It’s what we in the business call a “reverse ferret”: when a newspaper or political party does a complete reversal of its line after discovering that it had zero public support. The government may appear to have conducted a reverse ferret over the BBC – having dropped plans for abolishing the licence fee, selling off parts of the corporation and having a government veto over scheduling of Strictly Come Dancing. But don’t believe the hype: as far as public service broadcasting is concerned, the ferret is still very much up the trouser leg.
The government has been engaged in a very single-minded and purposeful move to subject the BBC to a form of political control which, if last week’s White Paper sees the light of legislative day, could severely damage its reputation abroad and at home. Yes, the licence fee has been salvaged for another eleven years and the BBC will still be able to decide its Saturday evening running order without sending a copy in advance to the DCMS. But the plans for the new unitary board of the BBC bring government into the very heart of the corporation and its editorial processes.
The BBC was set up originally under Royal Charter to be independent of government. True, government appointed BBC governors, until 2005, but they had a purely supervisory role and were not involved in the day to day running of the corporation or setting its editorial standards. Nor did the now defunct BBC Trust have any role in deciding the BBC’s programmes and services. But the new unitary board, proposed by the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, certainly will. If he gets his way, the chair, deputy and half the board will be directly appointed by the government of the day.
This takes politics into the very nerve centre of the corporation where its editorial standards are reviewed day by day and crucial editorial decisions are made for the whole UK. It is hard to believe that the BBC will be able to robustly defend its political autonomy when government minders are effectively in routine personal contact with the editor-in-chief, the Director General.
Behind the smokescreen of diversity and standards, the government is introducing the kind of political direction that we used to see in communist countries, or in Putin’s Russia. That may sound extreme. But the current Director General, Tony Hall, is neither radical nor paranoid, and he made clear that the White Paper could be the beginning of the end for an independent BBC. “It doesn’t feel to me that these tasks should be undertaken by government-appointed board members”, he said in a recent speech. “The BBC is not a state broadcaster”.
Some commentators in the UK media were poo poohing this as alarmism and lefty hyperbole – a conspiracy theory too far. There won’t be a government majority on the board and the BBC’s independence will still be written into its charter. It’s a public body financed by licence-payer’s cash, so why shouldn’t the government have a say on how it is managed? Well, to those people I have been putting it this way: imagine if this were Scotland and Alex Salmond were appointing half the editorial board of the BBC?
Now, I don’t believe the former First Minister is a control freak who wants to take over the running of BBC news bulletins. He was responsible for setting up the Scottish Broadcasting Commission in 2008, and is a supporter of public service broadcasting and journalistic independence. But Mr Salmond is also a politician, and like many politicians he believes with a passion that the BBC is biassed against the SNP, as do very many of his supporters.
His criticisms may have some justification, however you do not want any politician to have detailed control of appointments to the editorial board of any journalist organisation because they are likely to use this to settle old scores. Politicians will always interfere if they have the ability so to do – they just can’t help themselves. You have to keep the hands out of the sweetie jar because even the best of them will succumb to temptation.
Those who are sanguine about the government’s plans insist that the BBC will also be subject ot regulation from Ofcom, which is arms length from government. But it too has government appointed leadership and is narrowly interested in competition in the broadcasting sector. This means that the commercial stations will be able, under the White Paper, to make legal arguments that the BBC is engaging in unfair competition when it produces programmes that draw large audiences from commercial stations. This could be another subtle way of pulling the BBC’s horns.
These changes have profound implications for Scotland. The presence of appointees by the UK government on the new unitary board could make this very much what its Scottish critics have long said the BBC is becoming: the propaganda arm of the British state. The BBC will be more closely aligned to the agenda of the government of the day than ever before.
There is to be a Scottish appointee to the unitary board and some vague subsidiary board looking after Scottish interests. But this will not address the implications for Scotland of the BBC becoming a state broadcaster. It will only institutionalise the regionalism of BBC Scotland in the current structure. There is no attempt in the White Paper to address the serious issues of funding or of the London-centric nature of the corporation.
All this means that the devolution of broadcasting to the Scottish parliament – an issue which has slipped down the agenda – needs to be revived as a matter of urgency. Regulation of the printed press is effectively devolved to Holyrood, but broadcasting specifically is not. Parliamentary oversight could provide at least one avenue of democratic scrutiny of an increasingly centralised and politicised BBC.
This emphatically does not mean replacing political control from the government in Westminster with political direction from the Scottish government. Indeed, there is an important issue here that advocates of a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation need to address. Whether it is Scottish or UK, it is first of all the BBC’s editorial independence that must be protected. Only parliament can ensure that. Fortunately, Holyrood, unlike Westminster, is a balanced parliament in which no one party is generally in overall control.
The Scottish parliament needs to have the right to question and hold the BBC to account, not least to account for the £320 million that is raised in Scotland in licence-fee revenues. Like many, I have criticised the tendency of the BBC to churn out crowd-pleasing programmes – Snog Marry Avoid – instead of producing world standard drama like The Wire or Breaking Bad. But the BBC has improved markedly in recent years. Programmes like War and Peace, The People Versus OJ Simpson and Peaky Blinders are as good as anything produced by Netflix. However, this renaissance has yet to spread to Scotland.
There seems to be recognition now in the DCMS that the BBC’s policy of “lift and shift”, which means devolving production of events like the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield and calling them Scottish programmes, is unacceptable. However, the government has dressed its proposals in the vague language of “diversity”. Scotland now seems to lie somewhere on the identity spectrum of BME – Black,Minority, Ethnic – and the talk is of addressing issues of “portrayal and representation”.
The BBC insists that this is not going to be about kilts and kitsch. But I’m not comfortable with Scotland being reduced to an ethnic category. Nor do we need the tokenism of the Scottish Six, an idea that is 20 years out of date. The Scottish parliament voted unanimously in 2008 for a dedicated Scottish digital channel. The case for that to be revisited in the new parliament is now stronger than ever.