There is a journalist at BBC Scotland whom I always listen to with the pleasure that accompanies true respect. He is Ali Abassi, Radio Scotland’s long-serving travel reporter. If Abassi tells me the east-bound M8 is busy, I take the train to Edinburgh. He is invariably right. When the travel report is over, I switch back to the Today programme. Good Morning Scotland cannot compete for news, views and analysis. It doesn’t try. It has none of the resources required to provide incisive coverage of politics, diplomacy or finance. There are no reporters with the creative touch of Today‘s Mark Coles and no interrogators with the forensic skills of John Humphrys or Jim Naughtie. Abassi is about the best BBC Scotland has to offer.
It is hard to have mature national politics without a forum for public debate, and Scotland enters the second year of devolved administration with a conspicuous absence of both. Despite the repeated boasts of BBC Scotland’s controller, John McCormick, the soi-disant “national broadcaster” is an under-resourced outpost of BBC regional broadcasting. Indeed, as political power has been repatriated to Edinburgh, editorial power has travelled in the opposite direction. The unambitious plan for a Scottish Six O’Clock News on BBC1 has quietly slipped off the agenda. Newsnight Scotland is a triumph over adversity. But doing more with less than most commentators expected for 15 minutes each evening, at a time when sensible folk are asleep, is no substitute for the real thing.
Scotland has a parliament, but no Today programme, World at One, Guardian, Telegraph, Channel 4 News or World Tonight. Over-resourced politicians are confronted by impoverished journalism, and the public is the loser. To the retort that Scotland has more newspapers per head of population than any other small democracy, there is a simple response. None of them (except Trinity Mirror’s popular but execrable Daily Record, now so clearly in crisis that its controversial editor, Martin Clarke, was “summarily resigned” last week) is remotely national. Four allegedly “quality” broadsheets, the Press and Journal, Courier, Herald and Scotsman, sell a combined total of 380,000 copies a day. Each peddles the vast bulk in a tightly restricted geographical area. This is not a national press, but a collection of city-state newspapers, each duplicating the efforts of all the others at obvious cost to quality.
The best Scottish journalists do what is natural: they move to London. Every time McCormick crows about the editorial talent nurtured in Scotland, less self- interested minds point out that Kirsty Wark, Alan Little, Jim Naughtie, Gavin Esler, Sheena McDonald and so on rarely operate north of Islington.
Only the politicians are laughing. Labour’s lacklustre Scottish Executive has every reason to avoid forensic interrogation. An environment in which the latest devolutionary disaster (total collapse of confidence in Scotland’s education service) leads the UK news only four weeks after the event – and then only because nothing has happened in Sierra Leone – suits them fine.
Scotland needs a genuine national agenda, and the broadcaster or press baron who provides it will be enormously popular. A journalism in which issues gather momentum through repeated exposure and thorough investigation would shatter the complacency of second-rate politicians and bring accountability to mismanaged quangos. A Scotland that woke up to good newspaper exclusives being pursued through incisive interviews on morning radio, developed on evening television and pushed forward again by the next day’s papers, would be a healthier Scotland. It would be the sort of Scotland capable of recruiting and retaining the politicians who can make devolution look less like the worst kind of local government; a Scotland capable of keeping the journalists who could drive the whole process forward.
Why does the responsibility for creating this environment lie with the BBC? Because the corporation espouses the public interest. Still untrammelled by the need to make profits, despite Greg Dyke’s admirable commercial credentials, the BBC is uniquely equipped to make an investment in Scottish public life. But that requires a confidence and assertiveness that BBC Scotland does not have, and which will never be volunteered by the metropolitan elite who dominate life at Television Centre.
I’m not proposing a Scottish Six O’Clock News. That sort of dismal tokenism sums up just how unimaginative McCormick is. Scotland needs national journalism – not the scraps from London’s table.
Devolution has produced precisely the opposite. We now have a pathetic situation where London regularly ignores important Scottish news, on the basis that Scotland is now administratively independent and therefore wholly uninteresting to English viewers. As a result, the BBC produces what is effectively national news for England, while BBC Scotland produces local news for Scotland. There is no Scottish national news – just the embarrassing provincialism of Reporting Scotland, which is no better resourced and certainly no better than Newsroom South East or Cleethorpes at Dusk.
National broadcasting for Scotland means all the main television and radio news being produced and edited in Scotland. It means UK, Scottish and world news commissioned and presented from Glasgow (or Edinburgh, if McCormick could be convinced of the obvious logic: that most national broadcasters base themselves in the national capital in order to be close to the national parliament – but that’s too obvious to cross the minds of those who squander goodwill like a child squanders pocket money). Above all, it means saying goodbye to the preposterous dual-programming that destroys schedules and bores viewers.
It is this dual-programming that gives McCormick his most effective response to critics like me. BBC Scotland never tires of telling the poor bloody public that there is more news and current affairs available in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK. That is true. But only because, in order to see the Scottish bulletins and important world news we want, interested Scots are forced to sit through two totally incompatible programmes.
Scottish viewers don’t just get expensively produced network documentary programmes such as Panorama. We get Frontline Scotland – struggling to make an outbreak of boredom among adolescents in Stornoway look interesting because the network has exclusive rights to real news. If the network does condescend to cover a Scottish story, we have to watch it all over again (usually with the same pictures and interviews, but with a different reporter) a few moments later on Reporting Scotland.
And while Scotland produces enough significant daily news to create one dynamic half-hour programme in which 60 per cent of the stories would routinely be UK and international, Scottish licence-payers are treated to half an hour of increasingly English news from London, followed by 30 minutes of exclusively Scottish news from Glasgow.
The result is a Scottish schedule that routinely requires viewers to watch two programmes in order to get half a service. That’s why Reporting Scotland gets a smaller audience than the Six O’Clock News. It is not that Scots aren’t interested in Scotland, simply that they are interested in interesting news, and there is rarely enough of that to fill two programmes. Viewers in Truro may well feel the same way, but they don’t have a separate legislative and judicial system to scrutinise. What Scotland needs is not more news and current affairs, but good news and current affairs tuned to Scottish requirements.
Information and debate are the lubricants of democracy. All that is required for devolution to be totally discredited – and that risk is very real – is for Scotland’s tiny establishment to go on avoiding the searchlight of effective scrutiny. Modern citizens know that broadcasting is the real cockpit of contemporary democracy. A parliament that holds ministers to account in private is hardly holding them to account at all.
Greg Dyke should seize the opportunity – and have no fear that, in doing so, he threatens the United Kingdom. Independence is hardly on the Scottish agenda at present; indeed, the danger is that devolution will fall victim to a combination of public apathy and political amateurism. Good national journalism can avoid that outcome.
I want Scotland to work. It won’t, as long as vital issues are dealt with in private.
Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of the Scotsman. From 1995-97, he was editor of news programmes at BBC Scotland