Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 192 - 199)

MONDAY 4 FEBRUARY 2002

MR FRANK MCAVEETY, MSP MR MIKE RUSSELL, MSP AND MR ROBERT BROWN, MSP

Chairman

  192. Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for coming here this morning. We are conducting an investigation into broadcasting post devolution, and we are very interested to hear your views. Please introduce yourselves and describe your position. We have a number of questions.
  (Mr Russell) I am Mike Russell, a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I speak for the SNP on education and culture, and that includes broadcasting. I am a former Independent Television director.
  (Mr McAveety) I am Frank McAveety, MSP (Labour) for Glasgow, Shettleston.
  (Mr Brown) I am Robert Brown, Liberal Democrat for Glasgow. I am actually here in the form of a substitute for my colleague Ian Jenkins, who has other commitments this morning. I am also vice-chair of the party's policy committee and involved in policy-making.

  193. We have had apologies from two of your colleagues this morning. Can I ask you your impression of the effects of devolution on the structure of current affairs broadcasting in Scotland.
  (Mr McAveety) Karen Gillon was meant to make the contribution this morning, but unfortunately she cannot make it. As a committee, we have had a discussion on this topic, largely in terms of responsibilities. I know there are a lot of other views in the committee, as you would expect, from the political parties. The viewpoints will be broadly representative of the parties' positions and individual overviews of how devolution has impacted. In terms of the discussions we have had, we have had a core committee discussion, looking at the issue of broadcasting, and that is obviously something we published fairly recently, so that will make a contribution in that arena. In terms of the overview, I have been quoted at the weekend as having a view on the Newsnight opt-out. Having looked at it over the last five or six weeks, I have been very disappointed with the quality contained within the opt-out, largely because a number of issues are not reflective of the international situation that has developed over the last few months, particularly the way in which some issues have been approached in terms of how they represented some of the viewpoints. Some of the discussions have been on those core issues, and I have expressed concern about that, in terms of the two points raised in the earlier submissions, and my view about the intrusion aspects of the press core in terms of the logistics of where the Parliament is at present, in terms of the Lawn Market and proximity. It is not the case you are bumping into journalists in the Lawn Market, you are bumping into them on the train through, and they will be back, and you might as well pop them in your pocket and take them home at night and bring them back and start the next day. I think there is an issue about that level of proximity in terms of analysis of the development of the Scottish Parliament, and that space for parliament to evolve and develop has not been developed effectively enough. That may be amended and addressed in the new structure in terms of the new parliament building. The other issue is also a differential between broadcasting and print media. A number of us are also on other committees such as procedures, looking at issues. My concern is that the print media in particular has been less able to give a holistic view on Parliament in terms of decision-making and its workings, and its relationship to the UK, Europe and beyond. Broadcasting, to be fair, is much more balanced in that respect. Those comments are a gentle introduction to these issues.

  (Mr Russell) I think there has been a limited effect of change in Scottish broadcasting since devolution. I agree with Professor Schlesinger and Mr Hutchison that Scottish broadcasters, particularly in news and current affairs, are presently operating with one hand tied behind their back. How that has happened is different, according to the different broadcasting institutions. In terms of the BBC, its very centralist nature has made it afraid of change, and I think the response to the Scottish Six debate, which is really about the appropriate level at which editorial decisions should be made in order to serve an audience, their response to that debate has been very frightened, and I think unresponsive. I was interested in the Scottish Consumer Council view on this last week in the paper that they published.[2] There was a broad view across Scottish society that the BBC has not been willing to change enough and to give enough responsibility to its journalists to make editorial decisions about how they tell the story of Scotland, Britain and the world to a Scottish audience—and that really is what news is all about. I think they could response much more positively, and I think there are many journalists who would want to do so. I am not a critic of Newsnight Scotland because I think it has been a good initiative, but it was a flawed initiative from the start because it was a compromise between what most people and what the BBC board of governors was prepared to grant. The situation of SMG is different; it has been a long-term opponent of change within Scottish broadcasting in terms of bringing editorial powers into Scotland. The earlier discussion about links with political parties might be part of it, but the SMG has a long way to go to realise that the Scottish audience needs to be served with a Scottish perspective. If you look on an editorial judgment as a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples spread out, and the point at which those ripples spread out is the centre. For the Scottish audience, they look at the world through that. They may bring in reports from elsewhere, for example BBC international reports and CNN international reports, just as newspapers get copy from elsewhere. But the editorial stance, the place where people stand and look, has to be within the country. The change since devolution is that most people know that now, and it is whether they are allowed to do so that is the big issue.

  (Mr Brown) I think this is a more sophisticated argument, and there is a recognition of that as time goes on. For example, at the time of the Scottish Parliament elections there was naturally huge interest in the phenomenon of the parliament and the constitutional experiment, if you like, and all the rest of it. We have now had since that a general election. There are some signs of a more balanced approach beginning to emerge, where there is a perspective that looks towards London and the issues affecting the Westminster Parliament and so forth, and there is a perspective that looks towards the Scottish Parliament as well. I think that is probably a healthy development which reflects the fact that the Scottish Parliament issue in a sense has concentrated comment on the Scotland/England aspect of the matter. However, I think it is more sophisticated than that. There was some conversation earlier on in the evidence about how agriculture and fishing were more prominent with the Scottish public. I have no doubt that is true in Alistair Carmichael's constituency, but it is not quite so true in Glasgow. Sometimes we do not always recognise the variety of different perspectives that exist in Scotland and within the UK. I do not think, personally, the balance has yet been got right in the broadcast media between the UK level, which continues to be important to us in Scotland, and the Scottish level. There has been an element of compromise in the way in which the Newsnight opt-out has taken place and in the Scottish news. At the same time, I do not personally want to lose Question Time, the UK perspective, and quality programmes at that level. Talking to a variety of people around the country, that is not an uncommon view. We want, in a sense, to have the best of both worlds, and the question is, how we do it. A lot of it turns on editorial control. The question of trying to get a Radio 4 balance is a desirable outcome if we can do it. I understand from the BBC's evidence last week that there are a number of technical issues within all of that which we have to take some account of. The question is when the time is right to make that kind of change. I have one other point, and that is the political balance and the coalition dimension, which is one I am conscious of as a Liberal Democrat. There tends to be frequent commenting from an executive spokesman, usually a junior minister, and from the Tory Party and the SNP, without any perspective from either the Liberal Democrats, if it is a Labour minister, or for that matter the Labour Party if it is a Liberal Democrat minister. Sometimes the perspective of the two parties that come towards that is missed on important issues, and that is something that has not been got right either.

Mr Sarwar

  194. Obviously, we are all concerned about a drop in turn-out during the general elections and European elections. For the elections next year for the Scottish Parliament and local government, are you planning any joint initiatives of all the political parties in Scotland to improve turn-out and move this apathy? One thing which really bothered me during this general election, when I was canvassing on the streets, was the saying, "all politicians are the same". How are we going to improve that image and increase turn-out during the next elections?
  (Mr Brown) I have to say that I think this is a much broader issue than the media, and in fact I do not think it is stimulated by the media at all. I saw a comment that suggested a politics of happiness; that people are more happy and content and better off. I am not sure that is quite right. There is a perception that there is perhaps less difference between the political parties than there once was, and there is a general turn-off without any question at all of involvement in public bodies of all kinds, going through other groups as well as political parties. We are all suffering from the same perspective. These things, I dare say, come in cycles. I have no magic answer and I do not think it is anything to do with the methods of voting. I do not think it has all that much to do with the media aspect of it either, although I am bound to say the negative perspective has dominated the written print in Scotland and has not been helpful. The broadcasting media has not done as much as it might to set a slightly different agenda and take a more positive view about these things. That is an issue which the Committee might want to engage with.
  (Mr Russell) I think the media has a role to play, but I think the cynicism of the media about politicians—and you referred to public cynicism—is because the media is only reflecting the public point of view anyway. They may stoke it from time to time, but they are reflecting it. From my perspective, more important in terms of increasing turn-out is to increase confidence in politicians and politics again. That means abandoning—and I speak as a former spin doctor—spin, hype, and double announcements; we should achieve delivery rather than talk about it and give people confidence back in politics. Broadcasting has a role to play in that, but it will express a much more confident role if it sees politicians behaving themselves rather than misbehaving themselves. That is what turns people off.
  (Mr McAveety) I think if you had a group of politicians 25 years ago, you get broadly more concerns about whether or not the message of what they were doing as politicians was getting across. The two big changes are, the big ideals, whatever they were, are no longer as easily pigeon-holed and simplistic to define. Most parties have had to move largely because the electorate signalled that they wanted people to move to the centre in terms of political values and analysis has resulted in that kind of narrowness in terms of political debate. In terms of the media, there are big distinctions between print and broadcasting. By and large, whether the quality is consistent or whether it reflects the diversity of the UK, as it now is, in both SMG and the BBC, there is a major difference between how stories are handled in comparison with how they are dealt with in print. People are saying that it is excitement that gets folk interested in politics. There has been a fairly turbulent two years in the Scottish Parliament but that has not had a dramatic effect on turn-out. It is much more complex and concerns social and economic factors. We have to look at the phenomenon that is occurring right across the Americas and Europe about the viewpoint of the electorate and their participation in the democratic process, and the fact that people are separating out various identities, whether there is a regional identify, a national identity or various social identities in terms of issues. Those are the most serious parts, and the question is how you break that. We have all got a contribution to make, but it is how we can do that in terms of the political language we should use.

Mr Lazarowicz

  195. Can I pursue a point that Mr Brown made earlier about how the regional and local dimension in Scotland relates to the UK. The debate is sometimes characterised as to whether it should be Holyrood or Westminster but there is also the European level, the international level and the local level. Do you agree that there is a gap in the provision of the local TV and local radio when it comes to current affairs reporting? If that is the case, how should that be remedied, or should it be left to the market, or should there be some attempt to regulate that in some way?
  (Mr Brown) It seems to me that we have to look at the broadcasting media as a whole, radio and television together. We heard evidence earlier on about the extent to which people listen to radio now—more than most of us imagine. You have to see the whole pattern together. Local radio seems to me to be better equipped in many ways to take on board some of this regional dimension, but I do not think you can escape from the point Mike touched on earlier on about the monopoly of SMG and the need to look in a Scottish context differently at how the monopoly issue plays out. It may well be on the UK level that SMG is a smaller player, if you like, and in Scottish terms it is a very big player. There are considerable worries if it has such a dominating hold over broadcasting and the written media. There will be opportunities, as the digital thing develops, to allow for different experiments. I am a bit of a technophobe, so I am not as clear as I might be on the possibilities of that, but it does sound as though there will be potential for more voluntary sector or public sector input into certain of the digital channels, and some experimentation in those directions might also reflect the regional view. That is a somewhat undeveloped view against the background of the details.
  (Mr McAveety) My experience in the local government ministerial team is that the further afield you travel, there is a greater concern. Much of the debate about the Edinburgh Parliament was very much the discussion we used to have about the former Westminster Parliament before devolution about how it would reflect local and regional identities. Looking at analysis—and one of the contributors has done so—they would define the city-centric viewpoint about how stories are told—Glasgow and Edinburgh. I think that folk feel there is no other place for other issues unless it is a crisis issue, when that becomes part of the narrative of proper broadcasting in terms of the news stories. There are issues on that, but I am also interested in something from one contributor last week who said that people dip in and out of where they take their information from in a holistic way and taking an overview of that. I think folk are much more sophisticated and are able to deal with different information from different angles. It is interesting that in the SMG submission there is a difference in tone from how platform presents the narrative of Scottish politics to how A Week in Politics covers it. You can tell because it is reflected in the nuances or through the contributions, and some of the advice contained within the programmes.
  (Mr Russell) The question is an enormous one because it encapsulates a lot of the difficulties in debating and discussing broadcasting and media in Scotland. You can start by arguing that in terms of the Communications Bill there must be a Scottish context for media ownership because only then can you begin to build both outwards and upwards, and you have got to start somewhere. The position you are starting with is Scotland. It is getting a national Scottish service or services that is the most important thing. Of course, there are huge gaps in the market in terms of providing information, entertainment, education—the old classic aspects of broadcasting, to everybody in Scotland. There are whole things that just do not happen. I am somebody who cut my teeth in community broadcasting in the Western Isles in the late 1970s. The real local broadcasting—everybody has their own broadcaster and presenter—was an ideal that existed in various projects in the 1970s and early 1980s, and it has more or less disappeared. The Internet gives that back to you. It will be increasingly easy to become a broadcaster of local, national and international dimension extremely cheaply. The question is how people will watch it and access it. That takes into the debate converging technologies. Some of the earlier discussion was very interesting about digital. The debate is not just about digital television or digital radio; it is about how people access information and what technologies they use to access information. Whether they use their mobile phone is one of the key elements—and many people do; they have messages—and whether they use a computer screen; and whether a television and a computer screen are simply two aspects of the same technology, which in time will merge into a single aspect, are key debates. The role of government in those issues is in relation to the legislative context in which developments can take place. For example, there is absolutely no chance of a complete switch-over to digital by 2010 without intervention, and there is no sign of intervention. However, digital and satellite technology particularly are doing very good things in some places in Scotland, allowing people to access information they would never get. I suspect that that is what happens in Mr Carmichael's constituency, and certainly in Argyll. They are already involved in different types of broadcasting. If you subscribe to satellite broadcasting, you are in places on the cutting edge of interactivity. We have not talked at all about interactivity, but the ultimate thing in interactivity is simply to choose your own schedule, to take information from almost any medium you can take it from and build your own schedule of what you want according to how much you want to know. Some people never want to know anything about news and current affairs and politics, and you could not persuade them with a gun to their head. Other people will watch all the different current affairs from all over the world, all the time; and that choice is a choice that we should give people, as wide a choice as possible. We can help them by means of education and information to use those choices as wisely as possible, to develop them as citizens.

Mr Weir

  196. I am interested in the view from the mound, if you like, as to how the current situation with both the BBC and SMG reflects the realities of devolution. In particular, do you feel that in national news bulletins it is made clear as to which issues do not affect Scotland? Robert mentioned digital radio. In the evidence from Scottish Radio Holdings is that the way multiplex licences are being dealt with, that might push out local radio rather than increasing choice.
  (Mr Russell) Those are two very different questions. Perhaps I can address the first one. There is very considerable evidence, and there are also surveys, which I can provide an example of if the Committee thinks it helpful, that show there is very serious confusion in terms of news and current affairs, as to how they present devolved issues. There has not been all the coverage in Scotland by any means. For example, a survey was taken in February 2001—and there is no reason to assume it has changed since then—of the totality of the news and current affairs output in Scotland. Remember that the bulk of that is network output. There has been a little discussion this morning, as though the bulk of it is Scottish sourced, but the vast amount, 90 per cent of what people see, is UK output. That survey showed that BBC and ITN gave higher priority to UK politicians and ministers with little or no responsibility in Scotland. For example, the English Health Secretary appears on the Scottish screens in news bulletins far more often than the Scottish health minister, and that is true of education as well. It also shows that the specificity of reports, in other words saying "this is a report about health which applies only to England and Wales"—the BBC failed to do that in 63 per cent of all such reports, and ITN failed to do it in 87 per cent of all such reports. In February of last year—again, it is a single survey, but it is interesting—the BBC and ITN failed to broadcast one single report about any subject or development devolved to Scotland. It would have items about English health, which it did not say were about English health, but broadcast no item to say it was a Scottish health issue, which was either different or the same. In terms of political parties, specifically Scottish parties—and I claim my own as a specifically Scottish party—get very much less coverage than others. For example, in February last year the name "Labour" was name-checked 143 times by the network BBC and the SNP was not mentioned once. Remember that that is the case in 80 per cent of the news and current affairs that is shown in Scotland; so there is a very considerable difficulty with network at the present moment. The debate is not as simple as saying that all the coverage in Scotland is of the Scottish Parliament. The evidence shows that the situation is completely and utterly different. It would be a disaster for local radio to go out of being because of multiplex, and, most importantly, it would be a commercial disaster for the companies themselves. I cannot believe, knowing what I do of Scottish Radio Holdings, amongst others, that they would cut their own throat commercially. I suspect that this may be a bargaining ploy to try and get more parts of the digital multiplex. Local radio is a very important part of the mix. The problem is that we have never developed local television in the same way as local radio, and the potential is there for it.
  (Mr McAveety) One key point is about how the narrative of new stories, even just impressionistically, make the assumption that we are not living in a post devolved situation. I think that is a problem for broadcasters and may be something you could look at in greater detail in terms of some of the assessments. There have been cases of some senior reporters, some of them being originally from Scotland, taking education across the UK, that have different ideas about how to tackle education. There are issues about the Northern Ireland Assembly, about grammar schools or selective education, and assessment tools for education improvements. The differences are not reflected. Equally, in terms of health, the story that is missing is the larger percentage on expenditure on health in Scotland and also the consequential substantial health problems in Scotland, which are much more to do with the social and economic structure of Scotland. That is not reflected enough. Those are the kinds of things we need to move forward. I think all of the parties here could claim to have touched on the question of Scottish identity—having been part of a party that was given Scottish identity 47 years before Mike's, and I would just like to put that officially on record. We were formed in that process long before his own party, to represent the interests of people in Scotland as much as he does.
  (Mr Brown) This is a very serious question. Most people around the table probably agree that there is not as much clarity as there might be in the reporting of English-based programmes. It is an important dimension that has not been touched on yet, which is the accountability to the Scottish public, even to the extent of confusing for example the Scottish general elections for the Scottish Parliament and exactly who is making decisions about what. It is very important that people are able to judge on the performance of the Scottish Parliament, and not to have that watered down too much by the impressions, which you may have come across, of the English health ministers that Mike talks about. It is a very difficult one to get right and I am not sure I have got the answers. I do not think Mike's perspective totally recognises sufficiently the UK dimension. We have to get improvements in the way in which it is dealt with by the programmers and the reporters, in terms of making clear what the position is. It is important probably that there should be, in an English health programme, references in appropriate instances to the Scottish dimension. The Scottish bit might be the bigger bit of the story in some instances and the English bit in others. There is a need to widen out the way in which it is reported, as well as to make sure it is an English-only story, or whatever.

Ann McKechin

  197. David Hutchison this morning touched on the concentration of power within the Scottish Media Group and with radio and the press and broadcasting news. Given the fact that there is increasing speculation about the future of Scottish Media Group and the growing trend of globalisation within broadcasting, as in many other fields, do you not feel there is a real danger that with increasing globalisation, particularly in commercial broadcasting, that these companies, larger companies, will use their economic power in such a way that there will be a narrower choice and narrower ability to reflect properly the view in the United Kingdom, including obviously here in Scotland, and might that affect the political bias of the way in which they report things, and might they put their own agenda on to the news?
  (Mr Brown) There was a point that I touched on earlier on in a slightly different way. It is very important as well. I am not sure I know precisely what the answer is but we have seen already the way in which the written media has gone, and the nefarious influence that there has been from globalisation in that respect. What you end up with, if you are not very careful, is a totally non-reflective, non-participative balance of ownership of the media, which has damaging effects on the political balance and the way in which things are reported and all sort of things that we touched on before. So far, we have not had anything to that extent in the broadcasting media, and hopefully we will stop it before it goes that far. Mechanisms will have to be put in place to guarantee the independence of both the UK and the Scottish media against too much outside influence. Having said that, they have connections obviously and we cannot cut ourselves off altogether from global markets, but there has to be some criteria that reflects ownership and in terms of the way in which the thing is operated that allow for these divergences to be kept, and for the avoidance of too much external influence. It is an interesting issue, whether there are damaging implications for the UK and Scottish democracy in the extent to which the media is owned from outside the UK.
  (Mr Russell) The simple answer to the point you raise is that that will happen if the legislation allows that to happen. The purpose of the broadcasting legislation is to regulate broadcasting in a way that to some extent protects the social, political and cultural imperatives of the country that is legislating. It cannot be absolute. There is no way in which total barriers can be put up. I am always astonished at the debate in broadcasting, which certainly in the seventies and early eighties was a debate about social and political issues. Lord Annan, in the introduction to the Annan Report on Broadcasting, which was many, many years ago, called broadcasting a "social cement". That argument seems to have disappeared in favour entirely of economic imperatives and the seeming inevitability of some global market. It is not inevitable. There are many places in which legislation has been enacted to try and protect cultural and social issues, while acknowledging that there is a need for links to be built and companies to work across borders. If we end up with only a global broadcasting environment, we will have lost an enormous amount because we will lose our culture, and we will lose social interaction and our sense of community. If we do not take advantage of some of the benefits of globalisation, then we will become backward. It is a question of finding the balance between the two. One of the ways to find that balance—and I say this knowing it is not something that this Committee can agree to—is to ensure that broadcasting legislation is done at an appropriate level. I believe that that is at the Scottish level. There were plans to devolve it, which did not take place. Another way to do it is to make sure that the debate on broadcasting as it exists, recognises Scotland as an entity, and to legislate in such a way that that can happen. If the legislation permits, the large conglomerates will have nothing else in the market to counter them, which will erode the importance of public sector broadcasting, and then the very unfortunate world you are outlining will come to pass.
  (Mr McAveety) I am one of those who are not as pessimistic. I think you can find a legitimate balance between the recognition that there is globalisation, in terms of communications that are taking place, and the back of that would be long-term detrimental. I think there is an issue, having shared discussions, that your committee and our committee could look at in respect of the individual positions of political parties. There may be some process where you might want to get some information that looks at these particular issues and where Scotland would be disadvantaged particularly by any changes in terms of broadcasting, or whether the UK in relation to Europe and international broadcasting is disadvantaged. It strikes me that we do not want a road where there is over concentration of political power with media control and the kind of cross-over within that that is blunt. That has to do with backward countries with a lack of regulatory framework. Here, I think we are informed enough but I would want you to say we are not informed enough about what you can do in terms of intervention in regulatory strategies that do assist in maintaining them, which I think everybody round this table would agree with—the idea of a sense of identity and cultural, political and social cohesion as part of the whole issue of development of broadcasting in the UK. I think we can match that and I would welcome discussion on that because I do not think, from my point of view in the Scottish Parliament, that we have had enough discussion and I do not think we are up to speed with the particularities of it.

Mr Carmichael

  198. Can I, first of all, welcome the very generous acceptance by Mike Russell of the success of the Scottish Executive in producing distinctive health and education policies. It is worth giving praise where praise is due. I was one who supported the inclusion of broadcasting within the Scottish Parliament's remit in the devolution settlement. I am inclined to think that if we had that, we would have the Scottish Six today, because I think that broadcasting will follow the influence in power, if you like, and if that means in Westminster, then that is where the decision-making will remain. That is why I was pushing the BBC a few weeks ago on this point and saying it will not be a political decision. It is not a party political decision, but any suggestion that it is just editorial driven is nonsense. The worst example of what you were talking about is David Dimbleby in Question Time. When he comes to Scotland, saying to the audience, "do not talk too much about Scottish things, please, because people in England will not know about them and they will not be interested in them", the obvious answer in my mind as I scream at the television is, "how the hell do you think it feels for us?" Do you see that there is scope for subsidiarity taken into all aspects and not just government? Would you accept, as has been said already, that that does not mean it stops in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and that it has to carry on downwards?
  (Mr Russell) I accept that one hundred per cent. Some of the early experiments in good community broadcasting were done in Shetland by the great Jonathan Wills - not yet the late, but in terms just of this, not in terms of his politics. In terms of broadcasting, he did some very significant things in trying to involve the community in an embryonic video Shetland. Journalistically it has changed since then but there is no reason why there should not be a very strong regional and local broadcasting nexus, particularly with the developments of technology which are talked about. I would like to say one thing in response to the first point you made in terms of Question Time. I have a great deal of sympathy with metropolitan broadcasters who are trying to do the impossible. I have said this regularly to the BBC in many meetings over the years. I do think that it was possible in the era of Lord Reith to conceive of a UK where nation spoke unto nation and regions spoke unto regions, and they were all spoken to from London, from Broadcasting House, the building with the large aerial on the roof. That is not possible; things have changed immeasurably over the past fifty years. The type of broadcasting where the various constituent parts of the UK speak to each other through London is impossible to do properly because all the various constituent parts will find that unsatisfactory. You heard evidence earlier on from Nigel Smith about the satisfaction with the BBC diminishing the further you go from London. They simply have a job they cannot do, and I believe some of them do try quite hard to bring in Scottish stories of various dimensions, but it cannot work. It is simply a model of broadcasting which is totally past. What I am talking about is a model of broadcasting which could come very quickly.
  (Mr McAveety) I am interested about the problem with Question Time, which curiously has happened in Glasgow in terms of the events surrounding the loss of the First Minister. People would take a view that that was a significant contributing factor to the events round that. When Question Time is moved out of London, whether to Cardiff or Birmingham, that has been when passionate issues have been raised, and the individuals have ensured during the programme that they have made those contributions. Even though there may be editorial caution at the initial stages, I think the programme itself, when I have watched it, has covered passionate issues locally. In Birmingham there was a debate about hospital provision in the area and people were strongly of the view that they wanted something to be done about that, and that was touched on in proper debate. I think the issue is still about editorial judgment, and I do not think it is beyond the ken of "sophisticated, experienced journalists", to work out different varieties of articles that are required for news stories in the UK, whether it is broadcast from London or whether it is a regional programme. It is a continuing education process of recognising those differences, and perhaps the Committee can deal with that. The other point touched on by Alistair was the issue that interestingly Newsnight claimed that the opt-out takes a slightly higher share of the audience than the main UK programme and in fact it is lower than average. I have received from a lot of folk concerns about the process of how stories are brought forward through the initial programme, and sometimes they are frustrated on that. It strikes me that there should be a debate, looking at whether there could be a separate Newsnight in Scotland, which is separate from the opt-out element, which really antagonises a lot of folk in terms of the process. That did not come through in last week's submission from BBC Scotland, and that may be worth exploring.
  (Mr Brown) I think this whole issue of the level at which broadcasting is determined is still an open one, to follow Alistair's point. It may be, for example, the merits in the short term—the Scottish Parliament point—the BBC Scottish national governor or some members of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland—that that would provide a fulcrum that draws a bit more sensibly towards the Scottish dimension in terms of the levers of power within the BBC's orientation. I think we also have to look at ways in which we can get the regional dimension within Scotland reflected as adequately as possible in the structures of power. It is like the whole argument about home rule in the first place. It is not just a matter of government structures between London and Edinburgh; it is also a matter of recognising the variety and disparity in different parts of Scotland. I have touched on this before, but here is an anecdote. I obviously attend Liberal Democrat meetings, and they are dominated by rural members within them and by rural issues. That is not a huge issue to me as a Glasgow member, and I suspect viewers across the country make these balances for themselves.

Mr Duncan

  199. I join my colleague and put the regional broadcast news perspective, which I personally think is a very important issue that has changed since devolution. Devolution, we have heard repeatedly from all witnesses, has increased the time taken to cover Scottish-wide news. You used the phrase "city-centric", and that is an important development in covering Scottish news. Do you believe that coverage has been at the expense of Scottish regional coverage, which previously, taking the example of Reporting Scotland, was a substantial part of that programme? Do you believe that the BBC, in particular, may be leaving regional coverage now to radio?
  (Mr Russell) No, I do not. I think if there is a tendency to do that, it should be resisted as much as possible, but I do not see that happening. Within your constituency, you have some particular problems. My mother lived in Kirkcudbright so I watched Border Television there. You call it acentric, but I would call it an eccentric operation. It has great strengths, but it does cover such a wide, diverse area that sometimes you have no idea where the places are that they are talking about. That must happen if you live south of the border as well. A small part of your constituency gets Ulster Television better than it gets STV. I think there are particular problems with broadcasting structures within your area, but actually your area that is well served by Border is served with a very high level of local news stories on television. Think forward and imagine a situation where that type of local news coverage with local contributions and local entertainment was one of the many offerings you could watch on satellite or Internet that were available to you in the broadcasting spectrum; there would be a limited market for sheep prices in Castle Douglas, but there would be a market, and people would watch a whole range of things and it would be part of your self-selecting schedule. You would want to plug into that at certain times of the day. Somebody mentioned a little disparagingly earlier on that the ideal broadcasting for Scotland was Good Morning Scotland short of the weather reports and the road traffic reports, but those are very important parts of the broadcasting mix and of the local mix. I would want to see a diversity of local broadcasting, through either radio or, preferably, television as well, that strengthened the regional dimension in Scotland and fit it in to this pattern of broadcasting rather than simply have a national broadcaster in Scotland, or a sub-set of a national broadcaster in the United Kingdom, both of which are old-fashioned and unresponsive concepts.
  (Mr McAveety) I am unfamiliar with experience in other parts of Scotland and, because of the concentration of broadcasting in Glasgow in particular, much of the information I receive is shaped and defined by that. I was involved with House and ministerial issues around stock transfer. We noticed that the narrative here was the conflict, which was a big passionate issue in Glasgow, but that was not the story that needed to be told in other parts of Scotland. For example, there were two island authorities exploring it and two city authorities exploring full-scale stock transfer, but that was not reflected in the stories that were broadcast because people assumed the opposite viewpoints were concentrated in one particular part of Scotland, and that was the universal view of whether it was a right or wrong policy. That was frustrating because we would go down to the Borders or other parts of Scotland where there was a different view, based round the social and local circumstances of why they were exploring that. That was reflected when we did local radio. I was getting ready for the conflict story, the real difficulty, because of what it was here, but when we went there, they said, "could you explain why it would be of great benefit to the people in this area?" That was not the question I was expecting. Here, they would make you feel you had betrayed the people who put you there in the first place. That is the problem, that there is a lack of perspective. Again, there is a total lack of understanding, whether you are in London or Glasgow or Edinburgh or elsewhere. People arrive at different points of view and you have to try and reflect that in the way you handle the nuances of stories. If you handle the nuances better, people will trust it. That is the real issue of broadcasting. If you reflect part of their reality, folk will believe that as a method of communication. It should be part of the overall perspective.


2   Reaching Out. The Consumer Perspective on Communications in Scotland, Scottish Consumer Council, January 2002. Back


 
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