Can the TV licence be justified in today’s Scotland?

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  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
Last week three unrelated things happened that for me marked the beginning of the end of the BBC in Scotland … at least as we know it.
 
A survey revealed that less than half of Scots felt that the broadcaster represented them in news and current affairs programming.  Forty eight per cent of those who responded to a BBC Trust survey said they were unhappy with the programming output from the corporation.

  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
Last week three unrelated things happened that for me marked the beginning of the end of the BBC in Scotland … at least as we know it.
 
A survey revealed that less than half of Scots felt that the broadcaster represented them in news and current affairs programming.  Forty eight per cent of those who responded to a BBC Trust survey said they were unhappy with the programming output from the corporation.

That same week a routine lunchtime news bulletin descended into chaos after video items refused to appear and presenter Sally Magnusson was reduced to shuffling pieces of paper around as she scrambled to find a story to report.  Magnusson threw her hands up in the air at the end of the broadcast in a moment that symbolised the plummeting standards at BBC Scotland.

The third was the broadcast of Saturday morning’s version of Good Morning Scotland and the realisation that Bill Whiteford has now replaced Derek Bateman in the anchor role.  The programme has dissolved into its weekday cousin and a cameo appearance by Douglas Fraser was confirmation that the process to remove high quality journalistic scrutiny of independence issues was complete.

Whiteford’s a nice guy but no substitute for Bateman who we understand left the BBC after being scunnered by senior management at Pacific Quay.  His departure follows the sidelining of Isabel Fraser in favour of Andrew Kerr – a move that even insiders must shake their heads at.

It left me questioning just why I now pay the BBC for a licence at all and left me fearful as I wondered how the corporation will handle the independence debate.

Fifteen trainees are to be recruited in order to help cover this significant moment in Scottish history. 

The BBC say: “We will be offering high quality training provided and supported by the BBC College of Journalism and senior BBC News staff, as well as the chance to learn on the job.”

The sentence fills me with dread.  Experienced journalists for whom the independence debate would have been the pinnacle of their career have been targeted – yes, targeted – by BBC Scotland management for redundancy and yet they are hoping to fill the resultant void with novices who will “learn on the job.”

We are watching a nightmarish parody of ‘The Apprentice’ where BBC Scotland management is sacking excellence and experience and replacing it with … well what exactly?

And who are the “senior BBC News staff” who will be steering these impressionable new recruits who will earn £19,400 a year for a one year contract? 

The BBC has lost its way in Scotland where a process of slow erosion has hollowed it out.  I cannot recall the last time I watched a hard hitting Scottish drama.  Where are today’s writers, the Peter McDougalls and the John Byrnes?  Where are the dramas, ‘Just a Boys Game’ and ‘Slab boys’.

Why has Black Watch not been commissioned by BBC Scotland for inclusion in the prime time schedule?  Where are the Scottish costume dramas?

News, TV news especially is parochial, political news is rarely balanced and more often than not an editorialised interpretation of what actually happened than anything else. 

Real emerging news stories that damage the pro-Union campaign are suppressed and sometimes even blacked out altogether.  It’s why Alistair Darling has never faced a single question on the controversial donation by Ian Taylor and why he never faced questions after Denis Healey admitted Labour lied about the true worth of oil.

Many believe that the corporation is politically neutral, that it can be trusted to provide balanced and informative coverage of the independence debate.

However this stems from a belief that the BBC is a public service broadcaster that operates under the highest journalistic ethics and employs scrupulous journalistic standards. 

The BBC is in fact a state broadcaster, the state being the British State.  Balance and neutrality is sought only from within this context and its reporters understand that they are there to reinforce the state’s authority, not to undermine it.

That is why during UK general elections the BBC will provide a platform exclusively to the big three London based parties.  Labour the Conservatives and Lib Dems are merely jostling to see who takes the tiller in guiding HMS UK and aren’t a threat to the political union.

The BBC in Scotland, even if it wanted to, would not be allowed to present truly impartial coverage of the independence debate.  To do so would require it to see itself as an autonomous non-UK organisation representing and answerable to the people of Scotland and, god forbid, the democratically elected Scottish Parliament.

As a branch of the British State, the BBC [all of it] is expected to report all pronunciations by the state powerbase – Westminster.  This is why each and every Westminster inspired anti-independence scare story is guaranteed immediate promotion by the BBC in Scotland.

It’s why when the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee was corrupted and instead of scrutinising the Scottish Office, which it was set up to do, instead turned its guns on independence, the BBC went along with the ploy and promoted its predictable attacks.

Indeed, as the mobile phone charge story demonstrates, the BBC in Scotland will headline and broadcast claims even if they know prior to reporting them that they are bogus.

Had BBC Scotland a management worthy of the name, they, like the Civil Service in Scotland, would have become de-facto independent the moment the SNP won the 2011 Scottish election.

Why so?

Scotland is now part of the Union by default only.  The Edinburgh Agreement, signed by both governments, was official recognition of the power held by the Scottish electorate to determine their nation’s constitutional future.  The signing of the document placed the Union in a state of stasis.

The Scottish electorate have yet to decide on whether they want to resuscitate it, and until they do then the BBC in Scotland should itself be freed from the control of London.  It should have happened already.

This would have enabled Pacific Quay to retain significantly more of the Scottish licence fee and retain key staff.  Trainees could have been recruited in the months after the SNP’s historic win instead of this rush job.

A referendum charter could have been drawn up that ensured basic balance and impartiality and plans laid that would have allowed greater input from hitherto marginalised strands of Scottish society.

A vibrant, engaging and mature debate could have been held with views from across the Scottish spectrum.  The BBC in London would of course have carried on with its own Westminster centric broadcasts and reports, but these would have been complimented and indeed perhaps even countered by the ‘Scottish’ output.

But, just like the aftermath of the devolution referendum, nothing changed at the BBC and we are in a ridiculous situation where the London controlled BBC Trust will not even lay down the referendum ground rules until this coming winter.

Scots therefore are faced with having to pay a licence fee for a service that is heavily influenced by London thinking and a pro-Union, pro-British/English culture.

Evidence of this is upon us yet again with the birth of the royal baby.  Union Flags will be everywhere over the next few days as English culture is once again presented as British by the BBC.

The licence fee in Scotland is no longer defensible and more people are waking up to this.  The BBC in Scotland has seen to that and a campaign of withholding the fee may well result from their refusal to adapt to the changing Scotland.