Question Time, under the chairmanship of David Dimbleby, is uneven in its standards as a prime political discussion forum on a public service broadcasting channel, the BBC, and its failing are particularly evident in its treatment of Scottish affairs and Scottish nationalist viewpoints.
The composition of its panel – one supposedly objective panellist, e.g. an academic, someone from the Arts, the occasional comedian, one representative of the governing party, two representatives of opposition parties, and one right-wing ranter, often a tabloid journalist, but occasionally a businessman/woman – is supposed to provide both political balance and entertainment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
David Dimbleby himself is supposed to be an impartial chairman, above party politics – which he usually is – but he in nonetheless rooted in the establishment values of monarchy, empire and the UK. He is the son of the broadcaster who epitomised these values, Richard Dimbleby, and he is very much his father’s son. (The other brother, Jonathan, has a much more liberal and questioning approach to British and world affairs.)
Last night’s Question Time exhibited all of the vices and few of the virtues of the QT format, and was, to put it mildly, partial and sometimes unfair in relation to Nicola Sturgeon and to Scottish affairs in general.
The historian was Simon Schama, now government guru on how to best inculcate an historical perspective in our children that will best reflect Establishment views and keep the Union together. Of course, Simon Schama would not recognise such a description of his role, and would not have accepted the poisoned chalice if he had – he is an honourable, likeable man. But he too, is imbued with deeply rooted Establishment values, as his endorsement of the simplistic viewpoint (Hugh Hendry) that terrorists were evil demonstrated.
Terrorist do things in pursuit of what they believe in that have appalling consequences, and are often young, idealistic, and shockingly - as we now know from Wikileaks - sometimes even mentally subnormal or disturbed individuals. The people who manipulate their ideals and send them to their deaths can fairly be described as evil, but we should remember that powerful states such as the US, the UK and Israel wreak even greater devastation, including the mass murder of innocent people, men, women and children, under a cloak of so-called democratic values.
Neither evil justifies the other – they feed on each other, and are locked in a deadly embrace that may destroy our society and even our planet.
But since this Question Time was in Glasgow, let’s come back to local matters and the state of the economy. David Dimbleby is fond of pointing out that Question Time is a national, i.e. UK-wide programme and addresses the whole of the UK. While this is true, it is also a fact that when it is located in a city, region, or devolved state of the UK, it recognises the special interests of its host population.
Last week in Middlesbrough, it rightly and properly gave prominence to local issues, such as the fate of steel works and industry in general in the North East, and at no point were panellists restricted in addressing these issues. When Question Time is in Wales, or Northern Ireland, Dimbleby has no qualms or compunction over allowing local issues to dominate, indeed, he would be eaten alive in Northern Ireland if he were rash enough to attempt to do so.
But not so in Scotland, because as every diehard unionist knows, the real threat to the survival of the UK - in its present enfeebled form as the rump of a faded empire, attempting vainly to prosecute wars in foreign parts and strut its stuff on a global stage when it is unable to run its own economy successfully, and the poor, vulnerable and powerless are about to pay the price of the shambles created by Labour and now being compounded by the ConLib coalition - comes from Scotland, governed by a party that was elected by the people, the Scottish National Party.
The British Establishment has a visceral distrust, hatred and fear of the Scots, especially of their internationalist and humanitarian values, and because the drums of empire no longer resonate in this small but proud and profoundly European country, a country that has punched above its weight throughout its long history, intellectually, scientifically and economically.
Dimbleby therefore allowed the coalition spokesperson, Ed Davey, a minister, unlimited licence to speak without interruption, yet interrupt others, but radically curtailed Nicola Sturgeon every time she tried to address specifically Scottish matters. This did not stop him from quite gratuitously introducing the question of the Megrahi release decision, a topic on which he allowed others to offer their verdicts on a decision that politically and constitutionally was solely Scotland’s and frankly, none of their damned business, although Nicola was too polite to put it quite like that.
As best I could, I timed the total discussion contribution of the panellists, a tedious task in which it was difficult to be precise, because of interruptions. Here is my analysis.
Out of 43 minutes panellist discussion time, Nicola Sturgeon was allowed to speak for just under six minutes, that is, just under 14% of the time. The remaining five averaged well over eight minutes, with Ed Davey, for the ConLib government, allowed over nine minutes and the hedge fund manager, Hugh Hendry, allowed well over ten minutes.
Another way of putting is that, under the impartial chairmanship of Dimbleby, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon - in Glasgow - was allowed to speak for only 60% of the time given to an unelected businessman, a Scot, based in London.
(If you want to challenge these timings, get your stop watch out and do your own sums – you’re welcome to it.)
Hugh Hendry is the Glasgow-born, London-based, manager of “a multi-million pound hedge fund that makes its money from failing businesses”, as Dimbleby described him. He is a very rich man.
A hedge fund is a fund that is usually open only to a limited range of professional and very wealthy investors. They trade in derivatives, dealing often with high yield rating and distressed debt. The packaging of debts, such as excessive loans to people who manifestly could not afford to repay them, in the US and the UK by hedge funds led directly to the near collapse of the world’s banking systems. In the UK, such loans and investments led to the near-collapse of Northern Rock and the UK’s first run on the banks in generations. (I was one of the investors queuing apprehensively outside Northern Rock in Edinburgh on that fateful first day.)
I have no idea of the nature of Hugh Hendry’s fund, Eclectica Asset Management, nor of his or its ethical base. What I do know is that Hugh fancies himself as a deep political thinker and commentator, but is a little sensitive about the public’s view of him.
A quote from Hugh, speaking in The Telegraph -
Hugh Hendry: 'We Hedge Fund Managers Are On Your Side'
You don't know me; we've never met. But I fear you are being encouraged to dislike me. Let me explain: I'm a speculator. I manage a hedge fund. Apparently I profit from your misery. Accordingly, our political leaders are keen to see the back of me.
Well, that about sums up my view, Hugh. But now that I know a little more about you, from your Question Time performance, I’m even less inclined to like you or respect your views, which appear to include a distrust of all politicians, Europe, Scottish nationalists and a willingness to defend torture by “our boys” in pursuit of those you see as the bad guys.
Your view point, to me, is startlingly unoriginal, and can be heard in any saloon bar from right-wing Tories. I would guess that when relaxing with friends from the finance industry, your favourite song is My Way, that maudlin anthem beloved by complacent, middle-aged, self-made men who think they have achieved something in their life, and confuse material success with a real contribution to the society of which they are a part.
But I was painfully aware that some of the Glasgow audience appeared to like you, and found your views acceptable. I’m sure if a British Tea Party ever gets going, you can rally the British equivalents of Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell to your cause.
However, in the interest of true democratic fairness and balance, I have clipped and grouped some of your statements on the Question Time panel, so that others may judge. You make me want to vomit, Hugh, but doubtless I would have the same effect on you. But I do it my way and you do it your way…