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STV2 promises to revolutionise Scottish news, but will it win over a politically polarised nation?

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

STV News Tonight presenter Halla Mohieddeen

There is no doubt that Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon is an accomplished television performer and yet the feeling persists among many of her supporters that she is the victim of a grand media conspiracy against her.

In these strange political times, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a statesman to be on the wrong side of the so-called 'mainstream media'. We have seen how politicians in other parts of the world have embraced the idea that they are being hounded by the establishment press because their game-changing policies threaten the status quo and the privileges that upholds.

Sturgeon has some cause to argue that the playing field inclines unfairly in front of her. Across the Scottish newsstand, only the Sunday Herald formally backed independence at the 2014 referendum.

But the Scottish media is rapidly evolving in response to tumultuous times and the resulting appetite for news. The 45% who voted 'yes' have their own partisan outlets such as the National newspaper, launched in 2014, and digital publishers Wings over Scotland and Bella Caledonia, a website, podcast and magazine.

As it prepares for a general election amid calls for a second independence referendum, Scotland, like the United Kingdom as a whole and like the United States, seems deeply polarised.

Herein is a challenge and opportunity for a media business serving the whole Scottish population by producing comprehensive news coverage undiluted by political allegiance. The outlet best-placed to capitalise on that need is the broadcaster STV, which last week underwent “a complete revolution in how we deliver news”, according to Gordon Macmillan, STV’s head of news.

STV2

The launch on Monday of the new STV2 service is the closest Scotland has come to having its own television news channel. With hourly news updates between 9am and 9pm, two major bulletins and a new current affairs show promising to offer a “comprehensive news service featuring Scottish, UK and international news from a Scottish perspective”, the changes amount to “a significant increase in the amount of broadcast hours” of news, Macmillan says.

Most importantly, the new channel gives STV greater freedom to broadcast live and uninterrupted when big stories break in Scotland. “We are moving from a situation where we have limited access to a broadcast schedule into one where we have complete flexibility to respond to events as they happen,” says Macmillan. “This new flexibility coincides with the general election which was completely unexpected and is a real opportunity for the channel to launch with a significant story to report over the next weeks. That will I hope give people a chance to sample the new programmes and to see that there is a significant increase in the breadth and range of STV News output.”

But STV is not alone in staking its reputation on impartial coverage. The BBC makes the same claim.

And this STV “revolution” comes ahead of a significant investment by BBC Scotland, which will next year launch a new TV channel for Scotland, broadcasting each evening from 7pm-midnight.

The BBC project will have a budget of £30m and, at the heart of its schedule it will have an hour-long Scottish news programme shown from 9pm and being referred to at the BBC as the “Scottish Nine” (the broadcaster has for years been under political pressure to produce a bespoke early evening bulletin for north of the border, often referred to as a “Scottish Six”).

As Scotland undergoes a period of political drama unprecedented in modern times, its two major broadcasters are being forced to up their games.

Things were very different when, 60 years ago this summer, Scottish Television broadcast its first show, This is Scotland, from studios made from converted space at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. It was Scotland’s introduction to independent television and an audience of 750,000, all living in central Scotland, tuned in. In 1997, the broadcaster acquired the north of Scotland region, Grampian, and – except for areas covered by ITV Border (which straddles Hadrian’s Wall with its reach) – STV is a national service.

Macmillan, who has 30 years' experience in broadcast news and formerly worked at the BBC and CNN, acknowledges that the Scottish news agenda is far more intense today than in times past. “There was a time when the news agenda in Scotland was a whole lot more predictable and probably less dynamic,” he says. “There was a passion and excitement generated by the independence referendum in 2014 and that was recognised both within and outside Scotland. The public were energised, I think in a positive way, and that’s still something you can sense in Scotland – the public is engaged in debate and discussion.”

Mainstream media scepticism

TV news networks in the US are increasingly partisan but Macmillan claims that, even if it wasn’t obliged to be impartial by its broadcasting licence, STV would choose a neutral approach. “It’s a requirement but also a welcome outcome. If you asked people in STV would we choose to be where we were if our licence didn’t require it, I would say yes, there’s a value to being impartial in the sense that you provide rounded coverage that allows people to hear a range of views and to make up their own mind.”

While both STV and BBC Scotland claim to adhere to this policy of rigid even-handedness, not everyone sees it that way. A controversial report by professor John Robertson of the University of West of Scotland analysed television coverage of the 2014 referendum and decreed that the output of both broadcasters leaned more favourably to the 'no' campaign. The report was especially critical of the BBC, which angrily refuted professor Robertson’s findings.

The BBC, with its London roots, became something of a lightning rod for nationalist claims of media bias and its Glasgow headquarters were the scene of a significant public protest in 2014, while former BBC political editor Nick Robinson became a target for personal criticism. Macmillan rejects the idea that the historic poll was a bruising time for journalistic reputations. “I felt we had a very strong referendum and had a lot of plaudits for the way we covered it, and I think our reputation was enhanced by how we performed.”

Scotland is about to go to a major vote for the fifth time in four years (encompassing a Scottish election and an independence referendum, in addition to the Brexit vote and two general elections). During the referendum campaign, STV hosted the first debate between leaders Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling and has provided debates and overnight results programmes at each of the other votes.

The launch of STV2 will allow it to clear the schedule at key points of the upcoming general election campaign. The channel also has its own Scottish Politics This Week programme, featuring developments in Westminster and at the Scottish parliament at Holyrood.

The opening edition of the STV2 current affairs flagship STV News Tonight showed that it would not be relying entirely on ITN for international content, with STV’s own correspondent Gordon Chree reporting live from Paris on the French presidential election. The show’s host, former France 24 presenter Halla Mohieddeen, says that it will reflect the impact of devolution, which means that “different things get talked about in different ways and people in Scotland want to have international news as well”.

STV also broadcasts on its main channel, four times a week, Scotland Tonight, which Macmillan claims as “Scotland’s leading current affairs programme”. He identifies a key difference between STV News and BBC Scotland as the independent broadcaster’s operation of four distinct regional services (for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Tayside) in its early evening news (the BBC shows a single service, Reporting Scotland).

Head to head with the BBC

The BBC director general Tony Hall has described next year’s new BBC Scotland channel as a “declaration of intent”. It will have substantial resources, including the recruitment of 80 new journalists, and represents the single biggest investment in Scottish broadcasting this century. The STV2 launch, by comparison, has added around a dozen new posts to the newsroom.

But John McLellan, honorary professor of Journalism at the University of Stirling, says STV has stolen a march on the BBC, although it couldn't have been aware of the plans for a new BBC Scotland channel when it decided to launch STV2. “STV were aware of the challenges that the BBC was likely to pose because of the political pressure that they were under and what they've done is almost a mirror of what the BBC is planning to do,” he says.

McLellan, who is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a former editor of The Scotsman, believes that STV2 is also an indication of the lack of commercial viability of the local TV model of STV Glasgow and STV Edinburgh services which previously existed on the spectrum being used by the new national channel.

He says STV must exist on “much thinner gruel” than the rich financial resources of the BBC in Scotland, “but at the moment [STV] are able to compete quite effectively”.

He has been impressed by STV News Tonight. “They have managed to achieve a slick, fast-moving and attractive news programme that includes national, international and Scottish news, with a pretty good new presenter, and without throwing the kitchen sink at it in terms of cost. STV have in the past been accused of being a bit homespun, but this doesn't feel like that. I think they have done a good job.”

But he warned that the BBC’s planned “Scottish Nine” could be too well-funded for the independent broadcaster to continue to thrive. “I think it's really important that STV make a success of this but when the BBC throw all this resource at their show it’s highly possible that STV will find themselves squeezed out.”

Modern Scottish broadcast media, just like the nation’s politics, has rarely been so exciting, and so combative.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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