The first of a series of articles first published in Closer Issue 2. Go here to order your print copy while stocks last.
By Christopher Silver
‘All the shows that have ever been any good, that have taken anything by storm, have been new, that’s the thing. That’s what the old creative BBC understood: nobody knows how creativity works, nobody knows what a sense of humour is….The people who run the world now, they’re all spreadsheet guys…you find out what people used to like and then you do that but slightly differently….The world is eating itself.’
These are not the words of an obscure intellectual or a disgruntled art-house director. They’re the words of John Lloyd: one of the most commercially successful producers of British television from the past quarter of a century. He goes on:
‘In the eighties there was such an amazing risk taking environment. Now I haven’t been able to sell a television programme in ten years because there are all these people in-between the producer and the market. By the time you’ve got up to the point where someone can spend the money on it, it’s just like everything else: a sort of wet, cold, lukewarm soup…’
That the creator of highly successful household titles like Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder and QI can paint such a bleak picture is a significant indictment. It compels us to ask how we could do things better.
In the event of independence, there is much that a new Scottish state will inherit that should be cherished. There is also much that should be restored. However, when it comes to broadcasting, we can safely say that Scotland’s inheritance is meagre.
The massive challenge that Scotland would face in that area reach far beyond the continuity promised in Scotland’s Future. The white paper states that a “Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), which will initially be based on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland.” We are then told that programming would continue via a ‘joint venture’ implying that BBC programmes currently produced in Scotland (e.g Mrs Brown’s Boys and Waterloo Road) would continue in a kind of Devo Max settlement for the new broadcaster.
Understandably, on an issue as pervasive as that of broadcasting, the Scottish Government is anxious to reassure the consumer. It wants to state that little will change, that Strictly and Doctor Who will be on at the same time and daily updates on life in Albert Square or Ambridge will remain staples of our TV and radio diet.
There is however a risk. With the BBC’s charter renewal set for 2017 and countless uncertainties forming on the corporation’s future, a new Scotland should be exceptionally sharp in how it approaches broadcasting. Its aim, I would argue, should be nothing less than a wide ranging discussion, from first principles, about what a new public service broadcaster should be in the 21st century.
In Scotland broadcasting stands out as one of the more curious aspects of recent Scottish history. The Scotland Act was content to let Scottishness take institutional form in a parliament, but left aside the very significant question of broadcasting.
Whether this anomaly was one of design or oversight on the part of the act’s authors is something that we can only speculate on. Since then,there has often been an assumption that better Scottish broadcasting must be more Nat conspiracy, than civic project. Certainly the mooted Scottish Digital Network was branded an ‘SNP vanity project’ and sidelined.
There are a number of reasons why hopes for a radically improved way of seeing Scotland on screen rest on independence. As in other arguments for a Yes vote, the theme of opportunity is writ large. Today, talent has a habit of migrating from Scotland: this is not necessarily a negative for a small nation. However it forms a key block to the challenge of how to envision a truly innovative new broadcasting culture. Often a lad, or lassie, o’ pairts can seem destined to find a metropolitan nexus where their talent can be properly nurtured. Armando Ianucci’s comedy, Paul Laverty’s screenwriting, or Kelly Macdonald’s acting, are in demand internationally, and that is something we should celebrate.
However looked at purely in terms of career choices Scottishness has too often been something that has to be transcended. A Catch 22 of poor quality work is created when this is combined with a tendency to overstate an overtly Scottish angle and the Scottishness of the offering, when making programmes for a Scottish audience. Take for example Neil Oliver’s A History of Scotland, the opening line of which is: “Scotland, the country in which I was born and still live” (something which will no doubt puzzle antiquarians in ages hence). Oliver’s role in Scotland’s history is hardly worthy of note and quite why his Scottishness should be the first thing to be stated in a landmark documentary on the subject, is baffling, but revealing.
Combined with the lack of indigenous alternatives the tartan monster remains far more pervasive in the field of film and broadcasting than it does in other areas of Scottish culture, where it has largely been exorcised. For TV and film, as in many other sectors, an inferiority that stems from an obvious lack of resources is internalised, as though Scotland, uniquely in Europe, is somehow unable to participate fully in the grown up, modern world of making things happen on screen.
There is the obvious £145 million gap between what the BBC raises and spends in Scotland. What’s more, very few Scots will be aware that the nation recently lost out to Wales as the site for a major new film and high end TV studio to be built by Pinewood. This has been met by investment from the Welsh government of up to £30 million. Scotland’s film budget last year was £4 million.
Perhaps the lack of linguistic nationalism obscures the significance of national film and broadcasting. The existential utility of Scottish productions seems more politicised (in a way that BBC Alba for example, is not). Henrik Bo Nielsen of the Danish National Film Institute explained the importance of the sector to his own country: “We think it is important that Danes are told stories about themselves and in their language.” With decades of commitment to the national industry, the Danes can expect around 25 feature dramas and 30 documentaries a year to be made in their native land.
The question of how an SBC might be brought in to being, will be critical to the health of the nation, both culturally and politically. It could become like another low-skill Linwood plant churning out Hillman Imps with imported parts. We must not end up creating a Scottish broadcasting bureaucracy that imports extortionate programmes and fails to incubate skills and talents in Scotland.
We can also look at BBC Scotland’s dubious legacy as an opportunity. A site of potential rather than dereliction. To do this, we need to remember where other institutions have gone wrong.
The BBC is arguably the only truly British institution. In its Reithian form it arrived at the apogee of the nation state, in an era when centralising power was seen as synonymous with progress and modernity.
The British experience of centralisation in this era was particularly intense. In particular the experience of World War Two embedded centralisation as a key part of institutional Britain. As The Economist explains: “Many European countries, traumatised by defeat or collaboration, remade their states from first principles, often pushing power away from the tainted centre. In Britain, victory sanctified and strengthened Westminster and Whitehall.”
The legacy of the powerful men who defined the 20th century media in Britian: whether that of Reith, Beaverbrook or Murdoch, may still be with us. However independence, if it happens, will occur as societies are undergoing changes in the way they consume information that are just as radical as those that led to the formation of the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927.
As Paul Mason reflected in the aftermath of the Levenson Inquiry:
“Six months ago, in the context of Tunisia and Egypt, I wrote that the social media networks had made “all propaganda instantly flammable”. It was an understatement: complex and multifaceted media empires that do much more than propaganda, and which command the respect and loyalty of millions of readers, are now also flammable.”
Add this to Murdoch’s (somewhat ironic) Twitter outburst: “haven’t you heard of the Internet? No one controls the media or will ever again” and there is a clear picture of the hitherto all pervasive power of government or corporate media institutions irrevocably challenged and altered.
Consider the distance travelled since the days of Lord Reith and ask why a newly independent country would decide to meekly inherit its paltry share of his century old brainchild, or worse, emulate a dysfunctional institution on a smaller scale.
In Britain the potential decline of public service broadcasting is accompanied by a particularly strong and ever growing sense of disconnect. Whether the offender is an MP, children’s TV presenter, journalist, financier or minister, the propensity to wilfully abuse power is increasingly seen as a given. The upper echelons of any society are likely to be plagued by cultures of sleaze, corruption and entitlement, but the crisis of trust at the heart of Britain has become definitive. It’s hard to say what a term like ‘public service’ means in such a setting. This is why Scotland needs a clean break.
Of course, it would be fatuous to claim that Scotland doesn’t have strong cultural ties to BBC programming and however poorly regarded the Scottish branch may have become, along with ITV and Channel 4, it plays a major role in the lives of the majority of the population. Technology will change this, no doubt, but not overnight.
A key part of the challenge will be structural. The task of creating media has been systematically handed to managers imported from other sectors. Crafting film and television is primarily a creative task: it’s little wonder that the secular Kirk sessions that tend to dominate broadcasting have a tendency to create bureaucracies that inhibit open and energetic programming and production.
Why would we not, as in so many areas, start from first principles? The danger of not doing so is another torturous episode of institutional alienation akin to that which recently engulfed Creative Scotland: a public body that seemed to forget on a massive scale what it was for.
On the other hand, after devolution, one of the most significant cultural developments was the establishment of the National Theatre of Scotland. A theatre without walls, premised on the statement that: ‘all of Scotland is our stage, and from here we perform to the world.’ That is a very significant framing of a ‘national’ institution, especially one that sought, from its inception, to be decentralised and accessible rather than centralised and cloistered.
For broadcasting, there is a remarkable opportunity presented by independence. The great anomaly of this nation without a state without a media can begin to be resolved. The answer, for me, is inherent to Scotland. The runaway success of Danish television drama, so often framed by British journalists with patronising chat about jumpers, is largely due to DR’s understanding of the necessity of creative freedom in creating good work: the very aspect that Lloyd says had disappeared from the BBC.
The idea that Scotland, given the tools to develop a mature culture of film and broadcasting, would not thrive in that field seems ridiculous. Few nations are fortunate enough to have the kind of cultural capital that can be found here: we’re also a largely English speaking nation, we have strong export potential. If a new broadcaster was able to invest in talent by pooling from across the arts in Scotland, it could in turn provoke a new wave of cultural confidence and artistic innovation.
Historically, broadcasting is something that has happened in or to Scotland, it has only occasionally occurred in Scotland’s interests. The question of what public service broadcasting means in an era where network defeats hierarchy is one that we have to begin asking with rigour. The answers will not be easy to find and may well surprise or unnerve us. I suspect it might begin with dispensing with the ‘cold, lukewarm soup’ produced by institutions that find out what consumers like and then seek to repackage it. Instead, we must remember that an independent Scotland is a space in which to innovate and that we should not be afraid to occupy it.