Bad BBC news from north of the border

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK, the Scottish Daily Record turned its front page into a wild-west "Wanted" poster. It demanded the heads of the "BBC hitmen" guilty of "the cold-blooded murder of Scotland's news programme". Underneath were mug-shots of Will Wyatt, head of broadcasting and Tony Hall, director of news and current affairs. When the corporation's recent strategy review called for BBC news to be more "accessible" to popular opinion, I don't think this is quite what they had in mind.

It was the most lurid episode so far in the extraordinary controversy raging in Scotland over the Six O'Clock News. In rejecting a Scottish- generated bulletin, the BBC has succeeded in uniting against itself the entire Scottish press, Scottish opposition parties, the Broadcasting Council for Scotland, its own employees and just about every other voice of Scottish opinion.

The most recent poll suggests 61 per cent of Scots support the Scottish six, with 23 per cent opposed. The tabloid shooting war began 10 days ago when the BBC board of governors blocked plans to replace the existing London-based six o'clock news with one presented and edited in Scotland. BBC Scotland had mooted the idea of a "Scottish Six" as a response to the changed political situation in a devolved Scotland.

But BBC governors said this risked "running ahead" of constitutional events, and that they were "minded" to oppose it. The BBC's Scottish "watchdog", the Broadcasting Council for Scotland, was furious. Professor Lindsay Paterson, a prominent member the BCS, resigned, declaring that the corporation was treating Scotland with contempt. There were claims that the BBC had been "bounced" by lobbying from Cabinet Ministers who feared a "platform for nationalism".

In fact, the platform for nationalism has been constructed by the BBC itself. It has handed the SNP its best propaganda gift since Sean Connery was denied a knighthood last year. The nationalists have renewed their attack on the "English Broadcasting Corporation" - this time even anti- nationalist papers like the Record are agreeing with horrible suspicions of "metropolitan interference".

Yet this a not, essentially, a political issue at all, but a matter of practical journalism and editorial coherence. In six months time, a Scottish parliament will be sitting in Edinburgh with legislative responsibility for a whole range of domestic policy: education, health, local government, sport, crime, the arts etc. This will present the London-based news editors with an insoluble dilemma: do they ignore the new constitutional reality and continue to transmit English stories about these subjects to Scotland, where they no longer apply; or do they try to integrate into the UK bulletins Scottish stories which are not relevant south of the border.

The BBC seems to believe that it is possible to present Scottish-only stories in the existing UK national news. But I fear this is naive. Take a current example: in Scotland there is a row between Scottish Office ministers and the teachers' unions about the implementation of "Higher Still", a new examination system. Is it really worth trying to explain this complex issue to millions of bemused English viewers who will not be affected? Similarly, Scottish viewers may not be hugely interested in the controversy over the future of grammar schools, abolished in Scotland 30 years ago.

In March 1998, out of 280 news stories broadcast on UK bulletins, only three were Scottish. - yet there are two Scottish party conferences in that month.

The sensible solution would be to "devolve" one major news bulletin to Scotland so that Scottish stories can be assigned their due weight. The "Scottish Six" would still have access to the BBC's correspondents. It would merely give Scottish stories the prominence they deserve in Scotland.

The Corporation is only fuelling paranoia about London control freaks trying to starve the parliament of the oxygen of publicity. But it's not too late for the BBC to avoid a collision. Instead of making its decision irrevocable on 10 December, the BBC could launch a proper public consultation. There is a compelling case for a formal inquiry into how broadcasting should adapt to the new constitutional arrangements in the UK.

Diversity is nothing to be afraid of; it is the spirit of the age. The United Kingdom is now a multi-national state and needs a broadcasting service to match. Let nation speak peace unto nation - at least at six o'clock.

Iain Macwhirter is one of eleven BBC Scotland presenters who signed an open letter calling for the BBC board of governors to reconsider their opposition to a Scottish edited and presented six o'clock television news bulletin