In praise of the BBC and its political coverage

Every Thursday, non-UK readers, the BBC airs a TV programme called Question Time. A panel, usually five people and usually heavy with politicians, answers questions on current affairs from an audience who then join in the ensuing discussion.

There’s always plenty of comment on Twitter about the broadcast (hashtag #bbcqt).  It spans just about the whole range of emotions stripped bare on social media – from the profound through the humourous and partisan to the vicious and bizarre.

Last night the programme came from Leeds, in England just in case you didn’t know. There was a question on Scotland. It was about the potential influence of the SNP in Westminster post-general election, although the detail doesn’t matter particularly for the purposes of this post. There was one Scottish MP on the panel, Lib Dem Charles Kennedy, and I thought the discussion – panel and audience – was reasonable.

The temptation was too great for SNP MSP for Perth and North Perthshire Pete Wishart. He tweeted:

Because we are the news, but because we are not THERE, everybody trying to speak on our behalf. Simply appalling, but consistent. #bbcqt

That, for those of us unsympathetic to his sole political aim (separation), is pretty much typical Wishart. Because one question in a wide-ranging programme raised a UK-wide issue related to his party they should have been on the panel.

Much could be said about the minutiae of his comment and you will doubtless draw your own conclusion about it. But that is not the purpose of this post.

Wishart’s key words for me are ‘Simply appalling, but consistent.’

This is just the most recent example of a persistent anti-BBC narrative by Scottish nationalists. The claim is that the BBC is institutionally biased against them. Indeed it led to demonstrations outside the BBC Glasgow premises during the referendum under the slogan ‘British Biased Corporation.’ In the immediate aftermath of 18 September wilder spirits on the losing ‘Yes’ side of the campaign swore they’d never appear on the BBC, urged politicians not to do so, said they wouldn’t pay their TV licence and so on.

I have a fundamentally different belief to all this nonsense.

By and large the BBC does an excellent job in maintaining an extremely difficult balance between the different political parties in their news and current affairs coverage. When there is evidence that the popularity of a particular party changes they respond and the party concerned gets more or less exposure. That’s why, and I admit this is a subjective impression, I’m hearing more of the SNP on news and current affairs programmes and less of the Lib Dems. It’s why UKIP are getting more of an outing than they used to. It’s even why the BNP’s then leader Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time in 2009.

None of this is institutional bias in favour of or against one party or another. Most if not all political parties complain about BBC coverage and individual editorial decisions at one time or another. That gives me comfort that somewhere in the middle of what looks like a guddle the BBC are getting it just about right.

Nationalism, of course, needs a narrative of grievance and oppression to thrive. But those nationalists who complain of BBC bias need to step away from the detail and see the broader picture. Some of them complained bitterly about the alleged treatment of Alex Salmond by the BBC’s UK political editor Nick Robinson during and immediately after the referendum. There were dark mutterings about Robinson’s political leanings. A month or two later BBC Scotland broadcast A Rebel’s Journey, a largely sympathetic portrait by their Scottish political editor Brian Taylor of Salmond as he stood down from the office of first minister. I’ve not heard nationalists complain of bias in that programme. But did you know that Salmond and Taylor were students at St Andrew’s University together? Conspiracy, coincidence or just things balancing out across the piece?

Wiser SNP politicians take the BBC rough with the smooth. It gives them invaluable albeit not uncritical exposure, as it should while they are a significant political party and form the Scottish government.

That makes it all the more galling when mainstream elected representatives like Pete Wishart keep the ‘BBC is biased against the SNP and nationalism’ pot bubbling. That sport should be reserved for the fringe conspiracy theorists. We should praise the BBC’s balanced political coverage.

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