Should the Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast control ” their” BBC?

The three wee Celts in the precariously devolved  UK have got together – convened wouldn’t you know it – by the Scots, to agitate for a bigger slice of the BBC licence fee during the coming round of the BBC Charter review. Northern Ireland’s culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin  declares:

“The BBC must continue to embrace and further develop its commitment to its public obligations and the occasion of the charter renewal must be seen as an opportunity to deliver better for the North of Ireland.(sic).

“In moving forward there needs to be greater emphasis placed on home-grown productions and the harnessing of local talent.

In the  general election  the SNP campaigned for  an extra £100 million to be spent in Scotland to reflect “more accurately the licence fee revenue raised here in Scotland”. But this figure ignores  the fact that Scots contribute to the costs of all BBC services, not only those which originate in Scotland. Spending is slightly above the population ratios.  

No specific demands have been made by Stormont so far. Investment is one thing, control and governance another. The politics of future BBC governance reflects the UK wide ferment over devolved powers and Scottish independence. The SNP agitate for greater BBC accountability to Holyrood but are  unlikely to win  the measure of control they seek. For independence they  hanker after the BBC’s continuing presence in some form, as part of an  RTE- type settlement  for an SBC in an independent Scotland.

Westminster and the BBC say that on independence it’s  nothing  doing except on a strictly commercial basis, as the BBC is bound to act in the interests of the continuing union of licence fee payers.  This is quite distinct from its independent editorial obligations which are bound to create claims of bias when the future of the state is an issue and there is no  political consensus. What may not be widely recognised is that the  concept of impartiality applies to the range of opinion in the UK  as a whole, not only locally. This  gives the local broadcasters  essential room to breathe.

BBC Scotland are encountering pressures which are all too familiar  to those of us who went through the Troubles –  the main  difference  being that our main pressure came from unionists whereas BBC Scotland’s comes from the would-be secessionists. Northern Ireland obsessions were parochial; the Scots would claim to have a world view.

However much pressure  mounts, BBC impartiality rules and ethics disbar it equally from supporting the Union and majority SNP opinion. The BBC has no editorial voice of its own but is duty bound to reflect them all. Rather like the early attacks  on the BBC  in NI,   the BBC’s operations in Scotland took a pasting for allegedly failing to give full weight to the SNP surge in a campaign that  featured attacks on political editor Nick Robinson. But Nicola Sturgeon astutely drew a line under the row and made it up with Nick over dinner. In my day in Belfast, I always paid, (or the BBC did)!

Will the NI parties ape the SNP and grow more restive? They may cancel each other out or the complaint level may be twice as loud. Either way rows will go on, updated for themes and events. Overall though, with familiarity comes ( No, not what you think),  broad acceptance and possibly an exhausted topic.

In Scotland a more nuanced debate continues over a ” voice for Scotland” beyond the  news and BBC Alba. It is ironic that Newsnight Scotland closed just before the SNP surge began.  We haven’t heard the last of  Scotland’s voice.

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  • Zig70

    The BBC news leaves me cold at times. It certainly has a smell of state tv and an editorial voice. The fawning over the royals, heroes and recently the reporting on the swarm desperate to get to British nirvana. Failing to mention the proportionally small numbers heading for England or the reason why these African migrants have English as a first or second language. I wouldn’t change it though. It serves as a cut, just a pity RTE is so poor and doesn’t give an entertaining green alternative.

  • Turgon

    I think Zig 70 is correct. There is no doubt the BBC has an editorial line. It is more nuanced than the usual right wing accusation that the BBC is lefty. It is reasonably centre right on economic matters (e.g. the Greek crisis) but also socially liberal and pro Europe.

    The right and the left both complain about it but that does not mean that the BBC is necessarily in the correct place. It does suffer from a pretty overweening arrogance and a sense of both superiority and entitlement.

    Personally I find the likes of Channel 4 news better – though it is also somewhat liberal but it does lack the arrogance and entitlement feel.

    The News and current affairs output is not, however, I would suggest where the BBC falls down most. Rather its entertainment programming is now well below par. It is worth noting that most of the good TV drama and comedy shows now come from either Europe or the USA: even the now very poorly funded ITV can give the BBC a run for its money on drama.

    The BBC still does good nature programmes but so does National Geographic. Its assorted reality TV programmes are just as cringeworthy as everyone else’s similar rubbish.

    Recently a Labour spokesperson suggested the BBC is like the cultural equivalent of the NHS. I suspect he is correct but it is not wholly a complement. Rather both are state institutions born in the 20th century which whilst once world leading are now regarded much less favourably everywhere except in the rose tinted view of some in the UK. Also despite their supposed brilliance very few other countries have copied either the BBC or the NHS which is instructive.

  • Andrew Finn

    The only thing I use the BBC for is Question Time and the Parliament channel.

    I don’t watch the local news because it has just turned into the Northern Ireland branch of RTE.

    And, of course, the whole organisation is biased.

    Useless organisation. Not worth the £140 odd we’re forced to fork out each year.

  • Zig70

    I turned on RTE1 this morning 6:45 and it’s running extended shopping channel adverts. The other evening they had English soaps on 1 and Hawaii-5-ohno on 2. It is an example of why the Irish are so bad at nation building and why I’m concerned the 2016 commemorations will be damp, with the only televised bit being the new proclamation with Enda and Mairtin apologizing to the English for a few rogue Irishmen. The BBC is a fairly useful state tool. SF should concentrate on fixing the Irish version, we should at least have the digital channels up here. I can get them sometimes but in Newtownabbey it’s a fine tune and one windy day puts them out. There has been a few windy days recently.

  • Jag

    Isn’t the licence evasion rate in the North-East of Ireland (sic) the highest of any region in the UK? So, it mightn’t be the wisest move for NI to angle for local spending by the BBC proportionate to licence fee income.

    BTW, and off-topic and for the site admins, your new threads are not showing on your main website page (which is stuck with a Nuala O’Loan post).

  • JPJ2

    No way will broadcasting be devolved to Scotland. BBC Scotland remains the last, best hope for unionism. It will be used to uphold parochialism and British “nationality”.

    Watching the news in Gaelic, which I do not understand, on BBC Alba, I obtain a hint of what it would be like to view the World from a Scottish perspective-no Westminster government will allow that, so no “Scottish Six” will occur.

  • chrisjones2


    1 no reporting then of any alleged malpractice on politicians’ expenses or corruption in high places then
    2 no sinful programmes on homosexuality
    3 no blasphemy
    4 wall to wall services on the Lords Day
    5 no black, coffee coloured or yellow faces
    6 lots of wonderful programmes on the purity of Irish / Ulster Scots and harmony
    7 close down at 11pm every night when all decent people should be in their beds (unless they are working and not in any sex industry related professions)

    A bit like RTE in the 1950s then

  • chrisjones2

    “I turned on RTE1 this morning 6:45”

    Mad or drunk or just not been to bed yet?

  • Scots Anorak

    I doubt whether it’s true that the SNP “hanker after” the BBC. Many independence-supporters swore to stop paying their licence fees after the referendum campaign, a practice that the current UK Government may even be minded to facilitate for its own reasons. The SNP stance merely reflects the wish of Scots to continue to enjoy publicly funded broadcasting rather than go down the Fox route. It’s a pragmatic policy (the BBC is currently the only show in town), and no more reflects internal SNP opinion than, say, keeping the monarchy. If the Scottish Government were allowed to set up a rival to the BBC, it would likely prove a popular one (I believe that RTE gets the lion’s share of viewers in the Republic). As matters stand, BBC Scotland may soon find that its current affairs offering is less substantial than the accidental one of Facebook.

    One could be forgiven for inferring from your piece that attacks on Nick Robinson were a planned part of the referendum campaign. In fact Mr. Robinson inserted himself into that campaign by resorting to tendentious editorialising in place of neutral, fact-based reporting, a move that would always have raised doubts regarding a former Conservative student activist.

    Spending being above population ratios isn’t the whole story, since many of the supposedly Scottish programmes are Scottish in name only and have little or no Scottish content, while many “national” programmes are resolutely English, for example, the Six O’Clock News, which has plenty about health and education in England but nothing about those subjects anywhere else. Anyone looking at the BBC Scotland iPlayer offering will see, as I think you rightly imply, that only Gaelic and local “there’s been a murder” news are represented with anything approaching adequacy, with little for Lowland Scots linguistic culture outside highly dubious and stereotypical comedy, no adequate treatment of Scottish history, no Scottish costume drama — and, even now, no satisfactory reflection of devolution or the fact that the Scottish Parliament is now the centre of political life in the country.

    Newsnight Scotland was replaced by Scotland 2014 (now ’15), presumably in response to well-publicised problems with the opt-out handover rather than to provide proper current affairs coverage. The fact that there is still no Scottish Six, 16 years after devolution, is, in my view, entirely the result of the fact that Westminster writes the BBC’s Charter and has nothing to do with reflecting popular opinion on either side of the border.