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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London