Whenever I hear a political leader talking about reforming the BBC, I don’t exactly reach for a gun, but I do get suspicious, deeply so when that political leader happens to be in government.
And I get even more concerned when a senior politician from the leader’s party is simultaneously accusing the BBC of political bias.
I am, of course, talking about Nicola Sturgeon’s calls for BBC reform and her SNP colleague Alex Salmond’s accusations of bias. But I am also talking about the UK government’s review of the BBC being led by Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, a long-time BBC critic, and a storm of Conservative complaints about the corporation during the election including from Tory party chairman Grant Shapps.
It is no coincidence that both parties are in government. For as long as I can remember, all governments of all colours have believed that the BBC is biased against them. Trawl the internet and for every accusation of anti-Tory bias flung at it, you can find a balancing one of pro-Tory bias. Similarly for every complaint of anti-business bias, you can find a pro-capitalism gripe.
Because the BBC is, through the licence-fee system, a state-funded broadcaster, it has a duty to be fair to all shades of political opinion and to studiously avoid being partial to any. But the old truth that it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time is just as applicable to the BBC as to politicians.
When I was political editor of this newspaper, I took the view that as long as I was getting roughly equal volumes of complaints from the different parts of the political spectrum, I was probably getting it right. You could not use the same rule-of-thumb today.
The SNP always had a squad of people who assiduously wrote letters to editors. They still do, but that has been vastly swollen by social media enabling vast numbers of people to voice their opinions. It takes seconds to send a tweet compared with the hour or so it took to compose and post a letter.
All parties have these folk, but the SNP, because it has a constant evangelical mission to convert a majority of Scots to the idea of independence, seems to have regiments of them. The ability to assemble a couple of hundred people to protest at one comment by the BBC’s UK political editor Nick Robinson is testament, not to Robinson’s mendacity (his words were poorly chosen, not malevolently biased), but to the SNP supporters’ slightly frightening fervour.
Reporting what governments are doing and saying is different to covering what political parties are up to. Governments have power and that means that the job of the media is to scrutinise their actions very closely. Power means the ability to affect people’s lives and the media’s role is to make sure that power is used wisely for the greater good.
Because it is an old media rule-of-thumb that governments getting things right is not news, but governments getting things wrong is news, ministers get fed up with having their every mistake splashed across the media while their policy successes get scant attention. And that long-standing pattern of media reporting is why all governments eventually conclude that the media is biased against them.
That’s also why attempting to manage the media has become a vital government tool. It ranges from feeding material to journalists believed to be favourable to orchestrating campaigns of complaint against those thought to be hostile.
There is an additional tool that governments can use against the BBC – every ten years the royal charter setting out what it should do and not do and how much money it will get from licence-fee payers has to be renewed. Renewal is a year-long process and while the public is supposed to get a big say, politicians in government make the final decisions. And you suppose that politicians who believe that they are routinely traduced by the BBC won’t take that opportunity to have some revenge? Fat chance.
So while Ms Sturgeon’s proposals sound interesting and reasonable – a second Scottish TV channel, a second Scottish English language radio channel, and a federal structure for the BBC entailing a Scottish (and Welsh, English, Ulster) governance boards operating under a UK-wide board – I’m suspicious of them.
I’m equally suspicious of Mr Whittingdale’s review which, from the questions he has posed about whether it should be doing all of the things it now does, strongly suggest that he wants to slim it down. Already you can see a looming clash between a Scottish Government which apparently wants the BBC to expand and a UK one which wants it to shrink.
That leads, inevitably, to a row about money. In the independence white paper, the SNP noted that licence fees paid in Scotland added up to £320 million, but BBC Scotland spent only £200 million.
Many Nationalists regard this as an affront, somewhat ignoring the fact that the £120 million “deficit” is spent on things such as Radios 1-4, web-based text and programme services, the iPlayer, and many other things which Scots enjoy, never mind EastEnders. A share of the cost, including for the World Service, must come from Scotland.
And then there is this Scottish board.
Will we follow the practice of the UK BBC Trust, whose members are appointed by ministers? Can the public trust ministers to appoint people who will bring real value to BBC Scotland? Or are they more likely to be Scottish Government patsies, especially as they will be regularly quizzed by an SNP-dominated Holyrood committee? Is there another way of appointing people which can avoid, as Armando Iannucci has warned, politicians becoming the BBC’s masters?
The potential for this charter renewal to lead to a BBC whose UK output, now greatly valued by Scottish viewers, being severely weakened, but with an increased poor quality Scottish output (please, not more unfunny so-called comedy) seems rather strong. When I see Ms Sturgeon or Mr Whittingdale proposing ways to reduce their influence over the BBC, I’ll believe that they are acting in the public’s interest. Until then, I’ll suspect partisan interest is uppermost in their minds.