In the almost certainly vain hope that some objective thinking may prevail on the issues raised by this week’s Question Time at Inverness, let me set out my understanding.
On Monday, a number of tweets complained about the Question Time panel that had been announced online by the BBC – and various television schedules programmes – for the Inverness Question Time this Thursday. The first announcement on the BBC programmes website showed this -
David Dimbleby chairs Question Time from Inverness. On the panel, Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander MP, Labour's leader in Scotland Johann Lamont MSP, Conservative former Secretary of State for Scotland Lord Forsyth, Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips and the actor Alan Cumming.
Today it shows this -
David Dimbleby chairs Question Time from Inverness. On the panel, Deputy First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon MSP, former leader of the Liberal Democrats Charles Kennedy MP, Labour's leader in Scotland Johann Lamont MSP, Conservative former Secretary of State for Scotland Lord Forsyth, Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips and the actor Alan Cumming.
Quite how this came about is still unclear. Today the Herald carries this report Nationalists accuse BBC of imbalanceIt includes this quote from Kenneth Gibson, SNP MSP -
SNP senior backbencher Kenneth Gibson said: "It is inevitable that independence will be discussed on this week's Question Time, and it would be in the best interests of a fair and measured debate if the BBC invited equal numbers of panellists from both the Yes and No campaigns.
Monday morning’s tweeting included two tweets from SNP Westminster MPs Pete Wishart and Angus MacNeill complaining about the alleged imbalance.
Responding to a blog comment, I gave this off the cuff response -
Question Time is produced by an independent production company, and David Dimbleby is not an employee of the BBC. The programmes remit is to reflect the political spectrum of the UK and UK-wide issues, even when it comes from a regional centre. The questions submitted by the audience are selected on this basis.
The panel is meant to reflect that UK diversity of political views, not single issues, which is what Scotland's independence is, albeit a fundamental one. I am surprised that no member of the Scottish Government is on the programme, but since I am unaware of any protest from the Scottish Government or the SNP at the moment about the constitution of the panel, I assume that they were either invited and declined, or that they are happy for Alan Cumming to reflect the nationalist viewpoint.
Having said all that, I do find it a surprising omission. Maybe the SNP would like to comment, but I'm not holding my breath, since I can't remember the last time the SNP ever made a comment on my blogs.
I pursued this seem in various Twitter exchanges, trying to make the point that one of the following things must have happened -
1. The SNP/ScottishGovernment was not consulted about the composition of the panel.
2. The SNP/ScottishGovernment was consulted, and found it acceptable, with the possibility that they had nominated Alan Cumming (unlikely).
3. The SNP/ScottishGovernment was consulted, and did not find it acceptable, and had registered a protest.
4. The SNP/ScottishGovernment was invited to nominate a panel member from the Scottish Government, but were either unable of offer anyone or could not reach agreement on a nominee with the BBC.
Note my uneasy bracketing of the SNP with the Scottish Government. This reflects the fact that while the SNP, a political party, is unequivocally committed to independence, The Scottish Government, elected on a platform of independence and the commitment to hold a referendum, is now the government of all the Scottish people (including a proportion of the electorate who voted for them but not for independence) and is therefore committed to the voice of all the Scottish people being heard in the debate on independence.
I made the further point on Twitter that Pete Wishart and Angus MacNeill’s tweets could not be seen as revealing the SNP or the Scottish Government’s exact position on the issue, but that an official statement could rapidly clear things up.
To my knowledge, no such official statement appeared yesterday (I may be wrong in that) but later in the day, a tweet appeared from Alan Cumming saying he looked forward to joining Nicola Sturgeon on the panel, a tweet to which Nicola promptly responded confirming this. (The Twitterati were presumably meant to take this as an official SNP or even Scottish Government announcement.)
Question Time is produced by an independent production company, Mentorn, for the BBC.
David Dimbleby is not an employee of the BBC. The programme is commissioned by the BBC and all their rules and guidelines over political balance apply.
The programme is not a political programme – it is a topical debate programme, the questions are chosen exclusively from questions submitted by the invited studio audience, and can cover any topic, including but not confined to political topics. The questions chosen usually reflect the main political, social and sometimes trivial issues of the moment.
The usual programme panel is three representatives of the three largest parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats plus (my words and view) one left-wing artist, entertainer or journalist and one right-wing equivalent, making a panel of five. However, this format is not inflexible – other parties can be represented, e.g. UKIP, SNP and on one notable occasion, the BNP. Thursday night’s programme from Inverness has belatedly recognised this by a panel of six in addition to the chairman.
The show addresses UK-wide issues in various locations throughout the UK. When it is in a region of England, in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, the questions understandably often relate to issues in that country or region and the panel representation usually reflects that in the political party members invited. However, that does not make the programme Welsh Question Time, or Northern Ireland Question Time or Scottish Question Time or, say, North East of England Question Time – it remains just Question Time, a programme with a UK-wide remit.
There is no doubt that the impending independence referendum has placed a new complexion on the programme format, especially when it is located in Scotland, and to some degree neither the production company, Mentorn, nor David Dimbleby, nor the BBC have quite got their heads round the magnitude of this for the UK, and the implications for the programme format. (Kenneth Gibson’s comment reflects this.)
One thing should be borne in mind – a Question Time located in Scotland is not a single issue programme, devoted to the single topic of Scottish independence. There is a place for such programmes and they have been mounted, both at UK level and in Scotland in the past by the BBC, and will continue to be. Panels cannot therefore reflect that alignment alone.
The stark facts that the SNP and the BBC have to deal with are these -
Independence is a Scottish issue, but one that affects the entire UK.
A substantial minority of Scots voters support independence. A substantial minority of Scots voters oppose independence. A minority of Scots voters are undecided and a minority of Scots voters support more devolution within the UK.
Of the five political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament, three support the Union and two support independence.
At Westminster, i.e. UK level, the Coalition Government is opposed to independence, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are opposed to independence and the SNP supports independence.
It is probably too much to ask that sector of SNP support who believe the BBC is institutionally biased to sympathise with the BBC and Question Time in their difficulties in dealing equitably with this situation.
It would however, display the political maturity we expect of those who support an independent Scotland to at least understand those difficulties.