The anti-democratic BBC

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Kenneth Roy

What is ‘appropriate’ about the exclusion of the Scottish and Welsh nationalists?….

Kenneth Roy

Friday morning
If the word ‘appropriate’ and its ugly sister ‘inappropriate’ were expunged from the English language, it would be a service to the cause of clear thinking. A few hours before last night’s depressing exhibition known as the ‘leaders’ debate’, the BBC Trust rejected – in its own curious parlance ‘did not uphold’ – the appeal of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru to be included in the last of these debates, on BBC Television next Thursday.
     As the BBC’s news website reported yesterday lunchtime: ‘The BBC Trust said it was appropriate to exclude the SNP’s Alex Salmon and Plaid’s Ieuan Wyn Jones…Mr Salmon and Mr Jones will not be appearing in any of the shows’.
     These 32 words represent much of what is wrong with Britain’s public service broadcaster.

First there is the repeated mis-spelling of Alex Salmond’s name. Mr Salmond has been around a long time. Even in England, he is widely known; perhaps more of a household name than Nick Clegg before the latter’s abrupt rise to celebrity. You might have expected that, in a story about its own treatment of Mr Salmond, the BBC would have taken care at least to get his name right. The error was corrected later in the afternoon, but not without further damage to the BBC’s journalistic credibility.
     Next, there is the revealing use of the word ‘shows’ to describe the debates. It seems that, in the mind of the people who compile such snippets (‘sad creatures’ as Alan Bennett calls them), political debate is now indivisible from the rest of popular culture. There, of course, they may unwittingly have a point. Last night’s debate on ‘international issues’ was such a shallow entertainment that, by 8.45, the problems of the world had been sorted (usual catfight on Europe; no mention of the legality of the Iraq war; not a word about poverty or the Third World), and it was decided to move to ‘general issues’, enabling the English obsession with immigration to be rehearsed for a second time in successive weeks. A show, indeed.
     Finally there is the use of ‘appropriate’, a word hijacked by the missionaries of political correctness before it acquired its present low status as a favourite catch-all of bureaucratic Britain. What does it mean in this context? What is ‘appropriate’ about the exclusion of the Scottish and Welsh leaders? I will interpret the BBC Trust’s decision more plainly. The BBC didn’t fancy the idea, so it reached for a word which excused it of any requirement to explain itself properly.
     Its one justification was that only leaders with a realistic hope of becoming prime minister should be allowed to take part. If that is its reasoning, one of two explanations is possible – either that the BBC Trust is being disingenuous at the expense of the SNP and Plaid Cymru or that it genuinely believes Nick Clegg has a chance of becoming prime minister on 7 May. Since no one on the right side of certifiable dottiness genuinely believes the latter, we must conclude that the BBC is fibbing.
     But even if, taking leave of our senses, we gave any credence to this justification, it would not quite dispose of the matter. In response to growing public demand for a televised beauty contest, we may well be moving towards a presidential system. In such a system, perhaps the BBC would be entitled to argue that only leaders with a realistic hope of becoming prime minister should be invited to participate in televised debates, generously stretching a point for the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Just for the moment, however, it is worth reminding ourselves that in this country we do not elect the prime minister (although David Cameron came close last night to suggesting that we do). We elect a government – or, since devolution, governments. As First Minister of Scotland, Mr Salmond is part of that new deal. Indeed he has more legitimacy than David Cameron, who holds no office, and, of course, very much more than Nick Clegg.

Why, then, has the First Minister of Scotland not been invited to take part in next Thursday’s ‘show’, particularly since it is to be devoted to the state of the economy? A Scottish – and, for that matter, Welsh – perspective would have been valuable and of general interest. Ten million viewers, most of them in England, might have profited from a greater understanding of how the small countries of Britain are coping with the recession and of the distinctive policies of the Edinburgh administration. Mr Salmond would not have had an easy ride. He would have been reminded, for example, of the role of the Royal Bank of Scotland, for which he once worked, in the banking collapse. He would – or should – have been tested.
     So I repeat: why was he excluded?
     Mr Salmond calls it ‘a democratic disgrace’. He is right. It is. But this does not answer my question. Only the BBC can answer it, and it has made a botch of it so far. I said in this column last week that the case for Scottish control of broadcasting grows ever stronger. It is stronger still this morning.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review,