Gary Elliot: Why we shouldn’t be too quick to ditch the BBC

24/07/2015
CommonWeal

CommonSpace columnist Gary Elliot warns that while public anger at the BBC in Scotland is understandable, writing off the public service broadcaster may have unintended consequences

THE future of the BBC is in the news again as its Charter is up for review. The BBC Trust has launched a consultation on the Corporation’s future, including how it is paid for.

The social media response has been swift with supporters of the institution quickly voicing support with a #backthebbc hashtag appearing on Twitter.

Those of a pro-indy perspective have been less than impressed, with the reaction being far less positive and far more along the lines of “sack them, they deserve it”.

Like many other people, I now feel that we’ve essentially been sold a lie all these years. It was never about providing balanced, neutral broadcasting, it was about the British state and its elite.

A few years ago I would have staunchly supported the BBC. In its simplest terms the deal is supposed to be this: for a yearly licence fee you get a politically neutral organisation whose job is to inform, educate and entertain; you get it without adverts breaking the programme up every 10 minutes, and without advertisers or owners skewing content and political leanings.

In other words, public service broadcasting. The BBC used to have a central role in the public life of the UK. I grew up at a time when there were only three channels on the telly – BBC1, BBC2 and I/STV.

Kids telly was early evening on the BBC. This was followed up by the news. I’ve got no idea how many channels could actually be accessed now, there are so many (and there’s still never anything decent to watch…).

It’s therefore unsurprising that for many this central role of the BBC has diminished. In many ways, that’s not just a good thing, it’s a very good thing. The BBC has started to look odd.

It always covered the Royal family and all things ‘British’ in a very obsequious way. I remember as a kid on a Saturday morning watching live coverage of ‘The Lord Mayor’s Parade’.

Never mind why on earth was I doing that, why on earth was the BBC covering it as a live event as if it was something that mattered? Yay, here come the Pearly Kings and Queens!

These days, it persists at it. Royal announcements and pronouncements are followed with gushing deference.

When you can follow news from other sources, such as France 24, RT or Al Jazeera, it all starts to look just like state broadcasting. Not public service broadcasting, state broadcasting.

If we were to sack the BBC or turn it into pay per view, what would we get instead? Sky? They were as metropolitan and ignorant as the BBC during the indyref.

Like many other people, I now feel that we’ve essentially been sold a lie all these years. It was never about providing balanced, neutral broadcasting, it was about the British state and its elite.

The culmination, of course, was indyref . Quite frankly, the BBC at a UK and Scottish level disgraced itself with the coverage . I still cannot get the incredulity out of my mind that it referred to an Orange March as a ‘pro-union rally’ without any reference whatsoever to the fact that it was an Orange march.

I attended two of the protest rallies outside BBC Scotland during the indyref and wrote half a dozen complaints about its coverage, all of which apparently went nowhere. I know a guy who complained daily and ended up on first name terms with the complaints department.

So you would expect me to probably be in the #sackthebbc camp, right?

Actually, I’m not so sure. Ideally I want an independent Scotland. What I would like is an independent Scotland with the type of public service broadcaster that the deal is supposed to provide in the first place.

If we were to sack the BBC or turn it into pay per view, what would we get instead? Sky? They were as metropolitan and ignorant as the BBC during the indyref.

If we were to get shot of the licence fee now, could we ever conceivably return to that model of payment post-indy for public service broadcasting? I don’t think that the public would accept it.

But the thing is this: Scotland is a compact place, where commercial pressures could easily skew the news agenda in ways that we don’t quite know until it happens.

Scotland is a compact place, where commercial pressures could easily skew the news agenda in ways that we don’t quite know until it happens.

Although I’m pro-indy, there has always been a worry with me that the type of diverse, knowledgeable and constructively critical media that an independent democracy needs doesn’t exist in Scotland to enhance and aid our hoped-to-be new state in the way it should.

A microcosm of this can be seen in the treatment of the national press to the decline and fall of Rangers Football Club. The ‘succulent lamb’ journalists at the likes of the Daily Record continually reported PR spin – so dependent were they on access for interviews and stories – even as it was being scrutinised and dissected almost hourly on social media.

It’s also worth noting that Rangers banned the BBC in 2013 over a story relating to Ally McCoist. Would a commercial broadcaster, dependent on access for scoops, stories and interviews, push the boundaries of this type of coverage?

No? If they couldn’t on that, can we really trust either a commercial or semi-commercial broadcaster to scrutinise our politics properly post-indy in the way that should be required in a proper democracy?

BBC Scotland is embarrassingly bad at the moment. The Mhairi Black maiden speech affair was just another example of how crap, parochial, out of touch and self-loathing it is.

A microcosm of this can be seen in the treatment of the national press to the decline and fall of Rangers Football Club.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though, and the fact is that the infrastructure around BBC Scotland and the wider skills base that exists within media in Scotland could serve as the foundations for the type of public service broadcasting many would like to see in general and many would in particular like to see post-indy.

Ambition, vision and reform could deliver that. Even if that ambition, vision and drive for reform doesn’t exist at the moment I would rather that the BBC continued until independence because that would give us the opportunity to apply it at that point in time.

Whether we can thole them for that long might be another matter…

Picture courtesy of Stuart Beattie