Maurice Smith

THAT august body, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, gave a withering critique of the BBC’s handling of Scottish news and current affairs this week. Its carefully-worded sentiments basically were that while modern Scotland had changed, BBC news had failed to keep up.

The RSE warned that unless something is done urgently about news delivery in Scotland, then the BBC’s writ would be weakened, and difficult to sustain. Recently, audience research found that fewer than half of Scots thought BBC Scotland’s news reflected their lives.

“It is indefensible that it [the BBC] has the biggest newsroom in Britain, yet is still delivering a structure that was set up for the pre-devolution age,” lamented the RSE's speaker while addressing A Future for Public Service Television. Those words must have been delivered with a heavy heart, as they came from none other than John McCormick, controller of BBC Scotland for 12 years until 2004 and an unexpected critic of the corporation with whom he spent most of his career.

Mr McCormick led the previous bitter fight for a Scottish Six news show, seen as the obvious response to devolution, only to discover later from the memoirs of the then director-general Lord Birt that the latter had connived with Downing Street to ensure the plan’s demise.

Illustrating perfectly the famously self-centred mentality of the BBC – as parodied in the comedy drama W1A – Birt apparently told Prime Minister Tony Blair that a Scottish Six might prompt “the break-up of the BBC”. Not Britain, mind you, but the BBC.

Today, as the Government, led by our ever so-classy Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, deliberates over the BBC’s future, there is much chat about “public service broadcasting”. Should the BBC be miniaturised, commercialised, bastardised? Do we keep the licence fee? Should Channel 4 – another public service broadcaster, lest we forget – be sold off to the Americans?

The BBC is irreplaceable, funded by a clumsy mechanism that guarantees universal access. In Scotland, however, the failure to respond properly to Scottish constitutional change pushed it into the eye of a storm whose origin can be traced to that Scottish Six campaign of 1999. Now many Yes-leaning campaigners cannot find good words for the BBC, that great Unionist conspiracy, while their No counterparts suspect that greater BBC accountability to Holyrood is an SNP plot to channel nationalist propaganda into the sensitive minds of gullible Scots.

There are broadcasting issues that go way beyond politics. What do we want from our TV and radio stations? If Scotland is distinctive – and you don’t have to be Alex Salmond to believe it is – then how should it be covered?

Politicians care mainly about news, because those are the only programmes on which they appear. What about arts, culture, drama, documentaries and sport? Should the BBC deliver more on radio? Why is Channel 4 important? Where is that debate?

The 26-year-old next to me at the RSE doesn’t watch TV, but admitted to being a radio addict and using catch-up services like iPlayer, which ludicrously isn’t subject to the licence fee. Where will that young Scot find her country reflected in the media in future? The current yah-boo debate is failing us right now, and we may come to regret it.