Monday 7 May 2012

Beeb, baby, bathwater

Spot the deliberate "mistakes"
The ongoing furore over the BBC's now all but explicit anti-SNP bias reached something of a crescendo in the aftermath of the Scottish local elections. The editorial decision to manipulate the figures so as to allow Labour holds to be represented as gains was met with howls of understandably indignant protest. More details of this can be found over at Newsnet Scotland - Questions over BBC Scotland’s election figure claims

The anger was further stoked as BBC coverage of the results on Friday night and into Saturday persisted in portraying a Labour "victory" in blind denial of all the evidence which clearly showed that, in terms of any metric not distorted by the BBC, it was the SNP which had advanced. On some fronts, to a very significant degree.

The brazenly partial behaviour of what is, after all, Scotland's public service broadcaster, has led to renewed calls for the corporation - and particularly its operation in Scotland - to be held to account. There is now added impetus behind the campaign to tackle the explicit pro-union bias of the BBC. But this campaign is not without dangers.

Perhaps the greatest of these dangers is that the campaign will be hijacked by those who are, wittingly or otherwise, the enemies of the very public service ethos which the effort is intended to restore. I refer, of course, to the various individuals and groups who call for the dismantling of the BBC or the abolition of its independent funding - which amounts to the same thing. This includes those who simply don't like paying the licence fee as well as those in the broadcasting industry who see the BBC as an impediment to the quest for ever-increasing private profit. When it comes to the BBC there are a lot of agendas.

Whatever else one may think of the BBC it has to be recognised that it is, if not the last, then certainly the most powerful bastion of public service broadcasting in the UK and, it might be argued, the world. This remains true whatever the faults that unquestionably plague the BBC as an organisation and however regrettable its failings as an institution. Let there be no misunderstanding about the fact that the destruction of the BBC would signal the end of public service broadcasting as we have known it; and that this would have serious implications for all of broadcasting in the UK as well as significant repercussions for the core functions of news gathering, reporting, commentary and analysis across all media.

We should not be taken in by those who assure us that the market will provide. Who but the most mindless devotees of free market dogma could be so blind to the lessons of the last few years. Having participated in the arguments for many decades, I know that the proponents of a commercial alternative to the BBC are totally unable to meet the challenge which I, as a consumer, put to them. The challenge for the market is to provide me with the same range and quality of services currently available from the BBC at the same cost or less. Nothing short of this is a true alternative.

Let there be no mistake either about the need for independent funding if the aim is to maintain a public service broadcasting service. For those who claim to want to preserve the BBC but change its funding the challenge is to find a way of raising money that is a true alternative to market-dependent revenue streams such as advertising and sponsorship. A method which must guarantee funding for niche services that cannot be supported by subscription because otherwise it fails the test of a true public service which demands that it must be universal.

The other danger is that, even accepting the need to preserve the BBC and its independent funding, we resort to heavy-handed political measures to address what is, essentially, a management problem. In our enthusiasm to restore the public service ethos to the BBC we may be tempted to impose forms of state regulation that are just as inimical to our purpose as the dismemberment of the BBC in favour of some market "solution". What is needed is not new layers of bureaucratic micro-management but a measured approach to restoring the culture of an organisation which has seriously lost its way. There is a tendency for all organisations, particularly very large ones, to come to serve themselves rather than the purpose for which they were founded, unless they are managed in such a way as to prevent this. The failure at the BBC is a failure of management.

But while avoiding draconian measures we should not shy away from effective action. For obvious reasons I am particularly concerned with BBC Scotland. And nothing short of a massive clear-out of personnel at BBC Scotland will suffice. The little internal empires must be brought down. The cosy alliances with the political establishment must be broken. This is an organisation that desperately needs a fresh start under new management. If it was an "ordinary" business, nobody would even question this.

Even more pressing, however, is the need to set BBC Scotland free of the stifling, distorting effects of a massively London-centric leviathan. The nation's public service broadcaster must be ultimately accountable to the nation's democratically elected government. There has always been a strong case for devolved authority over broadcasting founded in part on a certain cultural distinctiveness. That case grows stronger as Scotland's always distinctive political environment diverges increasingly, and at an accelerating pace, from the politics of England.

BBC Scotland can be saved to become what we surely all wish it to be - a truly Scottish institution serving the people of Scotland as part of an inclusive, progressive democratic society. This should be the sole aim of any campaign to address the undoubted problems that exist within BBC Scotland. Let us not allow the Philistines to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

This article has also been published by Newsnet Scotland Lets be careful not to throw the BBC baby out with the bathwater


  1. Peter,I apologise for being over simplistic here but how about this as a solution.

    1. Scrap BBC Scotland
    2. Turn BBC ALBA into a replacement 24 hour broadcasting service.

    I make this suggestion based solely on what I have watched with regards to both stations news presentation.

    I watched BBC (Dis)Reporting Scotland during last May's elections and then watched the news on BBC ALBA. The two stations could not be more different in their approach to their reporting of political stories. (Dis)Reporting Scotland were broadcasting with their apparent usual "pro - Labour" stance in reporting whilst, in my view, BBC ALBA were about as neutral as I think it is possible for a news programme to be. The difference was like chalk and cheese.

    I know that to watch the news on BBC ALBA you need to be fluent in Gaelic, however in a 24 hour situation would it not be possible to run an English language version of An La (the news on BBC ALBA) AFTER the An La programme was finished.

    I know the BBC ALBA channel carries the name BBC on it but as it is, I understand, 50% funded by the Scottish government then it is apparent to me that their political views are very much more centred around the area of being neutral, and this is, after all what we all want isn't it?

    1. Interesting suggestion. However, I think there might be considerable opposition to messing about with BBC Alba in any way. I rather suspect its audience value its status as a niche broadcaster and would be exceedingly wary of what might be perceived as an attempt to make the channel more mainstream.

      Having said that, it may well be that BBC Alba could be a valuable resource in any project to refocus BBC Scotland.

  2. I have tried to watch BBC Alba, but as I am not fluent in Gaelic it was a bit of a bust. I do watch "Eorpa", because it has subtitles. Why on earth can't we have English subtitles on BBC Alba programmes?

    1. Considering that most TV programmes have English subtitles available on Ceefax, I'm not sure how expensive it would be. There don't seem to be any Ceefax subtitles on BBC Alba unless I'm missing something.

    2. Ceefax no longer exists. It was carried as part of the analogue signal and ended with the switch-over to digital. Some news and current affairs programmes are subtitled using voice recognition technology. But the technology does not exist to provide instantaneous audio translation. Yet!

  3. Rolfe, if you watch BBC ALBA often enough you will find that there are quite a number of programmes that do have English subtitles on them.

    I am not fluent in Gaelic myself but do find a lot of their programmes interesting as well as entertaining.

    I enjoy the programmes without subtitles just as much as those with the subtitles. I think my enjoyment of those without the subtitles comes from just listening to the Gaelic language itself. I find it such a beautiful language to listen to and, in my view, is a lot easier on the ears to listen to.

    1. Mmm, but how to know in advance which ones? And it's the news we're talking about, really.

      And nice thought Gaelic might be to listen to, I want to understand the programme.

  4. Peter,

    I agree with most of what you say. But this doesn't work:

    "The nation's public service broadcaster must be ultimately accountable to the nation's democratically elected government."

    It seems to me that the public service broadcaster should be directly responsible to the people it serves. There is a radical difference between the needs of a state and the needs of it's citizens. If there is to be an independent Scottish Broadcasting Service then we should directly elect a Board of Governors. They should not be at the beck and call of politicians at all. We should also insist on that separation through law. I'd go a lot further, in terms of elegibility to be in this new SBC, for instance any sort of relationship with a politician would disbar you from even applying for a job.

    Just saying.

    1. My initial reaction was to suggest that it is a bit early to be thinking about what a Scottish Broadcasting Service would look like and that we should be focused, for the moment at least, on trying to fix the public service broadcaster that we already have - BBC Scotland. On reflection, however, it makes sense to be guided in reform of BBC Scotland by consideration what we would be our ideal for an independent Scotland.

      The idea of a directly elected board of governors may have some merit. But direct election is all too often seen as a panacea for all ills and the only truly democratic way of doing things. If one requires to be convinced of the limitations of direct election one need look no further than the very political institutions that you seek to bypass. If our directly elected political representatives are not to be trusted then how much more justified are we in putting our faith in directly elected governors?

      It is regrettable that the incompetence and corruption associated with Westminster should have so tainted the whole system of representative democracy. But I would suggest that if we cannot have a better politics in our new Scotland then the whole independence project is rather hollow.

      Our aspirations in regard to specifics such as public service broadcasting are surely dependent on confidence in our ability to forge democratic political institutions and processes which are "fit for purpose" in that the elected can be relied upon to provide oversight without interference.

      If the system for electing our political representatives is as flawed as you seem to think it inevitably must be, what reason do we have to suppose that a system for electing broadcasting service governors might be any more satisfactory?

    2. Peter,

      Thank you for your reply.

      One of the points about any constitution is to try to ensure balance. It is not going to be the case that our Hollyrood government will be in power in perpituity. I have no desire to see the sort of establishment figures that currently lead it.

      It just seems wrong to me that the appointments to the BBC Trust are essentially via the government. It seems to me that we have to be thinking long term here. Appointments to The Supreme Court in the USA are a political battleground. I would prefer to avoid that, if at all possible. Whilst there is nominal separation between parliament and the judiciary, I would like to see a similar separation between parliament and the BBC.

      Despite the meeting between Alex Salmond and Lord Patten, the situation about bias appears to have got worse rather than better. Perhaps you disagree?

    3. There is an interesting and valuable discussion to be had about the governance of the public service broadcaster in an independent Scotland. While I am, as I've said, somewhat dubious about the practicality and efficacy of directly elected governors nothing should be ruled out.

      The immediate task, however, is to see what can be done to address the issue of bias within the system as it currently exists. As I see it, the only practical course is to transfer powers over broadcasting intact to the Scottish Parliament rather than embarking on the much more long-term project of seeking to modify the functional aspects of those powers. Such a transfer would be relatively easy and would provide an ideal opportunity for the kind of drastic refocusing of the management culture that I see as essential.

    4. Peter,

      I agree it would be desireable, and perhaps even essential, for these powers to be transferred. It is not going to happen.

      The Scotland Bill is - apparently - all we can expect from Westminster before a referendum.

      The timescale is against it and I do not see in my crystal ball any unionist likely to give up these specific powers - and you and I know they are powers - that they currently have, pre 2014. For the BBC is their ace in the hole, as I believe they say.

      I am a bit annoyed that Chris Patten appears to have failed to address the issue of bias that you rightly raise. It is leading on from that failure of an establishment figure to provide a level playing field, and the apparent winding down of the time until the referendum that worries me too. It is a common enough trick of Westminster politicians to agree that you have a case and then do nothing at all about it. I believe the exiles from Diego Garcia might agree. But Patten will come under zero pressure from Westminster to rectify the situation, indeed the opposite may be the case.

      And all the time the clock ticks.

      Thank you for the discussion and not picking me up on the first paragraph of my previous post, which more or less said the exact opposite of what I meant to say.

    5. You may be correct about the futility of a campaign to have powers over broadcasting transferred in the short-term. But a well framed campaign presenting sound arguments in favour of such a transfer is still worthwhile if only for the fact that it forces London to refuse what will be widely viewed as reasonable demands. All such refusals feed the independence campaign.

    6. Peter,

      If you view is that it as merely polemic, then by all means go for it. But you do know they won't surrender it easily, if at all?

      I agree with you that every power that Westminster appears to keep to itself ought to be challenged. I am sick and tired of the Crown Estates, for instance.

      Just for clarity, I am in favour of pointing all this out. I am not at all persuaded that we have a snowballs chance in hell of changing this pre 2014.

      Can I say something to you?

      I am already trying to work out how a new Scotland might be. In my own mind I see the people as having rights well beyond what we are allowed now. It seems ridiculous to me that there should even be an arguement about separation of the fourth estate - read BBC - and the rest.

      Y'know, the parcel of rogues. That's politicians, by the way. Cynical, I accept that.

      I want it to be impossible for any politician to sell us out, for English Gold, ever again.

      So, consequently, I'd want any Scottish Constitution to recognise, from day one, the sovereignty of the people.

      Clearly, the outcome of the referendum should be binding for at least a hundred years :-)

  5. I don't know what sort of programmes you want to watch Rolfe but I have always found that any time I have been on BBC ALBA the programme has always had subtitle on. Perhaps I've just been lucky, I don't know, but I've certainly found no problem understanding what is happening when I've been watching a programme on ALBA. I don't think the lack of subtitles is as wide as you might think.

    Admittedly with direct respect to the news, which we all started talking about last century :D that particular programme is not wholly subtitled. What they do is subtitle the headline of each item as it starts, so even there you can still get the gist of what the story is about.

    I think the only advice I can give you regarding BBC ALBA is keep trying it out. I feel quietly confident that you will see that all the programmes can be enjoyable, and informative. Hell they even have their own version of Top Gear called Air an Rathad, only the presenters are far better, in my view. At least give this one a try and see what you think, it is on Thursday at 23:00. I'm currently watching a programme about crofting, with subtitles, called Croit.

    Go on be a devil, give it a try. You know you want to. :D

    1. Fair enough, I just pressed the button, and the programme that's on is subtitled. When I tried the news (hoping for better than Jackie and Sally), it wasn't.

      Of course it does mean I have to watch and can't post on blogs at the same time!

  6. Will the beeb apologise about falsifying the figures now they have been caught out?
    If they had integrity they would do so.

    1. They maintain they were using a comparison that had been devised as best for the English elections and their different system, and were just being consistent.

      However this begs the question of why they were (initially at least) entirely unforthcoming as to the reason for what seemed to many viewers to be erroneous gain/loss results. It also raises the question of why they have never discussed the anomaly openly, and pointed out within the text of the article that a comparison with 2007, which is arguably more valid for the Scottish elections, gives completely different numbers.

      Asking them to point out that the main cause of the anomaly was that a bunch of Labour councillors resigned the Labour whip in the dying weeks of the term, due to pique over being deselected, and that these seats were then counted as gains when the new candidate held them, is presumably too much to ask an impartial broadcaster to cope with.

  7. Red, your talking about the British Brainwashing Committee here. The BBC don't do apologies, particularly to people in North Britain a.k.a. Scotland. Remember we are just a REGION we don't count for anything except of course to grab all our finances and taxes from.

  8. Just in case that post council elections we will be returning to "business as usual" from the BBC check out this job advert for the BBC. Nothing untoward you might think. However, I challenge anyone to read the requirements and come to one and only one conclusion........LABOUR RULES THE BBC!

  9. BBC Scotland Governing board could be made up of one appionted member from each elected party. One from SLabour, one from SNP, one from Lib/whats and one from tory. we could evan have some from other partys dependant on how many seats. Have equal number of members would prevent bias setting in.

    1. I would prefer that the appointments be under the auspices of an independent panel such as that set up by the SNP government to deal with honours nominations.

    2. Peter,

      Well, it seems to me that we should decide who gets a gong, or not. Not politicians. And certainly no Lords.