Brian Wilson: Sturgeon’s dangerous plan for BBC

The Pacific Quay protest was a blatant attempt to achieve BBC acquiescence by mob rule. Picture: John Devlin
The Pacific Quay protest was a blatant attempt to achieve BBC acquiescence by mob rule. Picture: John Devlin
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IT WAS understandable that Nicola Sturgeon sought to create distance between her own approach and that of her predecessor on matters relating to broadcasting, even if their objectives are ultimately the same.

Certainly, mood music for her Edinburgh lecture this week was carefully crafted to be different. There was tea for Nick Robinson and his family at Bute House. James Cook, another hate figure from last year, had metamorphosed into “a hugely respected face of referendum coverage”.

There was much to be agreed with on diversity and funding. Then a fairly mild passage of standard moans about referendum coverage which could have been mirror-imaged from the other side of the debate. There was no “institutional bias” in BBC coverage, she conceded graciously. And so to the nitty-gritty. “My strong belief,” Ms Sturgeon said, “is that responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland should transfer from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament”. This was followed by a pre-emptive strike: “To those who say this is about the SNP wanting to exercise political control over the BBC, I say that is arrant nonsense.”

Well, she would, wouldn’t she? The problem is that so much evidence points in a different direction. The mob outside Pacific Quay was not seeking more Robbie Shepherd or another radio station. It was demanding political acquiescence. The bile led by Alex Salmond against individual broadcasters’ integrity was orchestrated only in order to intimidate.

Ms Sturgeon assured her Edinburgh audience that “independence from government is essential to our public service broadcasters”. This may have caused wry smiles among those who are harassed on a daily basis to comply precisely with the agenda of government. Practising what one preaches is a useful starting point in changing perceptions. But the bigger problem in Scotland is that the phrase “independence from government is essential to…” could be applied in so many contexts where the exact opposite has evolved in practice. There is now no branch of Scottish civic or public life dependent on Edinburgh largesse or patronage that can remotely be described as “independent from government”. Why would broadcasting, the prize target, be different?

Take the case of Police Scotland, the dysfunctional organisation which currently sits at the pinnacle of the Scottish Government’s drive for centralisation and political control. I agree with Gordon Wilson, the former SNP leader, whose incisive report warned that getting rid of the Chief Constable would be “a cosmetic move which will do nothing to tackle the real difficulties of Police Scotland”. The real difficulty remains the creation of a centralised control structure from which all vestige of local accountability was excluded. Instead, the minister appointed not only the Chief Constable but also, crucially, a supine quango stuffed with kindred spirits which has failed abjectly in its task of oversight. Gordon Wilson rightly called for its abolition.

The individuals who headed the big quangos in Scotland used to be household names on the basis of what they had done in their previous careers. They invariably “went native” on behalf of their organisations, dared to have battles with government and to make public statements which sometimes incensed their masters. That was part of a dynamic process which has now disappeared completely from Scottish public life.

Silent compliance is the only characteristic that commands respect from Scottish ministers. Before anyone claims it was always like that, I should point out that it wasn’t. For example, in 1997, the Labour government made Jim Hunter and Ian Wood chairman of HIE and Scottish Enterprise respectively – neither of our political persuasion but both important, challenging figures in Scottish public life. It is inconceivable that the equivalent could happen now.

I would bet that the Scottish Government’s current difficulties with the European Commission over misuse of funds involves their abolition of the respected organisations in the Highlands and Borders that channelled structural funds with local authority involvement. These budgets were brought under political control and the money branded as Scottish Government expenditure. Everything is about centralisation and control.

Why should anyone believe that a ministerially appointed Scottish Broadcasting Authority, with oversight of the BBC in Scotland – until such time as the BBC could be turned into the SBC – would function more independently than the Scottish Police Authority or any of the other public bodies that have been centralised, neutered or abolished?

There is no reason at all – but this is what “transferring responsibility for broadcasting to the Scottish Parliament” would equate to, no matter how sweetly it is presented. As another clue, remember that their Scottish Broadcasting Commission was chaired by the guy who later emerged as the director of the pro-independence campaign. Exactly the same would happen again – but this time the implications would be irreversible.

Surely it should be possible to debate the quality and content of broadcasting in Scotland without constantly having to look over one’s shoulder to what Nicola Sturgeon delicately described as “governance and accountability structures”. Why is there so little emphasis on doing things better or more creatively in Scotland rather than the constant focus on powers and “accountability structures”?

Personally, I tend to avoid BBC Radio Scotland in order to miss the interminable stream of vacuous phone-ins (or, very often, phone-outs once they have exhausted the usual suspects who phone in). That may be a minority view and a majority of Scots may love them. Fair enough. The one certainty is that we do not need another Scottish radio station without first taking a constructive look at what already exists.

And why is the obsession always with the BBC? If there really is the huge, unsatisfied demand which Ms Sturgeon asserts for more Scottish-generated television output, then why is the commercial sector not responding to it? The only mention of STV in her address was to praise it for having a late-night political programme. Are there no other aspects of Scottish society to which she thinks it owes unfulfilled responsibility?

I, too, believe that more could be done to improve the balance of broadcasting within the United Kingdom. It should be possible to advocate that case without being enlisted for an entirely different cause which is, ultimately, to separate ourselves from everything good and enriching that the BBC stands for, in Scotland as much as anywhere else.