The Revolution will NOT be Televised: How BBC Scotland became McFox News

One of my favourite sessions in the Edinburgh Fringe’s ‘All Back to Bowie’s’ thread, was the one concerning the media in Scotland. Iain McWhirter and Peter Arnott with a representative from National Collective, and a provocation by former BBC Scotland and Good Morning Scotland anchorman Derek Bateman, all of whom rejected the idea of overt bias by the BBC, but bemoaned the top-down London-dominated mindset in BBC Scotland, and the way that the BBC received its agenda directly from the (again, London-dominated) press, especially at a time when 25% of its journalists (mainly from News and Current Affairs) had been axed from BBC Scotland over the preceding two years, contributing to a “cultural helplessness in our media”. Derek is a staunch defender of the BBC from accusations of ‘bias’, although he does blast its Head of News for not realising the political landscape had moved in both 2007 and 2011. So, at the same time as a majority of us had decided that we trusted Holyrood more than Westminster, BBC Scotland was still trying to decide whether it was “Strathclyde Region renewed, or a Mini-Me Westminster” (as Bateman put it),  regarding Holyrood as Billy Connolly’s ‘wee pretendy parliament’ – and thus already moving away from its audience.

I myself came to my slightly more cynical position a while back: it was probably around two years ago that I made the contentious comparison of the BBC in Scotland with Fox News.  I had just seen BBC Scotland’s determined presentation of the local council results, and noted the stark focus of the BBC in treating the Glasgow Council results as exceptions to their otherwise standard rule of assessing a gain in comparison to the previous council election.  This was in striking contrast to the coverage of the other channels. Glasgow, as you may recall, had a series of individuals that defected from Labour after being in post for some years, nearly wresting control away from the council’s Labour group.  The BBC decided that these positions were ‘Labour wins’ – despite the fact that Labour had those positions in the previous council, thus making them ‘Labour Holds’, as opposed to ‘wins’ from independents (with a small ‘i’).  The variance of this assessment was something that I found quite shocking, as it was not being extended to other council posts that had had by-elections – and had the effect of reducing the SNP’s tally of gains relative to Labour, on a night when the SNP won the popular vote in the council elections for the first time ever.

After such an inauspicious beginning, I started to look more critically at the BBC’s coverage, and started to see more and more similarities with a certain US TV station.  You see, for some time, I had followed the FaceBook page ‘We Survived Bush, You’ll Survive Obama’, and had picked up on a lot of techniques used to try and discredit an administration not favoured by a particular broadcaster.  You know the sort of thing – not just failing to report ‘good news’ stories, but also reporting everything in a negative context. So Obama drinking a Pepsi becomes an attack on Coca Cola, Obama getting caught in the rain becomes a squandering of water during a drought…that kind of thing.  I was surprised how easy it became to spot similar stories on BBC Scotland – even down to new figures showing that the jobless figures were dropping faster than the rest of the UK, when the story became uniquely not about that, but about zero hours contracts (as though they only happened in Scotland) instead.

So, yes – I confess that, around this time, I started to refer to BBC Scotland news as McFox News, similarly dedicated to traducing the government of the day, regardless of the news. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Freedom of Information requests to NHS Boards in Scotland had increased by almost 700% from Labour’s last year in power at Holyrood to the SNP taking power there in 2007. BBC Scotland’s Eleanor Bradford has been conspicuous in the reporting of stories attacking the NHS in Scotland, and the FoI requests increase would seem to suggest that the broadcaster was fishing for ‘bad news’ stories in an attempt to undermine confidence in both the Scottish Government run by an SNP administration and the Scottish health service.

I would have to admit that I have a little bit of experience in this realm, as I do a lot of work in China, a country where the control of broadcasting is so effective that for most citizens the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 never actually happened. Of course, it is hard to make an argument comparing the Chinese state broadcaster (called – without a trace of irony – ‘CCTV’) to the BBC – but I confess that my illusions about good old ‘Auntie Beeb’ (as I was raised to understand it to be), started to fall away a couple of years ago. In this context, little things such as online comments being closed down on BBC Scotland political and economics stories on its website, yet being completely open on the BBC websites for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, started to take on a different complexion.

At this time, it became hard not to consider the accusation that far from being the arbiter of peace, harmony and democracy, the BBC was actually acting very much as a state broadcaster under much more obviously repressive regimes.  In this context, the explosion of television programmes with ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ in the title since the SNP majority government was elected in 2011, is quite startling. This list represents (not exhaustive – at the end of this piece) only those shown in the first months of 2014 – and it is interesting to reflect how many such programmes existed before 2011 – can you remember any of these being broadcast before then?

Of course it could be ENTIRELY coincidental, but the fact that most of them are subsequent (rather than in the run-up to) the London 2012 Olympics is perhaps revealing: one could, perhaps cynically, review them as a policy by the BBC designed to submerge Scottish (and other) identities within an aggressively-promoted ‘Brand Britain’. I did see one commentator opine that perhaps in the past the BBC had had a policy to avoid this sort of thing, in order not to push Scots and others into feeling alienated, and was now heavily overcompensating for this in a ‘mass rebranding’ exercise, as the BBC had realised that this strategy had not worked?

All of these are (comparatively) subtle ways of subliminally attempting to alter people’s identity perception – and would certainly tie in with more overt acts to suppress the Scottish identity in other aspects, e.g. Red Arrows at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony being blocked from flying blue and white (as they have done before at Scottish events), the decision to host Armed Forces Day on the same weekend and in the same town as the 700th Bannockburn anniversary (unusual, as noted elsewhere, given that Armed Forces Day was last held in Scotland a mere 4 years ago). These are all trappings of the Age of Empire, which have been ramped up in the run-up to the Referendum, and some of which were evident during the Commonwealth Games (as I have noted elsewhere).

In this context, it is of little surprise that alternative podcasts such as Referendum TV (anchored by McWhirter and Riddoch, amongst others), Bateman Broadcasting (by Derek) or even DateLine Scotland have sprung up, to fill the empty niche of referendum-related broadcasting, and compensate for the dearth of programming from BBC Scotland at this critical time. So, yes – all of the above is why I was one of ‘those people’ demonstrating outside the BBC at Pacific Quay during the Commonwealth Games, and singing along to the wonderful Queen parody ‘BBC Blah Blah’ (check out ‘Yew Choob’ on YouTube).  At just over 1,200 people (we each had to take a unique number, in order to counter the BBC’s previous underreporting of our numbers), we were not a huge contingent – but we at least matched the numbers that turned up that same weekend to the free Armed Forces Day event in Stirling.

I would close with a line akin to ‘BBC Scotland ignores this trend at its peril’, but by this stage, I think that BBC Scotland frankly understands too little to care – as it perhaps always has, ever since devolution.

 

 “Don’t bemoan the media. Be the media.” (Jello Biafra)

List of BBC TV programmes in the first half of 2014 with either the words ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ in the title:

The Great British Year

Britain’s Empty Homes

The Great British Bake-Off

Harrow: A Very British School (Sky 1)
Martin Clunes: Islands of Britain
Full Throttle: The Glory Days of British Motorbikes
Great British Railway Journeys
Up All Night: Britain on Call
Britain’s Funniest Comedy Characters
Fool Britannia
Britain’s Secret Treasures
Britain and the Sea
Fake Britain
Britain’s Secret Terror Force: A Panorama Special
A History of Britain in Numbers
A Great British Christmas with Sarah Beeney (CH4)
Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History (
BBC4)
Young, British and Broke: The Truth about Payday Loans
Keeping Britain Safe 24/7
Reel History of Britain
Nigel Slater’s Great British Biscuit
Great British Garden Revival
Heston’s Great British Food (CH4)
Great British Sewing Bee Christmas Special (
BBC2)
Britain’s Killer Storms (CH4)
Britain’s Favourite Xmas Songs (CH5)
Pothole Britain – Drivers Beware! (CH5)
Battlefield Britain (
BBC4)
UK’s Best Body (The Active Channel, Sky 281)
The Year Britain Froze (More4)
The Year Britain Flooded (More4)
Sex, Lies, and a Very British Scapegoat (ITV)
Brit Cops: War on Crime
Brit Cops: Law & Disorder
Brit Cops: Rapid Response
Brit Cops: Frontline Crime
Boozed Up Brits Abroad (Sky Living)
Great British Ghosts (Drama)
The Ladybird Books Story: How Britain Got The Reading Bug (
BBC4)
Legends: Roy Orbison – The ‘Big O’ in Britain (
BBC4)
Britain’s Hardest (Challenge)
JFK: The Final Visit to Britain (
BBC2)
Britain’s Favourite Christmas Songs (CH5 )
Britain’s Craziest Xmas Lights (CH5)
The British Invasion: Herman’s Hermits (Sky Arts 1)
Sacred Wonders of Britain (
BBC2)
Britain’s Got Talent (ITV)
A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley (
BBC4)
The Hidden World of Britain’s Immigrants (
BBC2)
Battered Britain: Storms, Tides and Floods
Fred Dibnah’s Made in Britain
Ade in Britain (STV)
Britain’s Great War (
BBC1)
Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun (CH5)
ACI: Britain’s Worst Crash (National Geographic)
Hidden Histories: Britain’s Oldest Family Businesses
Britain’s Best Bakery (STV)
Benefits Britain: The Bedroom Tax (CH4)
The Boats That Built Britain (
BBC4)
Kidnapped; Betrayed by Britain? – Panorama (
BBC1)
Britain’s Bronze Age Mummies: A Time Team Special (CH4)
Hungry Britain – Panorama (
BBC1)
I Never Knew That About Britain (STV)
Permission Impossible: Britain’s Planners (
BBC2)
Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top 10 (
BBC4)
Britain on Film (
BBC4)
The Nature of Britain (
BBC2)
The British (Sky Atlantic)
A Very British Renaissance (
BBC2)
Border Country: The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland (
BBC2)
Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century (
BBC4)
British Touring Car Championship Live (
BBC4)
Jet! When
Britain Ruled the Skies (BBC4)
Great British Menu (
BBC2)
The Battle for
Britain’s Breakfast (BBC2)

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One thought on “The Revolution will NOT be Televised: How BBC Scotland became McFox News

  1. Pingback: A distant second: From Glasgow to Scotland in 5 years…or Everyone Wins – Except the Winners | 50 Days of Yes

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