Calum Kerr MP: Referendum lessons learned

Calum Kerr, SNP MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Calum Kerr, SNP MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

Europe is crucial to all our futures. It plays a major part in our lives. Being in the EU makes us part of the world’s biggest trading bloc, creating jobs and investment.

It also gives us a huge number of everyday advantages, from lower mobile phone costs when travelling to free or subsidised healthcare abroad. In short, Europe matters to each and every one of us.

Sometime in the next couple of years or so, the UK Government will call a referendum on our continued membership of the EU. Like my SNP colleagues, I passionately believe we should stay in. But it’s essential we have a fair, open and informed debate on the subject. That means that the media – and in particular, the broadcasters, who have a legal requirement to be impartial – have to be fair and to keep us fully informed. People need to know all the facts before they can make a decision.

One of my jobs in parliament is to sit on the European Scrutiny Committee. We have the power to question witnesses and last week, we had the Director General of the BBC, Lord Hall, and his senior managers in to address us. I was seeking assurances that, in their plans to cover the referendum campaign, they had learned the lessons from last year’s vote on Scottish independence. They told me they had, and I hope they’re right.

Our own referendum wasn’t the BBC’s finest hour. There was a strong public feeling that their output unfairly favoured the No side by consistently presenting the unionist position, leaving many independence supporters feeling cheated and angry. But what’s done is done. Rather than raking over the coals, we need to move forward constructively, both in terms of how the BBC covers Scotland in the new devolved landscape and how it ensures fairness and transparency in the EU referendum.

I fully understand the frustrations of those who felt let down by the corporation during our own referendum campaign. But shouting at its bosses isn’t the answer. As we’ve already learned, that will just force it onto the defensive and it will continue to try and justify its errors. Surely it’s far better to engage in constructive, sensible and where necessary private discussions, using logic and the power of persuasion rather than firing off abuse and anger?

The fact is that we need a high quality, entertaining and informative public service broadcaster – and that, for all its faults, is what the BBC is. Here in Hawick it’s particularly important, as we don’t get STV, which covers the rest of Scotland.

I’m certainly not criticising the efforts or quality of ITV Border, but its franchise to serve only the south of Scotland and part of the north of England means it’s not always going to present us with a national Scottish view. Only BBC Scotland can do that. So let’s make our criticisms constructive, and treat the corporation as a friend. We have high expectations and we need to be intelligent and dispassionate in ensuring that it meets them. That will be better for the Borders, for Scotland and for our future in the EU.