6 October 2016

S5M-01828 BBC Royal Charter and Framework Agreement

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-01828, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on the draft BBC charter.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

It is perhaps no surprise, given that the first director general of the BBC, although that would not have been his title then, was a dour Presbyterian Scot, Lord Reith, that the original motto of the BBC was

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation”,

which is an adaptation from the book of Micah, chapter 4, verse 3. The BBC was innovative when it started and it remains so in the modern digital age.

Jackson Carlaw was not entirely incorrect in his response to my attempted intervention. I appeared on the BBC on the shores of Loch Earn when he was three years old. Of course, he missed out some of the most spectacular and impressive pieces of broadcasting that the BBC used to make. His biggest omission, which was due to his failure to accept an intervention, was the wonderful programme on a Sunday afternoon called “The Brains Trust”, which first brought Jacob Bronowski to the public’s attention. Jacob Bronowski later produced, wrote and was the inspiration for probably my favourite BBC programme, “The Ascent of Man”, part of which moves me to tears. He is standing in a concentration camp and he reaches down into a puddle and picks up some mud. He looks at it and then looks at the camera and says, “This is my family.” There is no more stirring piece of television than that piece by Jacob Bronowski, who came to us via “The Brains Trust”. In all honesty, only the BBC could have considered making those programmes.

Of course, it may be that Jackson Carlaw is related to another member of “The Brains Trust”—the Tory MP Gerald Nabarro. However, if Jackson Carlaw remembers anything about him, he will be hoping that they are not related.

The BBC also has the affection of SNP members for a programme that was first broadcast on 24 November 1962, “That Was The Week That Was”. It brought us David Frost for the first time and the wonderful cartoonist Timothy Birdsall. However, fundamentally, what it brought us was a satirical venue in which it was possible to probe the declining strength of the then Conservative Government under Harold Macmillan, and it probably contributed quite significantly to the ending of that period of Tory rule. We have a lot to be grateful to the BBC for.

I was particularly grateful as a youngster to “That Was The Week That Was”, because it was on late on a Saturday night and I was allowed to stay up that late for the first time to watch it, so it was a wonderful programme for me. However, it also illustrated something that we have kind of lost in modern broadcasting because it was of a length that was appropriate to what was going on in the world that week. In other words, if there was more going on, the programme just kept going because it was live and some of the content was improvised during the course of the programme. The rigid timetables that box off programmes today mean that we have lost some of the spontaneity and spark that we had in that programme.

I have a few general comments. The BBC produces one of the best current affairs programmes that come from Scotland—“Eòrpa”—and it has done so for some time. It is a Gaelic programme, but it is subtitled. It enables us to look through Scottish eyes at things that are going on elsewhere, particularly in Europe but occasionally beyond. Only the BBC has the option of making that kind of programme, and we love the BBC for that ability to pick up difficult subjects and bring them to us.

I will make a couple of points that I hope the BBC, which I am sure will be watching this debate, will take on board. BBC Scotland’s Radio Scotland is the poor relation, not simply in terms of the funding and resources that are made available to it but because of how it is delivered to us in the modern digital age. Digital audio broadcasting—DAB—radio, which BBC Scotland is on, is not delivered via any of the BBC multiplexes but via the commercial multiplexes. Two effects stem from that, one of which is that if we are in a car with a DAB radio, it will not retune from multiplex to multiplex as we go across Scotland, whereas we can continue to listen to all the London BBC radio channels as we go across Scotland. Secondly, there is no FM fallback, which means that if we lose the digital signal, there is not enough information provided to our radio set to allow it to fall back to FM, as Radio 4 does.

Radio 4 is one of the crowning glories of the BBC, and many of us in Scotland listen to it, but it has its failings in relation to Scotland but also in relation to the rest of the UK. In the very brief time that I have left, I will give one example. I was listening to a piece on Radio 4 about Sunday trading in England, and comments were being made about how the world would fall apart if shops were allowed to open on Sundays. No reference was made for English audiences to the fact that Scotland has had Sunday trading for many years and the world has not collapsed. However, what was even more fundamental for Scots listeners was that there was no explanation of the Sunday trading situation in England. I did not quite understand it until I went home and looked it up. The piece failed to represent Scotland in an English debate and failed to explain an English issue, which was of interest to us, in a Scottish context. That is simply a metropolitan error that the BBC has to address.

Let us hope that the BBC not only continues to reflect the world to Scotland but continues to reflect Scotland to the world.


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