In view of the history of spats between the SNP and BBC Scotland, it is refreshing to see the SNP's broadcasting guru, John Nicolson, extend a warm hand of friendship to BBC Scotland's new director – Steve Carson.
Writing in The National
newspaper, Nicolson proclaimed: 'I'm delighted to welcome Steve Carson to his post... it's a tough gig. But Steve has all the qualities necessary – a sharp mind, great personal charm, and a background in good quality television production from youth TV, through Panorama
, before arriving here to launch the new BBC Scotland channel'.
Glasgow-born Nicolson, 59, has an excellent journalistic and broadcasting pedigree. And as a former news and current affairs reporter and presenter who succeeded at the highest levels, with both BBC and ITV, I am happy to give him some exposure in this column as I feel he is someone worth listening to on broadcasting matters.
Welcoming Carson, Nicolson says: 'As an Ulsterman with years of experience working in the Republic [of Ireland], Steve will understand the challenges and privileges of working in a small country with a vibrant political culture. He'll need skills aplenty to navigate BBC Scotland through the challenges of next year's Scottish elections and indyref2... The BBC freely concedes that it haemorrhaged trust during 2014's Scottish Referendum coverage. And corporate bosses don't dispute that they subjected the status quo in the shape of the Union to much less assertive scrutiny than the insurgent campaign for independence. Many viewers left never to return'.
Nicolson asserts that BBC Scotland looks very different now – thanks in part, he says, to the new BBC Scotland channel which Carson launched – and comments approvingly: 'Its daily news output – The Nine
– is consistently good at tackling the big stories of the day whether national, UK, or world on news merit alone... That's as it should be, but a challenge BBC bosses in London for years resisted, demanding that BBC Scotland's nightly news output never stray south of Berwick – let alone out into the big wide world. The Nine
has been a breath of fresh air, with talented, youthful and bright Scottish journalists reporting on global issues – turning the too often insular, couthie and out-of-touch typecast of BBC Scotland news programming on its head'.
Nicolson, a prominent figure on the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, points out: 'It's no secret that I wanted a separate Scottish Six
to replace the current offering on BBC One. Indeed, I persuaded my Tory and Labour colleagues in the House of Commons to support my proposal when we published an all-party Culture Select Committee report. It was not to be. But the BBC conceded The Nine
instead, and it has more than risen to the challenge'.
Significantly, Nicolson declares: 'The time has come, I'd say, for The Nine
to be moved onto BBC One. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed, starkly, how much Scotland needs its own prime time news show on the BBC's main channel. The BBC, of course, is not just news and current affairs but a valuable treasure trove of music and arts, radio, comedy, Gaelic and drama. The new director must lobby his colleagues in London to ensure a higher proportion of the licence fee raised in Scotland is spent in Scotland'.
Outlining some of what he expects from the new director, Nicolson, the SNP's MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, says: 'Steve Carson has wide experience of innovative programme making and he will have his own priorities. I look forward to talking to him about what they are in due course. But my feeling is that BBC Radio Scotland could do with a revamp and a fresher sound.
'Political programming is strong – Debate Night
, presented by Stephen Jardine, is an intelligent and engaging watch – far superior to the often unwatchable shoutfest Question Time
. But where are the BBC Scotland politics podcasts? In the last 12 months, Frankie Boyle's Tour of Scotland
has shown that BBC Scotland isn't afraid to take risks. And in Ally Heather, I suspect BBC Scotland may well have found a star of the future. His Rebel Tongue
'I'm a fan of public service broadcasting. Having lived and worked in the States [of America], I know what happens when media barons gain unchallenged control of the airwaves. I'm optimistic for the future of public service broadcasting in Scotland and know that we've a talent pool of rare quality waiting to be unleashed.'
It is interesting that John Nicolson advocates that the hour-long The Nine
be promoted to BBC One Scotland. Unfortunately, I rarely catch The Nine
as I choose to view two predetermined evening news slots across a number of channels: from 6-7pm (and often Channel 4 News
from 7-8pm), and then from 10pm into the early hours. This includes press preview programmes on Sky News and BBC News and, of course, BBC Two's Newsnight
Additionally, The Nine's
9-10pm scheduling invariably competes with non-news quality programmes I choose to view from all five mainstream broadcasters – BBC One, BBC Two, ITV/STV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. A major problem with Nicolson's suggestion is just where would The Nine
fit into BBC One Scotland's current evening programming schedule? And what happens to the BBC One Scotland's 6.30-7pm Reporting Scotland
slot, and, indeed, the programme itself, with its large, expensive reporting and production teams? Are we back to the Scottish Six
scenario? There appears to be no easy solutions to these three important questions.
Mainstream broadcasters picked up their largest share of the viewing audience for six years at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, a survey from broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, reveals... and it also shows we spent almost 45 hours a week – an average of of six hours and 25 minutes each day – watching TV and online video content during April.
The survey's report discloses: 'The public service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, STV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – in March briefly achieved their highest combined monthly share of broadcast television viewing in more than six years: 59% – driven by a demand for trusted news programmes as the pandemic grew'.
Ofcom also found that there had been a surge in screen time during lockdown which saw people in the UK spend 40% of their day watching TV and online video services – an increase of almost 33% on last year.
Reports Ofcom: 'The biggest factor behind this increase was people spending twice as much time watching subscription streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video'.
Belatedly, can I pass on very welcome news from Fife College which is to create a scholarship for new and emerging student radio talent in memory of versatile broadcaster and journalist, Colin Somerville, who was one of the college's most colourful lecturers. Colin, who died earlier this year, aged 62, after suffering from early onset dementia, was during his career a broadcaster, journalist, presenter, producer and lecturer.
He had been music controller and a presenter on Radio Forth in the 1980s and was entertainment editor of Edinburgh's Evening News
between 1994 and 1998, later becoming a freelance music writer for the Evening News
, The Scotsman
and Scotland on Sunday
until 2012. He had also spent six years presenting programmes for BBC Radio Scotland, plus contributing to The Herald
as a comedy critic.
Dougi McMillan, director of the Faculty of Creative Industries at Fife College, recalls: 'Colin was very well-respected, knowledgeable and connected throughout broadcasting and publishing, and had a very healthy collective of celebrity interviews and friendships. He was incisive, witty, downright sarcastic and a glorious human being. The radio students and his colleagues alike adored him – all his life stories, anecdotes and laughter. He was a hell of a great guy – the light will always shine'.
Dougi added: 'A fitting tribute to Colin and the work he carried out in the college would be to support new talent as he did throughout his career. To this end, the faculty will look to establish an annual Colin Somerville scholarship for new and emerging radio talent across the student cohort of the Creative Industries at Fife College'.