Media

The BBC missed the boat on devolution – can it reinvent itself?

The BBC has a problem representing the UK - put bluntly, Britain has evolved and BBC News hasn't

BY Nigel Smith   /  27 February 2017

The BBC, in proposing a new digital channel called BBC Scotland, has been both politically adroit and technically clever as the proposal offers far more creative potential than the “Scottish Six” ever did.

What has been forgotten for over twenty years is that the “Scottish Six” was always the second choice solution to the original problem that Tony Hall entirely ducked in 1998 when he was Chief Executive of BBC News, and again last week as the all-powerful Director General. Why does BBC News from London not make a better job of reflecting the whole of Britain to itself?  

Why do editors in London routinely fail to contextualise news on the NHS, schools or social policy in England with an appropriate comparison from NI or Scotland or Wales – not all the time but now and then and with a light touch?  It is the nightly non-awareness of the rest of the UK which adds a completely avoidable strain to a UK already under political stress.  Britain is changing, not only in the nations but in the regions of England in ways that BBC News simply does not acknowledge. That is the challenge the BBC failed to address with its recent announcement.

The BBC had a problem representing Scotland long before the advent of devolution. It never could get the different legal and institutional framework right. Even without institutional difference, parts of England felt the BBC served them poorly too. In 1996, the BBC Charter renewal document included a section headed The London Broadcasting Corporation in which it attempted to head off these criticisms.

Then in 1997 came devolution. It was meant, rather half-heartedly, to be a British policy affecting not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but also parts of England – London, the North East and North West. 

Within the terms of its 1996 Charter, the BBC could have taken account of devolution on its own initiative, but it chose not to. Instead it sought the support of Prime Minister Tony Blair to keep the BBC out of the Scotland Act 1998, delivering only token changes and no overall review.

The BBC appeared fundamentally hostile to devolution. It took refuge in its concept (and version) of “one nation”, not recognizing that the UK was changing forever and that a new “shared space” for Britain was required. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see the historic mistake that may have fed the disintegration the BBC so feared.

As late as 2015, Mr Blair seemed to concede the point: “I did feel that we made a mistake on devolution. We should have understood that, when you change the system of government so that more power is devolved, you need to have ways of culturally keeping England, Scotland and Wales very much in sync with each other. We needed to work even stronger for a sense of UK national identity.”

By the end of 1998, devolution had reached 10 million people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 8 million in London. As London was BBC home territory and already super-served by it, devolution for the BBC was in practice confined to the “celtic fringes”.

Six years later, in 2004, the attempt to extend devolution across England, (which was part of the original policy) failed spectacularly in the North East referendum. But the lesson drawn that the voters did not want regional government was too broad. Voters sent a more precise message: if asked to pay for 35 extra politicians and their administrative structure to exercise a tiny range of powers (roughly equivalent to those held by Scottish Enterprise), they rightly concluded it wasn’t a good bargain. The correct interpretation of the referendum result is that an elected assembly must have substantial powers – if not, find others ways to do this.

In due course this is what has happened. The failed referendum of 2004 marked the end of the first phase of devolution.

Later in 2004, the Wilson Committee examining the BBC’s EU coverage heard much evidence of the BBC’s narrow focus on Westminster, to the substantial exclusion of Brussels and the devolved administrations. For the BBC, it seemed, only Westminster could be the source of political legitimacy.

The period from 2004 to 2008 was the nadir of devolution as a policy for the whole of Britain. It was becoming clear that Wales and Scotland, despite using their powers effectively within their jurisdictions and despite creating border effects and the rise in intra-regional competition detected by Lord Heseltine, were together not big enough to re-balance Britain or the BBC. (Scotland has the same population as Yorkshire, England’s largest county)

The lesson seemed to be that devolution needed allies in England. But there were no allies – the Labour Government, having abandoned regional assemblies, continued to centralize local government in England.

The BBC opened its 2006 Charter review by admitting once again that it wanted a “less London-centric BBC”, but its response was confined to the “out of London” strategy of economic decentralization to Salford Quay.

More to the point, and perhaps emboldened by the devolution lull, the BBC removed the Broadcasting Councils and the National Governors (both previously part of the BBC Charter) and replaced all Governors with trustees and Audience councils. The BBC’s response to devolution was now in negative territory.

The King report in 2008 provoked a temporary reform that soon ran into the sands. To this cynical observer, it seemed BBC policy was to shovel a few more programmes and money into the national silos and then leave them to their own devices. The BBC was still dealing with the “celtic fringe”.

All this was about to change, as devolution began to evolve and extend into England. Devolution would be “celtic fringe” no longer. The BBC seems to have missed the significance of what is happening.

The Tories, still in opposition, having opposed regional assemblies in England, adopted localism as a decentralizing alternative. It was to prove too local, but that limitation was to be the key to the future. At the same time, eight great, mainly Labour-held English cities formed the core cities group to seek more autonomy in the last two years of the Labour government.

In 2011, the Tories, in Coalition government, passed the Localism Act and accepted an amendment from the core cities group that extended the Act beyond its original localism, and thus city devolution was born in cross-party co-operation. So began the second phase of British devolution – this time in England.

The core cities, essentially combined local authorities, need no elected regional structure as they draw their political authority indirectly from their participating local authorities, from cross-party co-operation and elected mayors. They cannot be compared with the powers or permanence of the Scottish parliament. The powers are still mainly those of local government, with some central government powers devolved on a case-by-case basis. It will, for example, give the North East more power than the rejected regional assembly.

Cities policy is a significant advance of devolution within the UK. To the 10 million people in the devolved nations and the 8 million in London, the policy adds 16 million people in these eight cities. Almost 55% of the UK population now has some degree of devolution, and the principle is established in England beyond London. The range of powers devolved is still expanding, with the full support of the Chancellor.

There is another aspect bearing directly on the BBC. The Cities policy has, by accident of geography and the exclusion of London, a Northern tilt. Bristol is the only one of the eight core cities unequivocally in the “South”. The “Northern” population affected is nearly twice that of London.

Sometime well in the future, policy may make a partial return to elected regional government, perhaps because too many powers have been devolved and created a democratic deficit, or because there are areas of England where no big cities exist or are merely minor federating units in an asymmetric federation. But for now, city devolution has created an alternative way forward for devolution in England and restored the original concept of British devolution.

For the BBC, it means there is now a large public policy area free of London – the home territory of the BBC. The practical challenge for BBC News can be seen in this example. Police force amalgamations are being proposed in parts of the “new” North. Can the BBC bring the Scottish experience of police amalgamation to a Northern England debate and as British news? Can the BBC reinvent the British shared news space?

In this second phase of devolution, the UK is going through the most significant period of constitutional change since the 1990s: the Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2014, the Welsh powers Act 2011, and currently the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill 2015-16. The Core cities group is now asking for some of the Smith Commission proposals to be implemented in England. The Greater London Assembly wants more powers.

As all political parties recognize the UK is one of Europe’s most centralized countries and all went into the 2015 election promising to reduce that concentration – there will be no early reversal of devolution. Devolution for the BBC can be “fringe” no more.

Put brutally, the BBC missed the boat on devolution. Britain has evolved and BBC News hasn’t. The BBC proposal for a Scottish Channel at least puts the early hostility and subsequent indifference behind it, but doesn’t yet extend to reflecting the whole of Britain in a new way.

At least two things need to happen. The King report needs to be implemented in full. And there needs to be a fundamental review and then a reform of BBC News and Current Affairs along the broadest of lines for the whole of Britain, with a shift in tone. This will be no easy task as it demands a cultural change from top to bottom in the news directorate that James Harding has so far shown no public interest in.

There are three previous examples of news reform. In 1992, Mark Bonham Carter, the BBC’s Deputy chairman, ordered the fair representation of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland on BBC programmes. The policy succeeded after massive effort and risk. The Wilson report on coverage of the EU was only partially successful, thus showing some change is possible. The King report, central to this argument, was the least successful, hinting at the size of the challenge the BBC now faces.

London is an important source of news, and even more so given Brexit. London is no sleepy capital city like post-war Germany’s Bonn or Switzerland’s Bern. During my lifetime it has completed its transformation from imperial capital to a global city of immense power and success with a dynamic local economy stretching into Northern France. In an over-centralized nation, it follows that it is home to many national institutions. In other words, it is a great source of news of interest to the rest of the UK. But despite recognition of London’s primacy, the feeling persists that the BBC looks to London too much or in other words is still too London-centric. In persisting with this criticism in the face of a generous policy effort by the BBC towards Scotland, I do so for the future of the UK.


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