BBC Charter Review: SIU Response

It's a longish read and perhaps a little dry - but here's SIU's contribution to the consultation process on the future of the BBC

Introduction to Scotland In Union

Scotland In Union is a non-party movement united around a positive view of Scotland within the United Kingdom. It is a not-for-profit organisation, with supporters from all shades of moderate political opinion. Its members hold a diverse range of views, but we are united in believing that staying together, and working together, with our neighbours in the rest of the UK is in the best interests of Scotland and the wider British people. It aspires to make a positive and helpful contribution to civic society and to the development of the UK. Scotland In Union looks forward to a day when political debate in Scotland is about the pressing and important political concerns of our day: for example, prosperity, equality, and justice.  We believe there is majority support for the continuation of the Union in all parts of the United Kingdom. 

Scotland In Union’s response to the Charter Review

Scotland In Union welcomes the opportunity to respond to the consultation on the BBC Charter Review.  The BBC is an important unifying force for the United Kingdom and our interest in its future relates to its history of promoting national unity and cohesion. It is a much loved institution throughout the United Kingdom, in Scotland as elsewhere.  Our interests in this review lie with national unity, and an impartial news service.  We have answered only the questions below which relate to those interests. 

During the Scottish Referendum campaign, our members noted that the potential loss of the BBC was cited regularly as an issue during canvassing.   According to the recently published Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 86% of people in Scotland would like to keep the BBC available to viewers and listeners in Scotland and 61% of voters wanted to keep all the BBC’s services intact and do not want a separate Scottish service.

Scotland In Union’s response is written against a background where the Scottish Government has called for the BBC to become a ‘federal’ organisation, with a board for each nation, a transfer of budgets, “independent decision-making” and a new television and radio channel.  Scotland In Union considers that this call to be politically motivated, based on a desire to create more division and difference between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, with the BBC being viewed as a potent symbol of that which the Scottish National Party seeks to undermine.    The BBC should continue to defend its reputation as an impartial broadcaster from attacks by nationalists. 

Response to BBC Charter Review questions

Why the BBC?  Mission, Purpose and Values

Q1.  How can the BBC’s public purposes be improved so there is more clarity about what the BBC should achieve?

The BBC plays a crucial part in the life of the United Kingdom.  It unites and unifies the nation, providing a positive cohesive force.  This pervades all its current public purposes -  sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning, stimulating creativity and cultural excellence, representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities, bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK and delivering emerging technologies.  Charter renewal provides an opportunity for the BBC to reinforce these messages.    

As noted above, the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Government have called for a ‘federal’ BBC. Scotland In Union considers that this is an attempt to balkanise an important British institution, leaving it permanently weakened. As we mention in our introduction above, an overwhelming 86% of people in Scotland would like to keep the BBC available to viewers and listeners in Scotland As many as 61% of Scottish people surveyed said they would “simply like to keep the access they already have and do not feel that the country should develop its own independent public television service”.

The purposes of the BBC feed into each other.  Sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning, stimulating creativity and cultural excellence all work together to provide well-informed and well educated citizens of the UK.  

Scotland In Union considers that the role of the BBC in bringing the UK to the world, and the world to the UK is very important.  The way the BBC works abroad, for example in Syria and North Korea, is brave and fearless and the BBC must maintain its reputation for truth-telling and bravery in the face of any political power and any political interference.  The world view of the UK is heavily influenced by the values of the BBC:  the UK has recently been shown to have mightiest soft power in the world – if the BBC is diminished, British soft power will likewise be diminished.     

The current purposes of the BBC are broad, and rightly so.  Scotland In Union supports this broad approach.

Q2.  Which elements of universality are most important for the BBC

Scotland In Union believes the BBC should continue to maintain universality across age groups and UK-wide geography. Common sense however should be applied regarding the need to broadcast programmes in different languages (see also Question 7). 

Q3.  Should the Charter Review formally establish a set of values for the BBC?

Scotland In Union thinks it essential that the BBC establish a set of values.  Of the seven suggested values in the Charter Review – Independent, Impartial, High quality, Efficient/Value for money, Transparent, Distinctive and Diverse/representative, Scotland in Union would choose to emphasise “independent”, “impartial” and “diverse/representative”.  

We also suggest that an additional value which should be included, particularly in news reporting and current affairs, is to supplement impartiality with “Comprehensiveness” that is addressing all issues of significance to the UK’s national life.    

Scotland In Union considers that the most critical value is impartiality.  The BBC must be impartial, apolitical and independent of governments.  Reporting must be unbiased and bold.   The BBC must not be intimidated by politicians into suppressing or under-reporting issues.   

Scotland In Union suggests that the position of the BBC in Scotland in relationship to Scottish independence during the Referendum campaign and since, could act as a case study on impartiality.

There was a particular difficulty for the BBC in finding commentators of commensurate stature on both sides of the Referendum debate – necessarily pitting widely experienced international experts against less experienced Scottish pundits did highlight the weakness of the case for independence.  Subsequent complaints of bias by the BBC from pro-independence groups were a diversionary tactic.

Many on the “No” side of the campaign were equally concerned about bias during the Referendum campaign.  For any reasonable person, this suggests that the BBC was maintaining a neutral stance and acting impartially in difficult circumstances. 

However, the BBC’s current operation in relationship to Scottish questions is scarred by the “Nick Robinson experience” and demonstrations outside BBC Glasgow during the Referendum campaign.  The claims of bias on the part of the BBC during the referendum are oft repeated by the Scottish National Party - particularly by Alex Salmond - with a view to establishing this as an accepted truth.  

In post-referendum Scotland there is a large and vociferous minority who would like to see their view dominate at the cost of all others.    When considering responses to the Charter Review from the Scottish Government or those aligned to the Scottish National Party, it is crucial not to accept the implied premise that their view equates with Scotland’s view.  The Scottish Independence Referendum resulted in a substantial vote against independence, with only 38% of the electorate  (45% of those voting) in favour of independence.  In the more recent General Election, more people in Scotland voted against than for the Scottish National Party, with only 35% of the electorate voting for the Scottish National Party.  As an aside, the BBC is prone to use the word “Scotland” to describe the views of the Scottish Government – the views of the Scottish Government do not equate to the views of the majority in Scotland.   

The Scottish Government continues in the post-referendum environment to purvey their claims of bias with the intention of creating a more insular Scottish BBC, less inclined to report unfavourable news and viewpoints in regard to the Scottish Government’s performance, competence and plans.   Alex Salmond has said “In reality, I don’t think the broadcasting issue in terms of how it treats Scotland will be properly resolved till we have broadcasting under the remit of the democratic parliament of Scotland.”  

Indeed to many it appears that they are already succeeding in achieving this compliance.  At the moment the BBC in Scotland is seen by many as operationally and tactically cowed, nervous of challenging the Scottish Government, and not achieving neutrality and impartiality in reporting.  

It is no longer enough to seek party political balance on political issues. The BBC should seek a balance between nationalist and unionist views also.   The Scottish National Party uses its position as a successful party of government to make nationalist points almost every day, and the BBC does not always seek the alternative, unionist point of view. For example, the SNP recently complained to the UK government about a reduction in renewable energy subsidies and ongoing transmission costs to remote producers, making out that it was a Scotland v UK, nationalist, point. While there are valid political arguments for and against the merits of subsidising energy production and transmission (and Scotland in Union has no view on these one way or the other), what is clear is that an independent Scotland would lose the major cross-border subsidies to Scottish renewable energy producers from the rest of the UK, rendering the SNP's argument on this point highly questionable. This obvious point should have been made in any balanced coverage of the story, but the BBC did not take the opportunity to provide this balance.  

This case study highlights how impartiality can be impaired. In the absence of UK wide management of the BBC, this process may well go further. The demands by the Scottish Government for federalism of the BBC are dealt with in Question 15, and here it should be noted that anything which further erodes the impartiality of the BBC is to be deplored, and we bear in mind that, in history, the emasculation of media has often been a tactic of governments seeking absolute power. 

Conscious of tactics used by the Scottish National Party and their supporters during the referendum debates, it is worth noting that there might well be a degree of orchestrated responses to the BBC Charter Review with followers taking their lead from the Scottish National Party leadership.

What the BBC does: scale and scope

Q4 Is the expansion of the BBC’s services justified in the context of increased choice for audiences?  Is the BBC crowding out commercial competition and if so, is this justified?

Scotland In Union has no opinion on this matter.

Q5 Where does the evidence suggest the BBC has a positive or negative wider impact on the market?

Scotland In Union has no opinion on this matter.

Q6 What role should the BBC have in influencing future technological landscape including in future radio switchover?

Scotland In Union has no opinion on this matter.

Q7 How well is the BBC serving its national and international audiences?

The BBC has an excellent record in serving minority languages in the UK, both indigenous languages such as Gaelic and Welsh, and the languages of migrant communities. 

Q8 Does the BBC have the right genre mix across its services?

Scotland in Union has no opinion on the mix of genre.  However, Scotland in Union considers that a mix of programming to inform, educate and entertain in equal measure all contribute to the understanding of the United Kingdom as a nation.  News and current affairs inform us about Scotland and the United Kingdom; history, culture and nature programmes show us the rich diversity of the United Kingdom; watching Team GB unifies the nation; while “The Great British Bakeoff” may be as influential as any news programme in pulling the nation together.  

Q9 Is the BBC’s content sufficiently high quality and distinctive from that of other broadcasters?  What reforms could improve it?

When First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, says that the BBC’s output no longer reflected the “varied and rich political and social realities of the UK”, this needs to be interpreted in the context of a post-referendum Scotland.  The Scottish Government want ‘Scottishness’ to be emphasised in all things.  The Scottish National Party want this, not for its own sake, but to create a sense of separateness where none exists.  A federal BBC in Scotland would provide more Scottish content, from high to low culture, with the aim of starving Scotland of access to UK content and information so that the Scottish people would gradually perceive the rest of the UK as “foreign”.   (See also Question 15)  

Scotland In Union supports the production of BBC content about Scotland and by Scots, but as part of much broader content creation. In a world ever more interconnected, particularly in all aspects of broadcasting – whether that be in news coverage, documentaries, drama or popular entertainment, only nationalism would be drawn to preferring to view the world through a uniquely Scottish vantage point.  

It is important for the UK that that Scots see programmes and learn about other parts of the UK and that other parts of the UK see programmes and learn about Scotland.  Arguably, however, the BBC is overly London-centric with a disproportionate amount of programmes and features focused on our capital.    Some rebalancing of this will make the public purposes of the BBC in Scotland, and other regions, stronger.  

Scotland In Union wants Scottish programming content in order to encourage innovation and investment in the creative sector, for journalists, programme makers, writers and producers. But we would want to see this as part of a shared UK approach.  

Q10 How should the system of content production be improved through reform of quotas or more radical options?

The BBC should be better at connecting with its audiences and that involves better representation of different communities across BBC services, locally and nationally.  Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland should be more regularly and consistently represented on screen, from inviting comments from our business men and women and academics to featuring these countries more regularly as part of normal programming.  

BBC Funding

Q11 How should we pay for the BBC and how should the licence fee be modernised?

Scotland in Union has no opinion on the level or method of collection of the licence fee.  However, we strongly advocate that broadcasting remains a reserved matter. 

The Scottish Government’s Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, repeats the nationalist rhetoric of the need to ensure that the licence fee raised in Scotland should be spent solely on Scottish programming:  “There’s an estimated £320 million of licence fee raised in Scotland but only £200 million, or less than £200 million, going to be spent. That’s obviously a mismatch and certainly the funding for another channel and radio channel could come from that.”This is a stance that ignores the benefits of shared resources across the whole of the UK to produce high quality and popular output that is made available to all, and watched and listened to by those in Scotland.  This clearly reflects the nationalist perspective, whereby benefits of a union of nations whether specifically to broadcasting through the BBC or more generally, are ignored or denied, preferring instead an insular and parochial view of Scotland.    Quality in programming output should be at the heart of the Charter Review, and the transfer of funding would damage that and, as discussed in Question 15, aid the Scottish National Party’s primary goal of independence.  

Q12 Should the level of funding for certain services or programmes  be protected?  Should some funding be made available to other providers to deliver public service content?

Scotland In Union has no opinion on this matter.

Q13 Has the BBC been doing enough to deliver value for money?  How could it go further?

Scotland In Union has no opinion on this matter.

Q14 How should the BBC’s commercial operations, including BBC Worldwide be reformed?

Scotland in Union has no opinion on this matter. 

BBC Governance and Regulation

Q15 How should the current model of governance and regulation for the BBC be reformed?

A particular issue which we must address is the call by the Scottish Government for federalisation of the BBC.  The Independence White Paper called for a Scottish Broadcasting Company, and this was rejected in the Referendum. Scotland In Union considers this new call for powers over the BBC in Scotland to be politically motivated, based on a desire to create more division and difference between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, with the BBC being viewed as a potent symbol of that which the Scottish National Party seeks to undermine.     For this reason Scotland In Union urges that there is no federalisation of the BBC, because this would make the break-up of the UK more likely over time.  

A Scottish federal BBC would provide more Scottish content and in particular would focus much more on Holyrood, and less on Westminster.   The Scottish perception of politics would be more exclusively Scottish to the detriment of pro-UK parties, and to the partisan benefit of the Scottish National Party and to their primary cause of independence. 

Scotland In Union has a strong interest in a well-governed and a well-regulated BBC, and considers that the separation of the executive, supervisory and regulatory functions is essential.  This would serve to uphold the purposes and values of the BBC, improving the overall effectiveness, stability and impartiality of the organisation on behalf of the UK as a whole.  

While not having strong views on how this should be effected, we want the governance model to reflect the UK wide role of the BBC.     

Q16 How should Public Value Tests and Service Licences be reformed and who should have the responsibility for making these decisions?

Scotland In Union has no opinion on this matter. 

Q17 How could the BBC improve engagement with licence fee payers and the industry, including through research, transparency and complaints handling?

Scotland In Union considers that the complaints procedure of the BBC is currently being used as a political tactic.  We understand that the BBC routinely receives complaints from the Scottish National Party, which take time to be investigated.   

Members of Scotland In Union have also felt compelled to complain on occasion - for example about the use of the word “Scotland” to represent all the people in Scotland, whatever their political view - but there is no routine of making complaints, as with the Scottish National Party.  

This use of complaints as a tactic is an attempt to make the BBC in Scotland cowed to the Scottish National Party, and less prepared to address issues which may lead to orchestrated complaints.  

Q18 How should the relationship between Parliament, Government, Ofcom, the National Audit Office and the BBC work?  What accountability structures and expectations, including financial transparency and spending controls should apply?

Scotland In Union has no opinion on this matter.

Q19 Should the existing approach of a 10-year Royal Charter and Framework Agreement continue?

The provision of a 10-year charter review period maintains a level of trust in the management of the BBC.  To that end, Scotland In Union agrees the existing approach should continue.

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