Lesley Riddoch: Jam, jute and just not like Dundee

The BBC's Question Time was filmed in Dundee last week - although many found that difficult to believe. Picture Ian Rutherford
The BBC's Question Time was filmed in Dundee last week - although many found that difficult to believe. Picture Ian Rutherford
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The controversy over Question Time demonstrates that the BBC’s idea of balance needs to be updated, writes Lesley Riddoch

Dundee is a singular place. Once the second city of Scotland, the east coast city of 150 thousand souls has morphed through more identities in a lifetime than David Bowie. First a whaling port, then a manufacturer of linen, Dundee became “Juteopolis” in the 19th century when the skilled, female linen workforce was shifted to process jute imported from India using local supplies of whale oil.

A Dundee woman “discovered” marmalade and her son opened Keillor’s factory, famous the world over for producing jams and marmalades. One of Scotland’s oldest magazine and newspaper companies DC Thomson made Dundee its base in 1905 after the jute barons sparked mass unemployment by shifting processing work to India. Meanwhile, the world’s longest bridge was built across the Tay in 1878 and collapsed in a storm. Twenty-three years later the Discovery was built and launched in Dundee to take Captain Scott on his first successful research voyage to Antarctica.

Dundee’s early 20th century decline was somewhat arrested by Timex who arrived in 1946 lured by Scottish regional development grants. In 1981 Clive Sinclair based production of his ZX Spectrum home computer in a Dundee factory owned by the US watchmakers and though both enterprises had gone by the 1990s, the legacy of a skilled computer-savvy workforce had not. Combining that human resource with the largest student population of any city in Europe bar Heidelberg, Dundee has become a hub for life sciences and a world centre for the computer games industry. Its unenviable reputation as Scotland’s teenage pregnancy capital is now a thing of the past but in Dundee’s most deprived areas, one in three children still lives in poverty. Today progress on the new, glamorous Waterfront complete with the new V&A design museum competes for headlines with the city’s enduring experience of poverty. As the city’s most famous living son Brian Cox has commented, Dundee is a city of survivors. As its most celebrated singer Michael Marra wrily observed, Dundonians are like Glaswegians – who listen.

In short, Dundee is not just anywhere. Dundee has developed a very particular outlook, accent and voting history. Citizens elected both Winston Churchill and the first communist MP in the 20th century, ousted a tired Labour City Council in 2012 and provided the SNP with a near clean sweep of MPs and MSPs before delivering an emphatic Yes vote during the independence referendum. I dwell on this history partly because Dundee gets little attention in a Central Belt dominated world, but mostly to help non-Dundonians and BBC programme-makers understand the surprise and annoyance generated by last week’s edition of Question Time which was physically but not culturally or politically located there.

The panel was composed of Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson, Green co-convenor Patrick Harvie, Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, SNP Deputy First Minister John Swinney, local Labour MSP Jenny Marra and the Daily Telegraph’s Timothy Stanley. So far, so normal. A diverse selection of “local” politicians with one wild card. Indeed, Question Time should be applauded for recognising Scottish political reality and including the Greens. But there the applause ends.

Next to no questioners had Dundee accents and the audience –hostile to Europe, Scottish independence and John Swinney – raised an equally improbable and unrepresentative set of questions.

All of which prompted author Val McDermid to ask: “Has the Question Time audience been bussed in from Perth and Broughty Ferry?” and SNP MP Pete Wishart commented: “Are you sure you’re in Dundee? You’ve managed to find an incredible number of Tories and Brexiteers for your audience,” while columnist Paul Kavanagh wrote, “We desperately need some political archaelogists to dig up the lost city of Yes Dundee, because BBC Question Time dismally failed to find it. What they found instead was some mythical settlement where Yes voting working class Dundonians are as rare as unicorns.” These are not racist or anti-English observations. As the online paper Bella Caledonia observed, the vast bulk of online critics were complaining about representation and balance, not ethnicity.

This is the nub of the BBC’s dilemma.

Question Time is currently caught between a rock and a hard place – partly because of outdated BBC “rules” of balance and partly because neither the BBC nor the UK government has come to terms with the reality of devolution and the power of place. And let’s not kid ourselves – the existence of powerful, distinctive local views, histories and interests are as roundly and routinely ignored in SNP- run Scotland as they are in top-down Britain. So I’d guess the producers hit a number of “balance” and interest issues which led to the un-representative guddle that was last Thursday’s programme.

Firstly, there is an obvious but unwritten Question Time rule that venues are merely backdrops for the discussion of national issues not locations with outlooks, stories and agendas of their own. This has been deemed necessary to stop the petty concerns of local life sullying consideration of the great affairs of state. But Dundee departs radically from the pattern of UK politics. The city currently has one solitary Tory councillor, one Lib Dem, 16 SNP and ten Labour members, producing an SNP/Yes majority. Programme-makers, however, opted to give an equal voice to every party in the Scottish Parliament. That’s fair in one way, but produced a massively anti-SNP/No leaning panel – further distorted by the Telegraph columnist brought in to provide a lone pro-Brexit voice. The audience was “balanced” too – not to reflect the politics of Dundee or even Scotland but both sides of the EU referendum debate. Finally, the actual question – Brexit and its possible impact on a second indyref – quickly produced a different and totally unrepresentative debate on independence. Voila – the perfect storm.

Question Time must learn from this. We live in a multi-layered devolved British state – a democratic reality recently acknowledged by the new BBC director Tony Hall. He must now challenge the archaic pre-devolution definitions of “balance” that stifle BBC programme-making.

Several different balances must be struck these days to more accurately reflect local, national and UK realities, and the local dimension must get a stronger weighting in the production mix. Otherwise Question Time is destined to produce increasingly inauthentic programmes across the whole of the UK – but especially in Scotland.