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11 October 1999

Drop this second-rate mentality

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

The most important single political, historical and geographical fact about Scotland is England. And one of the consequences of that has been a national obsession revolving neurotically and ceaselessly around the question of how to avoid looking second-rate, or even just second. Much of this has been most obvious in cultural matters. It is a commonplace to say that a great season for Scotland’s rugby and football teams is to defeat England, no matter what other splendid or awful results might be obtained against better outfits.

The ridiculous level of emotional investment in these games comes from centuries of being in bed with a brontosaurus. England is just so big, so rich and so comparatively uninterested in Scotland that inevitably most of the angst grinds north of the border.

The BBC in Scotland has recently fallen prey to a variant on this ancient neurosis. Last year most of its senior staff and all of its lay advisory body, the Broadcasting Council of Scotland, backed something called the Scottish Six. This was a post-devolution referendum proposal to play an hour of evening news whose running order would be compiled in Glasgow and which took as its constituent bits Scottish, British and international stories and made a programme out of them all. Not only would that deal with the new news priorities created by the existence of the Scottish Parliament, it would also avoid the occasional but unfortunate solecisms inflicted on the rest of Britain by a London-driven news agenda – “Tube strike: country paralysed” and the like.

Normally cool BBC Scotland tempers became very frayed over this issue when the BBC’s national board of governors refused to sanction the creation of a Scottish Six. And when Greg Dyke was appointed director-general of the BBC a few weeks ago, he dutifully promised, in response to anxious questioning, to review the matter in due course. Even though that course is due in May 2000, his comments prompted a flurry of indignant journalism which hoped that the new man would see sense and let the Jocks have their own news. And this week’s launch of a Scottish opt-out of Newsnight has reignited the issue.

Before these alleged deliberations (in his time at ITV Dyke rarely showed much interest in what happened north of Watford) take place, it is worth looking harder at where this row really comes from. There seems to be little or no conclusive research to show that the viewers actively want a Scottish Six, and some indicate that they don’t. The fact is that it is primarily journalists who support this. And the reason is a familiar one: how to avoid looking second-rate.

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Scottish early-evening news almost always sits next to British or international news in television schedules, inviting comparisons. And on an obvious level, reports from Bosnia look much more dramatic than pieces from Bellshill. The glamour of gunfire and international locations, or even the mundane reporting of Westminster and the City, contrasts too starkly with standing in the rain on the pavement outside Glasgow Sheriff Court looking as cheerful as the accused inside. Scottish news, many journalists believe, looks and sounds second-rate, less important and some way down the professional pecking order. In their minds a Scottish Six would cure most of these ills.

To viewers the picture can look quite different. Research consistently shows that the more television news there is that is local, the more highly it is valued. At Border TV and Grampian, covering areas of Scotland where there is no direct BBC competition, their programmes are watched regularly by very large audiences. That shows a set of values very different from those who so ardently promote the idea of a Scottish Six. It looks as though the mass of people in Scotland feel that it is still good to watch a British news which offers a British sense of events and their effects.

In its essence, this issue, as with other cultural matters of Scottishness and Britishness, is closely connected to a chronic lack of national self-confidence. If we can jettison the daftness of “Wha’s like us? Damned a few and they’re all dead”, or the impossible, even Wagnerian, dreams of football glory, then perhaps we can move on to what is really important. If we can stop worrying about being second-best and begin to value what we do and who we are for ourselves, without needing any outside validation, then that neurotic energy will quickly find better uses.

Perhaps the first few faltering steps on the road to emotional maturity have already been taken. A few months ago the Scottish football team travelled across the North Atlantic to the Faeroe Islands, where they were held to a humiliating draw. Worse than that, in a gale that whipped off the Arctic Circle, the boys in blue chased around after the ball like a bunch of public park amateurs in what looked like, well, a public park. The following day, the back pages of the Scottish newspapers were covered in yards of sackcloth and mountains of ash. But one scintilla of light pierced the Arctic gloom. “It’s OK to have a crap football team now,” said one commentator, “we’ve got a parliament.”

Alistair Moffat

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