Friday, June 13, 2008

Lets all speak Gaelic. It's the only language BBC Scotland understands.

Last week, the King Report, for the BBC Trust put a bomb under BBC Scotland. Though I?m not sure they have noticed it yet. The report identified the corporation?s complete failure to reflect the new constitutional reality in the UK. But the task of crafting a service that is adequate to the new Scotland has hardly been started, and I?m not sure BBC Scotland in its present demoralised state is capable of undertaking it.

Like most people I have an ambivalent relationship to BBC Scotland, though not half as ambivalent as its relationship to me. I have committed the ultimate sin of criticising the corporation publicly for which I risk being banished from its portals. The Gaelic people are after me for supposedly dissing ?Eorpa? as a misallocation of resources.

For the record, I think precisely the reverse: Eorpa is a model of what BBC Scotland should be trying to do. It is the only Scottish-produced programme with the wit and the resources to film abroad on a regular basis and look Europe in the eye. It is no accident that Eorpa has been praised at just about every public meeting of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission as an example of what BBC Scotland should be doing. It makes much of the rest of BBC Scotland?s output look parochial and cheap.

Gaelic broadcasters seem to lack the inhibitions of their English language counterparts. While the rest of BBC Scotland is mired in apathy and despair over endless financial cuts, the Gaelic crowd is full of confidence. The big broadcasting event of the year in Scotland is the launch this summer of a Gaelic television channel for which BBC Scotland is training legions of young Gaelic broadcasters. This is great for the language, but I can?t help feeling there is a bit of a cultural deficit opening up with those of us unfortunate enough not to speak it. The proposal to perhaps put some English language programmes on the Gaelic TV channel doesn?t quite fill it.

Now, can I say again - because feelings are very raw here - that I am not posing this as a Gaelic v. English-language issue. The problem is the weakness of the mainstream service rather than the influence of the Gaelic lobby. All power to them. Gaelic has flourished because it has essentially been devolved and is governed by the Gaelic Media Service which has its own independent funding and a remit to promote the language. In the wake of the King Report, which confirmed what we all knew, namely that Scotland is not being served by the BBC, BBC Scotland?s constitutional status also needs to be addressed.

It was always a bizarre anomaly that broadcasting should have been reserved to Westminster under the Scotland Act. There is no rationale behind it, except a vague fear on behalf of some Labour ministers that devolution of broadcasting would turn BBC Scotland into a vehicle for nationalism. Westminster has responsibility for broadcasting, but that doesn?t mean that the Labour government can tell the BBC what do put in its programmes. Devolution would not improve broadcasting standards overnight, but it would make clear to the BBC that Scotland cannot be regarded as a province any longer, with a second rate provincial service.

People in Pacific Quay take profound offence if you suggest that what is produced for Scottish consumption is second rate. But it is; it is meant to be. I have enormous respect for the people working in BBC Scotland, many of whom are extremely good at their jobs. It makes me very angry when sniffy Sunday commentators say there isn?t enough talent in Scotland to provide a proper national service. I can say with absolute conviction, having worked in both BBC Scotland and in BBC in London, that there is only one thing broadcasters in Scotland lack: the resources to do the job. There?s no shortage of talented Scottish broadcasters and producers at the highest levels in the UK media.

It is the subordinate status of BBC Scotland within the BBC that leads to mediocrity, not the quality of the people who work in it. The programme budgets are derisory and getting tighter by the year as the BBC inflicts ever shrinking budgets on demoralised programme makers. People leave because they get exhausted. Yet, the London-centred BBC bosses seem completely unaware of what is going on here, as the deputy director general, Mark Byford, confirmed at a Scottish Broadcasting Commission panel in Glasgow last month. He insisted that there was no difference between the quality of news and current affairs programmes in Scotland and on BBC network, and that programmes here received the same funding. An absurd proposition to anyone who has actually worked in the corporation north and south. Why doesn?t someone tell him?

The main problem identified by Professor King in his report for the BBC Trust was the complete failure of the BBC to represent in its programming the reality of devolution. Research conducted by Cardiff University showed that, over a two month period, of 163 items on health and education carried by the BBC?s network news programmes 163 were about English health and English education. Usually, there were references to Scotland being different, but no attempt to cover Scottish stories about them.

The BBC?s preferred solution is to encourage network editors to shoe-horn items about Scottish health and Scottish education into the UK network bulletins. We will no doubt see the odd item on the Six O?clock news about Scottish class sizes and the poor health of Scots ? but I can guarantee you that they will not address the real problem, which is the stunning failure of BBC Scotland to represent Scotland properly to its own viewers in Scotland at this crucial time in our national history. There is no way that network news bulletins are going to give equal prominence to devolved stories. Why should they? The vast majority of their viewers are in England.

The point is that Scotland is not a region of England, but a country with its own government and a parliament with primary legislative powers. It has a separate legal and education system. The challenge is not just to explain this to English viewers, who aren?t really interested, but to ensure that Scottish programming transmitted in Scotland is of the same standards and resourcing as English network programming. BBC Scotland has to learn from the Gaels that no one is going to do this for you. Pacific Quay needs to find its voice and demand that nation speaks equally to nation.

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