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BBC Trust Service Review on News and Current Affairs Submission from the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1 The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) welcomes the opportunity to comment upon the BBC Trust Service Review on News and Current Affairs. We recognise the central importance of the BBC in the fabric of news coverage in the UK, especially in view of its duty to deliver its output in a balanced and informative manner. The RSE would be prepared to elaborate on any of the points raised in this submission, and to meet with representatives of the Trust, if the Trust so wishes.

This requires that BBC correspondents have a level of knowledge and understanding about policy and practice across the nations and regions of the UK sufficient to allow them to draw relevant and informative comparisons and contrasts. This also presents challenges on issues such as prioritisation of news stories and making lead reports relevant to as broad an audience as possible, while reducing duplication between the UK-wide output and the national/regional news programmes. Although this issue is not directly within the remit of this review, this balance is closely related to that remit and so needs to be considered. There is a difficult balance to be achieved here. An increasing proportion of news emanating from Westminster is sometimes argued to have no direct relevance to viewers in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Conversely, it may be thought that viewers in England do not wish to have too much coverage on developments in the three devolved areas. It is the view of the RSE that the BBC should seek to communicate significant developments across the UK to all of its audience. For example, the debate on and outcome of the referendum in Scotland will have implications for all of the UK, so there is a need for that to be reflected in UK-wide output. (We will refer to this further in a separate submission). Voices from all parts of the UK also need to be heard as part of the constitutional debate. In a similar way, BBC Scotlands coverage must not lose sight of stories that affect Scotland less directly but nevertheless are (or can be made) relevant to a Scottish audience.

UK-wide News and Current Affairs

2 We note that this review is focusing on the main UK-wide news and current affairs output and that there is a separate consultation on coverage of the independence referendum in Scotland. We will submit a separate response to the referendum coverage consultation. However, some of the points covered in this submission will make reference to the debate around the future of the UK, as this is also of importance to the whole of the UK and to the BBC itself. In its UK-wide news output, the BBC needs to ensure that the content of flagship programmes such as the Six OClock News and the Ten OClock News remains relevant to the whole of the audience, including the devolved nations and regions. This is particularly relevant in the light of continued constitutional change and further planned or anticipated devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are already significant divergences in a variety of important areas of policy and practice across the nations and regions of the UK. Understanding and analysis of these policy differences is important and offers opportunities for the nations and regions to learn from what is happening elsewhere in the UK. Despite improvements in comparative analyses of policy and practice across the UK, there is still huge scope for developing this type of output in current BBC coverage of news and current affairs. 7

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Independence Debate and the BBC

8 The specific nature of the proposals of the Scottish Government for the future of broadcasting in an independent Scotland suggest that it would be prudent for the BBC to engage in scenario planning around the two possible outcomes of the referendum. Any such exercise should give particular attention to news and current affairs coverage, for it is unlikely that, whatever the result of the referendum, reversion to the status quo ante will be widely regarded as the appropriate response. The RSE is further of the view that the Trust should examine the in-depth coverage of the BBC News and Current Affairs output, as we believe that, in the context of the increased competition that the BBC faces from both traditional broadcasters and from online providers and social media, it is important that the BBC continues to be seen as a source of informed and balanced news and analysis.

seeks information through its consultation questionnaire about how people access the news. It is the hope of the RSE that the Trust will seek to use this information to guide and inform the planning of news and current affairs output in the short to medium term. 13 On the issue of governance, we would also suggest that the Trust considers whether there is a need to establish a guidance and review panel for Scotland to oversee the output on the referendum and to ensure critical analysis of the main options. Such a panel would also function as the arbiter of complaints about lack of balance in the Corporations coverage of the referendum campaign. We recognise that this may be more relevant to the Trusts consultation on the BBCs coverage of the referendum. However, because it may have more general application, given the urgency with which the issue will need to be considered, we include this suggestion here. The BBC also needs to be prepared for there to be intense pressure on balanced coverage from both sides of the debate. This is likely to be at least as intense as in a General Election, and perhaps even more so.

10 This requires there to be a strong infrastructure of journalists, with a relevant programme of current affairs output and backed up by a robust system of oversight. For example, we are of the view that the detailed analysis by the BBC of the Scottish referendum debate on both sides has not been as analytical and critical as it needs to be. For at least the period of the referendum debate, the RSE would suggest that the Trust needs to look again at the journalistic capacity of not just BBC Scotland but the BBC generally to cover this pivotal constitutional issue. 11 In the light of inevitable resource squeezing, there is a need to consider how the BBCs resources can be best deployed and prioritised to ensure the delivery of high-quality news and current affairs. This means identifying priority sectors and ensuring that there is capacity to deliver informed, analytic reporting on these sectors. There has been a decline in the number of specialist correspondents in the devolved nations and regions of the UK, a prominent example being the fact that, remarkably, there is now no BBC education correspondent in Scotland. It is the opinion of the RSE that specialist correspondents represent a priority resource in delivering well-informed and relevant news and current affairs. 12 In addition, developments in social media and digital technologies have brought about continuing rapid change in the way the news is delivered and accessed. Any review of the delivery of news and current affairs needs to be conscious of new media and its continued evolution. We note that the Trust

14 As is the case with all traditional media, one of the main issues that the Trust may wish to consider is how effective the BBC is in building and maintaining an audience, given that many people, most particularly the young, now access their information online or through social media. The online developments of the BBC seem to be strong, both in rolling news coverage and in the ability to access programmes at the time, and on devices, to suit the viewer. However, whether this output is reaching new audiences among young people, or maintaining traditional audiences, are issues that we do not have the information to consider on an informed basis; but we believe that it would be of long-term benefit to the BBC for them to be thoroughly investigated.

15 News and current affairs coverage is always crucial, and given the forthcoming referendum on Scotlands constitutional future, the coverage of news and current affairs within the UK will be particularly important. In light of this, and other developments mentioned within this paper, the RSE views this consultation as extremely timely and important. Should the BBC Trust wish to speak with anyone at the RSE about this submission, please contact Bristow Muldoon, 0131 240 2787.

Advice Paper (Royal Society of Edinburgh) ISSN2040-2694