Media: Why no news is bad news for Scotland

The BBC's decision to reject a separate six o'clock news for Scotland has angered nationalists. By Jane Robins
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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE news broke last week that the BBC was hostile to granting Scotland its own Six o'clock News, the reaction north of the border was immediate. The papers denounced the decision as London-based arrogance. A cartoon in Scotland on Sunday showed the director-general, Sir John Birt, as a puppeteer controlling the actions of the BBC Scotland boss, John McCormick, and the presenter, Sally Magnusson.

Anger was quickly apparent in the BBC's Glasgow newsroom - and there was a certain amount of jubilation when a leading academic, Professor Lindsay Paterson, resigned from the BBC's broadcasting council for Scotland in protest. He immediately took to the airwaves, appearing on Newsnight to tell the world how unreasonable the BBC was being.

The political reaction was equally explosive - with the Scottish Nationalists declaring that "the decision flies in the face of the trend towards devolution and smacks of the worst type of Londoncentric control". Labour was roundly condemned as having forced the decision, with George Robertson and Helen Liddell singled out as betrayers of a vital Scottish cause.

In the south of England the whole fuss barely registered. Most London- based broadsheets failed to notice what was going on, and to Westminster- based journalists it may have seemed no more than a little local difficulty for the BBC.

But the English were, perhaps, too complacent. The furore over the "Scottish Six", as it is known, is a sign of bigger rows to come. "This isn't going to go away," said a BBC journalist. "It's the beginning of a major battle to devolve BBC Scotland away from England. The British Broadcasting Corporation won't exist in 10 years." That may be wishful thinking. But the SNP's pronouncements had a similar flavour: "The continued decline in viewing of BBC Scotland news will ensure that this fiat from the board is merely one of the last gasps in distant dictatorial control rather than a binding and long-lasting blockage."

BBC management is taking the threat of Scotland seceding from the corporation seriously - as was made clear last week when the controller of BBC2, Mark Thompson, was appointed to run the BBC regions. Mr Thompson is an ambitious man, a much-fancied contender as the next director-general. In the usual way of things, a move to the regions would be seen as a sideways step. But the word is that Sir John wants a big hitter to sort out Scotland.

Scottish resentment about BBC control from London did not come about overnight. It is long-standing, and enmeshed with the feelings of disenfranchisement that grew up in a Labour-dominated country during 18 years of Conservative rule from Westminster. For years the Scots have been complaining that the nightly Six o'clock News is full of distortion - when journalists talk of change in the country's education system or health service, they often fail to state that Scotland is excluded.

And when important events happen that have a heavily Scottish context, they do not necessarily make the news. When the Scotland Bill, which sets up the Scottish Parliament, passed into law, BBC journalists complained that the Six o'clock News failed to report it.

The frustration last came to a head in 1995 when Tony Hall, the BBC's head of news and current affairs, announced that Panorama would broadcast an interview with John Major three days in advance of Scottish local elections, apparently impervious to arguments that this would defy BBC rules on impartiality. The decision was seen as a crass trampling on Scottish sensitivities and was only overturned when opposition parties obtained an injunction from a Scottish court.

This time around, though, the stakes are higher. The SNP sees BBC Scotland as a key issue in its fight with Labour for control of the Scottish Parliament. It is unlikely to be placated by reassurances from the BBC that a host of new measures are being put in place to ensure better coverage of Scotland on the UK news and the promise of more money for Scottish programming for BBC networks.

Professor Paterson last week gave a hint of the way the confrontation might develop. It must, he said, be a priority of the new Scottish Parliament to lobby for powers over the regulation of broadcasting.

And, on the newsroom floor, there are also rebellious mutterings. Perhaps, say the gossips, Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, can be persuaded to encourage a Scottish revolt against paying the BBC licence fee. This is not as absurd as it sounds. For years, the BBC turned a blind eye to the fact that thousands of Catholics in Northern Ireland did not pay their licence fee. The last thing it needs is a Scottish boycott.

There is a growing feeling in Scotland that Labour, in granting devolution, might have inadvertently set the country on the road to independence. Hence the politicians' focus on the BBC as the one remaining national institution with aims to "unite the UK".

It could help Labour in strengthening the UK through better sensitivity on Scottish issues within a UK framework. On the other hand, mismanagement by Mr Thompson would play directly into the hands of the SNP.