Choices in the broadcasting mirror

Choices in the broadcasting mirror

by Eben Wilson
article from Monday 27, February, 2017

THE BBC loves to flatter us with the notion of “Your BBC”; this suggests the idea that programming decisions are made by some democratic osmosis such that people will always see on their screen a reflection of what they want.

In my experience, I spent twenty years making TV programmes, this is precisely wrong, and rightly so.  Whenever we discuss broadcasting we must separate entertainment and documentary from news and current affairs.

In the former, the glory of the BBC is that it promotes creativity by generally leaving its programme makers to follow their own paths. That’s why they are in the industry; to work as independently minded professional creatives, extending the boundaries of visual media story-telling.

Any public ownership of the ideas expressed by BBC producers has its source in a professional balance struck between their eagerness and duty to say something new and different; against the fear about an industry benchmark - that their mother will not understand, or be offended by, what they are saying.  That’s the job, helped a little by channels that separate the depth, character and complexity of the BBC’s offerings, although television is inevitably driven by pictures and a distemper brush expositional medium at any time.

In news and current affairs, creativity is circumscribed by various factors; the need to be impartial and requirements about balance, but there is also the sheer voracious appetite for content of the contemporary news cycle and the news management machine that feeds it.  BBC journalists hammer away on their keyboards to create a wide and rather fluid mirror of chatter; choices are almost all made about what are known as “on diary” stories; essentially the antitheses of new news, rather news manufactured in its timing and impact, filtered very often by really quite young journalists who these days have rarely walked the streets in print journalism with a notebook. Very few have time to dig and consider the facts with much scepticism; rather they live in what I call a “current of consensus” in which ideas are borrowed from the chatter. This is how the mass media tripped up on the re-election of David Cameron, Trump and Brexit.

Your BBC News in this context too often becomes mirrored noise; and the easiest place to find noise is of course in politics.  Here, the dissonance with what audiences want grows; clamped inside it’s straightjacket of impartiality, the BBC often has to adopt a “balance” that every news person knows is entirely artificial, bringing a voice of the left, the right, the pleading interest, the bleeding heart, and the crazy or simply bonkers on air to sound off in a cacophony that often serves only to confuse or annoy.  It certainly does not enlighten, there simply isn’t time to argue carefully and with objective dispassion, so energetic iconoclasm trumps (sic) insight.

It also supports an implicit bias in favour of lauding the importance of central planning, simply by filling the airwaves with a conversation that assumes a role for government in everything; professional economic classical liberals and natural libertarians among the public bristle at this vacuous omission in our national debate that reinforces the notion that the state is the economy. 

So where does this leave the new BBC Scotland channel? With a challenge to be sure, to make its mirror reflect a country split in half by nationalism. That’s if its news is taking content from the waterfall of political noise, largely collectivist, that infests our civic debate.  The SNP and their “45” clearly believe that they have the right to be heard at all times of day and night and will be looking for any hint of “British bias”.  They probably ought to remember that any slant introduced that mirrors a presumption that the “55” have no say in Scotland’s future would be equally “biased”.

My hunch is that, once again, the politicised statists will be left to howl in their ever-present conservatism about how vital broadcasting news is to obtaining the votes they desire. The BBC will have many Jesuitical discussions internally about the meaning of impartiality and will generally do a fair job at offering a mirror to the pugilistic coruscations of debate in Scottish politics.

But honestly, you do have to ask how many folk will be that bothered about “Scottish” news, or even international news of the “Aberdeen man drowns at sea” variety, purportedly but I am sure apocryphally, offered by the Press & Journal on the sinking of the Titanic. News media has shattered into a thousand easily available channels; the SNP themselves know the power of social media, so you have to ask if the portion of this £30 million plus of licence money spent on yet more “news” will offer additional value over what we have now and which many among the public appear to be disregarding and even disowning.

The best post-truth news will always be the filtered truths decently educated individuals will decide on by themselves through quiet reflection. Maybe that £30 million would be better spent in Scottish schools for civics and economics education?

Much more important will be the new Scottish channel’s contribution to Scotland and its culture through being on-air with distinctly Scottish programming at home in the evening. This is a good thing about the new channel; it introduces more competition for audiences among creative producers. In this, it offers a chance to test the desire of Scots to promote a separate Scottish identity; the proof will be in the viewing numbers. 

If Scottish programming evolves into minority interest viewing, what Billy Connolly called four pullovers singing in Gaelic, then that will be a shame, but telling. If it evolves into a celebration of our global presence and historical intellectual relevance in conjunction with our unique cultural personality that could be amazing, and highly profitable. We should remember that a small car magazine programme that came out of BBC Birmingham found its way into becoming a global money-spinner for the BBC based on the rude but real personalities of its three laddish presenters.

The Scottish left, of course, despises those characters, retaining a holier-than-thou sniffiness about such apparent crudity.  The only mirror they look into is one which reflects all their like-minded friends, especially those who wave the same banners and proselytize for the same ideas that they hold in a sea of politicised national control.

Thank goodness the BBC will stand up to this and not allow them to control our media.

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