Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why was a London mayoral debate shown on UK-wide television last night?

Many of us will never forget that notorious Glasgow edition of Question Time eighteen months ago, when David Dimbleby prevented the Deputy First Minister from making comments about Scotland on the grounds that it was not relevant to a UK-wide audience, but saw no irony in the fact that an entire quarter of the programme had already been taken up with a discussion of a comment made by Boris Johnson in his capacity as Mayor of London. Dimbleby of course had form on this. Two years earlier, he had stopped Ms Sturgeon from mentioning the Scottish government's policy on DNA retention, insisting that the discussion must focus solely on the "United Kingdom" DNA policy. He didn't seem to have noticed that the fact that there was a Scottish policy meant by definition that there was no United Kingdom policy, but rather different policies for different jurisdictions within the UK. If he wanted the discussion to be relevant to a UK-wide audience, all the policies had to be covered, or none.

There's no mystery as to what's going on here - many London media folk are hopelessly locked in the mindset that anything that applies only to England, to the southeast, or to London, and not to the rest of the UK, can nevertheless somehow still be regarded as "national", because London essentially "is" the UK. The rest of us are mere adornment. It goes without saying that this is distorted thinking that they need to be prodded to wake up to. But when we do some of that prodding, what happens? They semi-register the contradictions in their thought-processes, but can't quite bring themselves to reach the obvious conclusion. It would be emotionally too difficult to expand their comfortingly narrow view of the UK. So instead their response is to dream up complicated reasons to triumphantly present to the rest of us to explain that the "one rule for London, another rule for Scotland" system made sense all along, even if they previously hadn't been quite sure why.

The introduction to last night's edition of Newsnight was a rather amusing trademark example. The programme was to feature a full-scale candidates' debate for the forthcoming London mayoral election, and it was to be shown UK-wide - something that would never, ever be done for devolved elections in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Now, it had obviously occurred to the production team that there was indeed a double-standard here, but they didn't take the obvious step of actually addressing that double-standard. No, it just seemed intuitively obvious that something of importance to London "must" be of national importance, so although the reasons for that might not be immediately apparent, by God were they going to dream some reasons up if it killed them. Greater London is bigger than several EU states! The Mayor of London has "sweeping powers"! He has a bigger "personal mandate" than any office-holder in western Europe other than the President of France, don't-cha-know!

Anyway, I was planning to expand on this theme, but as I spent a fair bit of the morning discussing it on Political Betting, it might save time just to reproduce the 'highlights' of the exchange here. (Apologies in advance to Craig Gallagher!)  For those who don't know, Mike Smithson is the owner of the site, and David Herdson is the Deputy Editor.

Me : Very surprised to see a London mayoral debate on UK-wide television last night. As we know, there are no London-centric attitudes in the media, so it's terribly hard to understand why they would do this but not show leaders' debates in the Scottish, Welsh or NI devolved elections on a UK-wide basis. At first I thought maybe it was because the BBC have no London opt-out, but then I recalled there was a debate hosted by Andrew Neil four years ago that was shown in London only.


Paxman himself seemed to be somewhat self-conscious about this, because he started by saying something like "if you live in Bangor, or Bonnehbridge or Brighton, you might be wondering what this has to do with you". (By the way, has anyone ever heard of "Bonnehbridge"? Surely he wasn't thinking of Bonnybridge and didn't check how to pronounce it?) His explanation was that London is "Britain's biggest city", is bigger than "several EU states", the mayor has "sweeping powers", etc, etc. Does any of that justify singling out the London mayoral debates for UK-wide treatment, but not other devolved elections? Er, nope. Wales is bigger than several EU states, and the Welsh government has far more "sweeping powers" than the London mayor.

I also note that the programme somehow found time for the "minor candidates", whereas it was utterly impossible to find even thirty seconds for anyone other than Cameron, Clegg and Brown in the "Prime Ministerial" (sic) Debates two years ago.

Antifrank : It's the biggest election in British politics at the moment. Since the result might have an impact on the leadership of both main parties at Westminster, it is of general interest. I'm sure that you have a view on who you'd prefer to win.

Me : I do indeed. Personally I'm very interested in the London mayoral election, but that's because I'm interested in politics. I was also interested in the Danish general election last year, and the Slovakian election this year. I'm not sure that fascination is shared by the population of "Bonnehbridge", wherever they may be.

Do you have an answer to the point as to why this debate should have been shown on a UK-wide basis, when the BBC would never dream of showing of a leaders' debate from any other devolved election on a UK-wide basis?

Millsy : It's a good question, but I guess the mayor of London does have UK-wide importance. After all, the electorate in London is bigger than what Salmond would get in a presidential election.

Me : The 'personal mandate' question (which was yet another excuse trotted out by Paxman last night) is irrelevant, because the BBC have already decided that parliamentary leadership debates can be treated as if the participants were "candidates" for the post of Prime Minister. Ironically, they came up with that wheeze specifically as an excuse to exclude Scottish and Welsh nationalists!

Yes, it's true that Greater London is bigger than Scotland, but the figures are scarcely light years apart - Scotland 5.2 million, London 7.75 million.

Antifrank : My answer is that both should be shown. But it really is a little odd for you to be complaining that an election for who gets to govern 8 million people should get full BBC coverage.

PS I had absolutely no idea where Bonnybridge might be. Having seen on wikipedia that it's a place of fewer than 7,000 people, I can't say I feel that shows a particular gap in Jeremy Paxman's or my knowledge base.

Me : "But it really is a little odd for you to be complaining that an election for who gets to govern 8 million people should get full BBC coverage."

Why? My sole point here is the ludicrous inconsistency of it - that elections of equal importance (in fact greater importance, frankly) are excluded. What's "odd" about highlighting that?

"PS I had absolutely no idea where Bonnybridge might be. Having seen on wikipedia that it's a place of fewer than 7,000 people, I can't say I feel that shows a particular gap in Jeremy Paxman's or my knowledge base."

I haven't the remotest issue with Paxman never having heard of Bonnybridge. I do, however, have an issue with him referencing the name to make a patronising point and not even bothering to check how it's pronounced. He was so far off that I even checked Google to see if there might indeed be a place somewhere in the UK called Bonnehbridge or Bonnahbridge, but there isn't.

Antifrank : Why do you think other elections are more important? They concern fewer people and have less impact on the wider political debate in the country. The only reason you consider Scottish elections as more important is because they concern you more directly.

I doubt you pronounce Bath the way that the locals do either. But they wouldn't post 15 posts on the subject or describe you as patronising.

Me : "Why do you think other elections are more important?"

Very simple answer - because the Scottish, Welsh and NI devolved governments are more powerful than the London mayor.

"They concern fewer people and have less impact on the wider political debate in the country."

I've dealt with the former point in a previous post. On the latter - words fail me. Why do they have less impact on the wider political debate in "the country"? Because they get less coverage from UK-wide media. That is precisely the objection I'm raising to what happened last night!

"The only reason you consider Scottish elections as more important is because they concern you more directly."

Incorrect, I'm afraid. See above.

"I doubt you pronounce Bath the way that the locals do either."

True. I would, however, pronounce it correctly in my own accent. I wouldn't, for example, say "Beith", which would be the rough equivalent of Paxman's attempt last night.

As for mentioning it 15 times, I in fact mentioned it precisely twice until you spontaneously decided to bring the subject up again.

Antifrank : London is more important than Scotland. Sorry, it is. It's got a substantially larger population and economically is in a different league, with a GDP more than twice the size of Scotland's (and that doesn't begin to take into account the spillover effects of satellite areas of Britain whose economy is driven by London's). It is also the heartbeat of the British economy.

If anything, London's politics don't get enough coverage in the national media.

Me : You're arguing on an entirely different premise, and deliberately ignoring the point that the London mayor has far fewer powers than the other devolved governments. I'm not surprised you're ignoring that, because the point is unanswerable.

And the notion that the coverage a region receives in the broadcast media should be based on the size of its economy is so obviously risible that it barely warrants an answer.

Mike Smithson : You fail to appreciate that there is a big difference between "importance" and what is "newsworthy".

Also the betting, which is PB's primary purpose, is much much heavier on the London election than on any for the devolved administrations.

Battles about people. particularly colourful characterers known by just their first names, are always going to attract greater interest.

Me : "You fail to appreciate that there is a big difference between "importance" and what is "newsworthy".

Also the betting, which is PB's primary purpose, is much much heavier on the London election than on any for the devolved administrations."

On the contrary, Mike, you seem to be misreading me - I'm making a point about the BBC (a public service broadcaster with duties to the population which funds it), not about PB. Perhaps betting on Welsh Assembly elections would be higher if the broadcasters did their job and gave those elections the appropriate level of coverage in the national (sic) media?

Obviously PB is southeast-centric, but I just take that as read.

David Herdson : Yes, Newsnight should have shown leaders debates for Scotland, Wales and NI. They were also right to show one for the London mayorality.

The big PM debates were also right to exclude all but the main three parties. At a UK election, a party needs a full slate of candidates, or near one, to stake a credible claim to wanting to form a government, and sufficient support to be in with a chance of turning those candidates into MPs. Farage probably had most to complain about but as UKIP failed to take a single seat and saved precious few deposits, the broadcasters can rightly claim to have called that one correctly.

Me : "At a UK election, a party needs a full slate of candidates, or near one"

How very carefully you added those last three words! There were no UK-wide parties at the last election, and two parties represented in the debates had no candidates at all outside Great Britain. Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in the same boat as the SNP and Plaid in being territorially-based parties rather than "national" ones - and yet they were treated differently.

David Herdson : I'm sorry, but there's a massive difference between the Labour and the Lib Dems (631 candidates for 650 seats) and the SNP (58 candidates for 650 seats).

As an absolute minimum, a party ought to have to stand in at least half the seats to be able to claim a place in the debates. I'd put the limit at three-quarters personally. They'd also need to be either polling at a credible level to suggest they deserve the degree of exposure the debates would give them e.g. 10%+, or hold a substantial number of MPs already e.g. 30+.

Much fun as it would have been for the Natural Law Party to be up on (or above?) stage in 1992, I doubt it would have helped voters with the serious business of helping choose a government.

Me : You see, this is the problem. You talked about "UK debates" earlier, but that doesn't work because the parties involved are not UK-wide parties. When you realised that you moved onto "nearly all seats". Now you're coming up with another arbitrary threshold. Isn't the reality that you start from an automatic assumption that "national" debates should reflect England's politics, and then try to come up with a plausible justification for that assumption? That's what the broadcasters do - Michael Crick openly admitted on his blog that the whole "Prime Ministerial Debate" wheeze was specifically dreamt up as an excuse to exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

They weren't Prime Ministerial Debates. They were parliamentary leadership debates, for an election to a parliament in which the SNP have been continuously represented since 1967, and Plaid Cymru have been continuously represented since 1974.

Mike Smithson : Gawd. When you play the victim you sound pathetic.

I find the London election absorbing although I don't live there any longer - just as I found your battle in Scotland last year.

But by far the biggest election in the UK on May 3rd is Ken vs Boris.

Mike Smithson (again) : The mayor of London has more personal executive power than Alex Salmond.

Antifrank : So you think that it's irrelevant to media coverage who gets to lead the city that's responsible for roughly 30% of Britain's economy? As Mr Paxman himself would say, yeeeeeeeesss...

Me : The size of a region's economy should be utterly irrelevant to the amount of coverage it receives from a broadcaster with public service duties, yes.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe there's any "London supplement" on the licence fee to reflect the size of the local economy.

Morris Dancer : A man who both has no desire to become Prime Minister and has literally no chance of an overall majority has no place in a UK General Election debate and no justification for bitching about his entirely proper exclusion.

My hound has as much chance of becoming Prime Minister as Alex Salmond.

Me : David Cameron didn't win an overall majority, but he's still Prime Minister. You've answered your own point there.

Morris Dancer : Mr. Kelly, you should re-read my post. Cameron both wanted to become Prime Minister [which he did] and had a chance of an overall majority [which he narrowly missed out on].

Not to mention the fact that 90%+ of viewers would be unable to vote for Salmond or his party, and his desire is to destroy rather than govern the UK.

Me : Well, I'm sure Angus Robertson would be prepared to sign some sort of form saying he wants to become PM if that's what is required to get the SNP fair access to the debates.

As for the overall majority point, the reality is that 2010 proves that a majority is not required to become PM. Therefore, standing in a majority of seats is not required either. Anticipating your next point, there are plenty of international examples where the leader of a tiny party has become PM at the head of a complex multi-party coalition.

The bottom line is that the "PM Debate" wheeze doesn't actually work as an excuse to exclude certain parties.

Antifrank : London hoses down the rest of the country with taxes on a gigantic scale. The first thing that any of you out-of-towners should say to any Londoner when you see him or her is "thank you for your money".

Me : I promise I'll do that just as soon as they thank me for all the oil.

Me (to Mike Smithson) : "The mayor of London has more personal executive power than Alex Salmond."

I'm very, very dubious about that claim, unless you're making a hair-splitting legal distinction between the First Minister and the collective group of "Scottish Ministers" who he appoints.

In any case, as I pointed out earlier, the BBC have already decreed that parliamentary elections are just presidential contests in disguise, at least for the purposes of debates in which they want to exclude certain candidates. They can't have it both ways.

Philiph : London has a good 10% of the population.

Scotland has less.

Is there a BBC London TV Station?
Is there a BBC Scotland TV Station?

Me : Yes, there's a BBC London opt-out. I noted that at the start of this thread.

Mike Smithson : It's not a hair-splitting legal distinction. Arguably the mayor of London has more personal executive power than the PM.

Mike Smithson (again) : Complain to the BBC then.

Already Scottish TV licence payers get a better deal in terms of specific services than those in London and certainly a much better one than in Bedford where I live.

This victim crap does you no good.

Me : "This victim crap does you no good."

If it's OK for you to say something like that, can I take this opportunity to gently point out (without being moderated or banned for "technical reasons") that it was probably unwise of you to call Tim a shithead and then ban him ten seconds later?

Incidentally, I overlooked your point earlier about the London mayoral election being the most important election in the UK this year. I agree with that. Unfortunately, you've failed to explain the relevance of it. It certainly has nothing to do with my point that the London mayoral election is no more important that the devolved elections which took place LAST YEAR, not this year.

Newsnight did not carry UK-wide leadership debates for those contests. That is a fact. How does highlighting that double-standard constitute "victim crap"? Pray tell, kind sir.

Socrates : Does it really matter which election is more important? You do pick disagreements over the tiniest things sometimes, and then keep them going for a very long time over something that just doesn't matter.

Me : Socrates, you've obviously read the exchange. What always mystifies me in these situations is that you seem to notice me talking, but not the people I'm responding to. Why is that, do you think?

Socrates : I didn't read the full exchange - when I came across a post I realised was part of this back and forth I skimmed past it. What I notice is that these drawn out tit-for-tats over minutae is that, while it obviously takes two to tango, you always seem to be one of the dancing partners, while the other one changes.

Me : But that's the way PB works. If you have a tag-team, you don't need to do all the heavy lifting yourself.

Incidentally, I fundamentally take issue with your claim that this topic doesn't matter. The imbalance of media coverage within the UK is a massive problem, and last night was symptomatic of it.

Mike Smithson : There is a strong case for Scottish independence and if I lived north of the border I would probably vote yes.

But the constant stream of "we are victims" messages does the case no good at all.

Scotland should be proud - not whinging as you appear to do incessantly.

It is true that the events in London get magnified by the national media compared with the rest of the UK - NOT just Scotland.

Me : "But the constant stream of "we are victims" messages does the case no good at all."

That simply repeats your claim that highlighting a plain fact is "playing the victim". I asked you to justify that claim. It's hard not to conclude that you can't.

"It is true that the events in London get magnified by the national media compared with the rest of the UK - NOT just Scotland."

I entirely agree. Your point is...?

MildredBumble : Can we have some example of these supposed "victim" messages instead of sweeping assertions and generalisations ? I have to say, I haven't seen any. I think James argues his point very well without resorting to personal abuse or smear unlike so many here. It is a shame the courtesy cannot be returned to him.

Philiph : Without the need to refer to a single post, it is the tenor of multiple posts over a long time that generate the impression of victimhood.

It is also a concern if that attitude is the one that takes Scotland independent. It should march out of the UK as a proud individual, not skulk off as the other boys were unkind to it..

Me : I'm sorry, but you're going to find that the Yes to independence campaign will have a lot to do with what is wrong with the United Kingdom (one of the most unequal and centralised countries in the western world), and so it should be. The No campaign certainly don't seem to have any shame about identifying Scotland's faults, and arguing that we can't stand on our own two feet.

Philiph : And you think an independent Scotland wouldn't unequal and centralised?

Me : No, I certainly don't. It's hardly controversial to say that the political centre of gravity in Scotland is much more egalitarian than in the UK as a whole. I also expect much more decentralisation, especially the long-overdue devolution of power to Orkney and Shetland.

BeverlyC : Yet another thread morphs into an exposition of Scot-Nat insecurity and inadequacy....



Me : Bev,

I love you too.



* * *

Incidentally, it was also mentioned on the thread that preliminary discussions on the next round of "Prime Ministerial" (sic) Debates are already underway. I don't think any of us will faint with amazement to discover that few lessons have been learned from last time. With any luck, however, the independence referendum will ensure that further discrimination at the next general election won't actually matter.

UPDATE : I've just spotted that Mike Smithson later produced the following (increasingly characteristic) "I will not be defied!!!" scream in response to MildredBumble's perfectly reasonable query -

"That is in direct contravention of the ruling yesterday about discussion on moderation.

If you don't want to follow the rules here find another site to post on."

What did Mildred's question have to do with "moderation"? Answers on a postcard...

UPDATE II : I responded to Smithson's comment in the following terms...

"Many excellent posters (notably Oldnat) have already taken you at your word, Mike. I would tell you the conclusion you ought to be drawing from that, but doubtless that would be against the "rules".

Fortunately there are indeed a great many other sites to post on."

I'm going from memory there, because naturally the comment was swiftly deleted!

UPDATE III (Easter Sunday) : This sequence of events made me laugh - furious with the Labour poster IoS, Mr Smithson once again went off on his "I Will Not Be Defied!!!!!" rant, part 342...

"Get this into your head.

We don't discuss moderation/access issues on threads. Period.

If you and anybody else want to continue posting on here you will follow this advice."

To which the ex-Labour MP Nick Palmer responded by making the perfectly reasonable suggestion that it might be an idea to write a firm list of rules down and link to them prominently, for the benefit of new and occasional posters who don't have a scooby what these ambiguous and ever-changing "rules" actually are. This was Mr Smithson's reply -

"The basic rules Nick are not to do anything that could put the site in jeopardy - libel etc - and not to piss me off. The latter is quite hard to define."

Quite. Although from my own experience, not expressing political views from a pro-SNP perspective is probably a useful rule of thumb.


  1. GrassyKnollingtonApril 5, 2012 at 8:55 PM

    Lol great stuff James. For some reason I have a mental image of a building high on a hill in Royston Vasey. You cycle hopefully up to the door, walk in to the gloomy interior and are greeted by the menacing duo of Smithson and Plato who tell you "this is a local blog for local people".

  2. James, I must thank you for introducing me to Cooncillor Terry's blog.

    Many happy hours await!

  3. James, unless you have lived in London (or married to one *cough*) you don't really appreciate how they think the world revolves around London. It doesn't. They cannot see why London has less power than Holyrood, London has a higher population so it must have more executive power etc etc. How many Acts of Parliament has the London Assembly passed? None, as it doesn't have any real power.

  4. Conan : Glad to be of service!

    Marcia : One thought that occurred to me as I had that exchange yesterday is that I've seen Brian Paddick (distant 3rd place in the last mayoral election) on television far, far more often over the years than I've seen Carwyn Jones (the First Minister of Wales, no less). That's quite simply ludicrous.

    I was mildly startled that Kenny Farquharson went out of his way to tell me on Twitter that in his view I'd lost the argument, although given that his starting-point appears to be that Scotland receives more coverage on Newsnight than London does (!) perhaps the conclusion he reached isn't too surprising! From my own perspective, the more I've thought about Mike Smithson's claim that merely pointing these double-standards out is "victimhood" and we should just shut up about it, the more ludicrous it seems. Was Alex Salmond "playing the victim" when he pointed out that only 2% of network TV production was based in Scotland, compared to our 8% of the population? If he hadn't done that, Mark Thompson would never have been shamed into doing something about it, and we wouldn't be in the mildly better position we're in now.

    But is it better to follow the 'Smithson Doctrine' of 'proudly' keeping silent about things that are wrong, for fear of being called a 'victim' if you speak up? I know my view.

  5. I image that you torture yourself with these people on PB, English Tories from the south mainly, by the sounds of them, because you like to pit your wits against 4 or 5 of them at a time, and come out on top.

    I was amused by the rather inappropriately named Johnny Come Lately, "Socrates", who pointed out to you that you were always the only one on one side of the argument and there were several on the other side.

    And still you come out with the moral high ground, and logic and right on your side.

    It's amusing from time to time to read one of your exchanges with Smithson and the others. They remind me of the opposition in the Edinburgh parliament.

    But at least Lamentable and Davidson to keep coming back for more.