THE BBC has been struggling to respond to criticism that it fails to accurately reflect the political and cultural reality of modern Scotland since the 2014 referendum … and its latest report into that failure shows that a solution remains as far away as ever.

Indeed it’s hard to grasp the point of the thematic review of the broadcaster’s economics (and by definition political) coverage when its conclusion on the central, thorny question of impartiality is simply a shrug of the shoulders and an admission it can’t come up with an answer to the problem it identifies.

The BBC’S coverage of Scottish news and politics has largely failed to rise to the challenges of devolution since well before the first referendum but the independence question has thrown the matter into sharp relief.

A report published in 2013 – as the independence debate rose to the top of the political agenda – found that only 48% of people living in Scotland believed the corporation properly represented their lives in its news and current affairs coverage.

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The annual review by the BBC’S Audience Council Scotland showed that satisfaction levels were lower than anywhere else in the UK.

Since then, the corporation has launched BBC Alba, which has produced some excellent programmes but perhaps not the audience numbers it deserves.

Independence supporters remain suspicious of BBC Scotland’s output and some have refused to pay the licence fee in protest.

Those on the opposite side of the independence argument don’t seem much happier with the BBC news coverage.

Hard as it may be to find any evidence, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross has risibly claimed that the broadcaster is slavish in its support of the SNP, which must have been surprising to the Scottish Government.

So big questions remain. Most notably – is the BBC so institutionally biased in favour of an English perspective that its Scottish coverage is seriously skewed? And even if it is, does it matter?

Let’s take the second question first. It’s undeniable that the public can now choose from an expanded range of platforms for its news.

BBC news programmes may attract fewer viewers and listeners than they once did but the numbers are still significant. Its 6pm flagship UK news TV slot was attracting eight million viewers in 2020.

Such programmes still influence Scottish viewers’ understanding of the country, which is why there has over the years there have been calls to replace the UK-focus of the programme with a 6pm news show edited in Scotland to more accurately reflect the news values of the nation.

The fact that the BBC’s bosses have so strenuously resisted those calls for a so-called “Scottish Six” shows how important they believe it is to emphasise Scotland as a part of the UK – although not necessarily a major part.

You could argue that they were so determined to maintain the UK-focused 6pm news programme that they launched BBC Alba as a diversion from the campaign for a Scottish-edited News At Six.

It’s a reasonable assumption that independence support will be boosted by the self-confidence which comes from seeing the big Scottish stories given their proper prominence in the main television news programme of the day rather than being relegated to the round-up of court stories and car accidents which currently comprises much of the “news where you are’’ slots that follow the “important” UK broadcast at 6pm.

So yes, the BBC’s news performance matters. It certainly mattered enough to the BBC to dispatch broadcasters and economic experts Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot to look at questions of impartiality and bias.

On the question of bias, the report was confusing. It dismissed suggestions that the BBC was biased for or against the left or the right. It did say, however, that the BBC was “aligned” with the very different political culture south of the Border. Which sounds very like bias to me.

There’s even a weird suggestion in the report that the one event which would put under strain the notion of BBC impartiality would be if BBC Scotland aligned itself with the Scottish centre in “somewhat opposition to England”. The authors seem to be suggesting that it’s perfectly OK for the BBC to reflect the culture in England but it would risk BBC Scotland’s “impartiality” if it did the same in Scotland.

The fact that the political cultures north and south of the Border are very different has been pointed out many times in recent years, but the BBC either dismissed it or dismissed any suggestion that the differences should in any way influence its coverage.

THIS latest report includes the blinding revelation that the “centre line” of English politics is to the right of the centre line in Scottish politics, where the Tories have not won a Westminster election since the 1950s.

So when a BBC insider is quoted as asking “aren’t [English broadcasters] immediately starting from a position that licence fee payers in Scotland might regard as not purely straight-down-the-middle impartial?” the obvious answer is yes, they are.

The report raises other interesting questions, including the need for care in choosing the language with which to describe current affairs.

The word “subsidy”, for example, comes with significant baggage in Scotland. Its use in an economic context can suggest that Scotland relies on English largesse to prop up its economy, a suggestion which is simply not true and is undeniable evidence of bias.

The authors claim that mistakes such as using such words– or depicting fiscal policy decisions as inevitable rather than a political choice – are down to a shortage of “wise heads” in the news staff but it’s hard to remember any golden age when UK BBC was more careful to take on board the differences in Scottish political culture.

What’s more important about this report seems to me to be an acceptance within the BBC not just that there are important differences north and south of the Border, but that the BBC aligns itself with the “centre line” and that alignment influences its news output.

This does not chime with previous claims by the BBC that it observes strict impartiality.

The prospect of following this argument to its conclusion obviously gave the authors a headache, and they opt instead to wash their hands of the whole problem they began by investigating.

Their first conclusion, that they “doubt any of this will be news to the BBC” is at least debatable, given the broadcaster’s continual refusal to admit to any mistakes in its political coverage, particularly around the independence debate.

Their second conclusion is simply to say: “Unsurprisingly we’ve no solution either”.

In fact, this is very surprising, given that there is a very obvious solution staring them in the face. Scotland deserves a prime-time news programme on BBC1 which properly reflects its own political culture rather than the very different political culture south of the Border. It needs to give Scottish news the position it deserves in a programme which also includes UK and international news.

That position and priority will sometimes be below a UK story or an international story and will sometimes be above a UK and international story, depending on its importance to its audience.

The only way to produce such a programme is to have it edited in Scotland with a primary focus on a Scottish audience.

Unless this happens with some urgency, Scottish news in the 6pm and 10pm slots will always be subservient to an “alignment” to the very different “centre line” of English political culture.

This is not simply a view embraced by independence supporters but is the crux of the BBC’s own report on the impartiality of its coverage.

If the BBC management once again stands against the obvious solution to a problem its own experts have identified, it simply cannot argue that it has any ambition to be impartial in any real sense.

If this is an important issue under the present, devolved constitutional arrangement, it will become even more so when Scotland achieves the restoration of its independence.

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What would that newly independent country want from a national broadcaster? Would we want to retain the BBC in some form? If not, what would replace it? How would its news coverage accurately reflect the new country?

How would it balance the need to hold power to account with the need to move away from an agenda which endlessly talks down Scottish culture and achievements?

Independence will bring Scotland many opportunities and many challenges. Few will be as exciting as the chance to reinvent the role of a national broadcaster and its rightful place in the media landscape.

The sooner we grapple with that issue, the more likely it is that we can come up with better answers to the serious questions that it poses.