NEW research proves conclusively that the BBC is excluding Scottish voices from its news coverage – and that isn’t “healthy for democracy”, according to a media expert.
Tom Mills, author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service and vice chair of the Media Reform Coalition, spoke out as we revealed that Scottish politicians, specialists and commentators accounted for just 4.4% of appearances on BBC news and political programmes last week. People living in Scotland make up about 8% of the UK’s population.
Research by The National found that of the 181 political figures, experts and commentators featured on The Andrew Marr Show, Newsnight, Question Time and BBC News at 10, just eight were based in Scotland.
That included four appearances by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, one by the SNP’s shadow health secretary Dr Philippa Whitford and contributions from three Scottish professors and experts.
The week in question, from May 4-10, came ahead of the 12-year anniversary of the landmark King Report, in which the BBC Trust found shortcomings in the BBC’s UK-wide reporting, particularly regarding devolution. London-based Mills, who has researched BBC impartiality extensively, said during the current virus crisis there is a need for full representation across the UK. He said: “Even in normal circumstances the BBC has the resources and the capacity to properly represent the UK.
“If you look at its charter it’s very clear that it has an obligation to represent the different diverse communities of the UK, it’s mentioned several times. That should reflect on the kind of journalism it does.”
But Mills argued that the lack of Scottish voices is not just about under-representation. He explained: “It’s not just about how we don’t see enough Scottish people on the BBC, it’s also the effect actually narrows political debate and opportunities, options. If you see the sort of politics that you’ve got in Scotland, it seems a much more rational way of doing politics.
“Representing a diversity of voices in society is good for everyone – because if you narrow the political conversation it’s not good for politics, and particular political interests tend to dominate.
“If you think of the structure of the English press in particular, being very right-wing but also really misinforming a lot of public debate as well. None of this is really healthy for democracy.”
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The author spoke about the current BBC set-up for people in Scotland – in which Scots receive news coming from England, but those in England rarely receive information from Scotland.
During the current coronavirus crisis this set-up could create confusion, he said, with the devolved nations maintaining a restricted form of a lockdown and “stay at home” messaging, but England easing up on its measures and adopting the new “stay alert” slogan – which the First Minister has described as vague and unconcise.
Mills told The National: “If you’ve got two parallel strategies and then you hear them both that’s going to be confusing isn’t it? It’s very strange if you have what essentially amounts to public information, which is more or less what a lot of the BBC has become lately, and it’s not contextualised properly and there’s two different messages then obviously that’s bound to create a degree of confusion.
“It’s a general contradiction that you get in an uneven state like the UK – where in Scotland you’re very aware of culture and politics and what’s going on in London but it just simply isn’t reciprocated.”
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SNP depute leader Keith Brown backed Mills’s concern over The National’s findings. He said: “These findings are really concerning but not surprising.
“Nearly 12 years on from the publication of the King Report the BBC is still falling short when it comes to covering the four nations of the UK. The BBC should be doing more to ensure a greater number of items and voices from beyond just England on the BBC network.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “Counting appearances on a small selection of programmes over a limited time period isn’t a useful measure to demonstrate anything.”