BBC becomes issue in indy debate as Question Time row deepens

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   By a Newsnet reporter

The row over the imbalance on Thursday night’s Question Time programme deepened on Friday, as SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson put forward a motion to Holyrood bringing the BBC’s coverage of the referendum campaign into further question.

Thursday’s Question Time, which was recorded in Edinburgh, featured four anti-independence politicians against a single representative from the SNP and the journalist Lesley Riddoch, leading to accusations of blatant pro-Unionist bias on the programme.

What sparked most disquiet from critics was that two of the four anti-independence politicians, Nigel Farage of UKIP and George Galloway of Respect, represent parties which have no elected representatives in Scotland, and which critics argued had trivial levels of support in Scottish opinion polls.  However the Lib Dems and the pro-independence Scottish Greens, parties which do have elected representatives in Scotland, were not invited onto the programme. 

Yesterday Patrick Harvie MSP, co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, wrote to the BBC to complain that his party is regularly sidelined by the programme.  The Scottish Greens have only been invited onto the programme once before in the previous 14 years.  Mr Harvie described the composition of the Question Time panel as “particularly bizarre” and “contrived to deliver sensationalist confrontation, rather than serious debate”. 

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has also written to the BBC to complain about the lack of balance on the programme.  In their letter of complaint, the ERS wrote:  “Not only does the selection of panellists fail to represent the make-up of Scottish politics, but it also seems to be aimed more at pantomime than serious debate.”

Meanwhile UKIP, who polled a meagre 0.023% in the most recent Scottish elections, have been represented on the programme by their colourful and controversial leader Nigel Farage eight times within the past three years.

Officials from the BBC claimed on Thursday night that the description of the programme as being about the Scottish referendum was an error in the electronic programme guide.  However, as well as the programme guide, Question Time was described as being about Scottish independence on the BBC iPlayer.

Critics have also questioned why, if the programme was not in fact about Scottish independence, did the audience consist of 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland, who will be able to vote in the independence referendum, but not in any other ballot. 

When pressed by the SNP’s Angus Robertson about the imbalance on the panel on Thursday night’s programme, host David Dimbleby retorted that the audience was made up of 50% Yes voters and 50% No voters.

Writing in the Guardian on Friday,  Martin Robbins wrote:

“David Dimbleby mounted a tetchy defence of the policy, but his argument that it didn’t matter because the audience were “split fifty-fifty” on the issue only dug him deeper into a hole.  The obvious retort: if it’s so important for Question Time’s audience to be balanced, why not also the panel?”

SNP MSP Jim Eadie has now written to BBC Director General Tony Hall seeking an explanation for the choice of panelists.

Mr Eadie said:  “By adopting this one-sided approach, the BBC is failing its own traditions of high-quality public service broadcasting. This sort of behaviour calls into question any claim it makes that it is impartial in the independence debate.”

Newsnet Scotland has previously detailed other instances of an apparent lack of balance from the BBC in coverage of the Scottish independence debate.

It has also emerged that Kenneth Gibson, the SNP MSP for Cunninghame North, has presented a motion to the Scottish Parliament calling into question the BBC’s ability or willingness to present fair and balance coverage of the independence debate.  The motion notes Holyrood’s “disappointment” that Question Time fails to reflect Scottish political opinion when recording a programme in Scotland, and calls on the BBC to rethink their policy.

Commenting, Mr Gibson said:

“The programme was perfectly properly chaired, and the audience of 16 and 17 year-olds was lively and engaged – but in assembling such an unbalanced and unrepresentative panel, the BBC failed to cover the independence referendum properly.

“Discussion of independence was the biggest portion of the programme, and Angus Robertson and Lesley Riddoch were fantastic advocates for Yes who beat the four No-supporting panellists hands down.  Quality overcame quantity. But the panel included representatives of two parties which advocate a No vote – UKIP and Respect – which don’t have any representation in Scotland at any level.

“Yet it did not include the Scottish Green Party – which supports independence, has both MSPs and councillors, and would have helped deliver a more balanced panel.  Nor were the Liberal Democrats included, who are a mainstream party in Scotland arguing for No.

“The issue is broader than just one panel on one programme.  The BBC is Scotland’s national broadcaster, and parachuting someone as utterly unrepresentative as Nigel Farage into Scotland to take part in a programme which largely focused on independence shows that there is a problem with the BBC’s coverage of the referendum.”