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Save Scotland's Media (July 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

It's time to break up the BBC and establish a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation.

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At the end of June, noted only by the anoraks, Deutsche Bahn took over most freight operations on British railways. JS Mill said in the 1850s that the nation which lost control of its transport wouldn't remain a nation for long. You can add communications and media to that.

Nearly four years ago I gave a paper at the Salford Media Conference, about regional media in Germany, a scene which had seemed faintly comic when I went there in 1980 - earnest discussions on acne at peak-viewing time - but was now earning its keep by serving a grown-up civil society. Channels like the Franco-German Arte or the ad-free KinderKanal were becoming models for the UK to emulate. Yet I felt like a picturesque exhibit from an earlier media age - as if CP Scott had cycled into the Guardian building on Farringdon Road.

It is that late already, for a new prime minister who once worked for Scottish Television. In the last year or so media has become a substantial stone in the shoe of Anglo-Scottish relations. London's career-fixated thirtysomethings, who managed to offend Her Majesty and stage the game-show scandals, were spawned by the marketisation of broadcasting. Ambitious Scots like Kirsty Wark and Muriel Gray had amalgamated London production firms, notably RDF, in the hope of picking up contracts. They now found themselves cut out altogether. The overall statistics are bad enough, with Scotland making about half the programmes it ought to be entitled to by population. It will get worse. Following the failure of the BBC to concede a "Scottish Six-o-clock News" in 2001, Broadcasting House is doing its best to "demoralise and rule". BBC Scotland has a big new headquarters on the Clyde, but far less is going on there than in the old rambling Queen Margaret Drive.

Scottish Media Group, the one exception to the centralisation of commercial TV, was to blame for much of this decline. It bought up Chris Evans' Virgin Radio in 2000 for £225 million, and broke its neck when Evans fell off the wagon, though it took six years for it to fire the CEO responsible, Andrew Flanagan. You can have too much of post-modern irony. But this cautionary tale didn't prevent the evolution of a sort of Bedlam show where the smart preen themselves at not being the dolts featuring in Big Brother, the rigged competitions and these uniquely insular makeover progs on which paint dries, interminably.

As we contemplate increased powers for Holyrood, or outright independence, it's evident that in Anglo-Brit media all the right people aren't in the right places. Licence-fee cash isn't any longer bankrolling Kenneth Clark but flash croutons who moan or giggle for middle England, piling up in these parts a remarkably ecumenical ill-will. So, Jonathan Ross, Chris Moyles, Jeremy Clarkson: from the fury of the Northmen Lord God deliver you!

There are three ways out of this. First, repatriate the powers conceded to Ofcom. Second, dismantle the BBC and create a public-service driven Scottish Broadcasting Corporation. Gnashings of teeth from the metropolitan mediocracy will be nominal: they may even get out of London and renew themselves. Third, tackle the press.

Scotland's tabloids, the Record and the Sun, amaze by surviving. Their hysterical, inept and (most damning of all) unsuccessful intervention in the 3 May election will sooner or later have to be dealt with by the proprietors, since circulations are falling. Rupert Murdoch doesn't do failure.

They might, unaided, follow the unlikely example of Tom Nairn's bane, the Sunday Post, and go upmarket; it's a now become a halfway decent journal of opinion. The Dundee Courier and the Aberdeen Press and Journal are on the way to becoming regionals of the German sort.

The country's ailing quality papers present another sort of problem. The Scotsman and Herald have achieved a dangerously high bin-before-reading count: too much on restaurants, houses, sports at which we're no good, recycled business PR handouts, features on modestly-talented totty, and the box-office bit (four authors: guess who?) of the Scottish book trade. The Herald's editorial anorexia has now led to repeated strikes. A nation contemplating a drastic constitutional change needs something better. If the housing-retail tractor packs in, things may get a lot worse.

One useful resource - presently running to waste - is the time, cash and effort devoted to burgeoning controlled-circulation magazines in the public sector, touting the virtues of museums, universities, development authorities - indeed, of the Parliament itself. Most of these are binned within seconds - lovely pictures but captive editors and secondhand stories.

Instead the cash, equipment and talent could be used to equip a couple of heavyweight independent periodicals taking public sector adverts and supplements, but maintaining editorial independence and competing with one another. If Scotland is going to have the political excitement of a debate on independence, let's have a media that's up to covering it.

 
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