SNP THINK THE BEEB IS BROKEN BECAUSE IT IS BRITISH
THE BBC’s coat of arms bears the motto ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’ – words, inspired by verses from the Old Testament books of Micah and Isaiah, which define the corporation’s purpose.
When the motto – we’re probably supposed to call it a ‘mission statement’ today – was adopted in 1927, the lack of peace across Europe was the dominant issue of the day. The First World War had ended only nine years previously and the second would begin just 12 years later.
But although it is a motto inspired by times during which it was created, its meaning has been adapted to now speak of the importance of truth; the presentation of facts without fear or favour.
The SNP would prefer to rephrase that guiding principle. If the Scottish Government had its way, the BBC’s coat of arms would state: ‘Nationalist shall speak government-approved truth unto nationalist.’
Yesterday, SNP ministers published their proposals for ‘strengthening’ BBC Scotland. They claim to be standing up for ‘ better, more representative’ content for Scotland.
But scratch the surface and a sinister truth emerges: the SNP wishes to exert political control on the BBC, chipping away its independence and making it compliant to the wishes of ministers. The party doesn’t want a state- owned broadcaster so much as a state-controlled one.
It demands a decentralised BBC structure, with management in Scotland given greater control over budgets and commissioning, a new Scottish-focused version of the six o’clock news, and the creation of new Scots TV and radio channels.
Furthermore, the SNP wants a new semi-autonomous Scottish board to hold BBC Scotland to account. This board would be accountable to the SNP dominated Scottish parliament.
OF c ourse, t he SNP entered t he charter renewal process with the view that the British Broadcasting Corporation is not fit for purpose. But, then, in the nationalist mindset, no British institution is. To the SNP, the BBC is failing Scots. And all the party is doing is standing up for the rights of Scottish licence-fee payers.
Anyone who heard former First Minister Alex Salmond speak at the SNP’s spring conference in Glasgow last March, might harbour doubts that this is so. To rapturous applause, he said it was essential that control of the BBC be devolved to Holyrood so that its supposed anti-nationalist bias could be ‘resolved’.
Having spent a great deal of the referendum campaign complaining that perfectly legitimate questions – on issues such as currency, Nato, and the EU – from BBC journalists demonstrated i nstitutional bias against his desire to split the UK, Mr Salmond clearly felt there was a score to be settled.
The mood in the room that day was not one open to debate over the f uture of broadcasting. Whipped up by their former leader, SNP members wanted pay-back for what they saw as the BBC’s central role in thwarting their independence dream.
The language of the Scottish Government’s submission to the charter renewal process might be more temperate than that used by Mr Salmond (whose description of ugly protests, where Nats called for the sacking of then political editor Nick Robinson, as ‘joyous’ remains a low point of a career punctuated by tantrums) but the intention is the same: the SNP wants a BBC that takes its line without question.
As nationalist parties are wont to do, it frequently conflates itself and the nation. In the case of it attempts to undermine the BBC, this is precisely what’s happening. Thus, the party is publicly fighting for a better deal for Scottish users of the BBC when the reality is it wants a supplicant corporation.
When the SNP’s proposals were greeted with less than universal enthusiasm yesterday, MP Pete Wishart – who can be relied upon to opine without thinking too hard – expressed his frustration, tweeting: ‘Some of the response to the legitimate desire for a Scottish-produced news service is the Scottish cringe at its most parochial worst.’
There it was in the starkest terms: failure to slavishly support an SNP position was cowardly and weak.
But why on earth should the majority of Scots rally behind the SNP in this instance? The result of the referendum was emphatic: most wished to stay within the UK, to benefit from our shared institutions, among which the BBC stands as a fine example of co-operation across these islands.
The Scottish Government might want to see more spent on distinctively Scottish programmes, but there is little evidence that this is a desire shared by anyone but that party’s true believers.
The BBC raises £323million a year from licence-fee payers in Scotland. Of this, £123million is used to fund Scottish- only output, £ 82million provides Scottish-made shows for the UK network, and the remaining £132.5million is invested in UK programmes and services – such as the popular iPlayer – which are available to Scotland.
This represents a pretty fair deal, and – to some degree – mirrors the constitutional preference of the majority, which is in favour of both sharing and devolving powers. The SNP proposals seek to distort that reality, taking the BBC as close to break-up as is possible.
The nationalists’ preference is for an independent Scotland with a broadcasting corporation of its own. Since this is not the desire of the majority of Scots, ministers want to push the boundaries, creating a BBC that dances to its tune.
NO major institution is perfect, i ncluding the BBC. And this newspaper has never shied from holding it to account when it has failed to maintain expected standards. But there is a world of difference between journalists keeping a check on the BBC and grudgeful politicians dictating to it which editorial decisions it should make.
With the Nats now dominating Scotland’s political landscape, it is more important than ever that the BBC is free to ask difficult questions of ministers. That would represent the best deal for viewers and listeners.
At its best, the BBC produces brilliant dramas, breathtaking nature documentaries and hardhitting news programmes. Long may that continue.
A BBC that met with the approval of any government – be it SNP-controlled at Holyrood or Tory-run in Westminster – would be worthless.
Nationalists are entitled to make their views on the future of the corporation known. Those overseeing the charter renewal should feel equally entitled to ignore those views before the BBC in Scotland becomes little more than the propaganda wing of the SNP.