Friday, April 23, 2010

A taste of what could and should have happened?

I've just been watching the tail-end of the re-run of the Prime Ministerial (sic) Debate on BBC2, mainly because I was intrigued to see that a two-hour slot had been set aside for a ninety-minute programme. The reason, it turned out, was that the half-hour 'political reaction' segment from the BBC News Channel had been tacked on at the end. This started, refreshingly, with responses from Angus Robertson of the SNP and Helen Mary Jones of Plaid Cymru. Ironically, if only this had been the format for the main broadcasts of all three debates (ie. reasonable space provided immediately afterwards for reactions from representatives of excluded parties) it could have formed the basis for a compromise that might just have been grudgingly considered acceptable to the nationalist parties. And if it was perfectly possible to do it for this re-run, it's very difficult to understand why even this relatively minor concession could not have been made for the main broadcasts. What could possibly have been the objection? That the public don't have the stamina to watch for more than ninety minutes? In that case, it would scarcely have been the end of the world if the debate had been cut down to seventy-five or eighty minutes, leaving a few minutes of space at the end for alternative political voices. Or perhaps the excuse is that it's just too tiresome for middle England voters (who are clearly deemed the high-grade citizens in this process) to have to listen to the SNP and Plaid Cymru. In that case, simple enough - have right-to-reply segments for the nationalist parties that are shown in Scotland and Wales only. There really is no credible excuse here.

The other thing that is extremely dismaying is how it's increasingly become clear that the broadcasters have consciously embraced the role of political opponents to the SNP and Plaid on this issue, rather than adopting a more appropriate neutral/passive tone. Their tactics in doing so may be somewhat more subtle than Fox News applies to the Democrats in the US, but there can be little doubt that there have been orders from on high about the language that must be used at all times by presenters to hold the line, and to justify the nationalists' exclusion. When Angus Robertson raised a (quite brief) objection tonight, Laura Kuennsberg immediately shot him down with a clearly pre-prepared line about how the SNP would have a chance to put their case at length in the Scottish side-debates. The reason this stuck out a mile was that it came in the form of a statement, rather than a question or a point to which Robertson was being invited to respond - ie. not at all what you would expect from Kuennsberg when she is in the middle of conducting a political interview.

But the first sign of this consciously oppositional orientation towards the SNP in fact came several weeks ago when the issue was raised on the Glasgow edition of Question Time, on which Alex Salmond was a panellist. The audience member who asked the question innocently referred to the debates as what they are, ie. "leaders' debates", but was instantly 'corrected' by David Dimbleby, who informed us that "these are in fact Prime Ministerial Debates, for the three men vying to become Prime Minister". Again, this was clearly a very carefully prepared line that he had been instructed to use to preempt Alex Salmond's response. But, thankfully, there remains one reliably off-message broadcaster who we can always look towards to blow the lid off what's really going on. Just the other day on his blog, Michael Crick revealed that the BBC were horrified that ITV and Sky hadn't stuck to the original agreement of branding their debates 'Prime Ministerial' - but that journalists were being instructed to carry on using that term regardless, because it was considered necessary to justify the SNP and Plaid's exclusion. And sure enough, it's been very noticeable that every single time the ITV or Sky debate has been mentioned in a BBC news broadcast, it's been referred to as a Prime Ministerial Debate. Thus, on each and every occasion those three words are uttered, it can reasonably be viewed as an intentional, calculated - albeit subtle - assault on the nationalists' stance on this issue. There's realistically no other way of interpreting it, given that it would otherwise be far more logical to refer to the debates by their actual names. (For the record, the ITV one was called The First Election Debate, and Sky's was called either The Leaders' Debate, or Decision Time : The Sky News Debate.)

I, like others, have already given innumerable reasons why the 'Prime Ministerial' conceit never stood up to the slightest scrutiny - but here's another. If you take the principle to it's logical conclusion, it means that all election debates should be based upon the government office the participants are aspiring to hold. In which case, the Scottish debates should have been dubbed 'Scottish Secretarial Debates', and the SNP should have been banned from participating on the grounds that Angus Robertson is not 'trying' to become Scottish Secretary, and that he has no 'realistic prospect of doing so'. The broadcasters would have been laughed at if they'd tried to make that stick, but in truth it's no more or less logical than their threadbare excuse for barring the nationalists from the main leaders' debates.

Former Labour spin-doctor Lorraine Davidson hit the nail on the head on Newsnight Scotland tonight - if (as seems quite possible) it becomes clear that voting patterns have been substantially affected by the nationalists' exclusion from the main debates, that by definition is sufficient to establish that the broadcasters have breached their legal and moral obligation to provide fair and balanced coverage of the campaign. And that, in turn, significantly compromises the 'free and fair' status of the whole general election in Scotland and Wales, bearing in mind the central importance of the broadcast media in modern campaigns. Yes, given the variable political geometry of the UK, it was always going to be hard to devise a suitable format for the debates that is fair all round - but it's nevertheless the duty of the broadcasters to do just that, rather than to spend all their time dreaming up ever more inventive excuses for evading that responsibility.


  1. When you take a step back and think about it you have to ask what is the point in having the Scottish debates?

    What the SNP require to make up for their exclusion from the main debates in Scotland is equivalent air-time at peak broadcasting times with no other parties present to give them an equal chance with the parties who got to be on the debates.

    The Scottish debates don't do that.

    If Scotland was debating policies which were additional to the UK policies it might make sense but since Scotland has devolved powers in most of the domestic areas of government the Scottish debates have even less to talk about than the UK+England debates.

    They're not even debates between the party leaders of the four OFCOM defined main parties in Scotland either, just the Scottish second string of the UK parties plus whoever the SNP want to put up. It also shows up the fiction of the, "Scottish Party leaders", since unless they turn up on the BBC debate Gray, Goldie and Scott have been completely sidelined by their party leaders.

    The only point to the Scottish debates is as a bone thrown to the SNP to try and show how impartial the broadcasters are. If there was no SNP, whether or not there was a devolved Scottish Parliament, there would be no Scottish debates.

    It's as good a way to see into the mindset of the broadcasters and the establishment as any. It's almost as if they see the General Election as comprising two parts. A proper UK general election with a secondary regional election in Scotland in which the SNP are involved.

    It's the classic England is Britain is England outlook with an added dash of arrogance. They have debates with the "proper" parties and then let the "regionals" have a little debate as well. The idea of Scotland and England being distinct units within the UK is not even considered.

    I've got a bad feeling the broadcasters will get away with it and an even worse feeling that a large chunk of the Scottish population don't recognise the insult and think that the BBC, ITV and Sky have done nothing wrong.

  2. Ezio Auditore da Firenze - Elect a Florentine ChampionApril 23, 2010 at 11:17 AM

    Next SNP Manifesto: Abolition of the 'TV license'.

    Get it right up the EBC at every single opportunity from now until independence.

    That's what we'd do in Florence anyway.

  3. Doug, the irony is that the broadcasters did the right thing at the last election - when there were UK-wide leaders' specials, they gave the nationalist parties absolutely equal compensatory airtime at a similar timeslot. But for some reason this time they've got it into their skulls that four-cornered Scottish side-debates will somehow magically balance things up, and nothing will shake them from that (synthetic?) conviction.

    Ezio, probably the best thing for the SNP to do is to emphasise at every turn the need to devolve broadcasting powers to Holyrood. Public service broadcasting is a very good thing - if it actually serves the public.

  4. James

    Public service broadcasting is a very good thing - if it actually serves the public. This is true, but there is no way the English Broadcasting Corporation fill that bill.

    I agree with Ezio that the SNP should campaign on getting rid of the TV tax. As a short term solution the SNP government should change the none payment of the TV tax from a criminal matter to a civil matter. Let the EBC take civil court action at their own expense against any none payer.

  5. James:

    The BBC still has a page up about the Scottish and Welsh leaders' debates in 2005.

    What they've done this election is to put the Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem leaders on stage at the same time and cut the SNP and Plaid out completely.

    I still can't work out why the SNP didn't stop the debates before they happened through the courts. This would have been a prime example to show how the BBC have changed their stance on SNP airtime in Scotland. It was needed in 2005 why not in 2010?

  6. Doug, I'm very surprised as well, although judging from what the Scotsman said yesterday, it sounds like lack of funding for a court challenge was a big factor. The report also suggested they'd been warned there was no guarantee of success, but that's just a statement of the obvious - there's always uncertainty about these kind of legal challenges. Given how much is at stake and the dangerous precedents for the future that are being set, I think it would have been well worth the risk, but if they're short on funds it must have been a huge dilemma.