Yesterday we witnessed another article appearing in the mainstream media to tell people who are not fairly represented in the mainstream media to stop complaining that they’re not fairly represented in the mainstream media, because the mainstream media is quite properly doing its job of not fairly representing people outside the media mainstream. And can I get a guest slot on Scotland 2016 now please?
The article was of course a defence of the BBC against the criticisms of independence supporters that our public service broadcaster isn’t properly serving the public of Scotland. 50 years ago there were many British institutions, the great nationalised companies such as British Coal, British Steel, British Rail, and British Telecom, but one by one they were broken up and sold off into private hands. It shouldn’t be a great surprise to anyone that as the institutions and organisations that belonged to the people of Britain as a whole were sold off and broken up by the British establishment that a sense of Britishness and a British identity has grown weaker. Now the apart from the UK parliament itself, the only remaining British institutions are the monarchy, the armed forces, and the BBC.
I’m sure that somewhere in a philosophy class someone will be asking whether it’s possible for an organisation whose goal and aim is foster a sense of a British identity and present it to the world can accurately represent the large segment of the Scottish population which doesn’t want to be a part of the British state. It’s all the more difficult to achieve when the organisation in question is the last civil institution self-consciously maintaining a British identity in an increasingly diverse UK. Asking whether the BBC can fairly represent the Scottish independence movement is a bit like asking whether a religious publication can fairly represent a group which its religion considers to be heretics, and indeed if you look at some coverage of the independence campaign on the BBC you could be forgiven for believing that we sacrifice chickens to the god Alicsammin.
Because the viewpoint of the BBC is that Britishness is the established norm, and independence is the deviation from that norm, the BBC is unable to distinguish between the mainstream independence movement, and fringe groups. This results in the spectacle of the BBC sending a reporter to sit in on a court case involving the antics of a small group of protesters in an independence camp outside Holyrood, and the episode occupying a significant proportion of an episode of Reporting Scotland. It was an invitation from the BBC for us all to ridicule the independence movement as a whole. The BBC would never conflate the fringe activities of pro-Unionist groups like those behind the violence that erupted in George Square in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum vote with mainstream Unionism, yet it regularly conflates fringe nationalism with mainstream Scottish nationalism. The reason it does so is because the BBC starts off from a British perspective.
The media in general in this country is overwhelmingly biased against the Scottish independence movement. It’s also overwhelmingly biased against left wing politics as supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have been discovering. In the absence of laws demanding media diversity and subsidies for newspapers affiliated to particular parties, such as you get in some other European countries, the British media is viciously right wing and grossly unrepresentative of the political views of the population. That’s true in Scotland too, where despite having the sustained support of a good half of the population, all but one daily and one Sunday newspaper in Scotland are opposed to independence. Lacking its own investigative reporting, the BBC typically follows the agenda of the print media, compounding the sense that the organisation is also biased.
This means that certain stories are likely to be chosen as newsworthy, whereas other stories are not given the same prominence or are overlooked entirely. A good recent example of this is the supposed Spanish veto threat against an independent Scotland which is constantly a feature of reports in the Unionist media about Scotland’s potential accession to the EU as an independent state. Last week, as reported in this blog and in my column in the National, there was a major new development when the Spanish foreign minister stated that he expects Scotland to become independent within a few years and put a second indyref into the context of a UK being dragged out of the EU under the influence of the political extremists of UKIP. There was no whiff or suggestion of any Spanish veto. Yet there was silence from the Unionist media and likewise from the BBC. It was a perfect example of bias by omission.
Bias isn’t a conspiracy. It’s not a group of men and women in business suits sitting in a room and plotting, then sending down secret instructions from on high. Bias is a point of view, a perspective. Bias is subjectivity and as such we are all biased. Bias in an institution like the BBC is knowing what stories your bosses are going to prefer, and working accordingly. It means ignoring other stories that they won’t like so much. If the BBC reporter has a choice between a story praising the royals and a story attacking them, it doesn’t take a genius to know which of the two that management is going to prefer.
The difference is that the BBC has a legal obligation to be neutral, and we all have to pay for it. It’s one thing to thole the bias of the print media, but we are not obliged to pay an annual tax with threats of criminal prosecution in order to financially support it. That’s why the perceived bias of the BBC sticks in the craw in a way that newspaper bias, or even bias from the other broadcasters, does not. If you don’t like the bias of the Daily Record, you don’t buy the Daily Record. Not buying the Daily Record does not bring with it the threat of criminal prosecution. Not paying for the BBC does.
All this occurs in the context of a BBC which fails to serve Scotland across the board, not merely failing to represent the breadth of Scottish political views. Scotland contributes over £300 million a year in licence fees, but only a small fraction of that is returned to Scotland for Scottish programming, and the proportion spent on Scottish programming has been declining in recent years. This is despite the fact that Scotland has its own parliament, its own legal system, its own educational system, and its own distinctive political traditions, its own language and culture. None of these are fairly represented in a BBC which is more concerned with portraying a fictive Britishness which is increasingly seen by Scots as an imposition.
The Unionist establishment continually tells us that Scotland has the most powerful devolved parliament in the world, but Scotland remains without a public service broadcaster of its own. The reason for that is because the British state intends to use the BBC as a means to shore up its crumbling rule in Scotland. The Scottish independence movement is not only justified in its criticisms of the BBC, it is imperative that we continue to keep making them and holding our public self-serving broadcaster to account.
Audio link to this blog post, courtesy of @lumi_1984 https://soundcloud.com/occamshaver/scotlands-public-self-serving-broadcaster-wee-ginger-dug
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