Dating back to the nineties when the notion of ‘The Scottish Six’ – a weekday BBC television news programme, containing international, UK and Scottish items, produced and edited in Scotland – first emerged, the idea has been a divisive one. Proponents point to the fact that BBC news shows focus on England ‘centric stories with, in their eyes, more important Scottish issues being pushed down the running order or not covered at all. While those opposed to the idea point to falling viewership across the board for TV news and with budget cuts in many areas of the BBC they see a comparatively unsupported Scottish news show being doomed to fail.
It could be argued the notion of a ‘Scottish Six’ has become more a game of political football, than a serious discussion on the merits of news focused solely on its worth north of the border. As with many Scottish issues over the past few years, nationalism or at least support of the SNP seems to be a defining factor. SNP MPs play their, by now habitual, tune of an underrepresented Scotland while opponents point to the insular nature of a potential ‘Scottish Six’ as just another way for the nationalists to drive a wedge into an already struggling union.
It is an understandable argument that viewers in Scotland have little to no interest in matters that only affect England. Following devolution, Scotland has control over many aspects of its own governance and as a result, news about English issues such as education and health – now devolved issues in Scotland – could be argued to have no bearing on a Scottish audience. However, the same methodology could be imposed on international news, which critics point to as a likelihood that a Scottish only broadcast could become parochial in nature.
In 2006, then Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson categorically denounced the idea of a ‘Scottish Six’, saying at the time:
“I don’t detect any public clamour for it. There are still one or two outposts, media commentators and academics, who want to talk about it, but I don’t get any sense of a clamour for it.”
Ten years on and the results of a YouGov poll conducted for the times seemingly echo Mr Thompson’s thoughts. The poll asked, “Thinking about how the evening news is broadcast on the BBC, which of the following would you prefer to see?”. 63% of respondents agreed that “The BBC in Scotland should continue to show the same 6 O’clock News as the rest of the UK, followed by half an hour of specifically Scottish news aimed at Scottish viewers”. While only 23% thought that “The BBC in Scotland should show a different 6 O’clock News programme to the rest of the UK, with an hour of news aimed specifically at Scottish viewers, including international, British and Scottish news.”
Poles should always be taken with a pinch of salt and this one only included 1,070 Scots, but if it is to be believed, then it is against public opinion that The Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee – made up of six conservative MPs, four Labour and one SNP – in August this year urged the BBC to move forward with an hour long news programme produced entirely in Scotland. Damian Collins, chair of the committee at the time, said:
“The six o’clock news in Scotland is currently split into two.
“The main news stories, whether international or relating to the UK, are presented from London while Scottish news is presented from Glasgow.
“In the post-devolution era, this can lead to network news programmes transmitted from London leading on several purely English stories – for instance on health, justice or education.
“The BBC has already acknowledged that there is dissatisfaction with this situation. However, we believe that it is perfectly reasonable for editorial decisions on the running order for television news broadcasts in Scotland to be made in Scotland, and broadcast from Scotland, as they are already for radio.”
SNP MP and former BBC broadcaster John Nicolson is the one SNP representative on the committee and is a staunch supporter of the Scottish six, following the committee’s recommendations, Nicholson said:
“BBC Scotland should now deliver a high-quality Six O’clock television news programme for Scottish audiences with a broader remit of national, UK and international.”
In the wake of this announcement, BBC Scotland produced three pilot shows with differing formats. The one which has created the most controversy had an intro and outro along with Scottish news presented from Glasgow, but with cutaways to the London studio for international news. This option was described by Nicholson as “patronising sop” and added:
“Would this not continue the impression that Scotland only does the local stuff, but if you want a window onto the world you have to access it through the conduit of London?”
For supporters of a ‘Scottish Six’, this format would be seen, at best, as patronising. This would in effect be redressing the current format while allowing London to maintain much of the editorial control. There are still no guarantees for any format of a ‘Scottish Six’, Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State for Culture said the BBC still have “operational independence” over whether the show is picked up.
Earlier in the year Lord Hall, the Director General of the BBC, backed calls for a review of how the corporation delivers its news north of the border but was hesitant to give his backing to a ‘Scottish Six’. Appearing in front of a commons select committee, he said:
“We are looking at a review of news which will report in the spring – this is looking at the provision news across TV, radio and also online and of course in that there will be a debate about what has become known as the ‘Scottish Six O’clock news.
“But I want to make sure that the discussion is about the totality of our services as well, and it looks to the future. When you look at people consuming news not just in the traditional and important ways in terms of our main services, but it is also in things like mobile, online and so on, and we want to make sure those are match fit as well.”
The discussion around modern news consumption is one that is often left out when proponents argue the benefits of a ‘Scottish Six’. TV news has seen a steady decline in viewing figures in recent years, as a result, many news corporations have focused more resources on online aspects of their news delivery. Pressing ahead with a Scottish six can be viewed as a principled matter in this regard rather than a pragmatic look at how best to deliver news in the 21st century.
While TV is still the most popular manner in which news is accessed in the UK, other sources are on the rise. A 2015 OFCOM report into news consumption in the UK shows that two-thirds of adults now get their news from TV, down from three-quarters in 2014. The converse is true of online news, where 41% of people now get their news online compared with 32% in 2013. If, as many commentators believe, these trends continue, the relevance of TV news with its ageing viewership, will also decline. Therefore, it could be argued, the resources needed to support a Scottish six could be better spent on media sources that show growth, rather than fighting the tide of failing viewership from traditional sources.
If BBC Scotland were given the green light for a ‘Scottish Six’, would they be capable of matching the content and production value of their southern counterparts? If both shows are pooling from the same talent, it is likely the one situated in London, with bigger budgets and superior production value will draw the cream of the crop. This likely leads to a show that is destined to be subpar from the outset, regardless of effort put in, less money and less talent are hard to overcome.
There is also the issue of newsworthiness, as the journalist Dani Garavelli put it, there is the potential for a Scottish focused broadcast to be seen as a “diet of stabbings and animal stories”. International stories may also prove difficult to attach a Scottish slant, that differs from the BBC London story, perhaps resulting in a slightly poorer version of the same package.
Donalda Mackinnon, a recent appointee to the head of BBC Scotland will soon decide on the future of the ‘Scottish Six’, however, STV may have beat them to the post. Their own version will launch early next year, although the format will differ slightly, it will be a half-hour long news show but will mirror other aspects expected of the potential BBC iteration. Whether either outlet can produce a successful program in the climate I have described remains to be seen, regardless, a keen eye will be paid from both sides of the border, with many having a vested interest one way or the other and some corners may well view the ‘Scottish Six’ becoming a reality as a success regardless of ratings.