How unsporting of Nicola Sturgeon to raise the issue of fiscal powers for Scotland on Question Time. During a discussion about the comprehensive spending review, she tried to explain this crucial aspect of her party's solution to cuts in Scotland. Her point was ruled out of order by David Dimbleby who more or less told her to be quiet. "This is for a UK audience!" said Dimbleby imperiously. That didn't stop the rest of the panel - all flown up from London - piling in with jibes about Ireland, Iceland and Scottish independence that Nicola was refused the chance to address, in Glasgow. It became even more extraordinary a few moments later when, during a discussion about the use of torture, Dimbleby himself raised the unrelated issue of Megrahi's release from prison, and asked the panellists - except Nicola - whether the Scottish government made the wong decision. She did get to make her point, briefly, but not at the invitation of the chairman. It was eye-boggling to behold.
Why does the BBC make a big deal of holding Question Time in Scotland, invite the Deputy First Minister of the SNP lead Scottish government along, then (selectively) ban Scottish issues? A question about the economy ignored the recent Scottish growth figures which were very different from the quoted UK percentage. Large amounts of time were spent discussing the effect of housing benefit changes on central London and whether Mayor Boris used inappropriate language. Simon Schama made a historian's joke about the Battle of Hastings. This programme was a perfect illustration of how the corporation don't get Scotland. It's worse than that. They seem to be pursuing their own campaign to deny Scottish difference, speaking instead to an imaginary and uniform country called Ukania. The terms of the discussion were clearly laid out - ie only talk about the "UK in Europe" or "Britain's position on torture" or "the UK economy" etc etc. The BBC seem unwilling to acknowledge that in Scotland, all these subjects are set in a different context. At one point last night, a member of the panel mentioned the aircraft carriers being built on the Clyde, how useless they were, how the contract was fixed etc. The Glasgow audience - and Nicola Sturgeon as MSP for Govan - may have had a different perspective. But it was impermissible.
You can put money on the fact that the BBC will use the location of last night's broadcast to demonstrate their commitment to Scotland. How misleading and dishonest. Question Time ignored the big story this week on the emergency legislation in Holyrood to bring police detention procedures into line with European Human Rights law after a Supreme Court ruling. If something similar had happened in respect to English legal procedures, can you imagine Question Time ignoring it on the grounds that it wasn't relevant to that part of the UK covered by Scots Law? Every week Scotland sits through Question Time discussions that are irrelevant because they pertain to English health and education. Couldn't south Britain do the same on the rare occasions when Question Time comes from North of the Border?
Clearly not. I long ago came to the conclusion that it is impossible to make a network news/political programme that "speaks to the whole of the UK" but also gives proper weight to matters of import in Scotland. These two aims contradict each other because ninety per cent of the population of the UK live in England.
I have no wish to take Question Time off our screens, it's a programme I enjoy, as does most of the viewing public, who relish the chance to see politicans battle with each other and "ordinary people". It works well because it's properly funded. And here lies the problem. If the BBC was truly interested in representing the interests of all its license fee payers, high end programming like Question Time would also be made for a Scottish audience in Scotland. The BBC currently offer a wide variety of political and news content in their television channels and radio stations which address different social classes and age groups. They vary in tone from the youth targeted Radio One Newsbeat, to the populist but informative (if you live in England) news bulletins at Six and Ten to the more highbrow Newsnight. Add on the Daily Politics and the vastly different approaches of Radios Four, Five and Two and you really do have something for everyone...in England. This is not an attack on our neighbour. It's just a matter of arithmetic. Most people in the UK live in England and have no real interest in discussing the curriculum for excellence, the merits of fiscal responsibility or the integrity of Scots Law in the age of the Supreme Court. Indeed, why should they care?
Even a small proportion of resources devoted to the the panoply of UK coverage listed above would make a big difference if focused on Scotland. This is not a question of entertainment, it's about enhancing our democracy. Scotland only gets to see a Question Time style line up of politicians during election campaigns. They never hear such a panel justify themselves alongside others in public life, like our successful businessmen, thinkers, writers and social entrepreneurs. Certainly never on prime time television and with the kind of slick, expensive production values that we come to expect from network shows. How good would it be to hear such a mixed panel discuss Holyrood matters next to questions about the EU budget and President Obama's mid term problems? Scotland just has to make-do. This imbalance further contributes to the erosion of national esteem. It suggests Scottish affairs are just kid-on stuff. Pretendy programmes. Pretendy parliament. Pretendy aspirations. Cringe, cringe. So our young people who set their sights high learn that their ambitions can only be achieved furth of inconsequential Scotland.
Is it deliberate? One doesn't like to indulge in conspiracy theories, but given that the BBC is committed to "bring the nation together" you have to ask whether placing Scotland in the third division is strategic. Certainly the panicky manner in which Dimbleby slapped down Sturgeon last night suggested a firm "no Scotch stuff" line was laid down in advance. Great efforts have been made in recent years to increase the amount of network programming made in Scotland - but this too must meet the needs of a UK wide audience. That is where more of Scotland's proportion of the license fee is going. It should instead be funding material that will enhance our understanding of ourselves, modern Scottish society and increase participation in public life.
There does seem to be a more strident Britishness abroad, an engineered cohesion if you like. I recall editions of Question Time many years ago when, on the rare occasions they visited Scotland, did address issues of relevance to this country - explaining them to English viewers if necessary. What has changed? Perhaps the success of the nationalists in winning power has put the British back into the BBC. But how, exactly, does that sit with the broadcaster's duty to impartiality?