A NEW report into the BBC has found that the broadcaster has an “impartiality problem”, a finding which will come as no surprise to viewers in Scotland.

The crux of the issue is that the BBC, whose structure and management are highly centralised, fundamentally regards itself as a “national” broadcaster – the nation in question being a single “British” nation.

This is a conceptualisation of the UK which is incompatible with an understanding of the United Kingdom as a voluntary partnership of different nations, with each having its own distinctive political cultures and national identities. Given that England by itself has a population several times greater than that of all the other nations combined, this means that England's political concerns become the standard by which “impartiality” is judged.

The review was conducted by broadcasters and economics experts Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot of the University of Cambridge, who interviewed stakeholders both within and without the corporation as well as audiences across the UK.

The report authors noted that BBC audiences in Scotland were far more sensitive to concerns about impartiality and far more likely to raise it as an issue.

Unfortunately for the BBC – and for a fair representation of Scottish politics in the public service broadcast media – the political cultures of Scotland and England have become increasingly divergent over decades. England frequently votes for Conservative governments, with occasional discursions to Labour when the electorate gets scunnered with Tory excesses, before the pendulum inevitably swings back to the Tories again. This is a long-established and deeply entrenched pattern in voting habits in England.

On the other hand, Scotland has not voted for the Conservatives since the 1950s. However, as long as Scotland was a predominantly Labour voting country, the political divergence between the two countries could be massaged away by the BBC and the fiction maintained that there was a single British political landscape. The distinctive political culture prevailing in Scotland could be shoehorned into an English model and the resultant distortion jointly presented as “British”.

The cracks first began to show during the Thatcher era, but the fiction of a single British political culture became increasingly difficult to maintain after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1997. Nevertheless, the widening cracks could still be papered over as for the first ten years of devolution Labour were in power both at Holyrood and at Westminster.

But those cracks became a yawning chasm after the almost complete collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland following the independence referendum of 2014, and they turned into a veritable Grand Canyon when Scotland voted decisively to reject Brexit in 2016, a rejection which has been repeatedly confirmed in every election in Scotland since the EU referendum. 

The upshot is that the centre ground of English politics upon which the BBC bases its assessment of impartiality is so far off the scale in Scottish terms that it now scarcely registers as part of the political mainstream. This is particularly stark where Brexit is concerned.

The centre ground of British politics is now represented by parties that between them do not come close to representing a majority of Scottish public opinion and the consensus that those parties have reached on Brexit – not to challenge it and not to seek re-entry into the European single market and customs union is to all intents and purposes a fringe position in Scottish politics. 

Not only has the BBC failed to take decisive steps to resolve this issue, it scarcely shows any awareness that it recognises there is a problem. This is not unconnected to the fact that neither the BBC nor the report’s authors have a solution to squaring the circle of the existence of two highly divergent and fundamentally opposed national political landscapes within what the BBC by its very nature insists on treating as a single “British nation”.

For the BBC to ensure that its broadcasting in Scotland is impartial in Scottish terms would mean setting up a conflict between Scotland and Westminster which would not be well received by those Westminster politicians to whom the BBC is ultimately answerable.

The only way out of the problem would be to accept that there is a basic political and cultural divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK and to break the BBC up into separate national broadcasters for Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland each of which receives its charter from its respective devolved government.

Indeed, the devolution of broadcasting was originally intended to be included as part of the devolution settlement before being excluded by that same Labour government which insisted on inserting the provision for Section 35 orders into the Scotland Act.

But we all know that there is zero chance of the devolution of broadcasting even though it is the norm in every other state which has autonomy for its constituent nations and regions. As a consequence, the BBC is left trying to fulfil two opposing definitions of impartiality simultaneously, and naturally, it goes with the definition representing the larger nation, with the result that the BBC does not hold up a mirror in which a Scottish audience can see itself – it holds up a copy of an English right-wing newspaper.

This piece is an extract from today’s REAL Scottish Politics newsletter, which is emailed out at 7pm every weekday with a round-up of the day's top stories and exclusive analysis from the Wee Ginger Dug.

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