IS the BBC One Scotland news switch-off really significant?

Yes, it is.

This week Ofcom found the station’s share of viewers has dropped 10 percentage points to 54% – just three points ahead of STV. But the commercial station is now ahead for news coverage, attracting 44% of viewers, compared to just 39% choosing BBC output (a drop from 47% last year). According to Glenn Preston, Ofcom’s Scotland director that represents “a fairly significant drop for BBC1 as the main source of news in Scotland”.

This can hardly come as a surprise. BBC Scotland’s offerings are hamstrung by following a network news that’s increasingly irrelevant to Scottish viewers. The BBC has accepted that presenting England-only issues as pan-British problems only annoys viewers in the devolved nations – especially Scots. But they keep doing it. A few months back we had “Britain’s stabbing epidemic”, when such attacks are at an all-time low in Scotland. In political terms, the mismatch is getting worse as more powers are devolved and the political cultures of England and Scotland are forced even further apart by Brexit. In short, the tone and priorities of “national” news coverage sound increasingly foreign and the massive rows created by “flagship” programmes like Question Time taint the bona fides of Aunty’s entire news output.

Of course, the BBC have raised a few valid objections to the damning report. Ofcom didn’t add the new BBC Scotland channel to the viewing mix and some commentators didn’t add cash spent on it to the investment total. Fair enough. But getting fewer viewers despite spending more money is nothing to crow about. Besides, the switch-off isn’t just about money, it’s about perspectives, content and quality. Revamping the set of Reporting Scotland at great expense won’t persuade me to start watching again after a three year lay-off. One problem is the sheer predictability, weariness and lack of curiosity in the news agenda, another is the fact that STV have regional news, so there’s a fighting chance I might see stories about where I actually live (not Glasgow) and I can contain myself till 7pm when Channel Four News takes to the air – supplementing later with STV’s Scotland Tonight, which reliably tackles the big talking points of the day in Scotland, and features a diverse range of guests, including folk contributing from studios around the country while Aunty still insists on climate-crisis defying journeys across the country to reach the sofas of Pacific Quay.

What about the new channel? I doubt viewers are peeling away from BBC1 Scotland’s teatime offering to watch the Nine. Viewing figures for the confusingly named BBC Scotland channel aren’t as bad as some critics suggest, but don’t compensate for the drop in BBC One news viewers. One commentator suggested younger Scots are getting news from social media and podcasts and could thus still be consuming BBC output. Well they could – or they could be searching for the kind of views they simply won’t find on BBC Scotland. My own wee company, for example, has posted podcasts and programmes online for free since 2007. Without financial backing, BBC commissions, charges to listeners or publicity, the weekly podcast is set to have its millionth download sometime in late September. Other Yessers, denied an outlet on mainstream broadcasting, have also made their home online. Sure, Aunty has finally woken up to the power of the podcast with the launch of the BBC Sounds platform. But I wonder how many viewers unhappy with BBC1 Scotland news coverage are lapping up the channel’s online offerings? Podcasts work because they are less formal, reverent and constrained by formats, and more controversial, diverse and opinionated than “conventional” broadcasting. Is laidback but trenchant comment really BBC Scotland’s forte – or is the channel increasingly left on the sidelines producing bland “he said, she said” summaries of great and good pronouncements, as the internet cuts quickly, colourfully and sometimes mercilessly to the chase?

This week’s extraordinary miss was THAT opinion poll by Lord Ashcroft which put support for independence over the 50% mark (with undecideds excluded) for the first time since 2017. Everyone was talking about it from the early morning, but the poll was completely body-swerved by Reporting Scotland on BBC1 Scotland and The Nine on the new channel before finally creeping on to the BBC website about 9pm. On Twitter, political correspondent Nick Eardley (and later the BBC Press Department) maintained a BBC rule precluded mention of any individual poll result. As regular readers will know, The National then produced 27 occasions where the BBC had done just that.

More peculiar was the fact Radio Scotland had a lengthy interview about the “rogue” Ashcroft survey with Professor John Curtice on Good Morning Scotland. One rule for TV another for radio? Or one TV producer making an arbitrary choice, then backed up on autopilot by the rest of the corporation?

The official line is that BBC news shouldn’t headline on single polls, but can report them with care. Now agreed, this sounds like more “wrong leaves on the line”. But detail matters. What this means is that two separate BBC Scotland TV news teams on two separate channels decided an important story which needed “care” was easier taken out of the news agenda altogether. Scotland’s constitutional debate is not an unexploded landmine – it is our evolving story and packing the news with the safe, the predictable and the corporate press release is unacceptable. It also actually breaches the BBC Charter’s mission to inform, educate and entertain. But what can anyone do about it – except switch over?

Of course, fate then intervened to compound BBC Scotland’s error with another gob-smacking indy-related story. John McDonnell’s assertion that a UK Labour Government will not block indyref2 made news everywhere. But without details of that unreported Ashcroft poll, BBC Scotland’s licence fee payers might have struggled to appreciate the nonsense of Scottish Labour’s response. Richard Leonard spoke to John McDonnell to “put to him the very clear view that the people of Scotland do not want a second independence referendum.” Don’t we? What about the 52% sampled in a very extensive poll the previous day, including around 40% of the Scottish Labour leader’s own supporters?

THE random non-coverage of important developments in the fast-changing story of Scotland’s constitutional future leaves BBC Scotland viewers with only a partial understanding of current events. And once folk become aware of that, they stop watching – or become highly selective. I still watch the robust but very fair Debate Night and listen to the generally excellent weekend editions of Good Morning Scotland. Beyond that I dip in and out of Radio Scotland (depending on presenters) and Radios 3, 4 and 5. But I don’t have the time, inclination, stable blood pressure or trust needed to watch the BBC’s mainstream TV news offerings. And that’s a shame because there are some excellent journalists working inside Pacific Quay. But maybe their editors could take a leaf out of Iain Dale’s book. The LBC broadcaster and former Tory party candidate got the scoop of the week at his Edinburgh Festival Fringe show with one straightforward question to John McDonnell. Not because Dale is a Yesser, but because he realised Labour’s position on independence has just become crucial, given the likelihood of a snap election, hung parliament and balance of power. It’s called journalism. At last some broadcasters are asking political leaders the big, obvious questions Yes voters have been screaming at the radio and TV for for five long years. Just not (or very rarely) on BBC One Scotland. Unless that changes, the drift to STV and the internet will only accelerate.