Screen Presence/ Screen Absence

The new political landscape we find ourselves in now in 2011 after the massive SNP victory in the Scottish elections, provides us as a nation with much hope but much uncertainty over where we are and who as a country we are to become. These are important times for us all…. The game has changed and many things have to be altered if we are to make this country into the forward thinking, progressive, open social democratic nation that I believe the people want.

There are many areas politically, economically, culturally that need to be looked at in order to allow the maturing of our country to begin. The Scotland Bill and the changes that the SNP wish to bring in on several fronts, from the Crown Estates to Broadcasting are essential. I believe that getting control of broadcasting from Westminster to Scotland is pivotal.

If you want to know why areas like the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway seem to be lacking in or seem largely different in their political allegiances, then we need look no further than the television channels that they receive. Yes there are historical differences all around Scotland but it seems odd that a great swathe of our country remains largely unmoved by what went on here in Scotland on 5 May. We can’t just put it down to landed gentry or a proximity with the Border or even a lack of interest – Nationalist activists in the Borders are every bit as dedicated as in the rest of Scotland – but if the debate is marginalised and not being heard then that has a huge effect.

In this day and age the control of Broadcasting and lack of it denies access to it and damages that discourse and debate. Other political parties like the Greens have argued for years that they are largely marginalised by editorial decisions; but if the decisions about what is beamed into your home through TV and Radio every day is taken in another country then that effect can be disastrous… particularly for a country still trying to come to terms with who it is within a changing UK and world.

Where do we in Scotland get to speak to each other never mind the rest of the UK or the world? I was shocked to find out that areas like the Borders and Dumfries don’t get to join in the debate that the rest of us are having about our future because they are largely shut out. While filming 2000 Acres of Skye for months with a largely English crew, I did wonder what they thought when they turned on their tellies and got BBC Northern Ireland and UTV or BBC Cumbria and Border Television – none of which are based in Scotland. I felt the same as I do when I am in London; isolated and out of touch with what is going on in my own country and dominated by a Westminster or London view of the world.

Now you may say the same for places like Leeds or the West country, but the problem with that argument is that we are a nation not a region and as such our nation (all of it) has the right to hear whats going on in it and be part of the discourse.

So is it any surprise that across these areas of Scotland, the political fight is still between the Tories and Labour or Lib Dems? They get little or no coverage of the Scottish Parliament or the debates or political discourse in Scotland and get a diet of Southern or Irish TV which bears little relevance to the Geography or nationality of the people it serves in Scotland – and they have no choice!

If ever there was an argument for a Scottish Digital channel that can be received by the entire country then surely that is one. Let’s Liberate our Borders!

All of this came as news to me as I thought that I knew quite a lot about Broadcasting in Scotland, having been involved in making television and radio programmes here for over 25 years. I assumed that stuff made in Glasgow or Edinburgh or Aberdeen for BBC Scotland would automatically be received by the Borders etc. Rab C and Naked Video were seen because they were made for the national network BBC2, not BBC Scotland.

Now most people outside the industry (i.e. you the viewers) don’t know the difference – its on the TV in your living room and that’s it. If its made by BBC1, BBC2 (i.e. the Network in London for National broadcast) or BBC Scotland then whats the difference? The answer is a great deal… and not just the size of the budgets. The control of how, where and why any programme is made and who it is transmitted to, is something that we should all know more about. We must understand that the cultural, social and political impact of those decisions is massive.

The control of how, where and why any programme is made and who it is transmitted to, is something that we should all know more about. We must understand that the cultural, social and political impact of those decisions is massive.

I was appointed to the Broadcasting Commission headed by Blair Jenkins and set up by the first SNP government, largely because they had identified and been concerned with the decline in the industry with Scottish-made product on the National Network below three per cent. The mere setting up of the Commission alarmed the London media bosses, as they hadn’t really noticed the decline and had stupidly made defensive remarks like “There isn’t the talent in Scotland to make big network shows”. That went down like a lead balloon – especially since it was said in Wales where a decision to make Dr Who there has had a significant effect on the production skills and base living there. Hence now we see the sudden rush to relocate stuff like the Weakest Link to Glasgow, all so they can say that programmes are made here for the network. Yeah, thanks…

Anyway, I realised that I had much to learn about the actual workings of the media in this country and find out why we seemed to lurch from one renaissance to another, with little or no constant base to work from. Most of what we found out over that year was pretty shocking, not only about the lack of control but the lack of vision and will within our own television channels here to actually change anything. It was a case of survival at all times and that is no way to run national networks.

That is not to say that there are not good, hardworking brilliant people within BBC Scotland or STV who have that vision and will. But they lack the resources and power to truly change anything and create. I likened BBC Scotland to the Scottish Labour Party at the time. Many of the top people were intelligent, good, dedicated professionals but who could do nothing without the nod and approval of their London bosses. I found it shocking (and I still believe it to be the case) that there is no-one in Scotland allowed to ‘greenlight’ (industry speak for get it made) a project for the network. No one in Scotland has that power.

But does that matter to the audiences here anyway? Is where something is made of any real interest or concern to Scottish viewers? Well I think it should. What ‘no power’ means is that say for example Gregory Burke (writer of the brilliant Blackwatch) writes a drama and takes it to the head of drama at BBC Scotland. He/she loves it and believes it could be made for a Network audience not just Scotland. He/she then has to send it to London for approval and most importantly… money.

Culturally there is a problem there; if Greg’s script is set in Dunfermline with a lot of Scots actors and (heaven forfend) Scots words in the text, then chances are that a public school educated guy or gal living in London and brought up in another part of England will find it as appealing and relevant and as alien as something set in Poland so they decline it. (The laugh is that if it was some obscure drama set in Poland then it would probably get made.)

The other problem there is that if the top guy or gal in London is a Scot they will also run a mile as they do not want to be known as the commissioning editor who only commissions that weird stuff from Scotland. They have to prove that they are more Metropolitan than anyone else and are not parochial… and that means making lots of stuff in London. In the end they would most likely say that it should be made simply for a Scottish audience.

And therein lies a problem. Firstly there is little room for primetime viewing of Scots stuff in the Scottish schedule. Things like sport (i.e. football) is preserved and has a budget, as does news and current affairs (but only stuff that affects Scotland in Scotland). The rest has to be covered by the London news. So even getting a reporter from BBC Scotland into Afghanistan for more than a celebrity Christmas report is impossible.  Yet while our troops are deployed there and we have a right to know what is going on from a Scottish perspective that is not our remit…

I constantly get asked why I am not doing more stuff on Scottish telly (as if I can just phone up and say that I want to do a show and that’s it done). And I’m constantly asked why there is not more Scottish stuff on telly. Well the answer is that the roadblocks to getting something indigenous on TV in Scotland for a Scottish audience are hugely difficult.

The Beeb here is not going to put on a drama set in Fife instead of Eastenders; they have to prove that the Scottish stuff will beat what a network programme would get for the same slot. The same goes for STV; any new Scottish comedy is not going to be put on instead of Corrie. And its much much cheaper to buy-in a programme than to make it yourself.

But all of this results in a type of cultural imperialism, in the same way as it is difficult for countries like El Salvador or Botswana to make programmes (i.e. if its cheaper to buy a series of Friends from the US then why bother to make your own sitcoms?)

But all of this results in a type of cultural imperialism, in the same way as it is difficult for countries like El Salvador or Botswana to make programmes (i.e. if its cheaper to buy a series of Friends from the US then why bother to make your own sitcoms?). The result is that your kids are exposed to a powerful narrative about an American way of life that eclipses and ignores their own culture and identity. That has a deeply corrosive effect.

Now I am not advocating no US sitcoms… in the digital Age of Choice then they are constantly available and will still be in digital Scotland. At least here we do get to make some stuff for a Scottish audience. So why do we still feel so poorly served? Well because the space is so limited and the money so small there is a tough fight for any producers to get in the door to pitch their project.

If you have no track record then the bosses are not going to risk the money, ‘cos if they do and its rubbish and the whole nation is watching (with so few Scottish programmes made an expectation is created) then it becomes an embarrassment. That in turn creates an industry that is risk averse at the top and a climate of fear then exists within the business too.

So they play safe… and commission another documentary about the Clearances, or lochs of Scotland or the history of the fish supper. And yes, they did make the aptly-named Poverty Porn that was The Scheme. A series that invited us to laugh at all these poor folk, living in the worst of conditions, like rats in a lab while we sat on our couches. Some of us in disgust, some in despair and others ‘as happy as larry’ while making a hero out of Bullit the dog. This made Rab C look like The Waltons. Is this the best our great documentary makers can do?

The handwringing that then ensued with the makers assuring us that they were trying to show the serious social problems in Scotland was even worse. A justification for a series that was cheaply made, with no agenda of truly engaging, helping or highlighting the background or circumstances of anyone involved or showing the involvement of the agencies that exist to help. At its worst, allowing a serious assault to be filmed and shown without one member of the crew even stepping in to stop it or a commentary that stepped away from it. But it got huge audiences (in the way that a public hanging would). But compare it to a Channel 4 Dispatches or a Panorama and you can see the difference that good documentary filmmaking makes. The Scheme was no groundbreaking Cathy Come Home. The hastily made documentary about sectarianism displayed that same lack of time and care – and money.

So what does the small budget on a programme actually mean? Compromise… in cast wages, crew rates, design costs, the lot. I have lost count of the amount of jobs I have done or turned down in recent years where the crews were working for less than the Union rate (on one job at STV the crew were working for the Bectu rate of ten years ago). But jobs are so scarce and opportunities to learn or develop any craft are so rare that people do it – and these are all good, talented experienced people.

This also means that the product in the end isn’t as good. Ever wondered why the likes of Luther the BBC hit drama series looks so good and dramas from Scotland looks a bit hand knitted? The answer is money. And you only get the big money on the Network (though a few months ago a pal made a drama for BBC Scotland for the Network and was still only given half the budget that he would have got for two hours of drama made in London… go figure!).

So what? I hear you say. If it’s good it shouldn’t matter about the cash. And yes quality isn’t all about money. But actually it is the knock-on effect of a writer getting paid less, no money for script rewriting or developing, no money for the best lighting cameraman or design team (we have all seen those dramas set in the 1960s that only use one street cos they couldn’t afford to get the cars, buildings or fashion mocked up in any other place). You also don’t get the most experienced actors or names involved because you can’t pay the fees, flights, hotels that they need. If you are lucky they do it for friends and so on but that is no way to run and industry.

Or you end up with a series that does get made because it has to be populated with London names – Scots that live in London and who are nationally known. Or all the lead parts going to TV names from London with dodgy Scottish accents (as shown in the otherwise good Case Histories where Edinburgh seemed to be only populated with English people living there) and again all the small parts (i.e. shopkeepers with one eyebrow) played by local actors.

That lack of control also feeds the cringers and whingers who sit and watch some poorly made, poorly lit political show late at night that simply confirms their view that if Scotland were Independent we would have to exist on a diet of stuff like this. While the rest of us sitting on our couches are thinking “Oh Shit… is this who we really are?”

And we wonder why our actors leave? We wonder why our directors, documentary makers leave? When Rab C Nesbitt started one very big Channel controller wanted Robbie Coletraine and Muriel Gray to play Rab and Mary, not because they were better actors but because they were Scots who were known in London!

Could I just say for the record too that this is not a personal gripe. I am one of the lucky ones here who has had a long career and made some money too. But for the others in my industry that is not the case and it has been that way for too many years.

My real gripe here is that this all feeds into our national psyche – and I am sure there is a unionist plot behind a lot of this. Control of our broadcasting is a powerful tool, and if control of it lies elsewhere then that impacts on all of us. That lack of control also feeds the cringers and whingers who sit and watch some poorly made, poorly lit political show late at night that simply confirms their view that if Scotland were Independent we would have to exist on a diet of stuff like this. While the rest of us sitting on our couches are thinking “Oh Shit… is this who we really are?”

But the truth is that it is not who we are, it is a tiny slice of who we are when we are under-resourced and powerless.

A properly funded digital channel cannot guarantee that all its programmes will be great – for every brilliant documentary about Scottish troops in Afghanistan or politics in Catalonia or dramas in the Borders or comedies in Fife there will be an alright soap or a bad chat show. But we get that on BBC1 or ITV nationally anyway.

However it will have power and funding to actually make programmes that allow us to talk to each other and to make programmes that talk to the rest of the world from a Scottish perspective, to report news and current affairs from that same perspective. Existing in a climate that takes risks will also bring our talent home to work and create as well as heading off to other countries.

I worry about the level of debate around this and as long as it remains mystified in media speak then the public won’t support it. But if the practicalities of what and why we are served up product by our TV stations are fully explained then I believe they will.

As an old Tory pal remarked after the election “Oh God, will Independence mean that we get Corrie with Gaelic subtitles then?” Personally I don’t mind if it does, but I believe that control of our media is vital to Scotland’s sense of itself and its place in the world and a digital channel will play a big part in that.

We have to fix these basic, seemingly small things in order for us to progress as a country. I see nothing wrong with trying to fix the small things in this small country to provide us with the tools we need for nationhood. And broadcasting is one of the tools.