Much has been published and discussed about political bias in the British Broadcasting Corporation. Whatever government sits in Westminster it will, given time, turn its wrath upon the BBC particularly when its handling of the economy goes array.
I should begin by admitting an interest. I was a BBC executive producer for a few years, first in television outside Scotland, and then in Scotland. (It was not news and current affairs.) A freelancer by nature and inclination, working for an institution proved a disconcerting experience. I was used to being surrounded by people enthusiastic for the project. In the BBC I was surrounded by people there for the promotion.
What I thought to be the pinnacle of a career turned out to be a bitter disappointment. I resigned. So did George Orwell. (I keep good company.) He served as a journalist for the BBC for two years in the mid-1940’s before resigning. He reached his opinion similarly disillusioned. Respectful of his colleagues, nevertheless Orwell found the BBC “halfway between a kindergarten and Kafka-like bureaucracy.” His own department he thought “a chaotic girl’s school.” How he was familiar with a girl’s school is unknown. Biographers assert Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in his novel, “1984,” is based on his time at the BBC.
BBC Scotland, or BBC Scotlandshire, as it is pejoratively termed, remained aloof from Scotland’s independence debate for longer than was healthy, oblivious, one might say, of a grass-roots movement. Now that Scotland asserts itself so confidently BBC proves itself wholly unprepared, irrelevant to our political and cultural exigencies. It serves the nation it was established to represent as a region of the United Kingdom, beholden in budget and UK transmission times to BBC London.
BBC headquarters can veto almost anything. All but local news is passed to London for approval or rejection. No wonder then, BBC Scotland shows itself inadequate in the extreme when representing our nation’s ambitions, discontent and hopes.
You Don’t Have to Watch It
On that score, not watching BBC, we actually pay for it, so we have a right to complain.
Rupert Murdoch’s empire has squandered a lot of time, money and effort defaming the BBC, not for what it stands for, but in order to weaken it in his quest for media domination. He should be resisted. As recent events have shown, Murdoch already has far too much power worldwide, owns far too many media companies and newspapers, and above all, owns too many politicians.
Nevertheless, the BBC has done its level best to undermine itself, the Savile paedophilia revelations a prime example, gross salaries and golden handshakes another. Everyone has their price. Paying public service executives bank executive sums of largesse arrived thanks to former director general, John Birt, and chairman, Michael Grade, both of whom brought with them the Thatcherite doctrine, the “best” talent warrants the highest remuneration, as in the oft heard cliché, “pay for talent or it will go elsewhere.” Unfortunately, middle and super managers create no wealth. What they do is steal money.
Too late for the BBC, that talent stayed put.
Staff: Das Capital or Capitalists
I want to discuss the accusation of individual employee bias, political bias. It is a constant complaint made by viewer and politician alike. There’s a difference between how BBC represents a people and whether it’s a seething mass of Tory adherents of the British Empire, Catholics or Masonic handshakes, or socialists determined to undermine the state, all pushing their own agenda. I’ll return to the issue later.
When government policy is under attack government turns its guns first on the opposition, and failing to quell it, on the means of communication and the people who run it. Scotland’s own government is no exception. The SNP wants a broadcasting service not under the thumb of a London headquarters. Is its antipathy to BBC Scotland justified?
Whatever party is in power the BBC will get attacked. It must feel it lies forever between a rock and a hard place.
Is the BBC a hot bed of Trotsky revolutionaries, or a seething mass of far-right, ermine stroking elitists? In my experience it is neither. I can illustrate this with an anecdote.
Brian Redhead, Not
Before James Naughtie, before John Humphrys, long before Libby Purves, BBC Radio 4’s, morning news programme, Today, was co-presented by Brian Redhead, a much respected journalist as well as broadcaster. A clear thinking interviewer, direct but polite, always well-informed, he had a knack of simplifying a political issue to aid understanding its consequences. Born in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, he seemed the very epitome of the educated northerner, working class stock, Church of England, made a national figure by dint of dedication to journalistic integrity.
As the Thatcher regime grew over-confident, celebrating a third landslide victory, succeeding in slashing union bargaining power at vast cost to the taxpayer and any profits from North Sea Oil, anybody who questioned their policies got branded a left-wing subversive. This dislike of the democratic process was glaringly illustrated when, in the middle of an interview with Tory cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit, Redhead asked one too many difficult questions. He received a poke in the eye.
“Come, come, we all know what your politics are, Mr Redhead,” Tebbit spat, placing great emphasis on the “red” of Redhead’s surname, “And they’re not the government’s.”
“My politics are my business,” responded Redhead bluntly, aghast that an honest journalist should be tarred and feathered. Tebbit persisted with the unfairness until deigning to answer the question.
We have heard that attack on integrity many times since, but in that instance it’s arguable Redhead’s career quite recovered. His reputation was tainted. Tebbit had planted the seed of doubt in the listener’s mind. Redhead was a closet commy. Redhead carried on some months more and then retired.
When he died we discovered he was a life-long member of his local Conservative party.
A red under the bed he most certainly was not!
Curiousity and Truth
The public’s perception of interview techniques rests upon a misunderstanding.
We all have the right to ask questions, to enquire. Curiosity, keenness to acquire truth, demands asking prying questions. Journalists ask politicians questions they believe the public would ask had they the opportunity. Writers, especially of contemporary drama, have a duty to question the status quo. They must push the conventional to gain progress.
Those imperatives conspire to give politicians in particular the impression their national broadcaster is against government wisdom, always seeking out the negative, sometimes with an aggressive attitude. In retaliation the BBC is misrepresented as a wasp’s nest of dissonance. It must be disciplined. Threats usually take the form of ways to reduce or remove the annual licence fee. Invariably, a new BBC chairman is nominated as a safe political place man.
When under harsh scrutiny the BBC takes cover. It reverts to “balance.” Balance is the craft of adding an allegedly opposing point of view to allow viewers to determine truth. The witness for the prosecution tends to be another politician in the first instance, a professional pundit, a newspaper hack, or when all else fails, Mr Disgusted of Tumbridge Wells. All but the first are, essentially, non-expert, there to give the impression of even-handedness.
There is a fashion to add vox pop to the mix, topping or tailing discussions. Disparate members of the public are given a brief moment to state personal opinion, not necessarily informed opinion, and not always their own opinion. Unchallenged their “opinion” supposedly represents a statistical cross-section of society’s mood. In reality, it is more likely to represent the roving reporter’s gut instinct on the subject, what he assumes to be the general view.
Keeping the Referendum Platform a Leg Short
On Scotland’s future, any member of the Scottish National Party interviewed, or the Yes Campaign, must face across the table someone from the opposite camp. Then, as an adjunct to the discussion, a polling “expert” is thrown in as a kind of referee.
Commentators are introduced as “experts” whether they are or not. It would be foolish to introduce someone as second-rate who happens to hold a quick study opinion, happy to accept the basic fee with no travel expenses. Whether pro or anti – you are an “expert.” A broadcaster must appear non-partisan at all times.
Balance obfuscates truth. If your house is on fire, you can see it is on fire, you don’t need an expert to tell you how much of it can be saved before you decide to call the fire brigade. Some truths are self-evident. If you don’t call the fire brigade immediately nothing will be left to save. Some political matters have no need of the perverse opinion.
A constant quest for balance leaves a broadcaster unadventurous, fearful of taking risks.
BBC Sells Hotdogs
Who in their wildest dreams could expect Alan Bleasdale’s award-winning drama series on unemployment and the state, Boys From The Black Stuff, commissioned today? If it got past the scrutiny of top executives the BBC would be forced to commission at least one other play depicting the nation was enjoying full employment; two debates on the play’s veracity; followed by a discussion on Newsnight held by opposing politicians, and in the tabloids an attack on the dramatist’s politics and sex life.
That allows the Guardian newspaper to go off on a tangent by asking if the tabloids should be allowed to investigate a man’s sex life, thus removing the public’s attention off the real issue, forced unemployment. Meanwhile, art critics will arguing the drama’s literary merit. The media lives off itself. Lastly, the general public is given open access to say yea or nay on the BBC website, and trolls to say Bleasdale is a champagne socialist, he sucks.
Media man’s rule is, manifest truth cannot be left unchallenged.
Hence, any positive attribution given to Scottish self-governance must be followed by the opposite assertion, even if that declaration is totally indefensible.
Wettable, Stretchable, Reuseable
My experience of the BBC is of an institution wedded to the status quo, the British status quo, that is, meaning English habits, mores, and traditions. It is neither rabidly utopian nor vapidly autocratic. Meetings are held in boardrooms under the portrait of HRH Queen Elizabeth II. Any Royal event or ritual is an excuse to spend millions of licence payer’s money on broadcasting it. Some journalists moonlight openly for MI5. If MI5 or MI6 want possession of BBC political interviews it is likely the BBC will hand them over. It did exactly that in the infamous case of the Zircon Spy Satellite documentary, made by and held by BBC Scotland.
Controllers of BBC Scotland proposing greater autonomy are swiftly removed, evidence for that in the acquiescence of current executives, and succinctly in the short, sharp careers of Alastair Milne, (removed by the Thatcher government) and Alastair Hetherington, a former Guardian editor. Both sought greater Scottish news presence on BBC networks, plus increased financial decision-making, free from BBC London’s stranglehold.
BBC Scotland also reneged on its deal to build a major studio and offices in central Edinburgh. They were given a gift of land, sold it, and took the profits to Glasgow. No monies were returned to the city council who were left feeling duped.
Why? Because they were told Scotland’s Parliament would remain a “pretendy,” end-of-the-pier show. Building a studio enterprise next to our Parliament reinforced a notion in the public mind of independence as inevitable.
A Sidebar on the Scottish Cringe
Scots, at least in Milne’s and Hetherington’s day, did not help by their embarrassment on hearing a Scots accent in serious programmes. Fine for entertainment, not for reading the news. The journalist Cliff Hanley was almost hounded out of work as a broadcaster by yelp of protest when he broadcast the morning’s news in a thick Glaswegian accent.
Today, heads of departments warn producers to be fair with guests, not to provoke, nor to parade one’s personal politics. But that in itself is a mechanisms of control. The BBC’s personnel system, for example, includes regular staff valuations, annual progress reports, and reprimands recorded as part and parcel of employee “care.” Those who step out of line are sanctioned.
Freelancers are not so easy to discipline. The small print of constraint on thought and deed fill contracts offered to independent producers. There is no BBC head to supervise their work. It can only be done on the edit side of programme making. If they see some overtly political element they can ask the producer or director to remove it.
Striving for impartiality the BBC cannot bring itself to honour its own notable employees. You might think Orwell, an Englishman of impeccable conscience, not a member of any political party, a hater of communism, an Etonian, a one country “Briton,” was eminently acceptable as an emblem of BBC honesty and impartiality. You’d be wrong. Late under director general, Mark Thomson’s leadership, the BBC declined to erect a statue to George Orwell outside their new premises, Orwell’s presence deemed “too socialist.” (Less than full-socialist remains an unknown.)
BBC and the SNP
BBC Scotland treats its government First Minister with little more respect. The onslaught Alex Salmond weathered fired at him by BBC Scotland’s own Kirsty Wark during an early interview is well-known. He had just been elected to office. She appeared to reject the electorate’s decision. Her animosity was palpable. She later apologised. I suspect she was told to do so.
The idea that BBC UK might give the nationalist point of view a programme to discuss its vision for a more self-reliant independent nation, without interjection from some nonentity with no electoral mandate, is unthinkable. It could cause a “cataclysmic” event, an international incident, or worse – more votes for the return of Scotland’s self-governance, and that would never do! BBC announced £5 million extra funding to handle the Referendum. In my view, it is a paltry sum. It would barely finance a handful of Top Gear shows. Five million equates to £1 for each man, woman, and child in Scotland. What happened to the tens of millions Scotland pays the BBC annually in licence fees?
The excuse executives give for the poor time allotted to Scottish political affairs is the limited time available. Well, I have news for them. BBC runs a 24 hour news service.
That’s twenty-four hours a day – day in, day out. Make the bloody time!
“And With That Bombshell…”
To sum up: It is unsafe to paint any specific BBC employee politically biased one way or another, but some can be castigated for their assumed attitude Scotland is merely a region of England. The BBC stands accused rightly of not promoting an entire nation’s culture beyond its borders. Gone are the days when pompous Westminster politicians stated the BBC, “the best broadcaster in the world.” The BBC has lost its way, too timid to serve the public properly, too British to serve Scotland.
Scotland deserves its own broadcasting service obligated to no one, and to no government, not even its own.