TV Covid briefings should be kept politics-free - Lesley Riddoch

With supermarket shelves re-emptying, travel plans again on pause and rumours of a second lockdown after Boris Johnson’s TV address tomorrow, managers at BBC Scotland must be relieved the row over their plans to curtail Covid briefing coverage seems to have abated.

Monday, 21st September 2020, 7:30 am
If SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon misplaces their trust, she will be very harshly judged by the Scottish electorate
If SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon misplaces their trust, she will be very harshly judged by the Scottish electorate

Not so fast. A bit like the British Government’s casually announced intention to break international law, BBC Scotland’s decision not to broadcast each FM Covid update backfired spectacularly and immediately. It’s not clear how many licences were cancelled, but it must have been a fair few.

Then came the U-turn. But typically, for a corporation that never admits mistakes or even informs its own staff before dramatic changes, the change of heart was indirect, confused and unexplained. Consequently, BBC Scotland has earned none of the brownie points that normally flow from a fulsome public apology.

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So far, so predictable. But now the plot thickens. Weekend newspapers suggest BBC Scotland now intends to include pundits and opposition politicians in the FM’s briefing broadcasts, leading those already antagonised to conclude Auntie has simply caved in to political pressure from opposition politicians who believe the briefings constitute a daily party-political broadcast by the Scottish National Party.

It seems less than a coincidence that plans to curb the FM’s broadcasts were announced days after the first Scottish visit by the BBC’s new director-general (and former deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative party), Tim Davie.

So, what’s happening now? Since the BBC has never got to grips with the complex nature of “balance” in a world beyond the convenient binary divides of Westminster, its managers are all too easily panicked by allegations of favouritism. So political interventions may well have prompted the latest “compromise” solution from Pacific Quay.

But let’s be charitable. It’s possible that “beefing up” Covid briefing broadcasts is belated recognition of their popularity and clout by BBC Scotland and an attempt to give this once “temporary” slot a regular place within its permanent TV schedule. Without any detail from the broadcaster, it’s hard to know exactly what’s planned, but the new format does sound like existing programmes fronted by Brian Taylor after FMQs and by Gordon Brewer after PMQs. So maybe the Covid briefings will simply become a third current affairs strand with the usual comment from pundits and politicians after a bit of important political theatre?

Not so simple. Politics Scotland broadcasts twice weekly, so it’s relatively easy to arrange a fresh “Greek chorus” of political commentators and politicians. Quite how easy it will be to stage the same thing on a daily basis remains to be seen, especially when the usual suspects are rarely public health experts and will have to respond meaningfully and coherently within minutes of announcements by Nicola Sturgeon without the benefit of background briefings. The chance of hitting bum notes must be very high.

More importantly though, there might be a substantial pushback by the viewing public, as well as independence supporters, if the BBC seems to be introducing dissent and party-political bickering where currently there is none. Essentially “neutral” BBC Scotland could stand accused of making a political drama out of a public health crisis.

The massive shift in opinion polls that’s given Nicola Sturgeon a massive and consistent lead over all rivals arises from something more complex than a sudden rise in support for her party. Something about her is personally reassuring to many people in a way that seems to reach beyond the usual political divides. She wears many hats – party leader, independence protagonist and First Minister. But during her Covid broadcasts Nicola Sturgeon is more like Scotland’s universal mum. Constant, calm, practical, compassionate kind, firm and relentless. The 50-year-old could easily be the daughter of older viewers who have built their lunchtime rituals around her Covid briefings, but the FM’s grasp of detail and her ability to relate complex explanations in ordinary language seem to create confidence and soothe anxieties.

Even for those who dislike her politics, the First Minister’s Covid presence is a daily oasis of calm, reassurance and purpose, especially contrasted with glib talk of Moonshots, £10,000 fines and clypeing on neighbours by the (mostly) men in suits at Westminster. Obviously, this does have a political dimension. Sturgeon’s daily Covid broadcasts communicate a distinctive Scottish approach to the worst health and economic challenge to hit this country in decades. And that Scottish approach is patiently and capably articulated by a group of public servants who sound like the bulk of the listening public. For once. At last. Each broadcast is a fulcrum of soft power, agreed. But that’s because Nicola Sturgeon has got on top of her brief and got out in front of the cameras, day in-day out, week in-week out, the whole Covid lockdown and summer long.

Boris Johnson could have done the same if he had bothered to pitch up every day, had surrounded himself with excellent communicators, sacked Dominic Cummings, stopped playing the fool in February and basically been an entirely different person and politician. So, for most viewers there is a consensus. The First Minister has earned respect. The Prime Minister has just demanded it.

That’s why BBC Scotland’s spokesperson, Ian Small, caused so much anger when he stressed the need for consistency in Covid coverage across the UK when explaining the intention to scale back coverage. It’s patently ridiculous that the frequency and duration of Covid briefings broadcast in Scotland should depend on a lacklustre Prime Minister whose unpopularity has prompted a surge in support for the end of the UK.

So good luck to hapless producers saddled with turning a successful public health briefing into a political programme with political debate and analysis. They are swimming against the tide – not just of nationalists who scent a weak-willed capitulation to unionist pressure, but the tide of public opinion.

People need to place their trust in someone to get through the difficulties of this lockdown period. If the SNP leader misplaces that trust, she will be very harshly judged. Meantime, where are the contenders? Until there is genuine comfort or clarity offered by Number Ten, most Scots will prefer to have half an hour of unembellished information from Nicola Sturgeon delivered by the BBC. Is that really too much to ask for?

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