Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
3 April 2000

TV on the borders of change

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

In 1964, Cock of the Border was a brave title for a television game show. Recognising that its region was mostly patterned by small towns with aggressively clear identities, Border Television devised a weekly knockout competition between places such as Appleby, Stranraer, Workington and Kelso. Rival quiz teams, piano players and darts throwers sweated under studio lamps for the right to call themselves “Cock of the Border”, if they wanted to.

Since 1961, Border Television has been an independent company, based in Carlisle but serving a huge geographical area that includes the Lake District, the Isle of Man, Galloway and the Scottish Borders. Hiding behind its smallness, with only 0.5 per cent of the ITV audience, and with the real difficulties inherent in covering such a culturally fractured region, Border has quietly built up a network of independent radio stations in the north of England. These new businesses are what finally attracted the attention of predatory media conglomerates, and now Border finds itself the subject of a hostile takeover bid from Scottish Radio Holdings, and the object of sudden interest to several other prowlers in the corporate jungle. Now that it is in play, the overwhelming likelihood is that Border will soon lose its status as the last independent television station on the British mainland.

What looks inevitable in a sector that had been consolidating for some time looks like a shame to the people for whom Border Television was originally set up. For nearly 40 years, Border News and Lookaround have bound together several communities in a shared televisual experience. Generations have grown up with a family of presenters, reporters and newsreaders whom they knew, made bad jokes about, liked and even trusted. In a cynical age, it is difficult to accept that television presenters and reporters could be trusted, but this was the case with the likes of Derek Batey, who compered Cock of the Border without a trace of innuendo and also made a sustained foray on to the ITV network with another, less alarming game show called Mr and Mrs; or Alick Cleaver, whose handlebar moustache and cut-glass delivery could have won him a walk-on in Reach for the Sky if he had not already had a day job reporting on Border News. And Eric Wallace, now in the later stages of his career, is still reporting and is much loved and trusted by his audience. Border Television has developed a sort of intimate family history with three generations of viewers.

If the company is taken over, Border News and Lookaround will continue, and the Independent Television Commission will ensure that a new owner honours the conditions of its licence to broadcast to the region. But a new owner will not see the Border franchise as central to its business, and while it will maintain the service, it will not want it to cost too much. And all the back-office functions of finance, legal and administration will be moved from Carlisle to wherever the new owner’s head office is located. Buying Border will involve a hefty premium on an already inflated share price, and that will have to be recouped through a programme of savings.

While the ITC will do what it can to preserve programme quantity, it is more difficult to ensure consistent quality. With a large geographical area stretching from the Berwickshire coast to the Isle of Man, Border’s news coverage involves substantial budgets, and it will be tempting to restrict these. Naive politicians on the Scottish side of the Border transmission area have said that it will be no great loss, and that Carlisle can seem remote. But in their efforts to find a space on other crowded news agendas to the north and south, they are likely to have a thin time.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

As the multiplicity of channels makes the consolidation of ITV less of a political issue and more a matter of business, those who put together media empires need to remember Bruce Springsteen. His line that there are a “hundred channels and nothing to watch” is becoming a much repeated observation in Britain. But the ITV network has a precious legacy that offers real choice. And that is regional programmes. Border Television has no direct BBC rival to provide an alternative service, and that makes its news and documentaries doubly precious. Properly marketed and seen as a positive package rather than a curse that pays for the privilege of holding the licence, regional programmes might turn out to be very valuable in an increasingly competitive spectrum.

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

These programmes also have a genuine cultural value. People grew up with Border Television and the other stations on the old ITV network, and even though they often mock the parochialism, increasingly they will find it nowhere else.

And Cock of the Border is certainly not to be found anywhere else. Between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Carlisle, almost everyone over 45 remembers it and some of them claim that they knew a member of a winning team who lived up to the accolade.

Alistair Moffat