Eben Wilson is the Director of TaxpayerScotland. He worked in broadcasting for twenty years and is the author of “Media, Meddling and Mediocrity” for the Adam Smith Institute.
After hundreds of people recently gathered at BBC Scotland’s headquarters in Glasgow to protest against perceived “bias” in the referendum campaign, the BBC responded that its coverage was “fair and accurate”.
From the viewpoint of the BBC, which is genuinely dedicated to its impartial editorial position, I am sure this seems true. A slightly more difficult question is whether fairness, and even accuracy in an age of news opinion journalism, are meaningful standards. If they are not, then a foundation stone of the BBC’s position as a state-sponsored broadcaster evaporates.
The referendum campaign has highlighted some awkward truths; that facts are often irrelevant bunkum; that belief and vision matter; that randomness, uncertainty and risk are the way of the world; and that the ability to adapt and change with a new understanding of its place in the world is how a society and its culture can advance.
Discussion about “the BBC” is fraught with difficulty; if uttered with a sneer, what people usually mean is BBC News journalism. But the BBC is a multi-faceted entity acting as a business sector leader, a cultural market place and an information service about (and to some extent of) the state. In a second article I will argue why an independent Scotland should not have a clone of the BBC for commercial reasons, in this article I will argue why a BBC News service could be freed if we re-thought “public service broadcasting” and allowed it to be fair and accurate on its own terms.
The world has grown up
The notion of public service is a slippery one. Its roots lie in an era when information useful to the wider public was hard to disseminate, but then made easier by the advent of radio, and further bolstered by a demand during the Second World War for comforting words from national government. A nation working together for collective survival was well able to appreciate a collective administrative voice publically serving their need for information and news.
As television broadcasting developed from a single channel to the multi-channel world of today, the BBC re-invented its role. The comforting “auntie” of state information became the “seamless robe” of entertainment, drama, documentary and news justified not because it was demanded, but because it was cheap per household.
Within this one stop shop information delivery system, a strand of editorialism emerged as the world grew beyond a presenter in a dinner jacket announcing public sector information and moved into a world of sound-bites and howling special interest groups eager to justify their feedings at the trough of the public purse. As this change happened, BBC News, in its earnest attempts to report the cacophony, began to struggle editorially with the difference between impartiality and balance.
For and against are not balanced
A recent example may help explain this difference. A BBC researcher phones for an opinion on Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal to spend £10million on Prestwick airport. For someone with robust views against more state spending, the expected view is one of “against the proposal”, to be balanced with others “for the proposal”. That’s balance, but note who has set the agenda – the BBC.
The fate of Prestwick is an issue that should have been tackled nearly fifty years ago. The airport is a classic example of state support repeatedly trickled into an entity that then survives long after its sell-by date in a quasi-commercial never-never land. Scottish steel, coal and shipbuilding all suffered the same fate. As such, yet more small scale short-term investments are probably unavoidable while this fiasco is dealt with on a strategic basis to avoid too much human suffering; Prestwick might survive or close, but time is needed to manage its final fate and the substantive debate should be around what this management should entail.
Two good ideas would be to cut Airport Passenger Duty and Corporation Tax – providing fuel to the enterprise engine that might save Prestwick. Supply side ideas rejected by the researcher. Why? A bit outside their agenda? Too party political? Too referendum political? But why – aren’t these precisely the objective ideas that should be discussed objectively and impartially on their merits – whoever happens to be their champion of origin?
Too often, nuanced arguments have to be rejected by BBC journalists on the editorial basis that a “balance” of opinion actually means a view “for” and a view “against”. Shackled by its “impartiality” guideline, BBC news reporting becomes intrinsically skewed, not to any one viewpoint, but to the idea that public policy is always a matter of interested parties being at loggerheads with each other – echoing the culture of the Westminster parliament. Such “balance” between thoughtfulness and bunkum, while perhaps entertaining, is not adding to objective impartiality aimed at educating and informing. Many say that Holyrood parliament’s plenary arc is a better reflection of Scotland’s diversity and the way contemporary policy debate should be carried out.
Diversity and dumbing down
In a vastly more intricate world of diverse opinion, a state-sponsored broadcaster thus offers the public debate a dumbed down dis-service; the opposite of what the impartiality idea was meant to achieve. Not surprisingly, the market for information has responded.
We often hear that the young are disengaged from politics and public discourse. No they are not! They are thoroughly engaged in their values and their conversations; through television to be sure, but also the internet, the blog-sphere, and social media. The market has given them choices about their public interests, serving them in multiple ways. This is the cultural plurality of a freedom of belief that Scotland should nurture rather than tax yet another generation to pay for a broken information model.
None of us knows what the people of an independent Scotland would choose as their sources of entertainment, information and value reinforcement; but one thing a “free” Scotland should avoid is institutionalising a joint venture between politicians, pundits and producers at taxpayer expense. The White Paper says “Scotland’s cultural life and heritage take many different forms, as diverse as the land, peoples and places of our country”. Electronic broadcasting now also offers many different forms providing information dissemination at different prices through private services freely chosen.
It’s time to let the state-funded broadcasting model go, it would be easy to do, simply tell the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation that it had no licence fee and had to charge a subscription fee, as do Sky, BT and on-line newspapers. If the state felt there were particular cultural forms that needed subsidy, let them do that through a transparent budget voted through parliament annually and put the work out to contract.
The alternative is a mid-sized, publically subsidised, editorially strictured, resource limited parochial and politicised entity that would do an independent Scotland and its modernising culture no real good. Free the people from the BBC, free the BBC from politicians.
Both TaxpayerScotland and the Adam Smith Institute are unaligned in the referendum debate and take no corporate view.