29 October 2010

BBC Question Time & Britain unquiet grave

Readers' editor Chris Elliot had a piece in the Guardian this week on Getting to grips with devolution. It reads in part, quoting an irate readership:

"The assumption that "government" initiatives apply to every country in the UK, no matter what the issue, is a source of endless frustration and resentment for readers, particularly those who live in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Another reader writes: "Your writers and editors have not come to terms with devolution to Wales and Scotland and the restoration of Stormont." Instead of journalists making a gradual adjustment, he adds, "there is a steady deterioration." For example, he said, recent stories about Simon Schama advising schools on narrative history, children in primary schools not achieving appropriate progress in maths and English, and GPs holding budgets all seem to apply only to England – yet nowhere in the stories is this stated.

This omission, he says, amounts to misinformation, and as such is not only potentially damaging to democracy but also to the reputation of the newspaper.

He says: "If you … report a health, education or social services story from anywhere other than England, the relevant minister is styled 'the Welsh health minister' etc. Perhaps it would concentrate the minds of your journalists if Westminster ministers were routinely styled 'the English education minister'."

Although I'm not the author of any of these remonstrating epistles, I certainly enter into their spirit. This is clearly not an issue for the Guardian alone, but fundamentally about how British politics is imagined, how its polyphonies are or are not represented and understood, what viewpoints and privileged, emphasised, lent dignity or undermined. A few palacating, exculpating remarks tend to be made about the complexities of devolution, suggesting that we'll get accurate reporting tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, once all of the bemusing details have coagulated into common sense in the media's collective brain. Yet as one reader suggests, observing how broadcasters comport themselves more than a decade on from the passage of the Scotland Act, there seems to be little evidence of a slow acquisition of devolution competence and devolution confidence. Indeed we'd be hoodwinking ourselves if we imagined this is simply a matter of technical expertise and slow-learning journalistic shallowpates.

This piece proves surprisingly apt in the context of last night's BBC Question Time, conducted from Glasgow. Devolution may have said the last rites over the unitary British state, but the Corporation seem intent on damning the detail, damning the difference, and using vehicles such as Question Time to deny the death rattle and insist on the continuing vitality of a United Kingdom which has been consigned to its institutional and political grave. In her piece on the programme this morning, Joan McAlpine styled this "engineered cohesion". Since it is almost Halloween weekend, when rag-torn spectres walk and graves are unquiet - I prefer a much more ghoulish comparison. It is necromancy, cadaver broadcasting, which attempts to reanimate the spent life-force of a political past which is no longer relevant or interesting. While Dimbleby may have directed the sorcery, as ever he is ably assisted by the chanting band of haughty old jingoists, opinionated bigots and Westminster chauvinists who dominate the metropolitan broadcasting spaces and enjoy privileged access to British telly and press.

The Scottish blogosphere has been very much on form in its discussion of what transpired in the studio. James Kelly points out that after Dimbleby had clamped down on Nicola Sturgeon's brief reference to fiscal autonomy in the context of the Westminster cuts agenda with the phrase - "We may be in Glasgow, but Question Time goes out to the whole United Kingdom" - the panel had already spent...

" ... the first fifteen minutes of tonight's edition of Question Time - broadcast from Glasgow, remember - taken up with a discussion about a remark made by the Mayor of London, in his capacity as Mayor of London. And yet Dimbleby still couldn't see the irony of chiding Sturgeon for spending just a few seconds talking about a 'non-national' issue later in the programme. "

This is so obviously rich, so obviously ridiculously hypocritical that we ought to pause, just a moment to ask the interesting, patience-trying question - just how does the distinction make sense to Dimbleby and his fellows? How can he possibly fail to notice the disparity? No nationalist himself, Alex Massie teases out the premise - but sees the issue more in terms of the parochialism of the metropolitan "centre" towards the rest of the country per se. While Scotland may feel particularly stung by this attitude, Massie contends that the issue can and ought to be framed in far wider terms:

"This is not a Scotland vs England affair; rather it reflects a presumption that while it is taken for granted that viewers in the rest of Britain should be interested in discussions about tube strikes in London or the next round of Boris vs Ken, matters of more local interest in Glasgow or Manchester or Cardiff cannot be expected to interest the wider audience."

For me, Gerry Hassan puts it best and suggests the most effective exorcism.

"Then there is the issue of the nature of the UK and Scotland’s voice. I don’t think it is possible for the UK media, political class and elite opinion to develop a nuanced, subtle, informed understanding of the UK; it just isn’t going to happen; they believe that their bunker-like Westminster mentality is a rich, pluralist, cosmopolitan view of the world, unsullied by the unreconstructed lumpenproletariat who live out in the sticks.

Change can only come from without. That requires taking action, and in Scotland’s case it means creating our own media spaces to develop our national conversations and debate. Maybe the slow hollowing out of the mainstream will make enough of us realise that we have to show initiative, take some power and create our own alternatives."


  1. Great post! The same attitude can be seen coming from the English BBC in regards of Cornwall. Over the past few decades there has been a strong resurgence in Cornish identity and sense of particularism. In the 70,s the Royal Kilbrandon report even suggested that Cornwall be referred to as a Duchy in light of its constitutional position.

    Of course the first to ignore this advice and try to down play the Cornish renaissance have been the BBC. They take every opportunity to describe Cornwall as an English county and often provide support for the creation of, variously, Devonwall, West Country or a South West region(ring any bells? North Britain).

    This aggressive English nationalism at the expense of the Cornish national minority must stop.

  2. Lallands

    I'm a longtime lurker. Here is a post I submitted to Go Lassie Go. As a mere corporate lawyer who can't be arsed actually researching the point at hand, I thought I'd submit this for your critique...the point at hand being my theory that Kenny Macaskill has the power to effectively decriminalise non-payment of the TV licence fee.

    "First, non-payment of the TV Licence is a criminal offence, much like non-payment of any other tax.

    Second, enforcement of the criminal law in Scotland is devolved and so on paper it would be within the power of the Crown Office to simply not prosecute offenders. This would not be unprecedented - they have discretion. As an example, Wendy Alexander committed a criminal offence when she accepted a donation from overseas, yet she was not prosecuted.

    So, on paper, KM could effectively decriminalise non-payment of the TV Licence.

    Of course, there are complications and issues of principle to consider:-

    1. The BBC might retaliate by becoming even more partial or closing down aspects of their Scottish operation. Of course, that would be contrary to their charter obligations.

    2. KM might have difficulty persuading the Lord Advocate to sanction this sort of highly political prosecution policy. Of course, he could dress it up as a cost-saving measure - we must spend a fair amount of cash prosecuting non-payers, which could be more usefully spent prosecuting actual criminals.

    3. Westminster remains sovereign, so they could re-reserve criminal justice. Which is probably politically impossible.

    4. TV Licensing/the BBC could try to run an argument that, since payments are received in England, the crime of non-payment is committed in England. The English CPS could then initiate prosecutions of Scots miscreants. Again, politically difficult and depends on the Scottish police to make arrests, which is controllable by KM.

    Of course, this sort of thing is political dynamite and you could imagine the chorus of indignation from the Unionist media. However, the BBC has a long record of anti-Scottish bias which reached its nadir over the election debates. Surely as some point the SNP should be standing up and saying to the BBC "Enough is enough. If you don't treat us fairly, say goodbye to your Scottish revenues". Lots of non-SNP voters feel the same way, of course, so this would be politically popular.

    That would get their attention and, with a Scottish election coming up, this would be a good time for Salmond to pick the phone up to Mark Thompson and issue that ultimatum."


  3. Cornubian,

    Understandable, given our particular attitude to the constitution, that Scottish nationalists are often disposed to see things in a rather binary fashion. But as you say - and as I understand his comments, Alex Massie was emphasising - this metropolitan imperiousness and sectional sense of entitlement to speak for the whole can be reframed in a number of ways.

    We should underestimate the ways in which a Scots Othering at least affords us some liberties as the Other and resources to prompt deference to some sense of separateness. By contrast, parts of "England" are sunk into the category of the Self and utterly silenced, or find themselves spoken for by an unrecognisable set of characters.

    The issue raises perhaps the most interesting challenge for thoughtful Scottish nationalists which is best framed as a question. If your nationalism is rooted in a particular politics, why not seek to foster that politics for as many people as possible, rather than simply a smaller group? Some nationalists are socialists. Why not try to bring about socialism on a British scale? Why the category difference?

    I've recently met a number of folk in the Labour Party down in England who've suggested, basically, that Scottish nationalism's most unerring consequence will be to "abandon" the English working classes to their fate of permanent and perpetual right wing government.

    I believe there are cogent answers to these challenges - but they are worth thinking through, I think, rather than impatiently batting aside.

  4. CassiusClaymore,

    All lurkers are welcome and those who occasionally step out into the light particularly so! I don't think it likely that anyone in the Scottish Government act on your suggestion - but I've long mused about how the Scottish Parliament might be able to throw legislative spanners in particular works of United Kingdom authorities. The thought came to mind in particular when I thought about dawn raids in asylum cases, executed with unjustifiable brutality - and how Holyrood might try, by a cunning mechanisms, to prevent the practice. Ultimately it knocked about inside my skull to little effect.

    I'd need to look into the detail, but the fundamental difficulty which immediately occurs to me is the Lord Advocate's independence. While prosecution practice is highly discretionary - a blanket rule on non-prosecution certainly isn't. Secondly, it would be highly improper for MacAskill to try to direct the Lord Advocate to impose such a policy. Awa' an' bile yer heid, she might well say, with good justification. She'd find vocal supporters. As a result, the only obvious mechanism for effecting such a change would be legislative - and that would be inhibited by the Scotland Act 1998. Finally, I'm not sure how prosecutions for non-payment are brought and the involvement of procurators fiscal in that process.

    You raise an important point, however. How to respond to the BBC's partialities and distortions? Tactically speaking, no easy one to answer.

  5. Lallands

    Yes, one difficulty is the role of the Lord Advocate, as I hinted at in my point 2 above. Of course, the post is about to be vacant as as we all know the appointment of Lord Advocate is a political one....put it this way, if I was Lord Advocate Kenny M would find me quite prepared to play ball!

    Ultimately, I'd recommend that this theoretical power is used a bargaining chip to secure neutrality, rather than actually used as matter of fact.

    Anyway, nice work on the blog.


  6. CC,

    Alas, I'm obviously feart to leave my deskside, lest I miss the Scottish Government's call asking me if I'd be willing to take up Angiolini's mantle after May...