There’s a lot of understandable and perfectly justified anger about the BBC Question Time broadcast from Dundee on Thursday 10 March. Even for the BBC, there was some quite remarkably blatant bias on display. Were the preposterously arrogant management of the corporation given to explaining themselves at all, they would surely be struggling to account for the very obvious dearth of local people in the audience. Although the unionist/anti-SNP weighting of the panel was pretty standard.
But what had most people choking on the breakfast cereal of grovelling humility that these days is supposed to supplement our regular diet of haggis, porridge and shortbread, was the appearance of, not one, but TWO relics from British Labour in Scotland’s humiliation at the hands of the Scottish electorate last year. One of these was a nonentity of such profound blandness as to have made no impression on me at all. But the appearance of the other had jaws hitting floors the length and breadth of Scotland.
Kathy Wiles! Remember her? She’s the one whose likening of Scottish school kids to the Hitler Youth proved too distasteful a gobbet of vicious hatemongering even for British Labour in Scotland. And this is a mob that boasts such poisoned tongues as flap in the empty heads of Ian Smart and Blair McDougall!
Even a whiskery old political anorak like myself was taken aback by such effrontery. So much so that, until it was pointed out by others, the supernatural coincidence eluded me of two ‘figures’ from British Labour in Scotland, not only being in the vetted BBC Question Time audience, but also being afforded the opportunity to speak. I was starting to smell a rat even through the powerful fishy odour that always seems to accompany the BBC when it deigns to venture out of its London lair to dip a Dimbleby in the pond of provincial politics.
Aside from all of this – which, after all, is only standard BBC bias taken up a notch – what intrigued me was the thought of the planning meeting – or meetings – that surely preceded this episode of BBC Question Time. For we have to assume that these programmes are planned. Somebody makes decisions about where the show is to be broadcast from and who the panellists will be. Somebody decides who will be in the audience. Somebody decides what questions will be asked. And, however professionally the Dimbleby may pretend to be running the show, somebody is shouting instructions in his ear as he goes round the panel and elicits follow-up points from the floor. Those contributors, if not their specifics of their intervention, also being carefully selected by BBC staff.
In other words, it’s all staged. What we see and hear is, almost without exception, only what the BBC’s production team has decided we should see and hear. They do like the occasional ‘surprise’, to keep things as close to interesting as BBC Question Time can get. But, mostly, it’s all under control.
So, it is no accident when the programme is broadcast from Dundee with little discernible local presence. It is not mere happenstance that two British Labour in Scotland representatives are planted in the audience, primed with comments, and allowed to speak at length. This is all stage-managed. This must have been discussed at production meetings.
Even if the two British Labour in Scotland drones had somehow contrived to both secure invitations, somebody must have noticed that they were on the audience list. Their invitations were positively confirmed. Did nobody ask any questions about this? Are we seriously supposed to believe that it didn’t come up at one of those production meetings?
And, even if we stretch our credulity enough to accept that coincidence (or non-BBC contrivance) was behind their presence, how can we possibly swallow any claim that it was just a fluke that both were called upon to speak? The odds here are vanishing somewhere beyond Camelot territory.
Let’s suppose for a moment that somebody did bring this up at a meeting. Let’s imagine some young intern not yet fully immersed in the arcane ways of the BBC hesitatingly asking if it was really OK to feature two former candidates for one of the British parties currently vying to be the most anti-SNP. How might her seniors have responded? Would they scoff at the notion that anybody might notice the ‘coincidence’? These are, after all, only very minor cogs in some remote part of the British Labour machine. Nobody in London would even recognise Kezia Whatsherface, so why would they know who this pair are?
Or was the argument made that this deliberate skewing of the programme content was justified? Was it that, from the perspective of the British establishment, they were on ‘enemy territory’ and so some preemptive defence was called for? Were the producers prepared to openly admit that they were engineering things to favour the British establishment’s anti-SNP/anti-independence stance? Was the minion told bluntly that they had better be prepared to go along with such manipulation if they hoped to have any kind of future at The Beeb?
Or might it have been more subtle? I don’t have much truck with conspiracy theories. My attitude is that I am highly dubious about those who peddle conspiracy theories; and very suspicious of those who insist there’s no conspiracy. For the most part what, with hindsight, we perceive as conspiracies are simply emergent properties of a situation in which there are a number of people, with enough collective influence, and sufficient commonality of purpose, to bring about an outcome that is more favourable to the group that they represent (by definition invariably the established power group) than any random outcome. Things that look like conspiracies after the event will tend to happen when management fails to effectively manage, allowing control to be incidentally usurped by some informal interest-group.
In the real world, evil villains are as rare as super-heroes.
What I’m saying is that the kind of glaringly obvious bias that we witnessed in this episode of BBC Question Time actually could ‘just happen’. It didn’t have to be planned. It didn’t have to be purposeful. No malign intent was required at all. It’s just that the entire BBC is so much a creature of the British establishment that it must inevitably serve the British establishment’s agenda in all things unless it is otherwise directed by competent managers. It is an integral part of the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state.
There is a tendency, I suspect, within the BBC to suppose that the organisation is somehow ‘naturally’ impartial. That impartiality is defined by what it does. What looks like blatant bias from the outside, from within the British establishment bubble just looks ‘normal’.
The great failure of BBC management is the failure to question such casual assumptions. The failure to challenge the self-sustaining, self-perpetuating, self-righteous, self-justification. The failure to manage.
I could, of course, be wrong about any or all of this. But I’d still like to have been a fly on the wall at that BBC Question Time production meeting.