have been taking notes. One notorious lapse in impartiality was Andrew Marr’s interview with José Manuel Barroso, in which the BBC journalist failed to challenge the European Commission president when he likened Scotland to Kosovo and declared that EU membership would be “difficult, if not impossible”. Later, interviewing Alex Salmond about Barroso’s comments, Marr felt free to interject: “I think it would be quite hard to get back in [to the EU], I have to say.” That was something a BBC presenter certainly did not “have to say”.

On another occasion, Gavin Esler hosted an edition of Dateline London in which the four guests mocked Salmond, though neither the SNP leader nor any representative of the Yes campaign was there to give balance. Discussing whether Scotland might have to join the single currency, Esler opined: “Scotland will have to take the euro, that’s the deal.” Really? A deal, surely, will come at the end of negotiations and given there is no rule and no precedent regarding a region seceding from an EU member state, neither Esler nor anyone else should be making such categorical statements.

Standards of broadcasting are at the heart of democracy. As Scots search for facts shorn of opinion and bias, the BBC needs to sharpen up.

Angus Roxburgh is a former BBC Moscow correspondent

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.