The ‘Question Time’ question


By a Newsnet reporter

We’ve heard of the ‘West Lothian Question’, the phrase coined by the late Enoch Powel to describe the anomaly that sees Scottish MPs allowed to vote on English matters whilst their English counterparts have no say on the Scottish equivalent.

The anomaly is one that Unionists have yet to find a solution to, although Independence supporters have one they hope Scots will implement in 2014.

But another, less constitutionally significant anomaly has appeared within the last few days.  We’ll call it the ‘Question Time Question’ (QTQ).

Where the West Lothian Question highlighted the imbalance that existed within the House of Commons, the QTQ highlights the imbalances that are all too evident within the UK wide BBC when faced with the thorny issue of Scottish independence.

This week, online discussions sprang up when it emerged that the line-up for the next instalment of the BBC’s flagship debate programme ‘Question Time’ would not include a member of the Scottish Government.

A not unusual occurrence in the London obsessed programme, however this week it is scheduled to be broadcast from Inverness.

The original panel line-up pitched three Unionist politicians and a Unionist leaning journalist against Scottish actor Alan Cumming.

Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander, Tory Peer Lord Forsyth, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and Right wing journalist Melanie Phillips were to be pitched against Mr Cumming in what had to be the most one sided ‘debate’ since the hapless Nick Griffin faced the rhetorical firing squad in October 2009.

The line-up provoked not just anger, but quite a bit of incredulity.  How could the BBC justify pitching four Unionists in a prime time discussion programme that would almost certainly include questions on independence and the forthcoming referendum?

Within a day of the online outrage, the line-up had been amended.  Joining the panel would be the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

The BBC was listening after all.

Or was it?  The panel you see is still heavily loaded in favour of the Union – two to one now instead of four to one.  Nicola Sturgeon’s late invite coincided with the substitution of Danny Alexander for the more affable Charles Kennedy.

Kennedy is of course part of the trio who will be spearheading the anti-independence campaign, alongside Labour MP Alastair Darling and ex Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie.  Kennedy’s inclusion suggests that there will be some discussion on the independence referendum, it looks tactical.

Placed alongside Labour leader Ed Miliband’s comments today demanding that England be allowed to ‘participate’ in the referendum debate then you can be sure the UK edition of Question Time will provide just such a platform.

The discussions won’t of course exclusively revolve around the independence referendum, but we can be sure that a significant part of the programme will be given over to this topic.  Also, there will be those peripheral areas that, although not directly relevant to the referendum debate, will nonetheless contain areas of overlap.

Questions on the Eurozone may stray into questions on EU membership for Scotland come independence.  The crisis in Syria might tempt a few remarks criticising an independent Scotland’s defence capabilities, or our ‘lack’ of global influence.  And if Leveson is brought up then how long will it be before someone tries to smear Salmond?

In short, there are myriad of subjects that can be manipulated by clever politicians in order to make all kinds of direct or subliminal points, and Unionists will be allowed twice the opportunity.

The truth is that the UK networked Question Time has an in built catch-22 when it comes to Scotland.  The structure of the panel is designed to reflect the political make-up of the UK, or to be more precise England, it cannot reflect the political make-up of Scotland.

The inclusion of Melanie Phillips is an example of this metropolitan centred viewpoint, the fact that the programme is produced in Glasgow makes no difference.  Was it really that difficult to find a Scottish based journalist to appear on the programme?

The obvious choice would have been Lesley Riddoch, and it would also have allowed the BBC to plug the Devo Max hole in the panel.

There is a simple remedy though.

A Scottish Question Time is needed in order to cater for the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future.

We have already had two ‘pilots’ for such a programme.  BBC Scotland produced two debates that followed closely the format of the UK’s flagship programme – minus the ego of David Dimbleby.

There were clear flaws in the debates; overrepresentation of Unionists on the first show followed by the removal of the Devo-Max representation from the second.

The audience participation needs to be more closely monitored to ensure the stage managed anti-SNP rhetoric that dominated the last debate isn’t repeated.

However the programme demonstrated that Scots have an appetite for debate and discussion and BBC Scotland technicians have the ability and skills to produce it.

A Scottish Question Time would surely meet with the approval of one of the panellists on tonight’s Inverness programme.

Writing in February 2011, Melanie Phillips, commenting on plans to move the production of the UK Question Time, from London to Glasgow said the plans were “lunacy” showing how the BBC has “catastrophically lost its way”.

She added: “Scotland may believe it is the centre of the universe, but compared with the mighty BBC News – whose writ runs in just about every country in the world other than north of the Tweed – BBC Scotland is a parochial sideshow.”

Well, why not move production back down south and replace it with our own Scottish version instead?

Ken MacQuarrie claimed last week that BBC Scotland intended to improve the quality of its news and current affairs output.  His UK boss Mark Thompson said the independence referendum was “gigantic”.

It’s time to put our money where your mouth is gents.