Andrew Neil

Could Devolution Of BBC Scotland Be The Olive Branch Scottish Labour Require?

BBC Scotland is no longer fit for purpose and the BBC in London is dominated by right-wingers that seek to ensure that the institution serves theirs and not the people’s interests.

The SNP, Scottish labour and The Scottish Green Party must in 2016 move beyond a culture of complaint and come together to agree a joint position on the restructuring of BBC Scotland at the same time as producing new guidance on how print, television and social media journalists should operate.

By jointly producing, with the SNP and Scottish Green party, a Scotland specific agreement on print, television and social media journalism, the Labour party in Scotland may be able to begin to throw off the jibe that they are merely a Tory light unionist party.

BBC Scotland have received unprecedented complaints in the social media in the last two years. Behind those complaints lies a very deep problem.  For, when you count the number of voters in Scotland who support parties that have been miss-treated by the BBC, it turns out that it has offended the three parties that represent three quarters, or more, of the electorate in Scotland.

This figure makes dangerous reading for the under fire broadcaster. Of late, polls in Scotland have set support for the two Tory parties at between 15-25% of the electorate (The Liberal’s having been a surrogate Tory party in recent years).

The likelihood is that the Tories and Liberals combined vote won’t top 20% – The Carmichael fiasco might even see the Liberal party being wiped out as happened to the SSP after the Sheridan court case.

In contrast, the non-Tory parties share of recent polls have been set at between 75% and 85% of the electorate (SNP 50-59%, Labour 21-24% and Greens 3-5%).

In contrast to Scotland, the labour party support in England amounted to 31.6% of the vote and Green party 4.2% of the vote at the May 2015 UK election. You can see why it is in the BBC’s interest to put the boot into the Labour party in England where the BBC can get by with the tacit support of almost 65% of the viewers and a nod and a wink from the UK Tory government.

Profit focussed broadcasters like SKY News have a lot to gain from stoking up controversy that puts up their ratings but Charter renewal focussed broadcasters like the BBC have different pressures e.g. to keep an eye on the Tory government that will make decisions about their future by December 2016.

The BBC has also been getting it in the neck for ‘biased’ political coverage in England. Ironically, the BBC’s right-wing shift (particularly in relation to political coverage) has taken place at the same time as they have been regularly accused of left-wing bias.

For example, in early 2014 an Owen Jones article made the point that the left-wing claim did not stack up, when attacking the BBC for being the preserve of right-wingers:

The truth is the BBC is stacked full of rightwingers. The chairman of the BBC Trust is Chris Patten, a former Conservative cabinet minister. The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, was once chairman of the Young Conservatives. His former senior political producer, Thea Rogers, became George Osborne’s special advisor in 2012. Andrew Neil, the presenter of the BBC’s flagship political programmes Daily Politics and This Week, is chairman of the conservative Spectator magazine. His editor is Robbie Gibb, former chief of staff to the Tory Francis Maude. After the BBC’s economics editor Stephanie Flanders left for a £400,000-a-year job at that notorious left-wing hotbed, JP Morgan, she was replaced by its business editor Robert Peston. His position was taken by Kamal Ahmed from the right-wing Sunday Telegraph, a journalist damned by the Guardian’s Nick Davies for spinning government propaganda in the run-up to the Iraq war.

This may have been a wake-up-call for people who live down south but people who live in Scotland would have simply thought, ‘aye learn us some’n’ wi dinnae ken!’.

The history a prejudice against Scotland goes back centuries from the building of 2nd century Roman walls to the English church’s propaganda of the 14th and 15th century and to the anti-Jacobite propaganda of the 18th century.

Scot’s were historically characterised as barbarous, dangerous, ignorant and uncivilised.  Since the 80’s right-wing propaganda has characterised Scots as scroungers.

David Willet’s recent revelations in UK cabinet documents have demonstrated this prejudice once again to the people of Scotland, in case we had forgotten this insult which was regularly thrown at us during the referendum.

In recent decades there have been numerous cases of anti-scots sentiment and practice. For example, many complained when Thatcher used Scotland as a testing ground for unpopular polices.

Others were resentful of the London media’s portrayal of Scots – whether it be the then editor of the Sun kelvin Mackenzie’s calling Scots ‘Tosspots’, the London media claiming their was a Scots ‘Mafia’ in the last Labour government or accusations that the unusually cheerful Andy Murray is dour (‘dour’ rhymes with ‘sure’ in the Scot’s language for those reading in other countries).

The history of ant-scots propaganda has led Scots to be very sceptical about the motives of London based media companies. It has been traditional in Scotland to question London media bias on an everyday basis and in terms of a pretty mundane list of topics.

For example, Scots have learned to complain about London centric journalism that has:

  • Repeatedly tagged Scotland’s sportsmen and women Scottish when they lost and British when they won
  • Resulted in the BBC UK national news coverage leading off on English only stories relating to the English education, health or social welfare systems, whilst very rarely mentioning similar stories concerning matters devolved the parliaments in Scotland, Wales or the North of Ireland.
  • When Scots stories have been deemed news worthy, led to numerous inaccurately reported stories and miss-pronounced words because BBC journalist did not understand the context or meaning of Scottish news stories.

In early 2014 the focus of our distrust moved from the BBC in London to the BBC in Scotland. Glasgow based journalist doing their job badly was relatively new to us. By the time of the September vote, the BBC’s name was mud to half the populace of Scotland and that perspective does not now look like changing any time soon.

Indy leaning journalist had predicted during the #indyref discussions that dodgy BBC coverage would last longer than the September 2014 vote.

Gerry Hassan posted an article with the headline The Crisis of BBC Scotland – A Lack of Vision Integrity and Accountability, which argued that something important had changed in the make-up and personnel of BBC Scotland and that this change might be troublesome in the longer-term:

Fast coming up the tracks in the incompetence stakes is the BBC… …if people think that its coverage is poor now, and it is, think what it could look like after the referendum.’

Sara Sheridan writing in the Huffington Post compared BBC coverage with stories in the Irish Times and concluded that the BBC had a tradition of selective broadcasting well before the #indyref and that this wasn’t simply a Scottish Issue:

The image of Scotland as too small, too stupid and too poor to be able to manage independence is a particularly nasty right wing political construct that is backed by the BBC (when they report anything at all). The realization that one of our key institutions is in effect a State Broadcaster is becoming more and more apparent not only to those interested in the upcoming referendum but also in the wider political landscape ….

…If you think this is only a Scottish issue, you’d be wrong. On 21st of June 50000 anti-austerity marchers hit the streets of London and the BBC didn’t produce a single word about it. By contrast in 2011 a pro-Austerity march by the Tax Payers Alliance which totalled 350 people was covered in detail. It’s not only our BBC that is at fault here – it’s your BBC too.

BBC ‘Bias’ doesn’t just affect the SNP.  The Greens have consistently had to challenge decisions regarding their representation on televised debates and it looks like the BBC and OFCOM have been insulting them again in recent days by attempting to exclude the Green party from Holyrood debates.

OFCOM and The BBC clearly don’t understand what is going on Scottish politics at the moment – once the Yessers cotton on to the fact that an SNP=Green tickets wipes out the unionists at Holyrood who knows what share of second preference votes the Green’s might get. See why voting SNP both votes won’t work here.

Many people have written on the issue of #BBCbias some have suggested that incompetence, a lack of funding and a loss of experienced journalists have led to poor reporting standards at the BBC.

‘Cock up’ rather than ‘conspiracy’ may be a very generous reading of BBC Scotland’s demise.

The central problem with inadequate BBC Scotland reporting is that some journalist seem unable to tell ‘spin’ and manipulation; from a public interest story.

The BBC Scotland’s inadequate journalism is explained very well by Dereck Bateman in a report about the #SNPBad meme:

The BBC seems afflicted by the same disease of imagining that an event has no news value unless it is first contradicted by an opponent which in turns forms the basis of the coverage. Little wonder Jackie Baillie is an ever-present in the news. It is always informative to know what opponents think – in this case that they are small-minded with no real argument – but just because a spokesman makes an objection it doesn’t constitute the main point of a news story. The feeling is that the journalists are caught in the tramlines of a fixed view – get story, get contrasting spin and headline it.

The BBC Scotland problem may be a lack of experienced journalists (which may also be resolved in the long term) but we should not completely rule out the idea of a conspiracy. After all, the establishment were caught with their hand in the cookie jar at Westminster in respect to civil servant lack of impartiality during the #indyref.

If there is a conspiracy at the BBC in Scotland (whether it is London or Glasgow led) then this is very problematic and dangerous for Scot’s democracy and needs to be routed out and quickly addressed.

Some argue that the BBC’s problems in Scotland are symptomatic of a more long-term UK problem. Indeed, Sara Sheridan is correct that BBC news manipulation is not simply a Scottish issue.

The Labour party finally woke up to this during the May 2015 election complaining directly to the BBC that their coverage had reneged on their duty to provided balanced analysis rather than political spin:

The BBC has a responsibility not only to reflect what the Conservatives are saying but also to reflect on it

The Labour parties point was that the BBC had become a mouth piece for the Conservative party and regularly reproduced and trumpeted Tory views rather than provide in-depth and critical analysis. The BBC has always had a problem with impartiality – a sometimes impossible task.

I am not here going to go into the complexity of definitions of impartiality see for example a Bella Caledonia article on the issue. This blog has consistently stated that everyone is biased and some people are more able to analyse (reflect on, be reflexive and work with) their bias than others.

Excellent academic books on reflexivity include: Reflexivity and Voice and Reflexive Practice.  Rather than trying to be reflective to set aside our prejudices and feign neutrality we should use reflexivity to understand our prejudice, reflect on how we might potentially change our practice to take account of the views of others and (during group reflexivity) explain how our positions differ from each other’s.

The ultimate aim should be to employ reflexivity to develop new practices and understandings that improve our lives.

It is often difficult for people in positions of power to be reflexive. In particular, those that believe themselves to be incapable of prejudice and to be guarantors of impartiality seem most screened from their own inadequacies and most likely to make work place decisions that exclude people who do not fit with their own norms.

In recent years the BBC have been found to have a skewed perspective and troubled impartiality in relation to: the Jimmy Saville cover up; the Death of Dr David Kelly; the rigging of telephone competitions; and a refusal to broadcast a disaster aid appeal for Gazza (despite all the other broadcasters choosing to broadcast the appeal), the list goes on and on.

Such cases demonstrate that certain members of the BBC are incapable of reflexivity.

I find Andrew Neil’s MO particularly revealing.  When confronted with someone who disagrees with him he immediately becomes very male and aggressive. He becomes very Jeremy Clarkson like when performing flushed (and potentially bullying) indignation. He then turns slightly to the audience and sneers something very dismissive. Not the actions of a man who possesses oodles of reflexivity, impartiality and balance.

In the last few weeks, members of the labour party have been pretty fed up with the BBC’s lack of reflexivity. In particular, the BBC’s ‘manipulation’ of resignations during the Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle stands out as a glaring example of a situation that could have been avoided with just a tiny smidgeon of reflexive thought.

The situation at the BBC is the worst in memory. Who would have thought we would reach a stage where the only party that has an incentive to support the continuation of the BBC is the Tory party because they benefit so much from the BBC’s skewed reporting?

The BBC London situation is different to the BBC Scotland situation.  It involves experienced BBC journalists with right-wing CVs such as Andrew Neil, Laura Kuenssberg and Nick Robinson being accused of hiding behind the veil of BBC impartiality whilst grinding political axes.

It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the BBC were ‘biased’ during the Corbyn reshuffle (an accusation reported in the Guardian). It is extremely difficult not to conclude that the BBC are now so one sided that they have stepped over a very important line; they have become an arm of government.

The situation concerning the BBC’s mistreatment of the Labour party ‘left-wing’ leader is very reminiscent of the Wilson era – which led the prime minister of the time to become paranoid that the establishment and secret service were out to get him (it turned out years later that Wilson had every right to feel under threat, MI5 had been snooping on him).

The BBC is a central tool of the UK establishment, and as such it probably has a duty to toe the establishment line – but let us not accept that it is an impartial broadcaster.

It probably doesn’t matter to the 65% of voters in England who didn’t vote for the Labour party that the BBC now seem happy to make up and time the story to help the Tory party, rather than merely report and analyse the story.

It probably doesn’t matter to the 65% of voters in England who didn’t vote Labour that the BBC focussed it guns on Corbyn just before question time and did David Cameron’s fighting for him and then bragged about it on social media. As reported in the Guardian:

“Just before 9am we learned from Laura Kuenssberg, who comes on the programme every Wednesday ahead of PMQs, that she was speaking to one junior shadow minister who was considering resigning. I wonder, mused our presenter Andrew Neil, if they would consider doing it live on the show?

The question was put to Laura, who thought it was a great idea…

… Within the hour we heard that Laura had sealed the deal: the shadow foreign minister Stephen Doughty would resign live in the studio.

Although he himself would probably acknowledge he isn’t a household name, we knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact.”

It probably doesn’t matter to the 65% of voters in England who didn’t vote Labour that, according to some reports, Cameron received a text message about the resignation and was able to mention it a few minutes later at the dispatch box when attacking Corbyn.

But (yes this is a very Scottish pause), you can be damn sure it matters to the 75-85% of voters in Scotland who despise the Tory government that the BBC is now a mouth piece for.

It damn well matters because the Tory party only got 14 percent of the vote in Scotland in May 2015 – the democratic deficit is massive.

This blog has consistently pointed out that the road to independence requires that Yes voters unite with what is left of Scottish labours vote, to create a united front for independence that surpasses 75% of the electorate in Scotland.

It looks like we now have a concrete topic that can unite Labour voters with the voters of Yes Scotland. The BBC are doing to Labour what they did to the Yes voters in the referendum.  This disgraceful journalism needs to challenged; it should concern and unite us all.

The BBC looks like it has allowed specific journalists to get out of control when attacking Corbyn (these same journalists also failed to stand up for democracy when reporting in a project fear way about Greece).

It is difficult to disagree with commentators in the Labour party who argue that the mainstream media and the BBC in particular have acted in an anti-democratic way when setting themselves up as judge, jury and executioner concerning Corbyn’s fitness to lead the labour party and a future UK government.

Indeed, Labour orientated social media postings spotted the problem early. Even before Corbyn was elected, Labour blogs questioned a Panorama documentary about Corbyn and predicted future problems:

This documentary won’t do anything to undermine Corbyn’s popularity among his supporters, but then again that wasn’t Ware’s aim. It was a programme for the public, not exclusively for members. It should send a very clear warning to Labour supporters, members and affiliates: this is just the beginning of the media’s skewed portrayal of Corbyn. Should he win on Saturday these misrepresentations need to be combatted because they’re unfair and they do nothing to help the Labour party.

UNESCO have a clearly set out document that outlines the key aspects required of public broadcasting. These include a code of ethics concerning honesty, anti-discriminatory practice, editorial independence, balanced reporting and representing the public (not political parties or commercial sponsors).

The BBC in London and Glasgow routinely fall below these ethics. That may not matter to 65% of the people in England but it matters when the public broadcaster is at odds with the huge majority of Scots voters and  is there is an enormous democratic deficit concerning the right of Tories to make decisions about and in Scotland.

The BBC’s brand is now so tarnished in Scotland it appears to have moved beyond saving. The BBC in Scotland needs to be renamed, its role devolved to the Scottish parliament (not the Scottish Government), its functions led by a truly independent management and its work carried by staff who sign up to a new and contemporary code of practice.

The malaise at the BBC needs to be understood within the wider context of Scotland being subjected to an ever decreasing print media that has, with the exception of a few newspapers, failed to represent 50% of the electorate’s views.

The shift to an independent public broadcaster in Scotland should be carried out as part of a whole scale reorganisation of print, television and social media journalism.

A central plank of this re-organisation should involve ensuring that journalists not only represent the Scottish people but that they are representative of the Scottish people.

Journalism currently tends to be the preserve of white males, many from privileged backgrounds. We need to ensure that all the people of Scotland have opportunities to develop a career in journalism whatever their creed, ethnicity, gender and/or sexuality.

We may even have to contemplate public funding for a democratic free press. Adam Ramsey highlighted the need for us be willing to pay for a democratic free press to be established:

The first and obvious thing is that we all need to be willing to pay money for journalism. There was a time when lots of people believed that the truths of the future would be conveyed to citizens through the internet by the medium of citizen reporters. And while this can happen to an extent, people need to pay their rent and feed their kids and to have the time to build up the skills of the trade. And that means that they need to be paid.

The journalistic profession will need to start to adopt the procedures and processes of other professional groupings, including registration, codes of practice (for employers and employees) and disciplinary panels. If journalist want to be taken seriously by the public they need to start acting as a self-regulating profession.

Easy and free online registration would be required for non-profit entities, online bloggers, etc., to ensure those with and without qualifications and money can seek to be recognised for their work.

The profession would police itself. Self-surveillance being the most productive method to ensure high professional standards.   Sanctions (e.g. removal from the register) would be established by the profession and membership would be reliant on journalists keeping to  and upholding the highest codes of practice.

This would enable the public to differentiate between professional and non-professional journalists and mean the public could make complaints against individuals who abused their human rights.

Decent and professional journalists would have nothing to fear from this process – it would increase their standing and pull their profession out of the gutter. Cereal abusers of human rights would be publically outed as unprofessional.

Listeners, readers and viewers would be able to quickly check the quality and credentials of those who were involved in producing copy, programmes, blogs and/or videos.

It is very ironic that the press swiftly report medical professionals who are held to account by their professional bodies, take the high ground on defending the public against rogue lawyers and act as moral knights in shining armour when reporting on the defects of social workers, teachers and early years professionals.

The press need to put their own house in order to be able to seriously hold others to account.

Similarly, we should have a strong and robust press, television and new media council with which media outlets should register. We were promised Devo Max and this should include devolving the duties of OFCOM to Scotland.

We need a free and democratic but registered media to ensure no single entity or person can manipulate politicians, impinge on the human rights of citizens, nor put road blocks up on the road to our collective enlightenment.

It will be intriguing to see Scottish Labour and Kezia Dugdale’s response to calls for an independent press, media and BBC in Scotland.

Is Kezia aligned to the Blairites who have been working hand in glove with the BBC to destabilise Corbyn? Is she so unionist minded that she cannot see the benefits of a reformed Scottish public broadcasting provider? Or will she show some leadership and make an agreement with the SNP and Scottish Green party?

Will Kezia Dugdale be able to throw off the accusation that labour is merely a third unionist party in Scotland? Will she be able to throw off the accusation (that seems to have stuck) that labour is merely Tory light?

Dugdale’s leadership, policy-wise, has so far provided the same sniping from the side lines that becalmed Scottish Labour during Lamont’s and then Murphy’s reign.

What was the last truly liberation policy that the Scottish Labour leadership actually came up with?

Scottish Labour don’t know if they are for universal childcare, their leader is for Trident, (though the Scottish party is not) and they announce 3K more for per-middleclass person to buy houses but don’t explain what they would cut in the current Scottish budget to fund this shift.

Scottish Labour need to offer the Scottish people an olive branch, attacking the BBC may be the first step to overcoming their #indyref sins, the next (potentially more productive) step will require Scottish Labour to collaborate with other parties to deliver real change that leads to a new fully devolved public broadcaster for Scotland.