Julian Knight is MP for Solihull and a former BBC News personal finance and consumer affairs reporter.
The next two years will be some of the most crucial in the history of the BBC. It will face the twin challenges of covering not only our exit from the EU, but the Scottish National Party’s grievance-mongering pursuit of a re-run of the 2014 referendum. I and a group of colleagues, both from the Conservatives and other parties, have written to the Chair and Director General of the corporation to call on them to take more care than they have in the past to get the balance right.
This isn’t BBC baiting. I worked for the organisation for five years, and firmly believe it’s the greatest repository of media talent anywhere in the world. But it must be careful not to lose the trust of the 52 per cent who voted Leave, as well as those Remainers like myself who respect the will of the people and want to get on with delivering Brexit.
I have few complaints about the BBC’s coverage of the referendum itself – even though my side lost – but I have to agree with one of my constituents who suggested the corporation has suffered a “collective nervous breakdown” over the result. One example is the prominent coverage given to so-called “regretful Remainers” in the aftermath of the vote, even though all available polling suggests no shift in public opinion towards the EU since the vote.
I’m also concerned that whilst the BBC is diligent in scrutinising the British Government’s position on Brexit, statements from Brussels politicians are too often reported without the vital context that they too are positioning themselves ahead of the negotiations to come. Elsewhere, the corporation seems to be letting itself be bullied from pillar to post by the SNP. I’m relieved that it finally decided against the so-called ‘Scottish Six’ – essentially a campaign to abolish the most-watched British news programming in Scotland – but this came at the cost of an entirely new digital TV channel.
I hope that this station’s performance will be carefully monitored, and that it will be reviewed should it turn out that there isn’t sufficient demand from ordinary Scottish viewers to justify its expense. At a time of budget pressures, the BBC can’t afford to maintain a whole station as a sop to nationalist vanity.
With Scotland shaping up to be a vital dimension in the Brexit negotiations, the corporation could also take more care to introduce viewers in the rest of the United Kingdom to the SNP’s increasingly ramshackle record in office in Edinburgh, which is being so ruthlessly exposed by Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives.
The SNP talk a good progressive game whenever they’re out of power, so it’s easy for people whose only experience of the Nationalists is their Westminster MPs to get a misleading and very flattering impression of what is in fact one of the most illiberal forces in mainstream British politics. They have proved adept at suborning or cowing civil society institutions within Scotland, so it’s incumbent on an organisation like the corporation with the security that comes from being UK-wide, to hold them to account.
I read with concern this site’s finding that a substantial minority of Party members no longer have any fellow-feeling with our compatriots in Scotland. The fact that we simply hear less about each other in the age of devolution must surely have played some part in this, and I believe that the British Broadcasting Corporation has a special obligation to make sure we all stay connected to every part of our United Kingdom.
In fact, I think the corporation could do with dwelling a bit more on its full title. I don’t want to see it drenched in the Union Jack like the propaganda station of a tin-pot dictatorship, but I do think that it would do well to keep in mind its status as a national institution.
Private media is free to adopt whatever attitude – and in print, to promote whatever politics –-it pleases, but the BBC is different. It can’t afford to be out of touch with Brexit voters (especially the woefully under-represented million of them in Scotland), and with the towns and villages beyond the great cities where the Corporation is based.
This is especially the case when local BBC News websites are putting such pressure on local newspapers, which not only provide a valuable route into journalism for young people but are much more likely to reflect the character of their community than the nearest outpost of the sprawling BBC.
Impartiality shouldn’t be mistaken for overlooking so much that is good about Britain, and a global perspective must not mean losing sight of the country the corporation was created to serve. I think the BBC can be an enormous boon to Britain: I hope it will take care to make sure that it is.