The latest controversy to hit BBC Scotland involves an apparent favouring of pro-Union groups when seeking invites for audience places on the new digital channel’s debate programme.
The National has done some sterling work in exposing ‘flaws’ in the way audiences are being chosen by BBC Scotland.
It began of course with the revelation that British Nationalist bigot Billy Mitchell had managed to secure several invites to Question Time and allowed to deliver almost as many anti-SNP/independence rants.
BBC Scotland has been on the run ever since and appears to have given less than honest answers to The National as the paper continues to pursue the now widely discredited broadcaster. There’s little doubt that BBC Scotland has allowed the process of audience selection to be corrupted. But the favouring of pro-Union voices hasn’t suddenly emerged, it’s been there for years.
Prior to the Billy Mitchell scandal being exposed, we had the ridiculous episode of the Dundee Question Time where few of the voices heard bore any resemblence to a Dundee accent. Indeed many weren’t even Scottish.
Also, cast your mind back to the 2017 General Election and we had the ‘Foodbank Nurse’ episode.
It’s a recurring theme of audiences in TV debates broadcast by BBC Scotland. The independence referendum was thick with loud Unionist rants masquerading as questions and rapturous applause accompanying each and every questionable claim. Below is a clip from a televised debate on the Indyref broadcast in May 2012. It contains every audience interaction. It is overwhelmingly pro-Union.
But even if BBC Scotland was to amend its audience selection process to eliminate this pro-Union corruption, would living room audiences be any better served? The answer is no. Studio audiences, balanced or otherwise, are part of the problem. Foodbank Nurse would still have been selected by Sarah Smith if the audience had been evenly split along constitutional lines. Smith chose her because she knew what she was going to ask.
Audiences allow the BBC to shape the narrative of a debate programne. People submit their questions in advance. Thus, it’s very easy to steer debate in whichever direction you choose.
In the case of the ‘Foodbank Nurse’ episode, BBC Scotland used the audience to turn a debate about Westminster issues into one about devolved issues. Smith did it later on in the same programme in order to turn the focus onto education.
Audiences aren’t necessary when seeking to examine issues and obtain explanation of a party’s stance from its elected politicians. They are only necessary when seeking to push an agenda.
The BBC would argue of course that having an audience helps generate an atmosphere, it adds theatre. But debates aren’t about entertainment. They’re about informing the public.
BBC Scotland’s new digital channel launches its new Question Time style debate programme on Wednesday February 27th. It’s already under pressure to provide balance. Viewers will be scruninising audiences for any signs of plants or attempts to skew the agenda.
But they’re missing the point. The biggest single plant is the audience.