To BBC or not BBC: is that the question?

Last night I went to see an Oscar-contender film, Spotlight. The story of how the investigative journalism team at Boston Globe exposed not just that 243 priests had abused over 1,000 boys and girls over decades but that the church had systematically hidden what happened through bullying, pay-offs and a network of people it could rely on to suppress any potential.

A telling scene where the importance of getting the whole story, being patient to research and evidence the systemic abuse, was an important part of being able to nail the church once and for all. No more excuses or blame on one or two flawed individuals but recognition that the institution controlled and decided everything.

Which neatly moves me on to thinking about the current debate on BBC Charter Renewal. The Education and Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament has published a report on its recommendations for how Scotland could be better served under a new BBC Charter. Just uttering the letters B B C will, I am sure of it, have a large number of readers with increased blood pressure and a tendency to profanity in an instant.

After all, according to some popular bloggers, it was the BBC wot did it. Their institutional bias towards Scottish independence is the reason we lost the referendum vote. Exemplified by Nick Robinson protests outside BBC Scotland Headquarters, which frankly never changed a single vote in the referendum, we have taken to singling out people, decisions and approaches to evidence the BBC is both mad and bad.

Whilst I wouldn’t exonerate the BBC from employing journalists who have their own political values and prejudices, it is a fact of life that the BBC is a monolith organisation that struggles to understand anything about life outside the M25 corridor. That doesn’t in itself make them anti-Scottish, just ignorant of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and large swathes of England.

There will most definitely have been some senior personnel who played the Nicholas Macpherson card (the instance where an impartial civil servant enters the political domain in an unprecedented fashion in the interests of the government of the day). But frankly, we knew that was going to happen. Whether it’s right or wrong is pretty academic. It will happen. Mitigate against it by winning the ground war and virtual battlefield, which I believe the Yes campaign did successfully.

But back to the BBC Charter Renewal. For the first time, the Scottish Parliament has a formal say in what the BBC should look like in Scotland for the not too distant future. We always we knew we contributed more in licence fees than was ever given back to the Scottish controller as a budget but even through this inquiry, BBC management has failed to provide detailed data with which to make informed decisions. So what are they hiding?

The BBC has been averse to decentralising its budgets. The BBC is a London-centric organisation that only gives out to the nations and regions under extreme pressure or because it is in its financial interest. The shift of programming from Shepherd’s Bush to media city in Manchester being a classic point. The howls of derision at the thought of being relocated ‘up North’ where mushy peas is mistaken for guacamole, painted BBC staff in a bad impression. It has to be said in fairness that Edinburgh-based Scottish National Heritage staff were no different when McConnell shifted their HQ to Inverness lest we forget this is not about the BBC per se but about how large corporations of any kind create their own culture, values and prejudices.

Ironically, the BBC is an icon of the British state. It is an emblem about all that is British – good and bad. It mirrors the behaviour of its paymaster in the UK Government. How the BBC evolves and survives if at all, is in a parallel track to how the British state copes with the demands for decentralisation, localisation, devolution  and ultimately self-determination of any constituent part of the UK.

The BBC and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport would do well to read the Scottish Parliament’s report in detail. Taking on board the recommendations of the report would go some way to recovering its reputation in Scotland, a blueprint for relating to other nations and regions, and possibly helping it to have a role in a post-independence multi-media environment. That conclusion alone will have me burnt at the stake.

Link: Report on the renewal of the BBC charter