The first set of viewing figures for the new BBC Scotland channel have been released, and as expected they’re pretty dire. The highest that the new channel has achieved is 36,000 viewers on April 4, plunging to under 9,000 on April 8. The new channel’s quiz show Wonderball has at times achieved an audience of just 2760. Even in a media environment where television viewership is fractured amongst dozens of channels, digital platforms, and downloading, that’s not great. The new channel also faced the additional problem that just under half the population of Scotland has a deep distrust of the BBC and has zero faith in BBC management’s commitment to quality Scottish broadcasting. For a large number of people in Scotland, BBC impartiality is the best joke on the BBC. On the other side of the debate, some 25% of people in Scotland are dyed in the wool British nationalists who don’t want anything Scottish to pollute their red white and blue eyeballs.
However it’s not all bad. The new channel’s flagship news programme has its faults, but it’s trying to get away from the fitba, murrdurrs and wee cute kittens formula which characterises Reporting Scotlandshire on BBC1, while the new debate show is attempting to do something different from the right wing slagfest that Question Time has become. However a news programme being broadcast at 9pm on a minor channel is up against prime time drama on the other channels. It was always going to struggle to attract an audience. Those of us of a more cynical turn of mind might suspect that that was always the plan.
Despite the very obvious financial constraints on the channel which clearly restrict the types of programme it broadcasts, there are a few decent programmes on the channel, programmes which would otherwise never see the light of day. I’ve enjoyed the recent documentary about Glasgow drag queens, and the series going behind the scenes at Glasgow Central train station. I also enjoyed Nae Pasaran, the documentary about Scottish factory workers’ refusal to service the Chilean dictator Pinochet’s aircraft which were being used against the people, and documentary about the gale that devastated Glasgow in 1968. But what all these programmes have in common is that they are relatively inexpensive to produce.
However given the budgetary constraints, we’re not going to see an expensively produced costume drama, or a multi-camera series filmed in an exotic location featuring big name stars. Those are the kinds of shows which are going to remain the preserve of BBC1. The BBC’s metropolitan bosses are quite stubborn in their insistence that they’ll remain in charge and Scotland can be fobbed off with a few crumbs. You can forget about a Scottish Game of Thrones when BBC management is only interested in their Game of Thrawn.
Those of us within the independence movement who were critical of the new channel were critical not because we oppose more Scottish produced television, our argument has always been that Scotland is woefully under-represented in television, and more Scottish produced television is always going to be a good thing. We were, and are, critical because we feared that the new channel was being set up as an underfunded and under-resourced McGhetto channel, and as such it was being set up to fail. Then BBC management and opponents of the devolution of broadcasting would be able to turn around and say that there is no demand for Scottish produced television, and British nationalists in Scotland would say that if Scotland can’t even support its own TV channel, then it certainly isn’t going to support an independent state.
The argument for Scottish produced broadcasting, and for the devolution of broadcasting, was always that Scotland needs its own window on the world. A nation which is self-governing, even within the restrictions imposed upon it by Westminster’s half-hearted devolution, needs a platform which allows it to discuss those issues which are important, and needs a window upon the wider world. What we’ve been given with this new BBC Scotland channel is a rickety ladder offering a view out of the back of the building onto a rubbish strewn alleyway. It’s hardly surprising that viewing figures have not been that great.
Now in a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, former BBC producer and editor Tim Luckhurst has just gone and said that there’s no demand for a Scottish television channel. In an interview with that great bastion and supporter of all things Scottish, the Daily Mail, Tim said that setting up the new channel was a “grave injustice to licence fee payers” and said that it meant that scarce resources were being thrown into a bottomless pit.
What the Daily Mail didn’t tell you was that Tim used to be an editor of The Scotsman, and was formerly a Westminster press officer for the Labour party’s contingent of Scottish MPs. He was himself a Labour party candidate in the 1987 general election. So perhaps his remarks about the new channel can be filed under, “Well, he would say that wouldn’t he.” Those of us with long memories have not forgotten that broadcasting was originally included amongst the set of powers which were proposed to be devolved to the new Scottish parliament when devolution was being discussed in the 1990s, but that it was removed and transferred to the list of powers to be reserved to Westminster at the behest of Labour MPs from Scotland.
Even with the new channel, Scotland still receives a lower proportion of the licence fee back than do Wales or Northern Ireland. BBC management in London is still treating Scotland as a cash cow. Even worse, the BBC still sees its role as being a self-consciously British institution which means that the corporation is constitutionally incapable of reporting fairly on a Scottish politics which is defined by the question of whether Scotland wants to be a part of the British state. It’s hardly surprising that so many people in Scotland are simply giving up on paying the licence fee. Scotland has the largest proportion of non-payers of the licence fee of any part of the UK after Northern Ireland, and the number continues to grow. The new BBC Scotland channel isn’t going to prevent the haemorrhage.
The new channel was set up in order to provide a distraction from the long standing demand for an hour long Scottish news programme at 6 o’clock on BBC1. It hasn’t succeeded. The case for an hour long Scottish news progamme at six on BBC1 remains as strong as ever, and has only been reinforced by the low viewing figures for the new channel. It’s only when it’s on the main channel that people are actually going to watch it, and that’s precisely why BBC management don’t want it to happen.
The case for Scottish devolution of broadcasting has also been reinforced by the low viewing figures for the new channel. It might be called BBC Scotland, but its budget and funding are determined by BBC management in London, and it’s ultimately answerable to BBC management in London. Only Scottish control of broadcasting will allow Scottish television to flourish. Only then can Scotland have control over television budgets and programming priorities. It’s only then that Scotland can have its window on the world that offers a grandstand view, instead of the tartan frosted window that the BBC is fobbing us off with.
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