Friday, October 29, 2010

'Please remember you're talking to the whole United Kingdom...'

So said David Dimbleby on tonight's Question Time during a discussion on the economy, as he made a determined (and clearly premeditated) effort to prevent Nicola Sturgeon making even the briefest comment relating to Scotland specifically, rather than to the United Kingdom as a whole. "We may be in Glasgow," he went on, "but Question Time goes out to the whole United Kingdom". Now, we know that the broadcasters have no political axes to grind, and simply apply perfectly reasonable principles like this with absolute consistency. Therefore, we can rest assured that no political discussion broadcast to the whole United Kingdom, regardless of whether it was broadcast from an English location, has ever focused solely on any of the following topics as they relate to England alone :

1) Health

2) Education

3) Criminal justice

4) Policing

5) Sport

6) Local government

7) Environmental protection

8) Agriculture and fishing

And, for the avoidance of doubt, according to the principle Dimbleby laid down tonight, it would in no way be sufficient to merely briefly "signpost" that any discussion of these topics related to England alone - it would plain and simply be inappropriate to discuss them at all.

But what's that you say? They do just that on Question Time every week? And they justified a 90-minute long UK-wide Prime Ministerial (sic) Debate predominantly concerned with purely English matters on the grounds that ten seconds of "clear signposting" by a bored-looking Alistair Stewart was more than sufficient? Well, this is indeed deeply mysterious. Could it be that it's in fact the London broadcasters who have yet to notice that they are "talking to the whole United Kingdom", and not just to one part of it?

I think I have a small clue as to the distorted thinking that lies behind Dimbleby's outrageous intervention tonight, however. A couple of years ago, on another Question Time edition broadcast from Scotland, he stopped Sturgeon in similar circumstances. The issue being discussed was the injustice of innocent people having their DNA stored permanently on a database. Sturgeon tried to explain how the system worked differently in Scotland, but was thwarted by an indignant Dimbleby, who informed her that the discussion was about the United Kingdom position on DNA retention, not the Scottish position. Just one small problem with that - there is no United Kingdom position on that subject. There is a Scottish policy, and there is an English and Welsh policy. That's the way devolution works - the same applies to health, education, and all the other policy areas that I referred to earlier. If the broadcasters want to comfort their audience by implicitly sending them the message that nothing has really changed since 1999, and that "national programmes" are still able to solely concern themselves with "national issues" (leaving the peripheral devolved stuff to "regional" programmes like Reporting Scotland), what they're actually doing is promoting a fiction. Some would put it a bit stronger than that.

It is nothing short of incredible that the broadcasters apparently think it is perfectly reasonable to invite a Scottish nationalist politician onto a programme and then expect her never to talk about Scotland or her nationalism at any point. If it is seriously going to be their policy that UK-wide programmes must be wholly free of 'sub-UK' discussions, then clearly previous practice is going to have to change beyond all recognition, and any future Question Time exchanges on health, for example, will somehow have to cover all four different health systems in the UK simultaneously. How on earth they intend to achieve that is beyond me - but if, as I suspect, what Dimbleby and the broadcasters really mean is "United Kingdom discussion = discussion of the policy that applies in England", then it totally blows out of the water the thin justification they put forward for going ahead with general election debates held exclusively in English locations, that covered many English-only matters (but no matters that related only to other parts of the UK), that specifically excluded non-English residents from participating in the audiences, and that of course totally excluded the leaders of all parties that did not stand in English constituencies.

I think we could sum up the position by saying that the broadcasters imagine they are performing a public service by snuffing out what they see as a politician's attempt to 'hijack' the UK-wide airwaves for a Scottish-only discussion - and yet imagine they were also performing a public service by conspiring with politicians during the election campaign to hijack the UK-wide airwaves for an English-only discussion. I'd really like to see how they can possibly justify that blatant contradiction - but it seems for the time being they won't even have to try, simply because their own regulatory bodies are caught in precisely the same Anglocentric trance.

As an aside, it's also worth pointing out that the first fifteen minutes of tonight's edition of Question Time - broadcast from Glasgow, remember - was taken up with a discussion about a remark made by the Mayor of London, in his capacity as Mayor of London. And yet Dimbleby still couldn't see the irony of chiding Sturgeon for spending just a few seconds talking about a 'non-national' issue later in the programme. You really couldn't make it up...


  1. Dear James,

    I agree with you, I just don't know what to do about it (BBC reporting strategy).

    There has to be a way where the truth can be told and voices can be heard by everyone in Scotland. If that were to happen then these incidents would become largely irrelevant.

    We need a thinktank to get an answer to this - and soon.
    Twitter and Facebook wont do the job on their own. Perhaps the only way forward is to get the SNP politicians to wander "off topic" any time they are interviewed on another matter.

    Nicola did brilliantly under the circumstances and came out on top as the only cool head on the platform. She still managed to slip in the point anyway but a blind man running past would have missed it.

    David Milligan (a concerned Scot)

    PS I picked your blog from Newsnet Scotland.

  2. Excellent post James.

    The attitude for Mr Metropolitan Dimbleby and the BBC in general appears to be that England = Britain, and you little Celtic people can have your own little councils and self aggrandise by calling yourselves whatever you will, but the proper law and the proper way of doing things is the English way.

    It is an English mindset, and to be fair, in the case of Monsieur Tout Le Monde as it were, that is quite understandable. England comprises the vast bulk of the population, and in any case suffers from the same problem internally in that the likes of Mr Dimbleby thinks that the London/South East way is the correct English way, and Devon and Northumbria are all but foreign. However, it isn’t in the least OK for a programme like Question Time for which we all pay, and which visits Scotland, and has Scottish politicians represented on few occasions. Surely the whole point of coming here at all is for the corporation to realise its duty to Scots. That, when it is doing that Mr Dimbleby insists on discussion on the proper English way of doing things, is quite disturbing.

    Once again I say that David and his brother Jonathon are in their jobs because their father “got them in”. Neither shows any particular talent for the job he does and both would be far better replaced by a serious presenter/chairperson, such as Sue McGregor. Caroline Quinn, Evan Davis, or James Naughtie, although the last is Scottish and that wouldn’t do.

  3. Dimbleby was bang out of order and Ms Sturgeon should have put him down.

    One thing though they never ever point out the territorial extent of issues and never actually mention the word "England". This is BBC policy they want to keep the people of England in the dark so they don't start getting uppity and demand things like our own English parliament.

  4. Well done, a brilliant post that is far more restrained than I could ever manage.

  5. Well said I have just posted an official complaint. I have several comments on may own post from English people living in Scotland who couldn't believe what they were watching - ditto some of the Twitter comments. I think this could trip them up and I would be very interested to hear Jeremy Peat's views as our sole member of the BBC Trust

  6. Good old Nicola she still got her point in though! No more to be said on what they expect the SNP to talk about if not Scotland! I did note that the supernumeraries Simon Schama and Hugh Hendry were given far more time to tub thump than our own Deputy First Minister was to answer points relevant to Scotland.

    That Hugh Hendry is a sickening idiot, where on earth do they get these extraneous people who come along with their own stupid agenda? Clearly Hendry and Schama where only their as an advert for themselves. Schama looked like a frenetic windmill with countless pointless historical allusions. While Hendry was not only rude and patronising but he kept contradicting himself. Loved when he tried to grab the moral high ground near the end, but still condoned torture, then revealed that he lived in London and was clearly part of the metropolitan mafia despite being from Glasgow. In other words he was only their as a controversial Scottish unionist quisling with a lovely English accent.

  7. Well, I can see that my decision to stop watching Question Time was a sound one. I used to enjoy it but it started to get on my nerves.

    Like Tris said above it is all about London and England east of Bristol. He mentioned Devon being all but foreign, well I live in Devon and sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we are actually a part of England or even the UK. In fact we hear more about Scotland down here than we do about our own issues.

    I also agree with Wyrdtimes, I have never heard England referred to or given any attention. It was always UK or Britain when I watched the show. It appears from this post that Scotland is now getting a bit of the same, which is a shock because I have watched QT in the past when they have been in Scotland and heard all about Scottish issues, or should that be Alex Salmond's issues?

    My honest opinion is that whether England, Scotland or Wales when it comes to the BBC it is all about keeping this ridiculous Union together and focusing on the UK. They do not like the fact that so many of us now want independence from the British nightmare.

    If QT is based in Scotland it should be about Scottish issues, in Wales, Welsh issues and England, English issues. Northern Ireland appears already to have it sorted.

    They can always introduce UK wide issues on any of the shows but only if they relate to the nation they are in. There is no point dicussing the education system regarding England if in Scotland.

    I pray Scotland will lead the way and set us all free from the imperialistic pig that is Britain.

  8. Joan McAlpine.
    Hi Joan
    Dont hold your breath that Jeremy Peat will represent Scottish interests. Here is his answer to the Scottish Independence's complaint following the so called 'Leaders" debates.
    "Arrangements for BBC broadcasting during elections are covered by the BBC Editorial Guidelines and responsibility for interpreting them, in the first instance, lies with the BBC Executive. You may therefore prefer to seek representation at the meeting from the Executive and I will be happy, with your agreement, to pass your invitation to the Director General of the BBC.

    I hope this is helpful.
    Yours sincerely
    Jeremy Peat
    BBC Trustee, Scotland"
    Well, actually no Jeremy. We thought that was YOUR job

  9. I don't expect a great deal from the BBC, but I thought that David Dimbleby just completely lost the plot - if you are going to grind your axe, at least try to be subtle about it. It was anything but subtle, expecially the Megrahi question, and then the UK audience thing. The BBC is leaking legitimacy north of the border, I hear loads of people of all political persuasions complaining about its coverage and bias. Ridiculous.
    Incidentally I thought Nicola was great, as usual - and that Hugh Hendry - eh, what a nutter.

  10. One other thing I would say is if they want to only talk about English things and they only want a representative of the SNP to respond when asked or allowed I don’t think we should be sending the Deputy First Minister or any Cabinet Secretary. If you note there when Dimbelby brought up Megrahi he asked everyone’s opinion but passed Nicola by. If they want to insult the SNP in that way I would suggest a competent back bencher should be sent along next time with instructions to be brief and stick to the party line.

  11. Yes. I agree with what Munguin said there. Additionally I find it really insulting that they send junior people from England; an junior business minister from Surbiton; a shadow for constitutional reform, from Wales (best known for his photograph in his undergarments on a gay dating site and nicknamed Captain Underpants by the Daily Mail), an historian from London, whose nearest connection to Scotland appears to be that he went to the same English school as the Noble and Hon lord Baron Foulkes! And a hedge fund manager who was born in Scotland but lives in England and likes to make a bit of a thing about himself.

    What on earth was the Deputy First Minister doing in that company? Status wise she was miles above any of them. And if you have a show from Scotland, why not have Scottish politicians and prominent people from Scottish Academe. Where was a representative of the Scottish Tories, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberals?

  12. I've now stopped watching BBC for news and political comment and will not take in Question Time again as my individual protest.

    If there was a movement properly set-up to bring as many protesters as possible together as a mass protest from Scotland against the bias of the BBC, by with-holding the licence fee I would sign-up to it.

  13. Thanks for all your comments. It'll be interesting to see if the official complaints from Joan and others have any effect - on past form it's not impossible they might eventually acknowledge that what happened was less than satisfactory, but whether any procedures will change as a result is much more doubtful. I wonder whatever happened to that excellent review they commissioned from Professor Anthony King, that pointed out their failings in dealing with the complexities of devolved politics in the UK? The recommendations seem to have completely gone out of the window, at least as far as Question Time is concerned.

    Joan hits the nail on the head in her post - it must surely breach the requirements for political impartiality if, in a discussion on the economic situation, they disallow one party (just one) from putting forward its proposals to rectify matters. The excuse Dimbleby gave for doing so was a bit reminscent of the way employers get round the laws against age discrimination - older appliacnts are welcome, just so long as they can fit into the "thrusting, vibrant, dynamic" culture of the existing workforce. Similarly, non-unionist politicians are welcome on Question Time - just so long as they don't put forward non-unionist views.

    Also, I wonder just how many Scots have ever felt like uttering (more like screaming) the words "please remember you're talking to the whole United Kingdom" during the TV coverage of an England game? This is a very high standard Dimbleby has now set for his employers!

    PS. What an absolute tragedy about Gerard Kelly.

  14. It's another small step that's moving this hitherto somewhat sceptical unionist towards independence. The wilful misunderstanding of scottish politics and government by english commentators exemplifies why we need a national scottish broadcaster along the lines of RTE in Dublin.