Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2002

MR JOHN MCCORMICK, MR BLAIR JENKINS MR ROGER MOSEY AND SIR ROBERT SMITH

  40. Yes. With radio, there is still a competitive advantage, I would say, in the news of the BBC in local radio broadcasting. I do not think that extends to television broadcasting. That was one of the last decisions to be taken.
  (Mr McCormick) It was. We had to set priorities in terms of funding, and we had the local news service which exists from Aberdeen, from Inverness, Orkney and Shetland, Dumfries and Selkirk, and those local news services continue. In terms of setting the priorities, we could go further in that direction and provide three or four other local services, but we decided to put the resources into strengthening the quality of Radio Scotland. Also, within this next coming year, we shall be streaming those local news services online and giving local communities the opportunity to create local community web sites with the BBC about activities in the local community with the local news from the BBC as part of that service that is streaming to online. We have had a number of representations from people in different areas who used to live there, who live in different parts of Scotland now and live in different parts of the UK, where they say they would take advantage of that. So we are developing those online services over the next few months to strengthen the local service that we provide in those existing areas. Then we are going to go looking at how we can use online to develop further local services in other parts of Scotland that do not have a local service from us at the moment. There seems enough indication from the success of our online services at the moment that that may be the way to go in the future. So we have that great potential of the online services which are working very well for us at the moment. That gives us a potential with relatively modest investment to expand the local services for different communities in Scotland.

Mr Weir

  41. I was interested in what you were saying about the local aspect with particular reference to Grampian. I thought it was the exact opposite to what you were saying: there is a fear in the Grampian area that there is a consolidation, or a potential consolidation, in ITV that will lead to a reduction in local programming through the ITV network and individual stations. I wondered if the BBC has any plans to increase that local output from the likes of Aberdeen or Inverness or whatever one's television is, as opposed to radio?
  (Mr Jenkins) What we have done in television, because again, it is almost something you can think of in parallel with what network news have tried to do in reflecting the whole of the UK. One of the ways in which Reporting Scotland tries to make sure that it is relevant and watched and watchable in all parts of Scotland is when we are doing a story—whether it is health or education or anything else—we tend to now make a very conscious effort to look for the illustration or the examples that exemplify the problem or the issue. We go to the North-East and the North-West. We go to the Borders. We quite consciously try to get out of the Central Belt in order to illustrate stories. The other thing, I think, that has been of significant help to us is that we have two satellite trucks available in Scotland which enable us to broadcast live from anywhere effectively—any part of the mainland or any of the islands. One of those is based in Glasgow, the other is based in Dundee and very much faces north. It is most usually broadcasting live from a location north of Dundee, whether it is Aberdeen, Inverness or further afield. So we try and be very visibly around Scotland and to be seen as covering the whole patch and not just congregating in the Central Belt.

  42. But do you have any plans—is there a possibility—of putting resources into specifically having news reporters in different parts of Scotland?
  (Mr Jenkins) We have. We do have very substantial newsrooms in most of the main centres around Scotland. We have reporters in Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness, Shetland, Dumfries and Selkirk. We are right around Scotland in terms of reporter coverage. Where we do not have reporters, we will quite often have arrangements with local freelancers, and freelance cameramen, in sizeable towns to make sure that we can get coverage from right around Scotland.
  (Mr McCormick) There is also wider general television, non-journalistic television—you know Aberdeen is our second centre for television. We have always concentrated television between Glasgow as headquarters, and also Aberdeen. It is very important for us to continue with Aberdeen as the specialist area for rural affairs in the broadest sense of rural affairs broadcasting. We have a new community series broadcast on BBC2 digital at the moment, Inside Scotland, which is looking at different communities around Scotland and that is produced deliberately from Aberdeen to give different perspectives and to introduce a whole new range of voices. So it is very important to us that our colleagues in Aberdeen are producing programmes not just for Scotland but they are also producing more for the UK radio networks, giving a different perspective.

Mr Sarwar

  43. First of all, can I welcome the BBC's decision for the development and expansion in Scotland. I am aware that you have made a very wise decision to select an ideal site! I am sure you will feel at home there. My question is, the memorandum from the Scottish Media Group[2] suggests that devolution has transferred to Edinburgh the political issues of most concern to viewers, and has caused improvements in scrutiny, accountability and access to Ministers, thereby leading to significant changes in the programme content. What is your view here?

  (Mr McCormick) Certainly, the same, in the sense that the issues of concerns to families, with the social issues and the social agenda and where the political agenda is putting the emphasis on public services, the interest that we have from our viewers and listeners across the board tells us that. One is not surprised to see the priorities are the political agenda on health, transport, education and the wider social services. The fact that those are devolved to Scotland means that we have been able, in our coverage of the Holyrood Parliament, both in the live coverage and in the recorded coverage, to give a lot more time to those in our air time than previously because we have greater scrutiny of them, but also because in Westminster and in Holyrood these are very high up the political agenda because they are of such importance to viewers and voters across the whole of Scotland. So the UK picture is mirrored in our experience in Scotland.

  44. Do you not think it is important for the viewers to listen to news, what is happening in the British Parliament too? We feel that there is no right balance as far as the coverage is concerned between the British Parliament and the Scottish Parliament. We understand issues are devolved, but there are many issues still in the British Parliament which the viewer will find interesting.
  (Mr McCormick) I think in terms of a specific coverage of the parliament, apart from the news programmes, we have the coverage of Westminster on the Tuesday. On the Wednesday we always take Prime Minister's Questions live and associated broadcasting. Then we have Holyrood live and then we have Holyrood on a Thursday. So we try, over those three days, to make sure we are giving a proper representation to the issues debated at Westminster. We also give live coverage to Scottish Questions, giving live coverage in the afternoon. It does attract a significant audience. Then we transmit a recording of that late at night. The audience for that can depend very much on the programme that precedes it. There was a terrifically high audience for the Secretary of State for Scotland and her new opposite number from the Conservative benches when the programme followed the transmission of Braveheart. There was a record-breaking audience for it. So the audience for that programme may be in more relation to the programme that precedes this, so we take very great care over the programme that precedes it, and Braveheart led to a record audience. So the Scottish Questions and the time we give to Scottish Questions, and also to the ministers from the Scotland Office, is a very, very important part of the news agenda, as well as our live coverage of the parliaments to make sure that the responsibilities of the Secretary of State and the Ministers here in the Scotland Office are reflected in our output. We do try to do that. I think we have a decent record of doing that.

Mr Lyons

  45. So your reasonable figures for Braveheart are based on the Minister's appearance later on!
  (Mr McCormick) That is right. It was the audience waiting for Scottish questions, Chair. I should have realised that. I should have put it that way. That was inelegant of me!

Mr Duncan

  46. Obviously, we welcome the additional investment that has been forthcoming. You mentioned the figures at the start, which are impressive, not least of all the investment is going into parts of Mr Sarwar's constituency. Can we just focus, though, on the number of journalists who are now focused on Edinburgh, and frankly, the working arrangements of the Scottish Parliament. Would you agree that there is a danger, perhaps, that stories that would not have got coverage and perhaps did not deserve coverage become blown into overly huge stories? Is there a balancing act here in terms of making sure that the fact that the facilities are there, the fact that journalists are already there, that there is not a story created about nothing?
  (Mr Jenkins) Is that a question about the press and the Scottish Parliament?

  47. And broadcasting journalists?
  (Mr Jenkins) And broadcasting as well? I think what is undoubtedly true is that every media organisation responded to the arrival of the Scottish Parliament by setting up bureaux and operations in Edinburgh devoted to coverage of the parliament. The volume of coverage across all media in Scotland has been, I think, probably greater than most people would have expected going in. There has been a very, very large amount of coverage. As I think the Controller is indicating you have now a much more active, occasionally volatile, public debate in Scotland on a number of issues. That is a consequence—a direct consequence—of the setting up of the parliament, and things which were previously partly unexplored sometimes in public debate are now very much live issues and receive a great deal of attention. I think it is certainly arguable that there are stories in the last couple of years which may have been blown out of proportion. I certainly, as a journalist—not speaking for BBC Scotland but I think across the piece and across media generally—I think there are stories which were blown out of proportion. I think that there has undoubtedly been an increase in not only the quantity but I think the quality of public debate in Scotland on a lot of key issues.

Mr Carmichael

  48. Can I say, I can perhaps identify with the issue but I do not necessarily regard it as a problem. Obviously, given my constituency interests, fishing is something which is very important to me. For years, Scottish MPs here have been jumping up and down, shouting about fishing and getting precious little coverage for doing it. That then comes up in the Scottish Parliament and it leads to one of the single most exciting and important political news stories to come out of Scotland last year, putting aside any political difficulties I may have felt about it at the time. So can I just say to you that it may be there is an issue here but it is not one that you should feel in any way constrained by. I think that what it has done is essentially healthy for Scottish politics and it is giving an airing to issues which frankly are never going to get an airing down here.
  (Mr McCormick) We also have the same number of people employed down here, to make sure that Westminster is reflected from a Scottish perspective in all our programmes in Scotland. That is their task. I think they do a terrific job in alerting news editors in Scotland to what is coming up here, making sure the interviews are taken and filed and making sure the Westminster perspective is not lost.

Ann McKechin

  49. Obviously since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the size of the press lobby has grown in Scotland really remarkably. I think the figure is that we have 70 journalists based round Holyrood for 129 politicians. I think if the statistics were the same here at Westminster, we would have to build an extra building across the Thames to manage to accommodate them all. But it seems to me, certainly on TV coverage, there is an increasing trend for a journalist to interview other journalists. This is a sort of assessment with one journalist interviewing three other journalists talking about what happened in parliament today, but not one person—an ordinary person—from an organisation or from a political party being interviewed about a topic in hand. Is it your feeling that there has been an increasing trend for this? What is your view about journalists interviewing other journalists? I do feel in the last few years it has really become a very common feature. I do wonder from the point of view of news coverage whether or not that really is a healthy option?
  (Mr Mosey) I will just make a small point about that. You probably know the BBC at the moment is widely looking at the whole issue of politics, and some of the research we have done shows that people's disaffection with politics and the political process is quite worrying and quite sizeable. Therefore one of the things we are going to be looking at, and this will apply to the whole of the UK, is just how we make politics more engaging. There is an especially big burden upon us to try to make politics relevant and at the level that people want to come to it. Equally, though, I think it is probably true on one or two occasions that some political interviews are quite sterile and therefore occasionally you go to a journalist because you can try to bring out the issues which are behind the surface rather than necessarily doing two minutes—two minutes—with parties. So sometimes there is a case for interviewing journalists, but I would not recommend it as the solution for the wider political issue which we are addressing.
  (Mr Jenkins) I would just like to add to what Roger said. I would like to make a positive remark about Scottish politicians. There have been days when I have been hugely impressed by the fact that people who have started early and have had very long working days then come onto Newsnight Scotland at 11 o'clock at night for a live interview which can occasionally be a daunting experience for them. That is not just Executive Ministers, but also opposition politicians. I think by and large we found a great willingness to take part in debate and to engage, and a strong sense of accountability. I think that has been a very positive feature of the first two years of parliament.

Mr Robertson

  50. I take the point that Roger made about looking at, shall we say, voter apathy. How much do you consider that this is down to companies like yours actually stimulating apathy?
  (Mr McCormick) I do not think they go about to stimulate apathy, Chair, but I have to say, we were disappointed at the last election in the audience size we got for some of our key programmes during the election campaign—programmes which were put in at peak times in the schedule to create interest in it and we noted particularly that people, when they had the alternative to go to a drama or a comedy on the other channel, they did, in ways that disappointed us, frankly, compared with the UK general election previously where we had a more satisfactory approach. Some of that, you would think, must be our responsibility. We felt we had tried new approaches and we felt the programmes were lively and all of that. Maybe the audience was telling us we were not doing well enough. That is possibly number one. Number two: maybe they were saying that the debates we were having or the quality of the debate was not good enough to hold them for an hour in peak time television on a Sunday night when we thought we were debating very, very important issues for the whole of the country. So we were disappointed in that. When it was followed by the low turnout in the election, all of us in the BBC concerned with journalism at every level agreed with Greg Dyke that maybe we should have a look a what we are doing, and also look at how the audience is behaving and reacting. A very, very important part of the BBC's existence is to provide support for the democratic institutions so that people can interrogate politicians so that they can be properly accountable. So that is the issue of debate. It is a very, very important part of our charter of responsibilities. It is therefore worrying when on the one hand there was apathy, as you say, and yet at the same time some of our programmes did not excite and interest the size of audience that we wanted. I do not think we are totally responsible in any sense for the apathy but we have certainly taken seriously the kind of programmes we present, to try to make sure that in forthcoming elections in the Scottish Parliament next year and then in the forthcoming Westminster election after that, that we have looked and listened to the audience about what they want from our programmes. Some of it is in the hands of the broadcaster. I have to say, some of it is in the way the politicians react to the programmes and to the interrogation, and how far they are willing to be open and debate issues in an open way that the audience appreciates. We are still looking at this research and looking at ways in which we can improve our coverage of issues and politics to try to address this for the next time.

  51. Can I ask—how much do you think is actually down to the media? Not just yourselves but TV have to take the bulk of responsibility, because more people see you than read the newspapers, and the fact that you had told people that the contest was over before it even got started. Then you try and stimulate a contest when it was too late, because you had already told them there was not one.
  (Mr Mosey) Someone like Andy Marr, you would have to start from the principle that it was likely that Labour were going to win the last UK general election. That was what every poll and every indicator and, actually, every politician of every party I spoke to thought was likely to be the case. Having said that, we represent the debate in as lively a way and fully as we can. I think there are quite a lot of things we got wrong; I do not doubt that. But equally, I think the wider issue concerning all of us is that something about the political process at the moment is not engaging with the electorate. One of the arguments at our BBC politics seminar is that it may be the politics of contentment which is that basically people are quite happy. There are not any major burning issues they are passionate about. They are not taking to the streets. Therefore they are not voting.

Mr Sarwar

  52. It is a matter of clear concern to all of us that voters are opting out in British elections and we know there will be elections for the Scottish Parliament and local elections next year. I think rather than blaming the media for being responsible for the British government or British parliament for not taking part, I think we need to plan strategy that holds all of us together to engage the electorate to a maximum. Do you have any plans or representations with politicians or government to try and find a strategy where you can get more people to the polls at the Scottish Parliamentary elections?
  (Mr Mosey) Yes. We would like to do that. I think probably in the end the BBC cannot be the mechanism which forces people to go out to vote or which leads to that because some of the research at the last election said that some people made a conscious decision to abstain, and it was a positive abstention rather than an apathetic abstention. We cannot be in a position where we try to manipulate the process too much. However, the BBC is on the side of a participatory democracy and that must be right. We would like to take that forward.

  53. But my question is, is media very important—more than politicians? We can go out all day and might communicate with 100 people in a day, and you switch on the television and there are hundreds and thousands of viewers. I think you are in a position to encourage the electorate to come out and vote rather than project sad stories about politicians and politics.
  (Mr Mosey) That is an interesting point. It is certainly one we are debating internally at the moment involving a lot of people round here as well.

Mr Lazarowicz

  54. I certainly do not believe we can hold the BBC, or any broadcaster, responsible for the feeble opposition to the Labour party at the last election which was obviously one of the factors leading to the view taken of the likely outcome. Having said that, however, certainly a number of leading journalists and broadcasters have themselves said to me that they are concerned about the coverage at the last election. There was an emphasis on the very questions, would there be a contest? would there be a turnout? as opposed to some of the issues. I hope that the consideration you are now having does lead to some positive result. Can I put to you that although politicians are as much responsible as anybody else — if what we say in two minutes is not seen to be interesting, then we can hardly blame people for not being interested in what we say — but having said that, is it not also something of an irony that when it comes to things like the BBC Parliament Channel, Question Time, and such broadcasts, there is actually a great deal of public interest in these kind of programmes. I am surprised by how many people do actually watch these programmes sometimes. So it is an irony that on the one hand there is public interest in current affairs and yet there is not always opportunity to expand upon these at any length. You have this problem; you have the "two minutes" type of presentation that does not really allow you to pursue it in depth. Is there not the possibility for Scottish programming that digital TV would actually allow those who want to look at these issues in depth to have more in-depth analysis which perhaps might be a way of getting people interested in politics, and seeing something of more substance than the sound-bite type of programme with which we have become familiar?
  (Mr McCormick) Certainly there is. One of the first conclusions emerging from the work that is underway at the moment and is still not complete is that there is public interest in issues, the important public policy issues, much more than in the political debate which they can find sometimes arcane, sterile and unproductive, when two different sides of an argument are put. But the examination of the issue is something that spoke to us, and one of the reasons why next month the BBC is spending a day of programming devoted to looking at the National Health Service and the operation of the Health Service across the UK. So from breakfast time through to 11.30 in the evening, there will be a whole range of programmes involving audiences across the UK, debating the issues of the health service. We will be looking very carefully at the audience reaction to that, to see if we can engage in talking about the issues, not dominated by politicians during the day until we get to later at night. Then we will call in the politicians and those who have responsibility for health policy to account later in the evening. However, during the day we will try to involve the public in the issues and the difficulty of running a national health service—away from the tyranny of the two minute sound-bite. That is something that we will be looking at to see whether we can do it in other areas. That is across the UK with a strong contribution from Scotland.
  (Mr Mosey) I also would not be too pessimistic. I think it is very, very important we keep some higher ground overtly political programmes. It is also true that last year the three biggest audiences for Newsnight last year were for Jeremy Paxman's interview of Tony Blair, Jeremy Paxman's interview of William Hague and the Tory leadership debate. Those actually got the three biggest audiences because Newsnight tends to attract a politically interested audience. We absolutely want to keep that. The real question is, can you do the equivalents on BBC1. These are our key interests at the moment.
  (Sir Robert Smith) If we take criticism for causing apathy in politics, perhaps BBC Scotland can be quite proud as the turnout in Scotland was rather higher than elsewhere.

  Chairman: Can I assure you, gentlemen, we do not expect the BBC to solve the problems of voter apathy. We are going a bit off the mark here.

Mr Weir

  55. According to research undertaken by BBC Scotland what has been the audience response to post-devolution news and current affairs broadcasting? Do you discern any increase or decrease in the level of interest in current affairs broadcasts in Scotland? Post-devolution, has the Parliament generated any extra interest within Scotland?
  (Mr McCormick) Generally, as the points we were making before, all our new programming, from coverage of the Parliament, to weekly current affairs, to weekly political programmes and to our general news programmes have all had healthier audiences than they had pre-devolution. I think that true without exception. From the public response that we get, we get a generally positive response to what we are providing. Overall, we would have to say that the audience reaction and the quality of that reaction and the quantity of the audiences to a programme would indicate a real interest in the debates in Scotland on public policy issues.

  56. We talked earlier about the balance between Westminster, Holyrood and European Parliaments. Do you find a difference—are you able from your research to tell us the difference—depending on the type of issues which are under discussion?
  (Mr Jenkins) I could not say I could necessarily isolate that particular response but, as John says, the broad audience response is very positive. This almost connects back to what we were just discussing in terms, if you like, of the conventional political programming that broadcasters have known and loved. There is no doubt that that kind of programming still has a resonance and an appeal for a section of the audience. I think the difficulty is that there is undoubtedly a sizeable section of the audience who do not seem to be in the market for traditional political reporting and traditional political debate. There is some evidence, I think, that that part of our audience overlaps with the part of the community which did not vote in the last election. Nothing stands still in broadcasting as in politics—and the challenge for us is to find new ways of engaging people in issues, of reconnecting them to debates and that is the focus of the effort at the moment, to try and find ways of doing that and to find the magic dust, if you like, that will re-engage a lot of people who have tuned out of some parts of national debate.

  57. There have been remarks earlier about the Parliament channel. Are there any plans to make the broadcasts from the Scottish Parliament more widely available? For instance, I know we can get the Parliament channel here and Sky Digital, but on non-digital you can get some sort of version that is just audio only. I wonder why that was done? Are there any plans to make it more widely available?
  (Mr Mosey) I have some good news on that, yes. We are hoping that on ITV digital we will get, at the very least, a quarter screen video of BBC Parliament, because we want to bring BBC Parliament onto every platform. That is the BBC's commitment. I agree at the moment it is not satisfactory. I was just looking—we run the BBC Parliament channel as part of our news channels. We do regularly take First Minister's questions; we have done so far this year the "bus war" debate, we have done the railways debate from the Scottish Parliament, the personal care debate and stage one of the Budget Bill. All have been covered on BBC Parliament. We would like to keep expanding the amount we take from nations. The obvious problem is our scheduling. Our basic commitment is to take House of Commons live whenever it is sitting, so scheduling of other things has to be arranged round it.

  58. Along with the digital platform, is there an opportunity to split it between the nations in the UK in any way?
  (Mr McCormick) No, it is one signal. The Parliament channel is one unified signal. We cannot. You can have a parallel signal where you could have the Scottish Parliament all the time, or whatever, by another transponder space but that signal, that Parliament channel, within the BBC terms is to give coverage of all the assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast, Edinburgh and the Westminster Parliament continuously, and to try to ensure that over the week proper coverage is given not just of the main debates but of committees. I think probably in Scotland on a number of occasions when there have been very interesting debates or very heated debates of public policy in Scotland we have extended the coverage of the Scottish Parliament and broken into the schedules. That has been justified in the audience reaction, where the audience find the parliamentary debate which is of particular interest to them. We have done that on a number of occasions, both in the morning and in the afternoon. I think probably where we could do more in terms of the Scottish Parliament is coverage of the committees.

  59. Is it not feasible to have a separate signal? To have, say, Westminster and the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly running in parallel?
  (Mr McCormick) You could have them all running in parallel. The Scottish Parliament, as I understand it, is about to start its own web site—I think it may already have started—where you can have access to the debates in parliament on a continuous stream. For us having a parliamentary channel which is integrated so that Westminster, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly are all on the same service and where you know where you are finding them has certain advantages, rather than separating them out into four separate areas where, for a lot of the time, the screen would be blank frankly. We are looking at the audience reaction to the web site and to the streaming of the channel. Our experience of online is that I am sure the people who want to access the Parliament will go to that in droves.
  (Mr Jenkins) We do stream online Holyrood Live on our own web site, as indeed we do Scottish questions from this parliament is streamed on the BBC Scotland web site.


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