IMAGINE for a moment that it was discovered, by chance, that six years ago the BBC had a high-level meeting of its executives and a group of “the best constitutional experts” to determine the policy of the BBC in reporting the ongoing debate about Scotland’s future governance Imagine that body said – unanimously – that maintaining the United Kingdom with Scotland as a member is the only model that should shape its editorial approach.
Even more unbelievable (surely) would be if the group consisted of only those who supported Scotland remaining in the union. It would (surely) be incomprehensible that the BBC would behave in such a way.
If such a meeting came to light, there would be justifiable outrage across the political spectrum. Nationalists would rightly feel that the BBC had taken a partisan political stance that would prejudice its campaigns and challenge its raison d’être, contrary to the BBC’s own charter and in conflict with the public concept that Britain enjoys an open, pluralistic and free press.
Unionist politicians would (apart from those that might know of the political fix) be shocked and embarrassed, rightly fearing that the BBC’s loading of the dice would have a highly negative effect on the public mood and that the SNP would benefit from repositioning electoral sympathy – even to the point of voters deciding they had had enough of perfidious Albion and its debate-rigging BBC.
It would also be the case that many BBC journalists, the majority of whom would be unaware of the management’s meeting, would voice their incredulity that broadcasting executives had not so much moved the goalposts as dismantled them at one end so the goals could only be scored by one team.
The BBC’s reputation for fairness and a high degree of objectivity in reporting news, especially political news, would be trashed – not just in Britain but around the world.
The idea that the BBC could behave in such a way would send the corporation into meltdown the like of which we have not yet seen. And that’s despite recent scandals involving Jimmy Savile’s sexual practices while in its employ and the failure to confront and deal with them, or to report on them when he died and then to run a report that led to an innocent man being accused of paedophilia.
The reason such damage would occur is twofold: firstly the BBC has probably the highest professional reputation of any broadcaster in the world, and secondly the BBC is funded by a legally enforced tax, meaning that everyone pays for it whether they like or agree with its output or not.
If you think my imagination has run riot to the point of being absurd then consider if the BBC had held such a high-level meeting to determine an editorial position on Britain’s membership of the European Union or the causes and cures of the economic recession. Both are controversial issues that will define Britain’s and Scotland’s future and would cause the same sense of outrage were the BBC to take a partisan view.
We all understand that any newspaper we are free to buy or not can take an editorial position. But the BBC is a public broadcaster and it cannot; it has to reflect the genuine political debate. That is what is expected of the BBC and why it has built such a strong reputation.
How then should we react to the news that has just recently emerged that, back in 2006, the BBC did have such a high-level meeting, not to discuss the growth of nationalist sentiment but to agree a position on climate change?
The meeting was held on 26 January 2006 and the BBC claimed it consisted of the 28 “best scientific experts” to decide the BBC policy on climate-change reporting. The meeting agreed unanimously to support the theory of man-made climate change despite there being a considerable body of reputable scientists that continued to challenge the theory.
Following this meeting, the blogger Tony Newbry sought to determine just who the 28 “best scientific experts” were, only to find that the BBC would not reveal them and went so far as to fight his freedom of information requests in court. He persevered, but only now has the list of names come to light. Not because the BBC decided to become more open – but by chance because blogger Maurizio Morabito found that the International Broadcasting Trust (that helped put the meeting together) posted the list on its website.
The participants included arguably only three or four genuine scientists (all supporting anthropogenic climate change theory), the rest being political activists, journalists and commentators who not only supported the man-made cause of climate change but often had a vested interest in it being propagated.
Greenpeace had two people attend, including its head of campaigns, and other well-known climate-change supporters were Stop Climate Chaos, Npower Renewables, E3G, Tearfund, Television for the Environment – and to try and ensure God was onside, the Church of England was represented too.
Included in the BBC participants were the heads of many TV or radio shows we are all familiar with (as well as, strangely, the head of BBC comedy!). More noticeable are the names of Peter Rippon, Steve Mitchell, Helen Boaden and George Entwistle – all of whom have, recently, resigned or stepped aside from their roles in BBC news and current affairs over the Savile and McAlpine scandals. Entwistle, of course, went on to become director-general. His replacement, Tony Hall, had left the BBC for the Royal Opera House in 2001.
Naturally this story has not broken on the BBC – but in many ways it is more worrying than the Savile scandal. Dealing with an individual who scarred individuals’ lives is a huge concern to us all – but interfering with democracy and open debate reveals an institutional bias that can change all of our lives.
Will Tony Hall deal with this – and is the same process happening over the EU, the recession and independence? These questions must be answered.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org