Bloodletting at STV will sound alarm bells for BBC Scotland’s new channel

‘A positive vision.’ That is how Simon Pitts, STV’s chief executive, touted his decision to shutter the broadcaster’s digital channel, STV2.

The loss of 59 jobs – 25 at STV2 and an additional 34 from news output – would ‘re-establish the company as a creative force in Scotland and beyond’.

What Mr Pitts sees as a positive vision looks uncannily like the dole queue to the rest of us.

To listen to him cluck about ‘invest[ing] in creative talent, new original programming and digital’, you would think he was opening a new channel instead of shutting one.

Of course, we lack his vision. The 42-year-old was, after all, ITV’s ‘director of strategy and transformation’. So far his strategy at STV has transformed an entire television channel out of existence.

His cuts will claw back £2million for the company. One struggles to think where else Mr Pitts – salary: £400,000, ‘golden hello’: £853,000 – could have made such savings.

No wonder my former colleagues held a union meeting in the company’s car park yesterday. They are first-rate broadcasters overseen by second-rate managers led by executives who can only dream of scaling the heights of third rate. Now, some of Scotland’s most talented reporters, producers and technicians will pay the price for boardroom arrogance and managerial incompetence.

‘Be bold, stand together, strive to surprise’ is STV’s slogan. The treatment of its staff is bold as brass, more shocking than surprising, and the only standing together it will prompt is on a picket line.

The anger towards STV is palpable. Tory culture spokeswoman Rachael Hamilton fumed: ‘Clearly, these projects which are now being cut – at huge human cost – were not properly thought through or organised by senior management. They’re the ones who have the questions to answer, not hardworking journalists and editorial staff.’

There are those who will say the sharp-suited Mr Pitts had little choice. STV2 was doomed from the start and he has been left to hack away at roots ill-planted by his predecessor. There is a great big wodge of truth in that, but Mr Pitts should still feel a sense of shame in wielding the axe.

STV2 was the epitome of Level Two thinking. Level Two is the floor at STV’s Glasgow headquarters on Pacific Quay where all the ‘big think’ goes on. Clusters of desks and white boards bearing buzzword-laden flowcharts stretch the open-plan expanse. Midlevel executives with suspiciously vague titles scuttle between meetings in which they onboard concepts and interface on strategies for optimising user buy-in to bespoke brand platforms.

It is a place where nouns fear to tread and no one remembers a time before ‘action’ and ‘dialogue’ became verbs. On the wall is a giant decal of an owl perched on a tree and staff are encouraged to scribble suggestions for improving the workplace on paper leaves they attach to the branches for management to see. This process is known as ‘giving a hoot’. (I kid you not.)

Level Two seized on former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s idea of awarding local broadcast licences across the UK, snapping up the rights to TV markets in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Ayr and Dundee. The purpose of the local TV network was just that – to have small, community-based broadcasters provide distinctive services to discrete audiences.

STV was a big player and when it began Hoovering up one licence after another, eyebrows arched across the industry. Level Two was open about its plans from almost the get-go and soon enough the five local services were folded into a Scotland-wide channel, STV2.

I worked at STV for five years and sat through countless meetings where veteran staff questioned the viability of a second channel, whether the audience was there for it, and where the money was coming from to produce quality programmes.

These people had spent decades making TV that Scots wanted to watch but their experience and expertise were swept aside by walking jargon-generators in mid-market, off-the-rack suits. To the latter, STV is eight hours of meetings a day around which the odd bit of broadcasting and journalism gets done.

At the heart of this brave new world was to sit STV News Tonight, a Scottish Six-style international bulletin anchored in Scotland.

One executive boasted to staff the show ‘sweeps away the idea that “You can’t do that; you’re not a London-based journalist; what does Scotland know about international news”. Those are the arguments we heard against the Scottish Six and if this is successful, that will show that a Scottish Six can be done.’

To anyone with an ounce of common sense, it was madness. They were trying to be CNN on a paper boy’s pay packet. The world-weary old timers and the overworked new recruits were vindicated in the end. STV2 was launched to much cringing, few viewers, and lost £800,000 within a year.

There was little demand for a second channel and scant investment to stimulate it. Budgets were low and production values lower. Most of the sets looked like the product of an afternoon bargain-hunting in some of the less tasteful aisles of IKEA. Viewers voted with their remotes and at some points the audience could be measured not in thousands or even hundreds but by a casual show of hands.

Even so, the on-air talent and those behind the scenes did their best and, in some areas, had begun to show real improvement. Last week, they picked up the Best Daytime award from the Royal Television Society (Scotland).

Why disregard all the warnings and steer so enthusiastically for the iceberg?

Once again, STV was more concerned with being part of the ‘new Scotland’ and reflecting the ambitions of Scottish Government ministers for a media landscape that acted like it was already operating in an independent country.

As if providing a pilot for the SNP’s treasured Scottish Six was not enough, STV has in recent years become closer to the Nationalists and their government than any self-respecting public service broadcaster should. There were the conference suppers for senior SNP figures, the choice of pro-independence pundit Iain Macwhirter as presenter of STV’s flagship Road to Referendum documentary, and the invitation to a Nationalist MP to embed himself in the newsroom for two days and take part in meetings where editorial decisions were made.

The ultimate indignity came in 2015, when the channel’s Hogmanay special consisted of SNP-supporting comedian Elaine C Smith bringing in the bells with Nicola Sturgeon, her mother and her sister.

The bloodletting at Pacific Quay has consequences across the Scottish media landscape. BBC bosses will wonder if this bodes ill for their own channel, due to air in 2019. The difference is that there is substantial investment in BBC Scotland and the broad shoulders of a UK-wide brand.

Even so, this sorry episode should serve as a reminder to all television executives that they are not there to unfurl grand visions and gaze at them admiringly but to inform and entertain audiences. Those audiences have strong views about the kinds of programmes and services they want and are not slow in making it known when they do not like something.

Elsewhere, though, alarms bells will be ringing. Glasgow’s bid to host Channel 4’s new headquarters will be dealt a severe blow by this news. If Scotland’s leading commercial broadcaster cannot sustain a second channel for more than a year, why would Channel 4 take the risk of not only investing in that market but basing itself there?

STV’s employees and its reputation may not be the only things it undermined yesterday.

Have your say on these issues by emailing

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © Leslie Barrie (cc-by-sa/2.0).

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