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There’s been a lot of anger and outrage over the past few days about the risibly poorly informed discussion of Scotland on the Jeremy Vine Show earlier this week. It was justifiable anger, since Scotland doesn’t have a television broadcast network of its own and Westminster tightly keeps control over broadcasting Scotland perforce must consume news and current affairs programmes which are overwhelmingly made outwith Scotland. That means that those broadcasters have an obligation to their Scottish audiences which, judging by the Jeremy Vine Show, they are clearly not fulfulling.
In the cosmic scheme of things, no one seriously expects a rigorous and intelligent discussion of anything, much less of Scottish politics, from a daytime TV show which features the likes of Princess Di’s former butler as a guest. Paul Burrell is no one’s go-to guy for intelligent commentary on Scottish affairs, or indeed anything else. His expertise begins and ends at telling us what Princess Di liked for breakfast. So it’s scarcely surprising that his contribution to a short discussion about Scottish politics was such a bowl of soggy cornflakes.
However BBC 2’s Newsnight is that channel’s flagship news and current affairs programme. It is supposed to give us a more rigorous and in-depth treatment of news and current affairs than is possible during a news broadcast. It’s supposed to combine commentary and opinion with news coverage. In short, it’s meant to be serious and it wants us to take it seriously. You can’t really say that about the Jeremy Vine Show. That means that Newsnight’s failure to accurately present the Scottish political scene to an audience which is overwhelmingly outside Scotland is much more serious, and telling.
Last night, instead of raising my blood pressure by watching BBC Question Time and spending an hour yelling obscenities at the telly, I watched an edition of Newsnight which was entirely based in Scotland and which spent the whole of the programme’s 45 minutes dealing with Scottish politics and culture. Ostensibly this was because it is the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament. However what we got wasn’t a serious and in-depth discussion of Scottish politics and current affairs. What we got was a Scottish Tory-fest. So much for reducing the blood pressure.
There were five politicians and four party activists interviewed on the programme. We got an interview with Nicola Sturgeon. We got an interview with former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell. We got an interview with Ruth Davidson. So far, so balanced, at least according to the BBC’s usual definition of balance when it comes to Scottish independence, having one SNP person and one each from the main anti-independence parties.
I admit to being biased, but it did seem to me that Nicola Sturgeon was the one out of the three who was the most rigorously questioned. She was certainly the only one out of the three that Kirsty Wark interrupted. She got asked the usual stuff about trade with the rest of the UK, and wanting hard borders. Because you know, independence bad. Although I did have to laugh when she was asked whether she preferred Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt as Prime Minister and replied that that was like asking whether she preferred to be run over by a bus or a lorry.
After we heard from Nicola Sturgeon, there was an interview with Kirsty’s pal Jack McConnell, who entirely coincidentally and conveniently was given the chance to rebut some of the points that Nicola had made. So that wasn’t planned at all. Oh no.
Then Ruth Davidson was introduced by Kirsty Wark as being the woman who was responsible for the Conservative resurgence in Scotland. It was all very much soft soap stuff, although Ruth wasn’t really able to mask her disdain for Boris Johnson. She didn’t have much influence over Theresa May’s policy choices, Ruth will have even less influence over Boris Johnson’s.
There was no mention of the most recent election in Scotland, which saw the Scottish Tories plunge into fourth place behind the Lib Dems and finish a long long way behind the SNP. There was no mention of the slew of recent opinion polls which show that the Scottish Conservatives are staring at an extinction level event in the next Westminster elections in Scotland. There was no attempt to question Ruth on her change of mind on Brexit, or on the Scottish Parliament not being blocked by Westminster if there’s a majority in Holyrood for another indy ref.
Nor was there any reference to the fact that for all the Tories keep banging on about how no one wants another independence referendum, those same opinion polls also point to a renewed majority for the pro-independence parties in the next Holyrood elections. All we got was Ruth the Winner! Ruth Winning! Ruth is full of Win! A casual viewer who wasn’t familiar with the Scottish political scene will have come away from that interview believing that Ruth Davidson has a real chance of becoming the next First Minister, when the reality is that she will be lucky to hold onto her own seat and is likely to have to scrape her way into Holyrood as a list MSP. The Brexit supporting Tories are not performing at all well in Edinburgh, the most pro-remain city in the UK.
Then in order to ensure that we got a broader picture, or at least a more Tory one, we also got an interview with Stirling Conservative MP Stephen Kerr. Because you know, we’re all desperate to learn what he thinks. We heard from Scottish Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell about why she’s supporting Boris Johnson in the leadership contest and how great Boris Johnson is going to be for Scotland. For an extra bit of Toryness we also heard from the former Head of Communications for the Scottish Conservatives, Andy Maciver. Then because the programme was obviously worried that we hadn’t heard enough from the Tories, we had interviews with three local Scottish Conservative activists in Stirling.
Out of the nine political voices that the programme presented from Scotland, seven were Conservatives. And not one of those representatives of a minority party was asked to explain what mandate they have from the people of Scotland to block another independence referendum. So yeah, a totally balanced and even handed presentation of the current state of Scottish politics after 20 years of the Scottish Parliament. That’s your BBC balance for you.
Viewers in the rest of the UK don’t get many discussions of the Scottish political scene. This programme wasn’t going to inform them of very much at all. It certainly wasn’t going to ensure that in a future edition of the Jeremy Vine Show the guests will be any better briefed than Paul Burrell or Carole Malone. For all its desperate shoring up of the Scottish Conservatives, all that this programme really achieved was to ensure that people in the rest of the UK remain ignorant and ill informed about what’s really going on in Scotland. And that is one of the reasons why the UK is coming to an end.