Who will referee the BBC?


   By G.A.Ponsonby

Yesterday Twitter went crazy when Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie decided enough was enough and fired a complaint into the BBC after his party were yet again ignored by the state broadcaster in a high profile TV debate.

Harvie’s frustration followed a quite extraordinary decision by BBC bosses to populate a panel on a special edition of Question Time with five politicians, four of whom are best described as fundamental Unionists and only one pro-Independence leaning politician.

   By G.A.Ponsonby

Yesterday Twitter went crazy when Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie decided enough was enough and fired a complaint into the BBC after his party were yet again ignored by the state broadcaster in a high profile TV debate.

Harvie’s frustration followed a quite extraordinary decision by BBC bosses to populate a panel on a special edition of Question Time with five politicians, four of whom are best described as fundamental Unionists and only one pro-Independence leaning politician.

Respected journalist Lesley Riddoch made up the sixth guest in a line-up that presented Unionists with a four to one advantage.  For the first time, Ms Riddoch declared herself a Yes supporter previously she had declared a fondness for devo-max.

Two of the guests, George Galloway and Nigel Farage belong to parties that have no representation in Scotland.  Indeed George stood for the last Scottish Parliament and failed in his bid to become an MSP.

The programme, which was filmed in front of an audience of 16 and 17 year olds, resulted from the extension of the voting franchise that will see this age-group take part in the independence referendum.  That the referendum issue will run through this, and indeed most political debates, is not exactly surprising.

But how is it that a right-wing English eccentric and a grandiose ‘designer-socialist’ are thought more appropriate for a Scottish based Question Time than a respected MSP who is arguably one of the most effective communicators in the whole UK?

Galloway’s input when independence was discussed was deplorable; misrepresenting and contriving in a rant that did little for the debate.  Farage continued with his “anti-English” claim as the independence part of the discussion descended into the anti-SNP, anti-Salmond pantomine we all feared.

The independence part of the debate turned out as expected and as debates always do when one side is allowed far greater representation than the other.  There can never be an honest debate if imbalance is the norm.

Newsnet Scotland asked the BBC for a response to the complaint from the Scottish Greens, we were particularly interested to hear how they could defend a four to one bias in favour of pro-Union panellists, given that the programme had highlighted the fact that independence would be discussed as indeed it was.

Here is their reply:

“Tonight’s programme aims to provide its unique audience of 16 and 17 year olds with as broad a range of political opinion as possible, while offering a UK wide audience at home a varied and interesting political and current affairs debate.

“Nigel Farage represents a party with growing UK support and their recent electoral gains since the 2010 general election makes them of interest to our audience.  The Question Time panel is chosen carefully across the series and the Green party has appeared on the programme twice in the last four months.  The Scottish Greens will be invited to appear on the programme in a future edition recorded in Scotland.”

There are a number of things that stand out from this official response.

The conflating of England with the UK when it refers to UKIP’s “growing UK support” and the blunder that confuses Green party with the Scottish Greens.  These are two separate parties who operate in two separate countries.  The appearance of the Greens on Question Time past is completely irrelevant.

Also the refusal to even acknowledge the pro-Union bias in the selection of the panel.

By 11:30 pm last night the BBC were digging themselves into an even bigger hole. 

At 11.33pm last night, Severin Carrell of the Guardian posted an update in the comments section of the Guardian article about the last night’s Question Time.  The BBC were apparently denying that the programme was about Scottish independence, claiming that it was an error in the Electronic Programme Guide which wrongly described it as such. 

Carrell posted the following:

“For the record, a BBC Question Time producer, Brendan Miller @brendan_miller, has denied on Twitter this evening that this programme is an independence referendum special.

Although the audience is apparently 50/50 for and against independence, and the first time just 16 and 17 year olds make up a BBCQT audience, this show is a normal debate covering a full range of topics.

Miller said it was electronic programme TV guides for tonight’s show which made that assertion, without BBC input. He added: “a special means restricting what that audience could ask about, didn’t want to do that”.

@brig_o_stirling @severincarrell not by us. It says that on the EPG, we don’t write that

— Brendan Miller (@Brendan__Miller) June 13, 2013 “

But it’s wasn’t an unfortunate error on the part of whoever writes the EPG.  On the BBC iPlayer it describes the programme as follows:

“David Dimbleby presents Question Time from Edinburgh, with an audience of 16 and 17 year olds ahead of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.”

A programme not centred on Scottish independence deliberately selected an audience of 16 and 17 year olds and, according to show host David Dimbleby, split them fifty-fifty along Yes/No lines.

Question Time has brought into sharp focus an issue that is at the very heart of the problem with the BBC in Scotland.  It regularly populates debates and discussion programmes with more pro-Union guests than pro-Independence.

Last Friday on Radio Scotland, Brian Taylor’s Big Debate witnessed a similar loading of the panel with a three against one panel in favour of Unionists.  Bizarrely one of the first audience members allowed to speak was a UKIP official.

The BBC, especially in Scotland, is institutionally corrupt.  Presenters, editors and producers appear unable to break free from whatever it is causes them to abandon their journalistic ethics.

Here, as an example, is a story we were planning to run with before the Question Time row broke.

On Wednesday night Reporting Scotland featured a short interview with Professor Brian Ashcroft.  Professor Ashcroft is a member of the Fraser of Allander Institute, which is an independent think tank.

On Wednesday at noon, an official statement was released by Professor Ashcroft through the institute.  The statement made several points relating to Scotland’s improving economy.  Newsnet Scotland published an article based on Professor Ashcroft’s statement.

To paraphrase, Professor Ashcroft supported claims that there was evidence of a recovery in the Scottish economy but he cautioned that it was weak and should have been stronger.  The reason for this weakness, according to Professor Ashcroft, was the austerity policies of the UK coalition and exporting problems.

Here is what Professor Ashcroft’s document said:

“The reason for this stagnation and anaemic recovery is twofold: the UK government’s fiscal consolidation programme and a weak export performance reflecting both supply-side structural problems in the UK and Scottish economies, as well as weak global demand.”

BBC Scotland covered the item on the flagship early evening programme Reporting Scotland, which contained a clip of Professor Ashcroft summarising his earlier press release.  However despite the professor being shown lamenting the weakness of the recovery, there was no mention of what he believed to be the reasons.

Even when, rather belatedly, BBC Scotland allowed the First Minister air time it was Moore’s comments that featured first.

Two blatant examples in two days of editorial decision making at the BBC which has served to benefit the Unionist cause and let down the licence payer.

The Question Time panel may prove to be a watershed moment in the referendum debate, the intervention of the Electoral Reform Society, which has also complained to the BBC, is telling.

Here is an excerpt of the complaint submitted by the ERS:

We were concerned therefore to see the line-up for the BBC Question Time programme to be held in Edinburgh this evening (Thursday 13th June). 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.

That this should be the case when the audience is, very pleasingly, to be made up of 16 and 17 year olds in recognition of the extension of the franchise to that group for the referendum is worrying.

It seems to show a lack of respect for these young audience members – implying that they do not deserve serious political debate. It also fails to allow them to hear from their elected representatives in this public debate forum which receives the widest of political attention.

Two of the parties which will be competing for their vote in 2014 are un-represented and the Yes and Better Together campaigns are needlessly unequally represented. Were this not bad enough, available spaces on the platform are taken instead by George Galloway MP and Nigel Farage MEP, two individuals and parties who are not represented in Scotland.

The ERS’s intervention is welcome but sadly won’t dent the BBC in Scotland which is seen by its own management as a regional broadcaster.  It is controlled by London and working to an out-dated template.

Scotland at this moment is neither part of the Union nor independent, it needs the ratification of the Scottish electorate next year before we know the constitutional position we will be governed under.

The BBC should have addressed this constitutional limbo in 2011 immediately after the SNP’s historic win, but its inherent Unionism held it back.

We said many months ago that the impunity under which the BBC operates in Scotland is a recipe for disaster.  Over-confident communicators steeped in old-Union establishment thinking are being allowed to operate to their own agenda by management who appear to have similar sympathies.

The irony is that it shouldn’t be those with pro-independence views taking the BBC to task over their lack of balance and dishonest reporting, it is Unionist themselves who should be angry as they risk a referendum win that will be tainted forever and which will leave a bitter legacy that could sour Scotland’s political landscape for decades.

Does the BBC really want to end up with huge swathes of Scottish society essentially indulging in civil disobedience for the rest of their lives because nobody had the balls to deal with what any fool can see is a rot at the top at Pacific Quay?