It’s now been confirmed what those of us who were paying attention had known all along. During the independence referendum campaign of 2014, senior journalists within the BBC saw their job as being to discourage and belittle the independence campaign, and not as being to report fairly on the biggest constitutional question facing Scotland for three hundred years. During that campaign, the BBC, a supposedly public service broadcaster, wasn’t acting as a public service. It was acting as a state service acting in the interests of the British state.
First of all was the news that the BBC’s Inside the Indyref documentary was to feature the story that the BBC’s senior political reporter Nick Robinson had taken over a news item first presented by BBC Scotland correspondent James Cook. James had presented a fairly balanced and nuanced report on a speech from the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, on his view of the currency union then being proposed by the Scottish Government in the event of independence. The speech didn’t rule out a currency union, and just last year Mark Carney confirmed that that a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would have been entirely feasible. At the time, Alex Salmond believed that Mark Carney’s speech had been helpful to the yes campaign.
That was, more or less, what James Cook had presented in his report. In the report James talked about how the Bank of England believed that “careful consideration” would be needed before entering a currency union. But Nick Robinson wasn’t at all happy with this. He took over the story and suddenly it became a dire warning of the economic cataclysm that would befall us all should a currency union go ahead. It would, according to Nick, raise the spectre of turning Scotland into Greece. Only without the sunshine, the boozed up Ryanair flights from Prestwick, and the ouzo. Nick explained that a good reporter should explain a story to the public and in his opinion the governor of the Bank of England was clearly warning that the sky would fall in.
Although this incident was reported in the press last week, and trailed as forming a part of the BBC’s documentary series on the referendum, it was omitted from the broadcast programme. Because reasons.
Now Nick’s intervention wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if there were other incidents, even just one incident, of a senior BBC reporter looking on a colleague’s reporting of an event during the independence referendum campaign and saying, “Here, just hang on a minute. That’s really terrible. It needs to be firmed up so that it paints a far clearer picture.” And it just so happened that the clearer picture to be painted was one that was favourable to the yes movement.” That’s what a lack of bias looks like. That’s how any reasonable minded person would define fairness and balance.
Such interventions do exist, unfortunately they only exist in one of those parallel universes visited in the cartoons by Rick and Morty. That would be the one in which Nick Robinson was in fact a giant sentient pickle. Pickle Nick! Although to be fair there are plenty of people in the Scottish quarters of this universe who believe that the BBC is disproportionately managed by vegetables anyway. However in this universe, you will search in vain for an intervention from a senior BBC figure seeking to present a news report in a more favourable light for the yes campaign. That’s about as unlikely to happen as an episode of Question Time from Motherwell that doesn’t feature a flute band member having a rant about how much he hates the SNP to a predominantly Brexit supporting audience. Now I’m not saying that it’s never happened. It’s just that if it has then I’ve got a televised interview with a pickled gherkin.
That was last week. Or in the case of the flute band member, most weeks. This week’s episode of the Inside the Indyref documentary features a contribution from former BBC correspondent Allan Little. Allan presented a documentary during of the indyref campaign in which he travelled to Scandinavia and looked at other small independent nations and how applicable the Nordic model would be to the very different circumstances of Scotland. It was widely regarded as being a balanced and fair contribution to the independence debate by someone who was concerned to present the issues in an equal handed manner. Unfortunately Allan doesn’t think that all of his BBC colleagues had the same concern as he did.
According to Allan, certain employees of the BBC thought that their job was to demonstrate the “foolishness” of voting yes, and believed that the independence movement was motivated by “chippy Scots” and the “wilyness” of Alex Salmond. In other words, the indyref coverage of some BBC reporters was motivated by their racist and negative stereotypes of Scottish people. Their working assumption was that independence was wrong.
In saying as much, Allan was merely confirming what the former Channel 4 presenter Paul Mason had said in the aftermath of the indyref that the BBC was a “Unionist institution”, and said of the Corporation’s news coverage during the indyref, “Not since Iraq have I seen BBC News working at propaganda strength like this. So glad I’m out of there.”
This is just the latest in a long series of issues that the BBC has with reporting fairly on the Scottish constitutional debate. Allan’s revelations come just as the BBC is coming under justified criticism for its repeated and consistent failure to give political coverage to the SNP, the third largest party in the House of Commons. Like the Westminster Parliament and the British government, the BBC is another British institution which is systematically failing Scotland. Those failures are not going to be remedied or addressed by an underfunded ghetto channel. They go to the very top of the BBC, and flow from the DNA of an organisation which regards itself as a British institution.
The question is, how can an institution which sees itself as the cultural glue of the UK report fairly on a democratic movement which seeks to remove one of the constituent parts of the UK from British rule. It’s obvious from the BBC’s repeated failures that it can’t. It is philosophically and institutionally incapable of doing so. It’s long past time that the Scottish Government started to press for the devolution of broadcasting. The BBC has got itself in a pickle, and it’s not just because of Nick.
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