The BBC has had a rather bad August.
It started with a row over the YouTube channel run by Scottish independence blogger Wings Over Scotland which was closed down by YouTube after BBC Scotland complaints about breaches of copyright. After a storm of protest Aunty withdrew the objections prompting YouTube to reinstate the channel.
Interviewed on Radio Scotland, BBC Scotland’s head of public policy, Ian Small explained the BBC felt forced to act when a Labour blogger cited Wings and another pro independence site whilst defending the presence of BBC material posted on his own site. But this revelation only served to demonstrate that BBC Scotland treated the two possible cases of copyright breach very differently.
The Labour politician enjoyed five days of “constructive discussion” with the BBC whilst Stuart Campbell and Peter Curran were simply shut down without notice.
All of which has simply exacerbated long-running feelings of discontent amongst independence supporters about bias at Pacific Quay.
Meanwhile, a perfect storm was brewing along slightly different lines south of the Border over Radio 4’s news flagship, the Today programme.
Presenter John Humphreys described Boris Johnson’s controversial burka remarks as “typically colourful language” and concluded; “Boris is Boris.”
Co-presenter Nick Robinson asked: ‘Isn’t there a danger that if we police every word, we play into the hands of extremists?’
Maybe that’s a valid question – but it follows weeks where the BBC has given hours of airtime to a forensic analysis of everything Jeremy Corbyn has ever said about Israel. Fair? Proportionate? Balanced?
The same day, official figures showed the Today programme’s lost more than 800,000 listeners this year. The BBC said a “quieter news agenda” was partly to blame. But lecturer and author Tom Mills says it may be because “liberals and leftists have finally given up on the programme”. Just as they (and Scottish independence supporters) have largely given up on another BBC flagship – Question Time. Since it’s off air for the summer recess, the Today programme has suddenly become the biggest target for unhappy English Labour voters – finally sharing the disenchantment with Aunty felt north of the Border since 2012.
One Twitter exchange said it all: “I used to listen to the Today programme every morning but BBC News has become unprofessional, superficial and derivative. It has given up reporting in favour of propaganda and I can’t listen to it any more.”
“I’m afraid I recognised that decades ago. I suspect it depends on your class and station. As a working class Scot BBC bias has been evident through my entire life (now 53). It’s taken much longer to be noticed by middle class, southern England – for whom Radio 4 largely exists.”
But whoever got there first, last week saw BBC critics unite online.
Anger over hounding Jeremy Corbyn whilst gently joshing with Boris Johnson combined with dissatisfaction over the non-coverage of independence rallies across Scotland this summer to produce #BBCswitchoff – a twitter hashtag which trended worldwide on Thursday night.
Some BBC weekend news programmes discussed the phenomenon – including Radio Scotland’s consistently probing weekend GMS. But Aunty generally did what it excels at doing – shutting up shop and hoping this latest storm will blow over. Maybe it will.
But problems slowly gathering for decades are now crying out for discussion and remedy. The biggest is balance – the BBC’s sacred duty. In the old days when Westminster was the only parliament, Labour and Tory the only possible parties of UK government, party politics the main unit of democratic organisation and the great and good the only authorities that mattered, the system just about worked. But though that old, rigid, London-centric consensus has gone, archaic BBC ideas of “balance” have survived.
Not my opinion but that of Gavin Esler – a BBC reporter and presenter for around 20 years. He says: “In the post-Trump, post-Brexit information world, the pillar of journalistic ‘balance’ has cracked. Consider this dilemma. When Donald Trump tells us he never made a statement we have all just heard him make, is it necessary to ‘balance’ [this reality] with a Trump loyalist telling us the president employs ‘alternative facts’? The ‘crisis in our democracy’ comes because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with ‘systematic disinformation’ is an existential threat.”
North of the Border, BBC Scotland has struggled to accept that independence isn’t a “phase,” a single issue where balance matters only during an active referendum campaign. It’s the new most important faultline in Scottish politics and it is “led” not just by party politicians but by bloggers and locally organised groups all over Scotland.
That’s why the BBC’s failure to report on local pro indy marches across Scotland, organised by All Under One Banner rather the SNP has not just infuriated Yes voters – it’s been inevitable given Aunty’s rigid understanding of “balance” and who gets to make news. BBC Scotland still refuses to think about who is allowed to “warn” of catastrophes, who is therefore forced to “respond” and what that does to the credibility of each side.
Now that English Corbyn supporters are complaining about the same BBC bias towards existing power structures (from which only crazy radicals would deviate), things may be coming to a head. BBC journalists are also unhappy – subject to hostility online yet forbidden from correcting even factual mistakes for fear of escalating Twitter wars.
In these circumstances, it’s a terrible shame the BBC lost an excellent broadcaster this week whose popularity with all “sides” has been nothing short of amazing. Over a decade, the talented Scot Eddie Mair and his team on Radio 4’s PM programme perfected the knack of transforming the dry facts and figures of news into fascinating and insightful human stories. The confidence they demonstrated in placing long personal interviews at the top of the programme was breath-taking – yet faced with evasive political figures Eddie was utterly incisive and compelling without being gratuitously rude.
Eddie Mair is due to start broadcasting again in September on LBC – which is good news for listeners. But the BBC cannot afford to lose such skilled and inquisitive presenters, when its capacity to reflect the genuine diversity of these islands is being questioned constantly on all sides.