“Bias” is a word we hate. Other than in the article you’re about to read, you’ll almost never find it used on this site, for a string of reasons. It’s one of those words that – regardless of context or literal justification – simply makes people switch off instantly and dismiss your arguments. (See also: “Zionist”, “Quisling”, “fascist”, “Liebore”.)
It’s also largely irrelevant, because there are very few people or organisations who have any duty NOT to be biased. When it comes to Scottish independence we’re as biased as all heck, and there’s no legitimate reason to expect the Daily Record or Scotsman or Daily Mail to be any more impartial than we are. They’re privately-owned businesses and entitled to take any position they like.
(The difference, of course, is that unlike them we’re committed to still telling the truth when we’re being biased, and to always providing linked original sources so you can judge our biased interpretation of facts and events for yourself.)
But there’s one exception to that rule.
The BBC is a publicly-funded body and is committed by its charter to impartiality. It’s supposed to present a balanced and accurate picture, and to give a fair voice to all sides. It fails in that duty in a great many ways, but rarely more conspicuously than in its coverage of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
A subset of Yes supporters on social media are regrettably fond of personalising that failure in attacks on individual presenters and journalists, who in many (although not all) cases are simply doing their jobs and asking tough questions where they should properly be asked.
But the root of the BBC’s bias is something much more empirical and measurable than the personal views (whether real or alleged) of this or that isolated employee. And the publication of geographically-separated financial accounts for the first time this year finally enables a definitive number to be put on it.
Above is a page (p.99 to be precise) from the BBC’s Full Financial Statements for 2015/16, which can be found on the BBC website. It details what the BBC received from, and spent in, Scotland in the past year. And it’s a damning set of figures.
The Corporation took in £320m from Scotland last year, and spent just £176m (a whopping £27m, or 13%, decrease on 2015) on TV and radio programmes either made IN Scotland or made FOR Scotland. That, alert readers will have noted, is a hefty £144m subsidy from Scotland to the rest of the UK. But even that isn’t the real story.
Because the “network content” produced in Scotland is just a veneer to make the numbers look better. There’s no actual reason for Question Time, say, to be made in Scotland (which it notionally is), other than to disguise how little money the BBC spends north of the border.
If we take out the network content, just £98m of Scottish viewers’ £320m is spent on actual Scottish programming. And what that means is that if Scotland were to be independent, the BBC would suddenly have a £222m hole in its budget. The loss of Scottish licence fees would take a 6% bite out of the broadcaster’s coffers, at a time when its finances are already under severe pressure. (The licence fee hasn’t increased since 2010.)
The rest of the UK would still expect Question Time and Newsnight and The Weakest Link and all the other shows currently “made” in Scotland to be produced and broadcast in the event of Scottish independence, so that would be a very real loss.
(The actual size of it would be slightly smaller than £222m, as Scotland would very likely want to buy in BBC programming. But we know that the market cost of that is more in the region of £20m, still leaving a £200m shortfall.)
And what that means is that the BBC has a large and direct vested interest in Scotland staying in the UK. The Corporation wouldn’t allow someone with a £200m interest in anything to appear onscreen as a neutral voice, but it pretends that it’s doing exactly that itself.
The vested interest manifests itself in numerous ways, of which the most obvious is perhaps the endless setting of the news agenda – all the way across the Corporation’s TV, radio and website coverage – by reference to the newspapers, which are overwhelmingly right-wing across the UK and also overwhelmingly anti-independence.
There’s no reason for this to be the case in 2016. There’s no justification whatsoever for exclusively referencing printed media, when online outlets which could balance the papers’ bias often have considerably bigger readerships. But it enables the BBC to present an enormously skewed picture while keeping its own hands clean.
(In its final days Newsnight Scotland started citing some pro-indy websites, including this one, in its nightly media round-up, but the practice didn’t survive the move to Scotland 2014 for reasons which were never explained. And shortly BBC Scotland won’t even have a nightly Scottish current-affairs show at all.)
Targeting individual presenters, journalists and reporters is often both unfair and counter-productive, and can look like intimidation. Abuse just provides opponents with ammunition. But there can be no sensible dispute that the BBC as an institution is biased, and that that bias is both real and measurable (and indeed rational, if seen from the BBC’s viewpoint).
There are remedies available. The Corporation’s news output needs a wider range of voices, and to reflect views not aired in the print media. Abusive attacks on individuals provide the BBC with both a get-out clause and a grievance, and a reason to deliberately provoke.
With a second referendum likely on the horizon, Yes supporters should already be focusing on far more constructive ways to air their legitimate complaints. Forcing the state broadcaster to acknowledge its financial interest, and therefore the need to do something to counter it, would be a start.