The BBC isn’t serving Scots – What can be done?

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By David Nairn

Scotland must be the only country in the world in which every single major media outlet in the land, including the state broadcaster, is opposed to its government’s fundamental raison d’etre.  That the Scottish National Party won a historic majority in May’s national election on this vastly uneven playing field is a testament to the vision, skill and competence of the SNP and the political bankruptcy of its Unionist opponents.

By David Nairn

Scotland must be the only country in the world in which every single major media outlet in the land, including the state broadcaster, is opposed to its government’s fundamental raison d’etre.  That the Scottish National Party won a historic majority in May’s national election on this vastly uneven playing field is a testament to the vision, skill and competence of the SNP and the political bankruptcy of its Unionist opponents.

May’s election, however, was not a referendum on independence.  For sound strategic reasons the party has decoupled a vote for the SNP from meaning a direct vote for independence.  As a consequence some of the mainstream media, recognising that Alex Salmond and his administration stand head and shoulders above the alternatives, even felt able to endorse the SNP to lead Scotland’s devolved government for the next five years, while making it clear that they were irrevocably against the nation having political independence (seven words that would, of course, sound bizarre in the context of virtually any other country in the world).

Come the independence referendum then, the mainstream media will be united in its support for the continuation of Scotland’s subjugated status within the United Kingdom.  The media will play a central role in the ‘Keep Scotland in Great Britain’ campaign, a campaign led by a British Establishment with generations of practice of retaining power and fighting tenacious rearguard actions to deny colonised populations self-determination.  Theirs will be a hugely well-funded and carefully-orchestrated campaign, one likely to be characterised by fear-mongering, mendacity, misrepresentations and lack of principle on a scale Scotland will not have seen in modern times.

One only needs to look at the recent AV referendum and the ruthless, richly funded ‘No’ campaign, with its outrageous distortions, outright lies and complete out-gunning of the opposition, to understand how powerful are the forces of conservatism in the United Kingdom and how those forces operate.

That particular referendum focussed on a minor adjustment that would have made the archaic British voting system just slightly less undemocratic.  It gives a sense of what can be expected when the referendum is not about a modest refinement of the electoral process but the very existence of the United Kingdom itself.

For those who want to end Scotland’s subjugated status and normalise the country’s constitutional arrangements, the gross imbalance in the mainstream media must be addressed.  This article considers how best this might be done and argues that the most pressing need for change and the greatest opportunity to deliver it lies in broadcasting, and primarily the BBC, rather than online or print media.

Online media

Newsnet Scotland readers and contributors will not need persuading of the invaluable role that the internet has played in circumventing the highly partisan and stifling mainstream media in Scotland and providing a forum for those who have an ambitious, optimistic view of the country’s future.  Newsnet Scotland itself is an invaluable counterweight to the Unionist distortions of the mainstream media, a positive and principled news site that is by far the brightest development in Scottish media in recent years.  

With continued donations and a growing number of contributors the site will play an increasing role in the political and cultural life of the country.  The hope exists that it will eventually even be able to expand from the web to broadcasting, which would constitute a seismic development.  In the immediate future, however, Newsnet Scotland is unlikely to replace its leading mainstream rivals for the majority of the Scottish public; it is very much part of the solution to addressing the gross imbalance in the media in Scotland but no-one would presume that Newsnet Scotland, or other websites promulgating an ambitious approach to the country’s constitutional future, represent the whole solution.

Print media

As regards the press, the Unionists have, of course, got things pretty much sewn up.  This is not to say that no grounds exist here for optimism.  The circulation of all newspapers in Scotland is in decline – in the case of the viscerally anti-independence Scotsman (aka The Colonial Times) for example, the only factor currently staving off real existential danger is the performance of its sister Sunday paper.  Related to this, the political influence of newspapers in Scotland is not what it used to be: for instance, the contemptible anti-SNP campaigns in 2007 of the Daily Record and the Sun (complete with hangman’s noose) failed to prevent the SNP winning the election, albeit by one seat.  It is no longer a case of ‘The Sun Wot Won It’.

The general public are more media savvy, less credulous than they were a generation ago, with a greater awareness of newspapers’ politically motivated untruths and distortions.  The phone-hacking scandal has only intensified the print media’s reputation for lack of principle and dishonesty.  This said, it would be a mistake to underestimate newspapers’ power to shape opinions and they are certain to play an influential role in the British Establishment’s campaign to prolong the Union.

Broadcasting media

And so to broadcasting.  This is, of course, a power ‘reserved’ to London, the single most important of all such powers and one to which the British Establishment will do their utmost to hold on to.  Their uncompromising resistance to even the modest proposal of a ‘Scottish Six’ – a television news programme from Scotland that would be permitted to look at the world beyond Scotland’s borders – shows how clearly they recognise the danger of loosening control of broadcasting.

In their last term the Scottish government made positive steps to build up a broadcasting presence in this country, through proposals for a Scottish Digital Network (SDN).  This is a highly encouraging initiative with, crucially, a commitment to being outward-looking – something that would prevent it from being just another provincial offering of the sort typified by Reporting Scotland, Newsnight Scotland, or the latest Scottish evening news programme recently announced with much fanfare by STV.  

The SDN will also go some way to addressing the scandalously low proportion of the BBC programme-making budget spent in Scotland – currently a meagre 3%.  However, the proposals for the SDN suggest that it will be funded by way of a small proportion of the BBC licence fee and that the BBC will remain by far the biggest broadcaster in Scotland.

It is the BBC itself where the need for change is most urgent and the most scope exists to deliver it.  After all, unlike the print media, the BBC is funded by the public and in theory its charter obliges the corporation to be politically independent.  This latter is of particular significance given the BBC’s unrivalled power, position and influence in broadcasting in the United Kingdom, especially in radio where the state broadcaster’s monopoly is suggestive of a totalitarian society rather than a liberal democracy.  

The typical radio listener in Scotland can choose from BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 1 Extra, BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 Extra, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio 6, BBC Scotland, BBC Gaelic or BBC World Service, with the only other alternatives being commercial stations transmitting a relentless diet of pop music, commercials, trivia and football chat designed for the low-brow, politically incurious listener.  

Over two thirds (68.4%, or 35 million people) of the United Kingdom population listen to BBC Radio every week, with the average listener tuned in for 16.22 hours, figures that dwarf those of the state broadcaster’s commercial competitors.  Radio Scotland alone has one million listeners each week.  

The BBC’s dominance in television is also overwhelming, with a staggering 86.2% (or 49.5 million people) of the United Kingdom population watching BBC TV each week, on average for 10.36 hours.  ITV 1 reaches less than half of that figure, Sky News a mere 3 million. By way of comparison, the biggest selling newspaper in the United Kingdom, the Sun, has less than 3 million readers; in Scotland, the Scottish Sun and London-owned Daily Record, have just over 300,000 readers.  

When it comes to the independence referendum then, as with any political issue, the BBC will provide by far the most important and influential forum for shaping opinion.  

Compared with newspapers the level of public belief in the BBC’s much vaunted impartiality is high.  A recent report, by the BBC on the BBC, even claimed that 90% of its audience believed that Radio Scotland provided unbiased news – and it is not uncommon to hear, not least via BBC outlets themselves, that the BBC is the ‘best broadcaster in the world’.  As with claims that the NHS is the best health service in the world or the British Army the best army this is a cliché repeated by people ignorant of international comparisons.  The reality is, however, that the BBC is very far from impartial.  And this is nowhere more apparent than in Scotland.

BBC bias negatively affects Scotland in a number of distinct but inter-related ways.

Pro-establishment, right-wing propaganda

It is a reflection of the influence of the hard-right press in the United Kingdom that the notion can have taken hold in some circles that the BBC is somehow a lefty organisation.  The evidence points firmly in the other direction; politically, the BBC is consistently slanted towards a conservative, pro-establishment position.

Switch on BBC news and it won’t be long before you hear examples of assumptions that reveal this bias.  The other morning it was five minutes into the Today programme I heard James Naughtie referring to the United States – which contributes tens of millions of dollars of military support to Israel every year and is regularly the only country in the UN apart from Israel to veto resolutions condemning Israeli aggression towards Palestine – as an ‘honest broker’ in Palestinian-Israeli relations.

You see the pro-Establishment bias in the state broadcaster’s handling of the United Kingdom’s military adventures.  For example, a study by Cardiff University found the BBC’s coverage of the countdown to the illegal Iraq war overwhelmingly ‘sympathetic to the government’s case’.  You see the same bias in the lack of airtime given to opponents of those military adventures.  According to German-based Media Tenor, a trifling two per cent of BBC news in the build-up to the Iraq invasion allowed anti-war voices to be heard.

On the rare occasions that the BBC does give airtime to such voices it is sometimes within an aggressively unsympathetic context.  Gavin Esler’s memorably disgraceful interview with George Galloway after the 7/7 bombings and his rabid reaction to Galloway’s (correct) assertion that the bombings were connected with the occupation of Iraq, followed by a cosy chat with an establishment figure expressing the contrary view, is a classic of its kind.  This is journalism of which Fox News would be proud.

Pro-establishment bias is apparent in the forelock-tugging treatment of the royal family.  The BBC news online headline on the announcement of the marriage of the queen’s eldest grandchild was: ‘World rejoices’.  

You see it too in the composition of discussion panels on programmes such as Question Time and Any Questions, which are generally skewed to the right, with conservative, pro-establishment contributors consistently outnumbering more progressive ones.  Any Questions recently had Mike Russell of the SNP pitted against a right-wing Labour MP who was a strong supporter of the invasion of Iraq, and two essentially interchangeable representatives of the right: a Tory MP who was actually a colonial governor in Iraq after said invasion, and an author of a book called Neo-conservatism: Why We Need it.  This pair both took the opportunity to say how very sad they were at ‘what the SNP is doing to this country’.  The following week’s Any Questions panel was characterised by a virtually identical degree of right-wing bias.

[See Johann Hari for more on the BBC’s right-wing bias.  Since Hari’s analysis the BBC Trust has appointed as its Chair none other than Chris Patten, a former Conservative minister and another ex-colonial governor.]

The pro-establishment, conservative bias of the BBC short-changes all its viewers and listeners.  But it is particularly grotesque in Scotland, where the heavily championed conservative views and assumptions are so fundamentally out of kilter with the attitudes of the majority of the population.

Structural bias in a UK context

A second way in which the BBC delivers a skewed service to Scotland is structural.  The fact that the BBC is broadcasting to Britain, which is nine-tenths England, means that Scotland is inevitably sidelined.  There is an overwhelming bias towards subjects of interest to England.  

We get ‘UK national news’ dominated by legislation that has no relevance to Scotland, references to ‘today’s bank holiday’ when Scotland doesn’t have one, sports round-ups focussing on the fortunes of English football or cricket teams, and wall-to-wall coverage of England-only events, such as the recent riots.

This type of marginalisation is at its most damaging during Westminster elections when the SNP is sidelined on ‘UK national news’ programmes and excluded from leaders’ debates, with the result that Scottish viewers see massively more of the pro-Unionist Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties than they do of the SNP, despite the SNP being the leading party in Scotland.  The BBC makes no attempt to counter this highly undemocratic distortion by giving the SNP proportionately more coverage on Scotland-only programmes.

Anti-Scottish independence propaganda

Unsurprisingly for an organisation called the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC powerfully promotes the concept of Britishness.  There is a proliferation of programmes with ‘Great British’ in their title, Britain is referred to as ‘the country’, and an obsession with World War II.

This promulgation of a warm sense of a unified British state regardless of the reality on the ground is obviously of great assistance to those seeking to prolong the Union.  But the BBC in Scotland goes far beyond this in its influence on the battle for the country’s constitutional future, with a highly partisan editorial policy that seeks to undermine the SNP, whilst showing its Unionist opponents in a favourable light.

There are myriad examples of this active anti-SNP propaganda, many documented on this site.  The different ways in which this propaganda works include, but are not limited to:

  • Failing to report stories favourable to the SNP.  For example, the total silence on Radio Scotland during the May 2011 election about arguably the watershed moment of the entire campaign – the opinion poll showing that the SNP had leapt to a dramatic and unassailable 10-point lead over its opponents, headline news elsewhere.
  • Twisting those favourable stories it does report to diminish the advantage to the SNP.  This even happened in the lead news item on BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland on the morning of the SNP’s historic landslide on 7 May 2011, in which the two messages presented, reinforced by carefully selected quotes from handpicked members of the public, were that the result was primarily about Labour’s need to adapt and that people who voted SNP were generally against independence.
  • Heavily promoting stories, and non-stories, seen as damaging to the SNP.  This is manifest, for example, in the BBC’s fixation with the Megrahi affair.
  • A prejudiced approach to interviewing in which SNP representatives are hectored, their opponents given a comparatively easy time, a la Esler.

Even the recent self-congratulatory report produced by the BBC about its output was forced to concede that there was a perception that the BBC was biased against the SNP, before inevitably going on to dismiss this as an unrepresentative view worthy of no further analysis.

The degrading of Scottish cultural life

Just as pernicious as the consistent anti-independence bias in BBC’s news coverage is the corporation’s negative impact on Scottish cultural life.  The main role of a proper public service broadcaster is to enhance the cultural life of the country by providing intelligent and informative programmes on a wide range of subjects from the arts, history, science and current affairs.  These programmes are often international in their scope, helping the viewer or listener to better understand the world and their country’s place in it.

The BBC in Scotland provides little of the sort.

Radio Scotland’s output is characterised by gargantuan volumes of unchallenging music-based programmes; phone-ins where knowledge of the issue in hand is not a prerequisite for participation; and hour upon hour of Scottish football.  At times, aside for the absence of commercials, its output is virtually indistinguishable from that of local radio channels.  Far from enhancing the country’s cultural life, Radio Scotland degrades it.  Far from educating the listener, it stupefies them.

Of course, the Scottish listener can often hear intelligent and informative programmes on the BBC – on BBC Radio 4, for example.  But these programmes invariably feature English commentators speaking from English perspectives in English accents.  Scotland is essentially absent.  This disenfranchisement consolidates the sense that Scotland is relatively backward, incapable, culturally inferior.  London has Mark Lawson talking about American architecture; Scotland has Murdo Macleod talking about how Coisty has gone and changed his midfield.  This is a significant aid to those working to keep Scotland unconfident and subjugated.  It is hard to imagine it is not deliberate.

As for BBC1 Scotland and BBC2 Scotland, these are of course merely the London versions of these channels, with a small number of ‘regional’ slots for Scotland.  As noted above in regard to the proposed Scottish Six, these slots are not permitted to be used for outward-facing news programmes – instead Scotland is limited to provincial fare of the likes of Reporting Scotland.  

In this way, the BBC helps to keep Scotland hermetically sealed from the rest of the world, save for a window through London.  This is the real separatism, the real provincialism and again (and again deliberately) it works very much in support of those who would keep Scotland a province rather than an independent nation.

Scotland is changing, waking up, becoming more confident, independent, outward-looking, politically aware, self-aware.  It is a very different place from the 1980s or 1990s.  But you would have little sense of this from listening to Radio Scotland, frozen as it is in a soporific, pre-devolution, backwater past.

Strategies to address the negative influence of the BBC in Scotland

The BBC in Scotland is a travesty of a public service broadcaster, a propaganda organisation that undermines and marginalises the country it is supposed to be serving.  Scotland deserves and requires so much better from its leading broadcaster.  And with the BBC set to play the central role in how the two opposing sides are portrayed in the forthcoming referendum – a referendum that may prove to be very tight – it is vital that the profound shortcomings in the BBC in Scotland are addressed.  But with power over broadcasting in this country lying with London, how best to achieve this?

There are two traditional ways of protesting about the BBC’s output: firstly, writing letters of complaint to the BBC about specific examples of political bias or marginalisation.  Such letters, as is amply evidenced on this site, are invariably met with a standard self-justifying response and do not prompt any change in the BBC’s approach.  This is not surprising given that political bias and marginalisation is deliberate policy rather than the result of some unfortunate oversight.

Letters of complaint, however, do remind the BBC in Scotland that some of their audience are well aware of what they are doing, which is reason enough for writing them.

The second way is the withholding of the licence fee, which is also to be commended given that the alternative is to pay the wages of propagandists.  Again, however, not buying licences produces no improvement in the BBC’s output.

Some Newsnet Scotland contributors have suggested that the BBC’s insidious influence in Scotland might be tackled through coordinated letter-writing campaigns or campaigns to withhold the licence fee or through protests outside BBC Scotland headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow.  

At present, however, all these tactics would be destined to fail for one important reason: they would not have sufficient public support because, as noted above, the BBC is still generally trusted.

Instead, a more strategic approach is required.  The Scottish Government should establish a Scottish Broadcasting Review Commission charged with conducting a fundamental, comprehensive assessment of broadcasting in Scotland.  This commission would benchmark BBC Scotland’s output against international standards: how, for example, do the schedules of public service radio stations in other similar countries compare with Radio Scotland as regards the proportion of time devoted to music, football chat, history, the arts, science, politics, current affairs?  How do programme-making budgets compare and how are these utilised?  What proportion of the BBC’s output in Scotland has an international focus and how does this compare with other countries?

The commission would also systematically analyse all BBC ‘national’ news and current affairs programmes broadcast from London and assess what proportion of these programmes is concerned with essentially provincial issues relating to England and Wales.  It would also systematically analyse all BBC TV and radio news and current affairs output in Scotland, looking at what is reported and not reported; which stories are given prominence and which are marginalised; which commentators are given airtime and what political views they express; who is interviewed and in what way.

All instances of political bias would be methodically documented – this for precisely the same reason that victims of systematic abuse are advised to keep a record of the abuse: individual instances can give an indication of what is going on but the cumulative record crucially reveals the pattern and extent of the abuse.

To ensure as far as possible its objectivity and therefore credibility, the commission should be free from political influence and consist of respected independent experts, including those drawn from other countries.  Setting up such a commission to review broadcasting in Scotland would be entirely consistent with the wish, expressed in the SNP’s 2011 election manifesto, for Scotland to have more autonomy as regards BBC broadcasting.  The commission’s report would be publicly available and would be the primary document in the debate that would follow about the future of broadcasting in Scotland.

What would such a commission achieve?

Firstly, and most immediately, the knowledge that all BBC TV and radio news and current affairs output in Scotland would be under scrutiny from such a commission and all examples of political bias documented would be likely to have the effect of curtailing the worst excesses of the BBC, something that would have an early benefit for the forces of progress in Scotland.

Secondly, the commission’s report would be an authoritative and unprecedented document, one which would inevitably, for the reasons laid out above, detail serious failings in the output of the BBC in Scotland.  Such a report could help to significantly shift perceptions in Scotland of the BBC and its influence on Scottish life – possibly to such an extent that letter-writing campaigns, licence boycotts and protests at Pacific Quay could gain widespread support and increase dramatically the pressure for change.  The credibility of the BBC in Scotland would be undermined, meaning that even if it remained unchanged, its contribution to the Unionist cause would be blunted.

Thirdly, the commission’s report would represent an invaluable weapon for the Scottish Government in a battle to wrest control from London of broadcasting in this country, providing a compelling case for change.  London would either be forced to concede ground and give Scotland some power over broadcasting, which would in turn instil confidence and a sense of distinctiveness that could only be good for those promoting political independence.  Or it would refuse to do so, revealing itself (again) as unreasonable and dictatorial, wedded to a discredited approach to broadcasting that demonstrably ill-serves Scotland – which, again, could only benefit those promoting political independence.

In the 1992 US Presidential Election, Bill Clinton coined the memorable phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid.”  In the independence referendum, the economy will, of course, be a key focus and the Unionists will inevitably use fantasy figures to try to terrify the electorate into prolonging their subjugation.

But in the referendum, even more important than the economy will be how the media and particularly the broadcasting media, and primarily the BBC, reflect the two opposing campaigns and causes.  It is essential that proper pressure is applied to the state broadcaster in Scotland to prompt it to adhere to the basic tenets of public service broadcasting by addressing its political bias and its marginalisation of the country it is supposed to be serving.

Achieving this – or alternatively exposing unambiguously the true nature of an unchanged BBC and thereby significantly compromising its credibility and influence – could have a major impact on how people vote in the independence referendum.  Conceivably it could make the difference between waking up the morning after the referendum in a normal, free country and still languishing in the failed Union.

The sooner the process starts the better.