Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Broadcasting Council for Scotland (PDB 10)

SUMMARY

  As part of its response to devolution, the BBC expanded and reshaped news and political programmes in Scotland to deliver comprehensive coverage of Parliamentary activities in Westminster, Holyrood and Brussels. The Council feels devolution coverage has been broadly based, and of a high standard.

  But there is a continuing need to strike the right balance in coverage across three Parliaments, for smooth handling of junctions between network and opt out programming, and to minimise duplication where Scottish stories appear in both UK and Scottish bulletins. The awareness of BBC staff generally of different legislative responsibilities across the UK also needs to be continually monitored.

  Of current issues, perhaps the most pressing is the need to develop a style of political coverage which has greater appeal for young people.

INTRODUCTION

    —  The Broadcasting Council for Scotland, which acts as the BBC Board of Governors' primary adviser in Scotland, monitors public opinion, commissions research as part of an annual review process and advises the Governors on progress against objectives for BBC Scotland management

    —  One of the areas under review this year is News and Current Affairs (the other being Sport). An external assessment panel is reporting to the Council and a detailed audience research exercise has been undertaken, the results of which will help the Council in its internal assessment of services for the Board

    —  The Council receives an annual presentation on News issues from the departmental head, as well as monthly reports, which help members in their monitoring and reporting of programmes and services

1.  BACKGROUND

  1.1  Before devolution became a reality, the BCS was clear that the BBC needed to respond to constitutional change by finding new ways of delivering news and current affairs to audiences in Scotland and across the UK.

  1.2  As part of a series of discussions with BBC management, the Council set out its view that, as part of the overall response to devolution, a priority should be to establish a new programme, edited and produced in Glasgow, which would order local, national and international news appropriately.

  1.3  This proposal, which had been discussed before by the BBC (and separately by Scottish Television) offered, in the Council's view, a new solution to meet audience demand and deliver competitive advantage. It remained the preferred option of the BCS.

  1.4  In December 1998, the Board of Governors rejected the advice of the Council on a "Scottish Six" as it was known, but instead promised new investment of £10 million a year to provide coverage of Parliament and politics with an integrated approach to the 6-7 pm news hour, the creation of Newsnight Scotland, a network news editor in Scotland to supervise coverage from Scotland for the rest of the BBC, and training for BBC journalists so that the impact of devolution was fully understood across the organisation.

  1.5  Since then, BBC Scotland has used the extra funds to deliver comprehensive coverage of Parliamentary activities at Westminster, Holyrood and Brussels through a range of programmes including Holyrood Live, Holyrood, Scottish Questions and Prime Minister's Questions on television and Politics Tonight, Lesley Riddoch and Scottish Questions as well as the main strands such as Good Morning Scotland and Newsdrive on Radio Scotland.

  1.6  Other services have also provided accessible and comprehensive services, namely News Online with live video and audio streaming of programmes and in Gaelic there is a weekly news review programme, a current affairs series and the European affairs series, Eorpa.

2.  CURRENT POSITION

  2.1  Members welcomed the efforts made to ensure that staff across the UK were fully aware of the impact of the new devolved bodies, and that there was a comprehensive understanding of the different legislative responsibilities across the UK. However, there needs to be continuing monitoring and training.

  2.2  The Council has continued to monitor and report on the strengths and weaknesses of programmes and services, and this year is conducting a detailed review of News and Current Affairs.

  2.3  Last year, as reported in the Annual Review, members said that devolution coverage was broadly based and of a high standard.

  2.4  Areas for concern have centred on the need to find the right balance in the amount of coverage devoted to Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels; the "central belt" feel of Reporting Scotland (though it performed well in a tough market); and, although improvements were noted, the handling of the junction of Newsnight and Newsnight Scotland which remained, on occasion, problematic.

  2.5  Members believe that the 6-7 pm news hour has shown a greater coherence and integration than at any time before and audience performance has been encouraging, with Reporting Scotland drawing good audiences, particularly during the Autumn. Nonetheless there remain some concerns about the relative balancing of items which need to be reported in both halves of the hour.

  2.6  There has also been a noticeably greater inclusion of Scottish material in the network news at 6 pm, though the Council believes that there is more to be done in reflecting the UK to the UK in that half hour.

3.  ISSUES

  3.1  Voter turnout at elections is only one indicator of interest but, as BBC programme-makers discussed at a seminar in November, falling turnout and reported disillusionment with political institutions and processes at the very least requires close examination of the current output and whether it is up to the task that it is required to perform.

  3.2  Young people in particular (across the UK) apparently do not believe that there is much of relevance to them and that much of the present coverage is inaccessible and fails to engage.

  3.3  Given the wider review of politics by the BBC, and the transition to digital services, there is an opportunity to establish new connections and context in output with issues and events in Scotland and those which are happening at European and global levels.

  3.4  The competitive context in Scotland may alter radically if speculation about major changes in the structures of commercial broadcasting is proved to be accurate. It is important that the BBC has to contend with high quality original programming, not just in news and current affairs but in other genres too.

  3.5  There is a constant challenge to ensure that a reasonable balance is struck in terms of coverage of Westminster, Holyrood and Brussels.

  3.6  It is particularly the case when party representation in the Scottish Parliament differs from Westminster and therefore demands a distinctive editorial approach to how minority parties are represented in mainstream output.

  3.7  Considering the wealth of detail and debate on issues such as health, education, transport, land reform and many others for which the Scottish Parliament has legislative responsibility, there inevitably remains a media focus on activities in Edinburgh.

7 December 2001





 
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