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Scottish Parliament Speech: Scottish Broadcasting Commission (October 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

The "overall broadcasting ecology" of the United Kingdom is a fine, evolutionary, greenish phrase, but it is also a highly political subject. In 1923, two people grasped where the new medium of radio could go: a thrawn Scottish engineer and a racist banged up in a Bavarian jail. Colonel John Reith of the British Broadcasting Company grasped radio's capacity to inform, educate and entertain; Adolf Hitler saw it as a rabble rouser.

Of the two, Hitler was the more imaginative because German broadcasting did not even exist at that point. He grasped consciously what Reith accepted unquestioningly: that, in the post-1918 era of ethnic nationalism, broadcasting would be a unifier. The nations in question were the military-based powers of the 19 th century rather than any benign ecology. Members should remember that Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham has us all in mind as literary and visual stars through its blanket surveillance scheme.

The BBC was invoked in the United Kingdom's defence in the second world war and did it so well that, after helping to lick Hitler, its centralised liberalism could cope with the challenge of commercial TV partly because it was cosmopolitan. It received the refugees from the gangster states - not only musicians but journalists who had started off in the illustrated papers of the Weimar republic and ended up on pioneering magazine programmes such as "Tonight". Members should consider where we were in the much-maligned 1970s: we had the Pythons, "Yes, Minister", Dennis Potter and the regional capacity of STV. Later, we had the innovations of Channel 4 and the BBC's partnership with the Open University - which you and I both remember, Presiding Officer. At that time, I worked a lot in Broadcasting house and it was good. The affection has taken a long time to die. That was metropolitan, but there was a downside - what George Orwell called room 101.

The commission shows how far the downside has taken over. Today's BBC is operated on commercial principles, with huge bonuses for stars such as Jonathan Ross and ecological menaces such as Jeremy Clarkson. There are rather smaller bonuses for controllers, who were previously on modest civil service or academic salaries. Peanuts remain for academic contributors, together with astonishingly arbitrary editing. That change has not been accompanied by an increase in honesty, objectivity and respect for the BBC's audience - members should just think of the evildoing of "Blue Peter". BBC trust surveys show that people in Scotland have drifted far from their earlier confidence.

The statistics speak for themselves. Two thirds of production is zoned to London, and Scotland gets scarcely a third of its proper entitlement of 8.6 per cent of programme making. Ofcom is dismantling what is left of regional commercial TV culture. It is daft, in a way, but also rather touching that Scotland's one programme on Europe comes out in Gaelic. BBC Alba's "EĆ²rpa" is a credit to the old tongue - I was recorded in English, dubbed into Gaelic and subtitled in English again for a programme that I did - but European channels such as Arte, which is a brilliant combination of French and German public service TV, do it better.

Given its remit, the commission goes only so far by requesting a Scottish digital network, but we must go further. A centralised BBC is incompatible with a federal or devolved UK. We need a broadcaster that uses the Reithian criteria not only to project Scotland but to aim at specific Scottish audiences, not least those in education - I speak as one brought up on BBC education broadcasting as a primary school kid; it was a marvellous liberation - and our substantial proportion of over-50s, who are probably the central and most sensitive audience and just about as neglected as the customers of our post offices.

We must innovate, experiment and respect freedom of opinion. That has not always been the case. Too often, our TV suggests the migration of Rupert Murdoch's The Sun. There is a lovely little poem that goes:

"Tickle the public, make 'em grin,
The more you tickle, the more you win.
Teach the public, you'll never get rich,
You'll live like a beggar and die in a ditch."

To leave Scotland in the hands of the present metropolitan munchkins of Ofcom and the BBC is like leaving one's parents looking at daytime TV.

I leave the last word with one of our best Scots journalists, who wrote in a letter to me: "I was saying openly what my former colleagues at the broadcasting coal face couldn't say to the Broadcasting Commission because they would lose their jobs ... a typical crony attempt to shut me and them up. Totally counterproductive because the BBC can't afford to play at toytown McCarthyism. It's behaving like an old Labour municipal authority. I'm glad to be out of it."

Unless there are big changes towards a more decentralised, democratic structure, the sooner we are out of it, the better.

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