Voice for Scotland joins cries for greater media autonomy

A new political lobby group is pressing for Scots’ media companies – especially broadcasters – to be given greater home-rule, says Nick Higham. Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent.

Last week, The Scotsman newspaper told London-based advertisers to start treating Scotland as a separate market or risk their campaigns falling flat north of the border.

The Scots, it seems, are more than a little paranoid about the English using words like “patronising”, “condescending”, “aggressive” and “domineering” to describe them – and resent what they see as second-class treatment by advertisers.

English campaigns which are insensitive to Scots’ social and cultural peculiarities (like the earlier start to the school year) or which deploy English stereotypes (like Essex girls) which mean little in Aberdeen or Ardrossan, are liable to alienate rather than appeal to Scottish consumers.

The reported response to The Scotsman’s research from English advertising agencies only served to confirm Scots’ worst fears: it was dismissive and patronising.

But advertisers down south should wise up. The White Paper and forthcoming referendum on Scottish devolution, and the prospect of a Scottish Parliament with Scottish ministers, have provoked a frenzy of collective introspection and debate, at least among the chattering classes of Edinburgh and Glasgow, about what it means to be Scottish and about how to build a distinct sense of Scottish national identity.

The media, especially broadcasting, is at the centre of this debate, perhaps because broadcasting is the only significant cultural activity responsibility for which is not being devolved from Westminster.

A Scottish Parliament will have powers to summon representatives of the BBC, Independent Television Commission and Radio Authority to give evidence to its committees, and a Scottish government will be consulted on the appointment of the BBC’s National Governor for Scotland – but that’s as far as it goes.

There’ll be no Scottish ITC, let alone a Scottish BBC. Scottish broadcasters will remain firmly tied to a UK-wide broadcasting system.

Since broadcasting is potentially such a powerful tool in the business of nation-building, it is not surprising that some Scottish politicians and programme-makers are unhappy with this state of affairs.

This week, a group calling itself Voice for Scotland is being formed, led by a former Labour councillor in Edinburgh, George Kerevan, who has since defected to the Scottish National Party.

The group is pressing for greater autonomy for Scottish broadcasters. Some members would like to see the Scottish BBC hived off. Some want Scottish Media Group – which last week added Grampian TV and 15 per cent of Ulster TV to holdings that already included Scottish Television and Glasgow broadsheet newspaper The Herald – ring-fenced against takeover, or for negotiations over the renewal of STV’s and Grampian’s licences to be delayed until such time as a Scottish Parliament can have an input.

Some would like to see a massive increase in the amount of programming Channel 4 commissions from Scottish independent producers (as opposed to the modest one the channel’s currently committed to); there’s even a convoluted scheme for diverting some of the money C4 now receives from Scotland to the BBC, to enable it to make more Scottish programming.

Both BBC Scotland and Scottish Media Group want greater autonomy from London, with greater freedom to schedule BBC1 and ITV in a way that maximises their appeal to Scottish audiences. Both, especially the BBC, are using the devolution debate to argue for more network commissions from Scotland.

Gus MacDonald at Scottish Media Group sees an opportunity to reduce the amount he has to pay for the ITV schedule – STV has long argued that it stumps up more than its fair share because it opts out of the network schedule to run regionally-produced programming more often than any other ITV company.

And both the BBC and STV have talked about replacing one of the nightly network newscasts with a programme of Scottish, British and world news originated in Scotland, but incorporating material from ITN and the BBC newsroom in London.

There are practical and technological difficulties with this plan, regulatory problems in the case of ITV, questions of cost, and internal political obstacles still to be overcome. But there seems a very good chance that, by the year 2000, BBC viewers, at least, will in Scotland have an early evening news programme which replaces the current Six O’clock News and Reporting Scotland. Alongside it will be regional news programmes for the Central Belt and the Highlands.

There are dangers in all of this. It is not hard to find people in the Scottish media who say they are worried about SMG’s dominance. Of the principal Scottish media only Scottish Radio Holdings and The Scotsman are completely independent of SMG: the Daily Record, part of Mirror Group, is linked through the Mirror’s 20 per cent holding in SMG.

And there are those who fear that nationalism might be forced to endure an endless procession of navel-gazing, Down Your Way-style programmes.

But a resurgent Scottish nationalism, reflected in a more vigorous and more auto-nomous Scottish media, is something even London advertising agencies will have to take notice of.

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