THE POLITICS OF CONTENT

Friday 24 February, 2017
Newspaper

The BBC is an intensely political organisation.

Not in any party political way but as a publicly funded broadcaster that struggles to find ways of balancing competing demands of its numerous stakeholders.  Packed full of ambitious, bright and creative people, those individuals who reach its most senior ranks are infused with political acumen.

The independence referendum has opened a media wound between nationalists and unionists that shows few signs of healing. Alex Salmond’s open criticism of the BBC’s coverage culminated in an angry march in Glasgow. The sense, real or imagined, that BBC Scotland lost the support of a sizeable proportion of the population needed to be addressed.

Many nationalists have a great affection for Radio Scotland with its particular editorial focus. Their appreciation for BBC Television is rather more muted.

Although it would be over simplistic to suggest that unionists take the polar opposite view, many fear that the demand for a “more Scottish perspective” is code for squeezing out the British dimension. They point out that what happens in Carlisle is of more interest to audiences in Dumfries than something in Inverness.

Most people simply want to watch relevant, engaging and balanced content.

Step forward to the latest arguments about the Scottish Six. Originally conceived after the 1997 devolution referendum, it coincided with a more deliberate attempt to target the main television bulletins on different audiences.

As the Six was to focus more heavily on the domestic agenda, it seemed logical that Scotland should do its own thing.

The dream was a blended bulletin that would include regional opt-outs from around the country. Surveys suggested that audiences outwith the Central belt were nervous, fearing a more Glasgow dominated news agenda. It didn’t happen, leaving connoisseurs of Scottish politics with Newsnight Scotland.

Arguments were further weakened in the aftermath of 9/11 as international stories dominated the news agenda. However the issue was never going to go away. The latest tranche of devolved powers re-fuelled a debate the BBC could never win.

The decision to launch a separate Scottish channel is a direct result of that tension. It delivers the much anticipated blended news bulletin in peak without infringing on the integrity of the existing Six. It ensures that the corporation spends more money in Scotland and, drawing on their experience of running BBC Alba, creates a distinct schedule at a relatively low cost.

At a time when viewing to linear television channels are in terminal decline, it might appear to be an old fashioned solution. But television is still important and the majority of viewing still takes place in real time.

This latest plan will benefit audiences and programme makers across Scotland. That should matter to all of us who care about the health of our creative community. It also happens to be a very clever political fix.