Lesley Riddoch: Balancing act now required at BBC

The BBC bias is caused by the subtle 'BBC way of doing things'. Picture: Donald MacLeod
The BBC bias is caused by the subtle 'BBC way of doing things'. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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BROADCASTER accused of bias must show an even hand by scrutinising Unionists the way it has Nationalists, writes Lesley Riddoch

A difficult week lies ahead for BBC Scotland as the referendum campaign enters its final six months.

Not because bosses must spend another uncomfortable hour before the Holyrood culture committee. Nor because Professor John Robertson has published a second report on BBC bias. Not even because Alex Salmond has BBC controller Ken MacQuarrie’s home phone number.

No – this week BBC Scotland faces a relatively new but arduous challenge: subjecting Unionists to the same relentless, forensic scrutiny hitherto reserved for the SNP. Tomorrow, Scottish Labour will unveil its Devolution Commission report and the following day George Osborne will present his last Budget before the referendum. These might seem like relatively straight-forward reporting events – but they shouldn’t be.

As Johann Lamont and George Osborne unveil their plans, reporters and presenters should ask the most pointed questions, niggle away at uncertainties and demand costed, working examples – all the tactics usually applied to Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. But will they?

All too often UK government proposals are received like tablets of stone on behalf of a grateful nation, and Labour plans are automatically presumed to be workable. If that happens this week, BBC Scotland will have failed in its charter mission – to equally apply critical scrutiny to both sides of a vital debate.

Obvious questions abound. Labour is expected to let Holyrood vary income tax by 15p, making it responsible for 40 per cent of spending. How will that work in practice? Run it past a panel of smart 16-year-olds until they really understand what that means. Are there good examples of income tax sharing working elsewhere in the world, and can we have details?

If Scots vary income tax will that prompt a compensatory funding cut from Westminster – can Johann Lamont guarantee this won’t happen? Will the Barnett Formula end? If not – how can we be certain? Why only 40 per cent responsibility for one tax? Is that figure the best for Scotland or the result of an internal Labour wrangle? Why not devolve the collection of oil and gas revenues as they do in Texas and Alberta? Without oil, a Scottish budget can’t “wash its face”. How does anything less than the chance of a balanced budget allow Scots to “grow up” and match spending with taxation?

What are the chances that Scotland will dominate thinking before a general election? A Tory minister promised change after a No vote in 1979. What guarantee that that won’t happen again? Etc etc.

And as for George Osborne, if he doesn’t deliver the promised sweeteners like devolving air passenger duty (APD) and scrapping the whisky duty escalator – why not? If he does deliver them, why stop there? Osborne could shock everyone by devolving the Crown Estates Commission to Scotland. He could announce plans to build oft-postponed and much needed sub-sea inter-connectors to the Scottish islands (since Westminster controls energy infrastructure) so their massive renewable resources can kick-start a social and economic boom. But that’s hardly likely.

Nor is it likely BBC Scotland will subject both leaders to the truly robust questioning they need and voters deserve.

Why not? It’s always been easy to subscribe to BBC conspiracy theories – but like my erstwhile colleague Derek Bateman, I can’t recall a single example of “plotting” to squeeze out nationalist voices during 25 years working at the Beeb. Bias is subtler than that. It arises from a rarely articulated “BBC way of doing things” – a nervousness about “untested contributors”, open formats and genuine diversity. It also arises from a form of selective blindness. I was called by a London researcher last week, asking my views on problems and uncertainties associated with independence. When I asked if his flagship network programme will also examine problems associated with the union, he said there wouldn’t be time and the difficulties of independence are interesting to voters. They are. But voters are also interested in the downsides of the union – London-centricity, economic stagnation, austerity and inequality as the measure of civilisation, failure to invest in Scotland’s green revolution, leaving Europe etc, etc.

If the BBC reduces the independence referendum to a confidence vote on the problems associated with only one of two voting options, that constitutes bias. I doubt they see it this way. The popular Radio Scotland programme Headlines is apparently for the chop in May. Presented by Kenneth MacDonald, this Sunday morning show canters through the papers and week’s news with verve, humour and robust even-handedness. Yesterday MacDonald told listeners that Vince Cable wants high-speed rail revamped to ease north-south tensions and observed: “As ever, the north means Leeds,” finishing: “This is Headlines with Kenneth MacDonald. Hurry now while stocks last.” Subtly and cleverly opinionated. So why is Headlines going – and what will be put in its place?

Elsewhere in BBC output (with the exception of Saturday’s excellent Good Morning Scotland) a slightly disengaged demeanour has become normal. It’s as if bias, opinion, judgment and personality have all been hurled into a single, dangerous no-go zone, leaving the faces and voices of BBC Scotland without bounce or vitality. Objectivity is achieved by appearing equally unenthusiastic towards all propositions and keeping a strict eye on the clock. This doesn’t deliver fairness. It delivers dead broadcasting.

Scotland’s future isn’t just a collection of problems. For many, many Scots on both sides of the debate, the referendum has prompted new questioning of what’s ae been, a reawakening of interest in Scotland’s history, geography, energy and engineering potential. That sense of reawakened interest, that curiosity about the country and that wider sense of historical context are too often missing from the BBC’s “painting by numbers” smeddum-free approach.

Why not loosen the reins and commission three historians, three poets, three business leaders, three economists, three councillors, three foreign consuls and three union leaders to give their accounts of modern Scotland in half-hour programmes without mediation by presenters? Why not broadcast local indyref debates simultaneously by splitting the airwaves on Saturdays after the sacred football season is over? Why not re-broadcast every one of the fabulous programmes on BBC4’s This Is Scotland season in 2009 and discuss the ideas raised?

The worst BBC bias is the belief this whole debate is boring. If it looks that way from Pacific Quay, BBC bosses should get out more.