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04 June 2006

World cup: broadcasters fail to qualify

Why I won't be supporting England in the World Cup

It's the sign of a nation that never really grows up that every 4 years we have to go through the same old debate. Regardless of your point of view on supporting another footballing nation, the continual return to the same question over and over is about as predictable as hearing about 1966 yet again. The Scots can certainly not claim to be innocent either - for every mention of 1966 we can retort with 1314 and Mel Gibson impressions.

Scotland and England are independent footballing nations - they compete as two separate teams on the international stage. In that regard on a purely sporting level they are no different to Austria and Germany.

Austria, with a population about 50% bigger than Scotland has its own TV channels and its own broadcasting network. It doesn't have to endure a regional opt-out of a few hours a week. This is a normal state of affairs for a country and it is a sign of the power of the media that in countries where there have been coup d'etats, that the media is often the first thing to be overthrown.

However, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales find themselves the only footballing nations not in control of their own broadcasting. Worse than that, they are part of a nation where one part (England) comprises over 83% of the population and almost 5 times as much as the other three parts put together.

Hardly surprising therefore that the BBC, or to give it its satirical name, the English Broadcasting Corporation has an England bias.

To illustrate just how biased this is I reproduce here an extract from an article written in January 2000 for the Scots Independent.

Just suppose that a millennium meteorite landed on the Greenwich dome and caused an electronic storm so powerful that London, as a centre of communications, was completely paralysed.

And just suppose that the BBC decided it was best to move lock, stock and barrel to Scotland to reorganise its operations under a new Scottish based regime. What would our UK audiences make of having their schedules turned on their heads?

In Scotland, there would be a massive increase in all forms of broadcasting activity and connected industries; and Scottish viewers and listeners would be spoilt for choice with four or five indigenous television and radio stations with which to choose their fare.

In England, the story would be very different. Audiences there would have to get accustomed to merely nominal English output; and to news, analysis and current affairs programmes, being dubbed with the tag "BBC England" when broadcast south of the border. But the real draught would be felt on the radio scene. England's "home service" - Radio Four, would be lost to Scotland - together with their own light, classical and pop channels. In their place they would have one single "national regional" Radio England (probably produced from Manchester when London was disabled). Worse is to come.

Radio England would be set to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the cultural spread. Its morning flagship would be hosted by a comedian and interspersed with reports of England's national weather and national traffic problems. There would be lengthy sports bulletins every half-hour and sport would completely take over the station at week-ends under the slogan "We are the only people who dare to broadcast sport all day long up to the limit that the law allows". The evenings would be dominated by an eclectic mix of pop, rock, funk and jazz music with a strong North American influence. Those listeners not courageous to have switched to the other five Scottish based channels would be greeted with such programmes as the "English Connection" and on Saturday nights "Anglo Saxon connections" with musical contributions from equatorial Africa, the Red Army choir and the Amazon basin. On Sundays they will be spared any religious observance. At every pause between programmes there will be banal and repetitive programme trailers. Their impact will be enhanced by an in house sense of humour redolent of a Primary One pantomime skit. Meantime, back on the tellies, sports reporting will carry detailed Scottish results first followed by a brief "round up" of English ones. Whole selections may be altered to cover shinty cup finals.

The English would soon learn that to complain, with any persistence, to the BBC about any of the contents of their national regional TV or Radio England would result in their being placed on a black list of those deemed unworthy of further communication.

There would be one concession for English viewers. A select panel, chosen by the broadcasters themselves would form the "Broadcasting Council for England". This would at least lend the appearance of some form of consultation with the public over what they require; but, of course, it would have no executive remit - and it would be subject to being over-ruled in such fundamental areas as news provision and political coverage.

It was the English who put up the stiffest fight against Margaret Thatcher's fatal poll tax, although Scotland had tholed it for a full year first. Perhaps if our southern neighbours were to be given a dose of Scotland's broadcasting regime, they might show us how best to dispose of that too. But do we really have to wait for a bolt from the blue to obtain broadcasting in Scotland fit for embarking on the third millennium?

[article ends]

Back in 2000, I added a few more satirical comments

1. England would be told about going back to work on January 3, the Scottish return to work even though England goes back a day early. On the Scottish August holiday, England would receive children's programmes even though their children are not on holiday. During the summer, the schedules would observe the Scottish summer holiday and articles about "back to school" would be broadcast before English schools have even broken up.

2. Any article about England, particularly ones about high technology would be prefixed with a tired old cliche, an attempt at a joke and some faint Anglo Saxon tune drifting through the mist with battle cries in the background before opening the article with "You wouldn't think that this remote part of England could be hi tech, but ..."

3. Any article about London would be prefixed with "And now from our England correspondent down in London, what's the weather like down there".

4. In celebration of England's main cultural icons a combined national event would be instigated on St George's day (also the day Shakespeare was born on and died on). To reflect the cultural significance which England has had worldwide, this event will be covered worldwide with English descendants around the globe joining in the fun. This event would be broadcast from Edinburgh with particular emphasis on a new building by the shore in Leith. The main events would of course all take place in Edinburgh as it is the capital (naturally enough). We would go "around the regions" to see how English people in Scotland were commemorating this event and during this regional interlude would receive token input from London, Manchester, Birmingham and in the bard's birthplace there would be traditional morris dancing to anglo saxon instruments in a small back room. A fringe event in this global festival would be for broadcasters to see how many cliches, stereotypes and historical inaccuracies they can carry off within a 2 minute regional opt-out.

Back to the present day

All of these serve to underline the English emphasis on Scottish Broadcasting schedules - an emphasis that is there all the time but which is particularly noticeable during the World Cup and especially when England qualify. This influence means that much of Scottish life is set within an English context, even where such context is not relevant or applicable. France does not define itself in relation to German attitudes. Ireland does not define itself in relation to English attitudes. Scottish icons and attitudes therefore should not have to define themselves in relation to what "England expects" either. A bit like going to Northern Ireland and being asked if I'm protestent or catholic and my response would be "I don't think of myself in those terms".

I mentioned Austria earlier. Whilst independence would establish a Scottish broadcasting authority, it is not a precondition for a more balanced broadcasting regime. We could have more balanced broadcasting within the devolution framework.

I was one interviewed on the NBC Today program when I was in Minnesota on a cultural exchange programme. The TV station, KTTC is based in Rochester Minnesota. (K is the prefix for US broadcasting stations west of the Mississippi, W for East). TTC stands for Tri-states TV coverage. Yes, a town 2/3 the population of Dundee has its own TV channel and can be picked up in three states and has a catchment area about the population of Edinburgh.

A few years later, I was in Chicago and was impressed with the variety there which eluded me in Scotland. WNUA filled my needs in terms of Jazz and new age, neither of which is available on Scottish terrestrial radio. In Boston WUMB was great for folk music. I did some of the research for my Masters in Seattle and the radio there was similarly interesting.

So the trend is repeated across America, even colleges have their own broadcasting. There is choice and variety. In Scotland, we have just seen Grampian TV gone forever and merged into the monolith which is STV. Pretty much all the commercial radio stations play more or less the same chart material with the exception of Classic FM.

The token joke that is Radio Scotland is another case in point. What a mess. Yes, Scotland's broadcasting equivalent to making it to the world cup then being eliminated on goal difference, the national embarrassment. Radio Scotland, like the football team, simply fails to progress to the next stage. Put into context, what other national radio station can you think of anywhere in the world which when you turn it on might be covering sport (for hours on end), then it's gardening tips, then its current affairs. Anyone interested in music is relegated to evenings only and it's an eclectic bunch there too as it tries to figure out if its aiming itself at people interested in traditional music from Scotland or unusual music from the other side of the world that's about as relevant to me as hearing about 1966 all over again. We don't even get The Thistle and Shamrock (a hugely successful program about Celtic music) - perhaps this could be made available in Scotland.

It is that inadequate broadcasting background which if we addressed properly would allow us to opt-out from English specific commentating and broadcasting for a more Scottish perspective on football or indeed any other matters, if we wanted to. Rather more productive than having the same sad debate every 4 years.

So like Jack Mcconnell First Minister I won't be supporting England. David Beckham, England captain supports the First Minister's stance. Being a supporter means giving support. Like giving money to charity, like going along and cheering your team, like fundraising for a good cause. That's support. The thing you are supporting is changed by your efforts. Being stuck at home however in front of a TV with a few tins and some mates is hardly support is simply enjoying yourself and wanting one team to win.

If Scotland was in the competition, I would want them to at least progress to the next round. Since my country isn't competing, I don't feel any more obliged to "support" England than an English fan should feel obliged to root for either of the teams in a Germany Vs Argentina final. Why I don't want to support England is because of the presumed support that I will and the fact that I need to justify myself if I don't. No such justification should be required. Lost amongst the headlines of papers covering this story recently is information from The Scotsman showing that although 1/3 of Scots support England, more than half of Scots support Ireland. Clearly plain to see where our cultural allegiances lie there then. It's about celebrating differences and I should no more be expected to change my allegiance to another country than a Moslem would be expected to turn up and support the Pope if he's in town. This isn't meant to be anti-English, many of my relations are English and they see this as a perfectly reasonable point of view. It seems to be media bias which is the main culprit here rather than English citizens.

I would like to see the best team win. And I wouldn't even mind England winning either if I didn't have to put up with broadcasting from England mentioning it at every opportunity for almost half a century. The England Team winning the Rugby World cup was rather more moderated, hopefully the football commentators have paid attention to this.

From a recent article in the Sunday Herald.

If the England football team prove themselves on the pitch in Germany by their sportsmanship (ha! an archaic concept, that), their commitment and their brilliance, then they will have earned the support of the Scots. But then, I can'’t promise that I won't turn off the commentary.

I agree. I hope the commentators and the media will also appreciate the fact that support should be earned, not taken for granted.

I thought this article was over a few paragraphs ago. Well, it is now.
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