The battle for the BBC in Northern Ireland

13 May 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 16 May 2016

Coverage of Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s white paper on the future of the BBC has concentrated on the abolition of the BBC Trust and the publication of the salaries of the highest paid stars. 

Otherwise, pundits are suggesting that not much will change. You should try telling that to BBC Northern Ireland executives, many of whom will be having sleepless nights about the new regime.

Buried in the text, and seemingly unnoticed so far by the Northern Ireland media, is radical change to the way that BBC Northern Ireland will be governed and we can expect that the new arrangements, far from bringing closure to the future of the BBC, will be just the opening exchanges in an attritional battle for control over the broadcaster.

The section is entitled Increasing Accountability to the Nations

It opens by stating: “The BBC is our national broadcaster, acting in the interests of the whole of the UK. But it must also reflect the democratic makeup of the UK.

“As such, we support the proposal from the Clementi Review that the licensing regime should set out the obligations and measures that the BBC is required to meet and report against in serving their audiences in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

So far, so good. And elsewhere in the document there is a commitment to increase investment in the regions.

However, it is the way that this will be policed that will raise some eyebrows.

The document refers to “memoranda of understanding agreed with each of the devolved administrations” which can be accessed via the Department of Culture website.

“Additionally, the memoranda of understanding agreed with each of the devolved administrations and legislatures committed to three further measures which will be enshrined in the new Charter: −the devolved administrations will have a formal, consultative, role in any Charter Review, including providing the devolved governments with copies of the draft Charter to lay in the devolved legislatures; −the BBC will lay their annual reports and accounts in each of the devolved legislatures; and −the BBC will be required to submit reports to, and appear before, committees within the devolved legislatures on the same basis as the UK Parliament.”

So this raises the prospect of fireworks at the new Communities Committee as politicians get the opportunity to publicly grill BBC executives.

This may or may not be a healthy exercise in democratic accountability. Given the number of investigative pieces carried out by the BBC on political parties in recent times you would like to hope that such sessions will be used appropriately and that politicians from all parties will refrain from trying to influence editorial independence or to bully and intimidate journalists from doing their jobs. This new process will therefore be as much a test for the maturity of our political classes as of the BBC.

But this direct involvement in the BBC will not go anywhere near far enough for two of our parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, who want control of all broadcasting to be devolved to Northern Ireland.

Both pledge to achieve this. The SDLP does so in its 2016 manifesto stating: “The SDLP calls for Northern Ireland to have further powers over broadcasting devolved to the Assembly to ensure that our unique cultural, social and creative landscape is given the best possible platform and exposure.”

Sinn Fein supported a Private Members Bill to devolve broadcasting powers in 2013, which was narrowly defeated in the Chamber but also the subject of a Petition of Concern from the DUP, seemingly to do with other aspects of the motion that concerned funding for Irish language broadcasting.

During the debate the then Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín said: “I continue to want to ensure that there is full, authentic, accurate and more up-to-date portrayals of the North on the networks, which will show us a fuller picture of a modern and evolving society.  I also want to make sure that the role that diverse groups play in our society is reflected and that people are not portrayed by a single or singular aspect of their identity, such as ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or religious or political opinion.

“Broadcasting is of enormous democratic, economic and cultural importance.  The content broadcast on the BBC, RTÉ, Channel 4TG4 and UTV touches all our lives here and shapes our opinions on local and international subjects, yet broadcasting policies and funding remain the responsibility of Westminster.  TV is an extremely powerful medium of cultural expression in the modern world, and what is or is not broadcast on television massively influences almost every facet of life.  That applies to whether local GAA, rugby or soccer matches are available on our televisions; the way that news is reported and presented; what regions appear most often on our screens; arts coverage; whether the North is portrayed in television drama on any of the channels; and, equally importantly, what image of the North is portrayed to the rest of these islands and beyond.”

It seems clear from this that as far as the nationalist parties are concerned the White Paper is not the end of the matter and that this is the beginning rather than the end of the debate as far as the BBC in Northern Ireland is concerned. And wouldn’t be ironic if a political party which was once the subject of a broadcasting ban would end up in charge of the media in Northern Ireland? 

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