Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Is there a technical difficulty in having a mixed programme, using the same clips on national news and Scottish Six from an international story like the volcano in Goma? I do not see any problem with that.
  (Mr Mosey) The technology does not really allow that at the moment. It will allow it in a fairly short time. However, the issue last Friday was that Andrew Harding, the one correspondent in Goma at the volcano, was wanted at the top of the Six O'Clock News and he could not be appearing simultaneously on UK Six and Scottish Six. Therefore we would have to look at those kind of practical issues, about how you preserve the quality of output for everybody. There are similar issues. This goes back a number of years. I spent some time on a working party where we discussed something like the Pope being in Cuba (where he was at the time) and if the Pope were taken ill there how we would do that for UK Six and Scottish Six. At that time one of the solutions was that on the really big international story Scottish Six might have to opt into the UK Six, which is not a very satisfactory solution.

  21. I do not see a problem here. You have one feed, with one correspondent in Goma giving you on camera, video tape, whatever you are using, explanation. I fail to see the technical problem with splicing that into different news broadcasts.
  (Mr Mosey) Because he cannot be asked questions by different people at the same time.

  22. Why cannot the same question be used in both? I do not see there is a particularly serious problem with that.
  (Mr Mosey) If you have Huw Edwards asking questions of the man in Goma at the very top of the Six O'Clock News, he cannot be being asked questions simultaneously by the presenter in Scotland or—

  23. That is not what I asked. If you have a mixed programme, why can you not have Hugh Edwards asking his questions and then go to the next story in Scotland? I do not see the reason why you cannot mix them.
  (Mr Mosey) Because it is live.
  (Mr Jenkins) The particular model you are envisaging there, where almost the ball passes between Glasgow and London depending on the item would be quite a difficult model to construct in a satisfactory way throughout the duration of a news programme. I think the truth about the Scottish Six, as Roger is indicating, is not that it is technically unachievable—it would be wrong to say that, it could be done, there is no doubt that it could be done logistically and technically—but there would be some compromises involved on the logistical front. The Scottish Six and the Six O'Clock News could not simultaneously be doing a live interview with the same correspondent in a key location, so the compromise might be that the story had to run three or four minutes later in the Scottish programme than it did in the UK programme. It is that kind of compromise that would have to be made but I do not think any of us would sit here and say it is not manageable. It is manageable.
  (Sir Robert Smith) The thing we are looking at in the Broadcasting Council and ultimately as Governors, will be: if we believe this is the right thing to do, then we will look for solutions rather than technical problems.
  (Mr McCormick) When the Governors made the decision at that time not to support the concept of an integrated news programme being edited from Scotland, the decision was made in principle. It was a discussion about principle; it was not a discussion on the practicalities. It was felt that if the Governors supported the decision then they should go about assessing how to achieve it to the best standard—and we had set ourselves very high standards for it—to make sure there was no deprivation for the viewers in Scotland. So the decision was made in principle, not on practicalities. It was felt at the time that we would overcome the practicalities, and if we did not, if we felt technically we could not overcome the practicalities to make sure that there was no deprivation of the coverage of international and UK news to the Scottish viewer, then we would delay the introduction of it until we could pass that test ourselves, which was a very severe test. So the discussion at that time was on the matter of principle.

Mr Carmichael

  24. Are you saying that the decision in principle is: Yes, we will go ahead with the Scottish Six?
  (Mr McCormick) No, when the Governors made the decision, it was very clearly .... I think, going back to that time, it reflected very well on this organisation that we had the debate—a lot of other people were not having the discussion—and it was an honest debate between people who had very strong opinions, honestly held views on both sides. I mean, it was not a "shoe-in" and it was not a "no-brainer"; it was a very complex issue of principle. The issue I mentioned of Newsnight Scotland and referring to Mr Weir's point about the Today programme and Good Morning Scotland, one of the issues that we debated certainly—and I was in favour of the idea of the integrated news being edited from Scotland and the proposal for that—was that we were very much aware of the fact that you can choose the Today programme or Good Morning Scotland. For us, in Scotland, one of the issues we were debating was to make sure there was no deprivation. Because if you are not giving people the option, which we may be able to do a few years down, in a digital universe when we can say that the majority of homes have digital and you can make your own choice between the way you want to get your news—and we were very much aware of the fact that we would be saying, "Here is your choice, we are taking away something you have maybe enjoyed called the UK Six and we are giving you a different package"—we were setting ourselves very strong standards for that, to make sure that we felt that was a better option for the audience in Scotland. We believed we could do that but we were going to then practically assess the tests and to do it. The Governors decided that the principle of the UK Six not being seen in all parts of the United Kingdom at the same time was an issue that they did not want to support in principle about the importance of UK news being seen around the country at the same time. The fragmentation of that news delivery was something they did not want to support at that time.

  25. Can I just nail this point about the decision being editorial rather than political. I think that is a cop out. It will be a political decision when it comes. I think that is something that the BBC themselves recognise, given the amount of money they have spent lobbying people around this table. It will be a political decision that is influenced heavily by editorial considerations but it will ultimately be a political decision.
  (Mr McCormick) I can assure the Committee, Chairman, that it will be an editorial decision based on how we can provide the best service to the people of Scotland at that particular time.
  (Mr Mosey) Before the Six was relaunched and a news hour was created, I was among the group of people who went up to Glasgow to meet party leaders and talk it through, and I thought the job as head of the news hour was a really, really tough job and I was personally sceptical about whether it would work. I think the position we are now in is actually pretty good. It is a pretty good editorial product, it is working in audience terms in Scotland, and the cooperation between us is very, very strong. I have the misfortune that John and I are personal friends as well and therefore the fact that we have managed to make this thing work, I think, is a real achievement. I am quite proud of what we have done.
  (Sir Robert Smith) The Broadcasting Council is also proud of what has been achieved. I am relieved to hear that you are happy that this will be an editorial decision, which I think is what you said.

  26. If that was the impression I gave, I apologise.
  (Sir Robert Smith) In that case, let me tell you the Governors will not be making a political decision. The Governors will consider the provision of the news, and, if they feel that it has to be improved, the Broadcasting Council has a mind to recommend but we have a lot more research to do—

  27. I think the argument between us is what we understand by politics.
  (Sir Robert Smith) OK. The Governors have not discussed this. When they do discuss it, it will be a decision on principle, then we will put it across to these people to find a technical solution, if the decision is to go with the Glasgow editorial control.

Mr Robertson

  28. I was interested to hear Sir Robert say how the Broadcasting Council is happy with the BBC news and how well you are getting on. If I may draw attention to a memorandum from Mr Nigel Smith, who is a former member of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland,[1] in which he suggested that the news and current affairs broadcasting in Scotland has not been right for 20 years and no longer gives a balanced view. Mr Smith laid the blame at the feet of the BBC Governors as well as politicians. Is it reasonable to suggest that there have been long-term deficiencies inherent in the news and current affairs programmes of BBC Scotland which no longer give a balanced view?

  (Sir Robert Smith) I was not on the Broadcasting Council 20 years ago and did not coincide with Nigel Smith. I found some of what he said a little alarmist in tone. I have seen, though, in the two and a half years that I have been involved in the thing a substantial improvement in the provision of news and current affairs in Scotland. Part of that is because of the spend—there was an extra £10 million per annum devoted to the thing and a lot of new programmes came out—but it coincided with a change in the political set up in Scotland as well. I stand by what we said: we are happy with and supportive of what is being produced right now but there are a number of issues, as I mentioned earlier (about Brussels, Westminster and Holyrood; about cut-offs between Newsnight and Newsnight Scotland; about, indeed, getting very parochial, about the "central belt" versus the rest of Scotland), that we do need to keep a very close weather-eye on. So it is not perfect; we are in a state of continuous improvement.

  (Mr McCormick) Mr Smith, I know him well; I was around in Scotland when he was a member of the Broadcasting Council in the 1980s. He believes very strongly in the concept of an integrated news programme coming from Scotland across the board and his submission is based around that. The fact that he feels that structurally, until that is done, it is impossible to provide the best news service for the people of Scotland—that is his view and he has held it a long time—I do not believe it is founded on the feeling that what we are providing in Scotland at the moment is a second-class service. Blair gave statistics at the beginning about the tripling of the coverage of Scottish affairs and Scottish issues on the Six O'Clock News, for example. One of the points Mr Smith makes specifically in his suggestion is that the illustration of social and economic issues are all illustrated from the south-east, which, frankly, is just not the case now. Roger here has the statistics for that, where you can find a housing story illustrated by talking to people in Bradford, Aberdeen or Inverness, or a health story coming from Glasgow or Edinburgh or the South of England. I am not saying everything is perfect, I am not saying we cannot do more. We have been debating a lot over the last couple of weeks about how we can make it better and how can we make sure the representations of the illustrations are more pan-UK and across the whole of Scotland. We have been debating with the Broadcasting Council recently to make sure that our illustration of life in Scotland is not simply the west end of Glasgow. We are about to seek opinion of people on the street and we are not simply doing it in one area of the whole of Scotland. That we should cover the whole of Scotland more, we are debating that with colleagues. So I do think we have made progress in that, both at the UK level and in Scotland, but we have a bit to go.

  29. What is wrong with the west end of Glasgow? I come from the west end of Glasgow! Anyway, with regard to what you said about the investment, investment is always good but what it does not do is it does not give balance. What are you doing to measure that news and current affairs are balanced? Who checks that the measurements are right?
  (Mr Jenkins) Balanced as between the parties, do you mean?

  30. Not just between the parties but also between the north/south and perhaps with Europe. The current affairs programmes tend to deal with Scotland and England but Europe seems to get left behind. It is a very topical issue these days. It did get raised during the election but then gets flung on the back boiler. And there are world affairs as well which the people in Scotland are affected by.
  (Mr Jenkins) On a point of party political balance, to be honest one of the most effective monitors of that is the fact that everything we do is highly visible. It is all out there. Parties are very much at liberty, and indeed exercise that liberty, to let us know if they think anything has not been properly balanced. It is not, in all honesty, an issue that comes up terribly frequently with political parties in Scotland because I think we are recognised as providing balanced coverage of the main issues. That obviously becomes particularly acute and intense when you hit something like an election campaign, whether it is the Scottish parliamentary election or a UK general election, but outside those times of particular focus on balance we would also say, and we think the evidence would support this, that we do a very good job of playing a very straight bat in terms of the reporting of big issues in Scotland and being fair between the parties. The issue of regional balance, which is one which I think you are also alluding to, is, to be honest, a perennial of Scottish broadcasting. I spent a number of years in the ITV system in Scotland and it was as much an issue within the ITV system in Scotland as it is with the BBC. You can always say that in the UK, if the rest of the UK is thinking that too much attention is grabbed by London, then in Scotland the Scottish perception is that too much attention is grabbed by Glasgow and/or Edinburgh, and other regions or parts of Scotland do not get as much air time as they should. We try to do as much as we can fully to reflect the important news from around Scotland in all of our output. We think we do that fairly well but it is undoubtedly a constant challenge to us not to be over-focused on the two main cities.
  (Mr McCormick) The balance between, something we have spent a lot of time examining with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, is the balance of reporting of the Scottish Parliament, the Westminster Parliament and Brussels and Strasbourg, the other part of Mr Robertson's question. In terms of the European dimension of that, we have been sending out reporters from Scotland to Europe to cover European issues. Ken McDonald, Kirsten Campbell, John Morrison have been covering issues from Scotland, because we also share and contribute to the cost of the BBC News Bureau in Brussels to serve ourselves and Northern Ireland and other regions of England specifically. But we are now going to strengthen that with the appointment of a correspondent based in Europe to serve BBC Scotland principally.
  (Sir Robert Smith) On the theme of who looks at the evidence when it comes, the Broadcasting Council last year expressed concern about European coverage and I think that has now been addressed. We were concerned that we did not actually have a correspondent out there. We wondered how that was going to be addressed properly and steps have been taken.

Mr Lyons

  31. How is that assessment and reassessment made of the mix and balance between Brussels, Westminster and Holyrood? I believe it is taken from a Westminster angle. I always feel, particularly now, the political situation in Europe is never reflected properly in Scotland.
  (Mr Jenkins) What we do not do, and what I do not think we should do as between those three parliaments, is apply any mathematical formula or any sort of quota-type view. I think these are editorial matters of judgment. A short, simple answer would be: If there is a big story either in this Parliament or any other, or indeed in Edinburgh, which we have missed and other media have got, then of course that becomes an issue for us to debate and discuss as to why we did not have that story. So there is the competitive imperative, if you like, to make sure that we are getting the news as quickly and as reliably, or in fact more so, than anyone else. That is very important to us. I think one of the things that Scottish journalism generally has to do—and we are part of this—is to connect the debates in Scotland with the wider debates going on elsewhere. It is actually one of the things where I think Newsnight Scotland has made a virtue of its more in-depth approach. When that programme looked at issues like policy on custodial sentencing in Scotland, for instance, we went to Finland to look at what happens there, we took evidence from America and played it back in to try to illuminate the debate going on in Scotland. I can think of other examples, things like drugs policy and what has been tried elsewhere in Europe, and we have done work in Scotland. How you promote the tourist industry, where we again looked at what other small European countries had done and played that back into the debate in Scotland to try to illuminate the issue for our audience. I think there are lots of different ways of taking examples from other countries and applying them to very active, high profile debates in Scotland. We have been doing that, we think, successfully but we do take the view now that it would be important to have a permanent correspondent, based in Brussels, partly because of the way the European debate is likely to come much more to the forefront over the next couple of years.

Ann McKechin

  32. I wonder if I may explore with you further the question of balance within your editorial policy and really the nature of the guidelines set down for the staff as to who has to be interviewed. If I may give you one specific example which occurred this week. On Monday morning on BBC Radio Scotland there was a discussion about the situation in Northern Ireland. The politician from Scotland who was interviewed was Ben Wallace, who is a conservative member of the Scottish Parliament. I must admit I was somewhat confused as to why a member of the Scottish Parliament was interviewed about the situation in Northern Ireland, on which I would have thought it would have been more appropriate for a Westminster politician or someone from Northern Ireland to be interviewed. I wondered how strictly these guidelines are enforced with the journalist staff. And perhaps a second question. You have mentioned about the fact of probing areas further afield in connection with Scottish issues, because I think there is some concern of perhaps increased parochialism in the media—for example, there was little coverage of the World Trade Organisation and the impact it is having currently on Scotland—not only on Newsnight Scotland but in our political documentary programmes, which have very much a domestic agenda and do not spend much time talking about the wider picture within Scotland.
  (Mr Jenkins) On the broad point about the World Trade Organisation and other big macro issues, you could always argue that we could do more. I would say that the things we do try to reflect international affairs and international trends in our programmes. Just going back to where you started, I think the reason Ben Wallace was on Good Morning Scotland on Monday morning had nothing to do with his party allegiance or which parliament he sits in; it was his army experience that was being drawn on and the questioning was entirely about his own experience of serving in Northern Ireland. That was the reason he featured in that programme. He was not there as a party representative or someone with a particular locus in terms of his parliamentary duties.

  33. He would have come across as a politician, surely.
  (Mr Jenkins) Well, I dare say, but, as I say, that was not the reason for his appearance. You are right, generally the approach we take in terms of a story or an issue, as to: Do you talk to the local MP, do you talk to the local MSP? by and large tends to follow the dividing line of: Is it a reserve issue or is it a devolved issue? That tends to be the line that we take. There are not all that many occasions when there is much doubt as to which way to go. It is usually pretty clear: Is this a reserved matter or is this a devolved matter?

Mr Carmichael

  34. Can I take you back to your point about balance between the parties. When you report something from Scottish Parliament it seems to me that a general Reporting Scotland policy will be one long line: you have an Executive spokesman, followed by the SNP spokesman (as the second largest party), usually followed by a Conservative spokesman (as the second largest political party), full stop. Can I suggest to you that that is a slightly less than balanced viewpoint for two reasons. First of all, it gives two opposition viewpoints to one Executive viewpoint. Secondly, it ignores the reality that there are four parties within the Scottish Parliament and it results in that fourth party being squeezed out. It seems to me that you are demonstrating a lack of imagination here. You are not dealing with the fact that you have a new political reality in Scotland. Why is that?
  (Mr Jenkins) The first point I should probably make—because I am sure others will make it if I do not—is that there are more than four parties represented in the Scottish Parliament.

  35. Indeed.
  (Mr Jenkins) Clearly we are in a new era in Scottish politics, in terms of what is a formal coalition at Holyrood. The view that we have taken—and it has been something that was discussed within the BBC quite widely—was that where Labour and Liberal Democrats are of a mind and are both speaking in favour of an Executive policy, then one minister speaks on behalf of the Executive. We do not go for two points of view from the Executive in support of a particular policy or a particular initiative. We do not have a fixed view as to which other parties are included in any item because we are not locked into a format that says there has to be three-party representation in every news item. We think our viewers would very quickly tire of that. We make a judgment on the basis of what the issue is, what the story is, who has made the running with it, and a number of different factors come into play. But our view is that the coalition has made some change in the way that we report multi-party politics.
  (Mr McCormick) I think that is a very interesting issue that Mr Carmichael raises and one that we have been talking actively about as a live issue within the BBC. We will be reviewing how we have covered coalition government in Scotland over this four-year term of the Scottish Parliament and whether we have been imaginative enough in taking a different view of coverage when you have indeed a coalition government rather than a single party government. It raises very important issues which are a live matter of debate within the BBC at the moment as to whether we are getting it right or not.

Mr Joyce

  36. This business of a tripling of the Scottish content in the network news is very encouraging, I must say. The flip side of that is there has been a perception, written about in The Scotsman amongst other places, a perception in the past that sometimes there are programmes covered in the network news that do not apply directly to Scotland that have been covered a little bit insensitively. My sense in the last few months is that that has been covered more sensitively. Is that something you would agree with?
  (Mr Jenkins) I would, yes. I worked for the BBC in London in the television news in the 1980s and I could not honestly say that necessarily BBC programmes took account of differences within the UK and of different sensitivities and of different ways of doing things around the UK at that time. It is now very high up the list of priorities. There are now very, very few instances—and we do have a very regular dialogue on this—where something is carried in the Six O'Clock News or in another network news programme which is inaccurate in respect of other parts of the UK—and of course I am particularly thinking from a Scottish perspective—and strenuous efforts are made to avoid doing that.
  (Mr Mosey) It may be useful if I just illustrate the kind of things we are doing there. There are some stories which I define as being Scottish in their own right. So, for instance, the-pro-hunting demonstrations in Edinburgh just before Christmas were a Scottish story which had a UK audience but there were two or three things we did in the same week. When the 30,000 job losses were announced by Consignia we illustrated that from the main sorting centre in Edinburgh; a piece about pre-Christmas shopping for the 10 o'clock news was done from a Dundee shopping mall; a piece about state school admissions to universities was done from St Andrews, and those are the kind of ways that we try to illustrate UK wide stories with pictures from all over the UK. That is the kind of area where the amount of Scottish input is growing exponentially really.

Mr Lazarowicz

  37. From my perspective I think that the change Mr Joyce has referred to is what I have seen happen as well. By and large the balance is relatively fair and I personally certainly do not take the view that there has been "undue emphasis" on Scottish politics. I think there has been, for example, a reflection of national and international stories of importance when that has happened in the last few months and that is reflected in the Scottish news coverage. I am relatively happy about that. However, one of the areas where I think there might be some criticism is one which we discussed a few minutes ago which is the balance within Scotland itself. I think you were saying there is something of a perspective that Scottish news reporting comes in purportedly with an Edinburgh/Glasgow bias. It happens that from my perspective, being from Edinburgh, sometimes we think the news always seems to be full of stories from Peterhead and Orkney or Skye, and so on. It does not have enough local input. Of course, everybody always looks at this from a local perspective but I wonder, particularly with the new possibilities of different channels, whether there is now much more possibility of opt-out specialisation within Scotland. I have seen from other committee papers, that I think Border TV for example do opt out different parts of their area particularly because they obviously cover England and Scotland. Is there a case for trying to provide more localised coverage within Scotland so that different areas have the news coverage for what interests them? Just as it may not be of interest to people in Scotland to have the UK news leading with a teachers' strike in England, equally it may not be as of much interest to people in Glasgow to have news from Aberdeen and North-West Scotland, or vice-versa. Have you thought about that?
  (Mr McCormick) Certainly we have the potential to do that. Within Reporting Scotland we could do a number of opts, say, for five or ten minutes, where we could go into more local stories for different parts of Scotland and then come back for a round-up of sports and the headlines and international headlines and that sort of thing. Certainly we could do that. Our emphasis recently in the last couple of years is that we are aware of the fact that you have a choice in broadcasting. Radio Scotland is the only national radio service in Scotland that brings the whole of Scotland together from Shetland to the Solway, and Reporting Scotland too is the only national news service for Scotland. The press is regionalised, local independent commercial radio is localised and ITV companies in Scotland are regionalised. Our priority for this term of the Scottish Parliament, as we were putting in those changes and that investment, and trying to improve the quality of everything that we do jointly, was to say to people, "You have a choice. We will put the emphasis on that news programme that brings Scotland together, and our competitors will be providing a more localised and a more regional service." We will review that at the end of that period as part of the research that Sir Robert mentioned, to see in fact if the local deprivation that comes from that, or diminution of the local coverage that comes from that, is because we are covering the whole of Scotland whether that is an important factor with the audience—whether the choice is wide enough, indeed, for the audience.

Mr Duncan

  38. I would just like to pick up Mark's point about this perception, that you are always covering the part of Scotland that I do not live in! I think there is a difference—and it is perhaps of interest in your comments—in how local radio in BBC coverage is still perceived as being very relevant to regional communities. I can give an example from my own area. I would certainly give you a local opinion that says that if they want local views they turn to BBC Solway, but if they want televisual news for that region, the perception now is that there is more on Border Television. I think that is a very interesting dichotomy, and I would be quite interested in your views. Is that a specific decision, that local coverage will emphasise the radio in the regions rather than television? I think there is a perception at the periphery that television is biased towards the "Central Belt".
  (Mr Jenkins) I am from the North-East of Scotland, and the tradition in that area when I was growing up—and I think still is the case—is very much that you watch the Grampian programme for the local news, and then you watch Reporting Scotland for the national Scottish news, and I am sure that still goes on to some extent. John's point is absolutely correct. I think our view has been we deal with, we engage with, what is a national news agenda in Scotland. I take the view that an important story in the North-East of Scotland is of interest to people in the Central Belt. An important story, like the foot and mouth outbreak from the South-West, is a very important story for people in the Central Belt and, in a sense, the proof of the pudding in a way is that as against the ITV proposition of Scotland which, as you say, has a three-way split between Grampian, Scottish Television and Border, the BBC Scotland proposition is very significantly ahead now in viewing terms. The average audience in the final quarter of last year was, I think, 550,000 to BBC Scotland's Reporting Scotland and an amalgamated figure of 420,000 for the ITV proposition in Scotland. These things are never conclusive one way or the other, and viewing figures will undoubtedly change over time, and they do vary over time. I think people do appreciate that what we do is the national news, and that that is something different from a city-based or a regionally-based service.

  39. There is not the wider intention within the news organisation to say, in terms of the regions of Scotland, "We will accentuate the positive in regular broadcasting, and leave the rest to be picked up by other companies"—televisual?
  (Mr McCormick) You mean to extend the local radio principle?

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