There’s been a whole lot of shouting of late over a wee project that a few grassroots indy supporters have embarked upon entirely on their own initiative. A group of independence supporters who are convinced that the BBC doesn’t give the case for independence a fair hearing, despite the fact that via the licence fee it’s funded by indy supporters as much as anyone else, have been fundraising in order to put up some billboards with a message decrying BBC bias.
Bias from a Unionist newspaper is one thing. You don’t have to buy the newspaper. You can use an ad-blocker so that you don’t have to see the advertising that pays for the online edition. Or you can simply refrain from clicking on any link to its articles. Newspapers are private concerns, and it’s easy for private individuals to avoid contributing money or support to a private concern that they disagree with. It’s similar with privately owned television channels. If you think Sky News, STV news, RT, Al Jazeera, or any other broadcast news outlet is biased, you can refrain from watching it. You’re not supporting it. You’re not being forced to pay for it.
That’s not the case with the BBC. If you have a TV, if you access TV programmes online via iPlayer or a similar service, you have a legal obligation to pay a substantial annual fee to the BBC. You have to pay for the BBC even if you choose only to watch the news on Al Jazeera or some other channel. You have to pay for the BBC even if you never view a single BBC programme. That’s why perceived bias on the BBC angers people far more than the perceived bias of a newspaper or a privately owned TV channel. It’s one thing to broadcast programming that you regard as propaganda that’s biased against your views, it’s quite another to broadcast programming that you regard as biased against your views and then force you to pay for it. And even worse, to criminalise you for not paying up.
Some people attempt to delegitimise criticism of perceived BBC bias by reducing it to a conspiracy theory. That’s a simple minded and reductionist view on how bias works. Bias in an organisation like the BBC doesn’t arise because of decisions made behind closed doors by a small but powerful group of people who impose a secret line on their underlings. Institutional bias is a point of view that becomes entrenched because it’s regarded by those who hold it as being unbiased. It’s similar in some ways to institutional or systemic racism. No individual is going to admit that they’re racist. Equally no one in the BBC is going to admit to bias against the Scottish independence movement.
The bias that Scottish independence supporters complain about from the BBC is a metropolitan-centric viewpoint. It’s not a conspiracy. This was very apparent during the latter stages of the first independence referendum campaign when the BBC’s “big hitters” came up to Londonsplain the referendum. Opinions espoused by Westminster politicians were given more credence than the views of independence supporters. Independence supporters were subject to more critical examination than their Unionist equivalents. The independence campaign was pressed to explain the most trivial details of Scotland post-independence, up to and including being accused of a lack of certainty on the price of a first class stamp. The contrast with the EU referendum was striking.
But this latest dispute between independence supporters isn’t really about whether the BBC is biased. It’s about how the independence movement acts in a media environment where it’s not guaranteed to get a fair hearing from traditional outlets. And that’s where we need to be disciplined as a movement. We need to refrain from insulting one another for having a different view on tactics. Some people think putting up billboards about BBC bias is a good idea, others think it’s counter productive. It’s good to have different strategies. It’s good to have different approaches. What’s not so good is when those different strategies and approaches descend into petty name calling.
Let’s be honest here, and let’s get a bit of perspective. We’re talking about a few billboards here, not about storming Pacific Quay with lit torches and pitchforks. A few billboards by themselves are unlikely to change anyone’s mind. People who see these billboards are unlikely to say to themselves “Why yes, yes indeed the BBC has been lying to me” unless they’ve already formed the idea in their minds that the BBC can’t be trusted. But equally they’re unlikely to alienate anyone who is genuinely undecided on the question of independence. If your response on seeing a pro-indy billboard decrying BBC bias is an angry “Mad zooming paranoid cybernats, I want nothing to do with them” then the chances are that you were highly unlikely to sympathise with the cause of independence in the first place.
However the point of the billboards isn’t to point out examples of BBC bias, their purpose is to direct people to a website which acts as a portal to pro-independence views and opinion from a variety of sources. You can disagree about how effective the billboards are in doing that, you can argue that their anti-BBC message obscures their function as a signpost to sources of pro-indy information aggregated on the http://www.informscotland.com website. But it misrepresents this initiative to think it’s all about a small number of anti-BBC billboards.
Personally, I would prefer that we put our crowdfunding efforts into producing an alternative media. I would rather that we were crowdfunding projects like Phantom Power’s films, that people were funding the production of the online content that the informscotland website links to. Because it’s a tough slog trying to support yourself as a content provider and people need to eat and keep a roof over their heads. But I’m not going to criticise a group of grassroots indy supporters who’ve got up off their arses and have decided to do something, even if it’s something that I don’t personally think is going to be effective. Because I could be wrong.
What is most definitely counterproductive and unhelpful is for different groups of independence supporters to use intemperate language when they disagree about tactics. We need to acknowledge that if we really want this indy movement to be a broad-based grassroots movement, then different groups are going to have different priorities and different strategies and different tactics. That’s what a broad-based movement is all about. And that in turn requires that the different strands of the movement need to accept that others are going to do things differently.
It helps no one but the Unionist establishment when one group of indy supporters says that another group are paranoid conspiracy theorists, and get called intellectual snobs in return. If you don’t agree with someone else’s strategy, you don’t need to support it, but refrain from insulting them, and develop and promote your own alternatives. If your alternatives are more effective, then they will be more widely adopted. We’re only going to win this campaign with a multi-pronged approach. We’ll lose if we divert our energies into factionalism and in-fighting.
The best way to disagree about tactics is to come up with an alternative tactic of your own, not to name call. Let’s put that on a billboard.
Audio version of this blog post, courtesy of Sarah Mackie @lumi_1984 https://soundcloud.com/occamshaver/wee-ginger-dug-27th-oct-2016
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