Friday, November 21, 2008

Local News. For Local People.

I’m getting ready to head off to London tomorrow – an old uni pal’s birthday, a couple of days work, then a couple of days holiday to see other friends. I’ve remarked before about how it feels to be itinerant in a place where you were once before fixed. Since this will be my first visit south since moving to Aberdeenshire, I expect that a week of dodging between hotels and people’s spare rooms will prove to be very strange indeed.

Of course, the idea that you’re going to be living a permanently cosmopolitan and vibrant lifestyle in London soon runs into exactly the same constraints as it would anywhere else. The whirlwind impression of the place you would get from a weekend city-break packed with museums, Ferris wheels, musicals and nightclubs, must be set aside the need to manage your finances, do your shopping, clean the house and endure the drudge of the daily commute. Just like Edinburghers tend not to visit the Castle, Londoners aren’t living it up every night in the West End.

So, life in London can be every bit as mundane as it is everywhere else. And boy, is this mundanity reflected in the local TV news. Tedious Mayoral intrigue, murders in Peckham, tube delays, vapid Oxford Street vox pops, lost budgies in Brockley, the latest transfer news from Leyton Orient… all important to someone, no doubt, but still hardly at the cutting edge of anything much.

Frankly, any faux sophisticate who wants to criticise Reporting Scotland for being parochial should be made to watch a week of the London news - on loop. You’ll soon develop an appreciation for the job which BBC Scotland manages on fairly limited resources. Which brings me onto one of my favourite topics.

One of the rationales given by BBC Scotland Controller Ken McQuarrie for sidelining a ‘’Scottish 6’ was that the BBC was going to pursue more local news in Scotland, using the internet as a delivery vehicle. While BBC Scotland now has regional news pages within the Scottish news section of the BBC website, the intention was always to do more, in terms of providing professionally produced video content.

A worthy enough idea in itself, but hardly an answer to the shortcomings of the overall news coverage offered to Scottish viewers. After all, it’s not as if anyone sits at home saying ‘You know, all this duplication of Scottish stories and coverage about the English education minister getting slow hand clapped by the NUT is fine, but what would really make news relevant to me is being able to get vox pops from the folk in my local shopping centre’.

So, it was with great interest that I stumbled over this item, which seems to sound the death-knell for micro-local (if I can call it that) news coverage from the BBC. While the state of most local ITV newsrooms might be deplorable, I’m not convinced it’s the job of an already far superior BBC to further undermine their business model.

Of course, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, in calling for a digital Scottish channel, has in many ways moved this whole debate on. There’s a strong argument that a distinct, Scottish-based public service broadcaster could provide at least some incentive for the best artistic talent to spend more time pursuing their craft in Scotland, instead of being always drawn to the bright lights of London. To me, that’s far more important from a creative, cultural and economic standpoint than any news bulletin, however it is packaged.

I’ve been quite impressed with BBC Alba since it began, despite not having a word of the language myself. Of course, some folks will never be able to get past the fact that it’s in a ‘foreign’ language, and will bump their gums about their hard earned tax dollars being squandered on such a frivolity. However, my tax dollars are spent on aspects of BBC output which have zero interest for me – Radio 1, for instance. Eastenders. Formula 1 racing. But I’m still glad these things are there for others.

Clearly, given current viewing figures, BBC Alba’s content has an appeal which transcends the language barrier. If that’s what can be done on what is, let’s face it, a shoestring budget, then an English language Scottish channel could be just the thing to dip in and dip out of.

I was sceptical about a Scottish Channel when the Commission first produced its report, since maybe unusually for a supporter of independence, I was quite happy for the BBC to continue as was, but with a fairer distribution of resources and a Scottish ‘6’. Nonetheless, a new channel would give us the option of doing so much more than simply giving a better integrated roundup of world events as they relate to Scotland.

I can hear the squeals of anguish already. However, thanks to the wonders of digital TV, it’s possible for me to watch the BBC News for Oxfordshire or the Channel Islands if I so desire, just as it’s possible for me to skip Newsnight Scotland and carry on watching the Brit version post-11pm (as I sometimes do). If there were a ‘Scottish 6’ on BBC Scotland, you could still, if delicate sensibilities were offended, watch the UK-wide version. No-one need ever know your sordid little secret :-)

However, this is a matter on which most unionist minds in Westminster and Holyrood are closed. Given Labour’s shameful bullying of the BBC both pre- and post-Hutton, short of an SNP landslide at the next election to provoke a wholesale buying-off of Scottish public opinion, I just don’t see it happening.

Still, with this report from the BBC Trust, yet another of the arguments mustered previously against a Scottish-produced evening bulletin has fallen. If it’s not going to happen on BBC 1, let’s see what a new Scottish channel, with all the other attendant benefits for cultural life, is able to do instead.

With 9% of licence fees coming from Scotland which has just 8.5% of the UK population, you’re already paying for it but not getting it. And if you want to stick with the conventional UK-wide content, then with digital switchover you’ll be able to do exactly that. It’s not as if anyone’s going to be jamming the signal at Berwick, after all.


Scott @ loveandgarbage said...

Very interesting post again Richard.

Other people's regional news is always parochial. I find the BBC Scotland news has a huge central belt bias (I'm from the south west originally) but this was countered when Border TV had a properly funded regional news show on ITV. Lookaround did about 5-6 minutes of news from each part (D & G, Borders, Cumbria, Isle of Man) and while criticised by some - had a decent balance that will be shafted when Border TV is taken over by Tyne Tees, and which has never seen the same volume of coverage for SE and SW Scotland on the Scottish national news (and given the changes to ITV I was therefore quite looking forward to the BBC micro-sites).

I haven't seen BBC Alba, I made a joke about it on my blog at one point but am glad it's there (in the same way that I'm glad S4C exists).

You mention though at one point
"And if you want to stick with the conventional UK-wide content, then with digital switchover you’ll be able to do exactly that."

having made a similar point earlier. This is true only if you have satellite - which for some areas means paying money to the Murdoch empire (which I try to avoid if at all possible). Freeview won't have the appropriate range. Given that Freeview has been trailed for the duration of the switchover debate and people have bought boxes or televisions on that basis to suggest that the only solution now is satellite is not satisfactory. Freesat may be a one off expense - but it's far pricier than a Freeview box and there are planning restrictions on dishes in various areas.

My onw particular broadcasting bugbear s that the focus is on the Beeb at the expense of others (probably because we all pay for it). STV operates the halfway house model similar to BBC Scotland. I'd quite like STV to opt in to UK wide ITV broadcasts rather than attempting to con viewers that rehashed repeats or shelved dramas not good enough to air 4 years ago are suddenly "new" and "exciting" commitments to regional broadcasting. I wrote to them at one point about this and was told that a drama about the London nail bomber was part of a commitment to Scottish regional broadcasting! Cobblers obviously. Plus broadcast of new UK wide shows - heavily trailed elsewhere, cross-promoted in other media - would (given the audiences these shows tend to attract) no doubt help STV advertising revenue on these nights.

Best wishes


PS enjoyed your comment on the thread at Jeff's. NO doubt we await a similar fate if the public borrowing rockets in the way some suggest!

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly neutral on the Scottish Six issue.

On the one hand there is something to be said for no longer having broadcasts which talk about education policy - when it in fact has no role in Scotland. But I've always thought that was what Reporting Scotland was for.

On a more substantive point though I could perhaps get on board with the idea of Scottish Six if there was more info on how this might run exactly.

One thing I find irritating about the BBC is the fact that they can send so many reporters to cover the same story just because they're from different sections of the BBC. Therefore I wouldn't want a Scotish Six to be little more than another BBC journalist going to events there's already BBC staff at.

It would also depend on the issue of what we mean by a 'Scottish' Six. Part of the problem with the Scottish media just now is (as Scott says) it's really more of west-central Scotland media, with the focus being on issues such as crime.

If I thought a Scottish Six would just lead to an hour of parochialism (whilst taking on board and agreeing with your points about London news, etc) I couldn't stand an hour of knife crime and football all based in west-central Scotland.

Richard Thomson said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Too busy to respond properly right now (blogging using a phone numberpad and tiny screen isn't much fun), but will do so in due course.

Allan said...

Excellent blog again, our apartment had BBC London when we were in Portugal in May, I can't really say if the quality was any diferent to what we are used to with Reporting Scotland, being the week running up to the Mayoral elections.

Ideas.. made a great point though about duplication of resources. It always used to bug me that the BBC would send their people to repost on Scottish news and sport's stories, when BBC Scotland already had their people there. A perfect example was the other night when the 10 o'clock news had Nigel, Ali or whoever does the sport on News 24 reporting into the news on the Scotland game. Surely Chick Young isn't that offensive to the English Stockbroker belt masses.

Richard Thomson said...

Hi Scott,

I'm not sure I'd agree there's a central belt bias in BBC Scotland's output, since they do make quite an effort to cover the highlands and islands, and North East. However, I do think that the south of the country gets a raw deal. As you say, though, it'll only get worse when Tyne Tees takes over.

I remember Border TV news fondly for one main reason. I was a candidate in Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale back in 2001, and had to do my piece to camera for the Lookaround guys. They caught up with me in the square in Selkirk and I gave them my treatise on the poor quality of the local public transport system and why it needed an SNP MP to improve things.

It took about 5 takes. The reason? Each one of the first four takes was ruined by the large number of buses in the square revving their engines as they set off for Edinburgh, Berwick, Carlisle etc. Not perhaps my finest hour as a candidate - in the end we all had difficulty trying to keep our faces straight enough to finish the package off :-)

You mention though at one point
"And if you want to stick with the conventional UK-wide content, then with digital switchover you’ll be able to do exactly that."

Yes, it's true that you can only choose different regions right now if you have satellite (not living in a Freeview area, I have the non-Murdoch Freesat). However, once switchover happens, the bandwidth will certainly be there to carry 'regional variations' from elsewhere. It may not happen, of course, but the facility will be still there.

As for STV, I think they've laboured under the delusion for too long that people will watch any old rubbish as long as the word 'Scottish' appears often enough in the schedule. If ITV carries down the road of becoming a channel with a unified brand identity, though, it'll lose about the only remaining differentiator it has over other general channels.

The local ITV companies had great loyalty. Consolidation, the ITV Digital fiasco and sundry executives with ideas above their station (no pun intended) are what's brought the network to its current sorry state.

Richard Thomson said...

Ideas (and Allan to a lesser extent)

BBC duplication is nowhere near as prevalent as it once was. I can remember pre-Birt a Scottish story with a UK angle being covered by, say, Andrew Cassell on the '6' and by Brian Taylor on Rep Scot. All this, and the late, great Kenny MacIntyre covering it separately on Radio Scotland into the bargain. There's far fewer delineations now between TV and radio, which is a shame in many ways, as you no longer get the breadth of styles. It's all far more uniform. Cheaper, maybe, but definitely duller.

I don't think it's the job of Reporting Scotland to correct the deficiencies of the UK '6', though. The way I see a Scottish 6 working, and I've had this confirmed privately by folks at the BBC who know such matters, that it would still be using much of the material that appears on the present 6. The difference would be in terms of the running order, production and obviously, presentation.

Basically, the Scottish version would have access to the same network of correspondents and their reports. However, the Scottish based producer would be able to rearrange the running order, insert other packages or drop items which they judged were of little relevance.

It certainly wouldn't be all stabbings, car accidents, high court appearances and Old Firm trivia. That's what the Daily Record is for, after all :-)

Norman C said...

Legal challenged launched against Mandelson.

As their release says: ‘Lord Mandelson, in our view, is acting unlawfully.’