What is going on in the BBC’s Little Britain?

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, May 25th 2011

Britain has been undergoing dramatic change in these last few weeks. The Scottish Parliament elections, and the arrival of the first ever majority SNP Government following its landslide victory, has been a story of international reach and consequences covered the world over. Strange then that our British media have struggled to address these circumstances other than by caricature or silence.

The BBC in particular has not had a good post-election time. The ‘Today’ programme has had Alex Salmond on a couple of times, and ran a number of serious items, but the rest of the BBC has not fared so well. ‘Newsnight UK’s’ one foray north of the border involved a hackneyed, cliché ridden piece on independence by Jackie Long which unsurprisingly found a northern land committed to a simplistic, jokey separatism (1). And then there is the strange case of BBC’s ‘Question Time’.

Now BBC ‘Question Time’ is still, despite all the media changes and transformation of how current affairs is presented in the media, one of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programmes. It is placed, schedule-wise and in feel, to gain a large mainstream audience. It has a Dimbleby front it that tells us it is important, or thinks it is. And it is on a Thursday night followed by that other BBC secret weapon – Michael Portillo – who, even without Diane Abbott, is seen to pack a punch!

‘Question Time’ since the May 5th election has been revealing. The two programmes have been recorded in Sheffield and Wormwood Scrubs, and have been entirely self-absorbed and obsessed with the usual fascinations of the British political classes (2). So after one of the most seismic elections in Scottish history, and a pretty important one even on British matters, how many times was Scotland mentioned or discussed?

Amazingly Scotland did not warrant one question, one comment or even a passing mention. It is almost an Orwellian like thought police degree of silence by the British political classes. It begs the question what would Scotland have to do to register with the world of ‘Question Time’?, Al-Megrahi exempted, as that has irritated and annoyed the British political class. You can almost imagine Scotland declaring independence one week and it not being considered worthy of a question on the programme following the break-up of the UK!

We now know that for the first two programmes post-election the BBC offered a slot to Alex Salmond, First Minister, or Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister. The SNP instead offered Michael Russell, Minister for Education, who was turned down by the Beeb (3).

Now of course ‘Question Time’ has form here. Late last year in a now infamous episode of the programme broadcast from Glasgow, David Dimbleby engaged in a rather bad-tempered, patronising put down of Nicola Sturgeon. After Sturgeon tried to bring in the rather relevant subject of fiscal autonomy, Dimbleby stopped her in her tracks with the admonition that ‘Question Time’ was ‘for a UK audience’ (4).

There is a revealing disjuncture between how Scotland is seen by the BBC and London. The Glasgow programme in question had spent the first 15-20 minutes discussing minutiae concerning the London Mayor Boris Johnson, seeing it as an international issue. Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to raise considerations of the Scottish Government was slapped down as parochial.

Interestingly, ‘Question Time’ will soon be made for the UK network from BBC Scotland offices in Glasgow. This is part of BBC senior management’s sop to the pressures from Scotland for a more decentralist BBC that better reflects the dynamics of the UK nations and regions. However, this decision, rather than produce more diverse, informed TV has led to ‘Question Time’ becoming even more defiantly and narrowly British of late. It is almost as if its patience has snapped at the thought of its future anticipated move!

It is clear that the BBC’s travails on these issues reflect a deeper, more potent malaise: the crisis of Britain. Gone is the old patrician, gentleman’s club Britain that the BBC came from. Gone is the mandarin and boffin led, slightly social democratic Britain, which it thought it was overseeing in the 1960s and 1970s.

Instead, the Britain of the BBC today is a nasty, brutish place, one centred on the interests of the global winners class, buccaneers, vulture capitalists and corporate interest groupthink. While at the same time aligning itself with old orthodoxies, Oxbridge, and new ones, various diversity and equality tests which do not threaten the brave new world of Little Britain.

What we do with the BBC and media in this is a question which goes beyond broadcasting and media responsibility and regulation to power, politics and what happens to the UK.

The mainstream British media have consistently failed to reflect the loosening, increasingly diverse Britain which has seen Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland emerge as increasingly confident nations and political cultures increasingly acting on their own terms.

Many of the alternative British media spaces don’t come out of this well either. Much of the English blogosphere which deals with politics is even more narrow, intolerant and ill-informed than the mainstream media. Places like Open Democracy aren’t only an exemplar for a different kind of informed, non-tribal conversation, they are highly unusual!

As far as Scotland is concerned we really do need to not waste too much of our time with most of the British media. This will throw up questions of how we by-pass them and engage in new kinds of pan-British conversation, a point Anthony Barnett raised in a recent post when he asked, ‘How do we talk of Scotland?’, the ‘we’ being people not living in Scotland (5).

The point of Scots seeing a BBC ‘Scottish Six’ as the apex of our imagination, or even a Scottish Digital Channel has long past (6). It is going to be the wider issue of  democratising culture and content that matters. And crucially, we need to encourage what is already happening, developing an ecology of self-determination, literally making the nation, society and culture we want to live in.

This will entail creating new media spaces, vessels and institutions for us to have creative, generous discussions, debates and develop ideas and thinking. Ones which can help Scotland on its journey to self-government and self-determination, help our friends in the south to leave the shadow of the Ukanian state, and maybe just prick a little bit of that self-importance in the David Dimblebys of the world and their self-reverential take on things.

Notes

1. BBC Newsnight, May 11th 2011.

2. BBC Question Time, May 12th, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b011cnw4/Question_Time_12_05_2011/; May 19th 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b011f69l/Question_Time_19_05_2011/

3. Joan McAlpine, ‘Time to change Auntie’s Anglocentric channel’, The Scotsman, May 24th 2011, http://news.scotsman.com/opinion/Joan-McAlpine-Time-to-change.6773227.jp

4. Gerry Hassan, ‘Nation to Nation: The Problem of Speaking for Britain’, Open Democracy, October 29th 2010, https://www.gerryhassan.com/blog/nation-to-nation-the-problem-of-speaking-for-britain/

5. Anthony Barnett, ‘How Do We Talk About Scotland?’, Open Democracy, May 24th 2010, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/anthony-barnett/how-do-we-talk-about-scotland

6. Joan McAlpine, ‘When did the media lose its Scottish accent of mind?’, in Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett (eds), Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination, Luath Press 2011.