Let me position what I’m about to say -
First, I don’t believe the BBC as an organisation is institutionally biased politically. If it were so biased -
1) the many fine, informative debates, reports and documentaries on Scotland’s independence would never have taken place or been made.
2) 90% of the 887 video clips on my YouTube channel would never have seen the light of day
3) its 60,000 viewers over the last 30 days, its 331,000 viewers over the life of the present channel, dating from January 2012, and all those viewers of clips now taken down dating back to 2008 would be significantly less well-informed. (…and I’m just a tiny part of the YouTube independence debate!)
Second, I don’t believe journalists should lack a political viewpoint, or not have a view on the referendum. I don’t call having a view or a position bias – I call it being politically aware. I do believe they must respect facts and present them objectively, without spin or distortion.
Third, I do not believe BBC television journalists acting as interviewers, anchor persons or chairing discussions should refrain from hard questioning or interrupting when they deem it necessary. I do believe they must be equally demanding and vigorous with all comers, regardless of the TV journalist’s personal political stance (see my second statement above).
Fourth, I believe a have the right as a voter, a media viewer/listener and print media reader to form a view of where journalists stand personally in the independence debate – or conclude that I don’t know their standpoint – and that making such a judgment and expressing it is not, in itself, a criticism of their journalistic integrity or professionalism. (see my second statement above).
Fifth, despite the fact that I don’t believe the BBC’s political output as a whole is institutionally biased, I reserve the right to criticise selectively specific examples where I feel that
poor editorial judgement
poor selection of panellists and commentators or audience
poor control of debate and discussion
has created an unacceptable imbalance, and have given an impression of bias, even if no conscious bias was present or intended.
Sixth, I believe the very nature of the BBC creates an inbuilt tendency to support the social and political status quo, I believe it is subject to heavy influence by the British Establishment and the Government of the day - even though it has challenged both frontally on many occasions, notably in the 1960s - and I believe its most senior managers have displayed serious failings and poor judgment in recent decades.
Having got my position clear, let me proceed to the discussion in question, an item on The Sunday Politics Scotland yesterday (see video clip).
Gary Robertson was joined by Kirsty Scott, freelance journalist and formerly Guardian correspondent, and Magnus Gardham, political editor of the Herald.
Kirsty Scott is a widely experienced journalist and writer. Here’s one rather odd sample (to me) of her journalism, At Care UK homes, 'private sector brings freedom' from which one might be tempted to draw some conclusions about where she might stand on Scotland’s independence – or at least on private health care. (See The Mirror on private health care and Cameron)
But a sample of one is not enough, so here’s 138 Guardian articles. Since only a minority relate directly to politics, I find it impossible say from them whether she might be a YES, a No, an undecided or a fence sitter. It seems clear from Kirsty’s Guardian output that she is not a political journalist per se, but a general commentator. (She may well have another heavyweight body of political work that I’m unaware of. ) I couldn’t find any YouTube clips, but I have a vague recollection of her commenting on a BBC political programme before.
So I must judge Kirsty on what she said today on Sunday Politics Scotland.
All Magnus Gardham’s work that I have read and all his media appearances lead me to conclude that he does not support Scotland’s independence. I may of course be mistaken in that view.
One would have hoped that the Sunday Politics Scotland editor chose two journalists whom he believed to be either independent voices, or alternatively reflected YES and No views. Given the choice of Magnus Gardham as one, I would have expected a balance for YES. Was Kirsty Scott such a balance? Let’s see …
The first topic was David Cameron’s big speech and Gary’s question - Was it a big mistake, as claimed by Alex Salmond - was put initially to Kirsty Scott. She was in no doubt that it wasn’t …
Kirsty Scott: “I don’t think so at all – I think he had every right to make the speech, and I thought it was a bit much in Alex Salmond’s article today – he described it as using sport – because it was held at the Olympic Stadium – using sport as a tawdry tent to use it as a political tool. Do we remember Wimbledon, and the unfurling of the Saltire?”
Kirsty clearly remembers her series of Guardian articles on Andy Murray and Wimbledon, and takes the unionist position – and David Cameron’s position – that the First Minister of Scotland unfurling the Scottish flag - in a stadium festooned with Union Jacks, watching a Scottish tennis star winning an international sporting event – was somehow behaving badly and exploiting a sporting event, and sees it in some way as the equivalent of a Prime Minister commandeering the Olympic stadium and explicitly evoking the “Olympic spirit” to mount an emotional attack on the aspirations of Scots using a democratic legal referendum to vote on their independence.
No one on the YES side of the argument would have used such an example, and many Scots on the No side were delighted to see their country’s flag displayed in recognition of the achievement of a Scot.
Looks as if you do have a position on independence, Kirsty, but let’s hear the rest of your views …
Kirsty Scott: “I think there was no way that David Cameron could have presented that would have suited Alex Salmond – but I think he had a right – he’s the Prime Minister of the UK: he’d the right to make the speech and he was appealing to the rest of the UK as much as he was appealing to Scots.”
Dave will be proud of you, Kirsty. In another reading of your line - not one you intended - “he was appealing to the rest of the UK as much as he was appealing to Scots” – currently he appeals to Scots not at all and to rUK less and less by the day! Now to Magnus …
Gary Robertson: “Was it an error for him to deliver it in London, as opposed to coming to Scotland?”
Magnus Gardham: “Well – I mean – the admirers of the Prime Minister, erm, admired the speech, they thought it was a very, very good speech. The problem of course is that the Prime Minister has very few admirers in Scotland. I think the general idea of England love-bombing Scotland isn’t a bad one, and for a campaign that’s accused of being negative, it is a very positive flip side to that. Is the Prime Minister in London the best to be delivering it – well, possibly not, but it will be interesting to see how it develops, and if that message – if we start hearing that sort of message from place like Sheffield and Newcastle, and Leeds – and places… So I think the strategy is probably a good one.”
Dave’s spin doctors and Better Together couldn’t have phrased it better, Magnus. I would describe your reply as delicately supportive, with a complete absence of a “flip side”.
Gary tries to devil’s advocate and get past the solid support for Cameron, but he does it very gently. After all, he’s dealing with fellow professionals, journalists committed to objectivity and rigorous examination of the breadth of the debate, not partisan politicians who would advance polarised views – isn’t he?
Gary Robertson: “ .. and it’s interesting to see it from the other perspective, because writing in the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley talks about how ‘fear-mongering”as he calls it ‘isn’t enough’ – ‘David Cameron is betting the Scots want to be told they’re loved’.”
(My note – Andrew Rawnsley is a journalist, and manages, all on his own, to examine both sides of the argument and many views!) Gary moves on …
Gary Robertson: “Is there now a realisation, or perhaps a belief that things are too negative from the Better Together side?”
You could have just leaned over and stroked them gently, Gary. That sounded more like a feed line than a question to me, and in any case was redundant, since Magnus has just said exactly that -“for a campaign that’s accused of being negative, it is a very positive flip side” and doesn’t really need help to say it again. But Kirsty picks it up …
Kirsty Scott: “Possibly, but I think, you know, what’s interesting – you were talking earlier about the poll, in terms of what’s important to voters – obviously the economy came further up, but what was quite low down was relationship with the rest of the UK, which I think was quite surprising. I thought that was - and that was obviously something that David Cameron was banking on – that we actually felt stronger than that. I think he would be concerned about that. But then I think the message he gave was very positive – it was ‘We don’t want you to go, and we feel you add something to the UK …”
We do indeed add something to the UK, Kirsty – most of our oil revenues, more taxes than we get back, a dumping ground for WMDs, the lives and limbs of our servicemen and women in ill-advised or illegal wars, a northern playground, a retreat for the Royal Family where they can play at being Scots, some excellent grouse moors, colourful locals with comic accents, etc. But now I know you better, Kirsty, I wouldn’t expect you or Magnus - or even Gary - to bring such tangible, hard-edged matters up when there’s a warm bath of sentiment and nostalgia to soak in …
Kirsty Scott: “… but I think Magnus is absolutely right, you know – and I think Mr. Cameron and his advisers understand that – they’re on a bit of a hiding to nothing in terms of how he’s viewed in Scotland – I think he could have made the speech in Stornoway and he would have got the same brickbats. There’s no way he could win. But certainly maybe we do need something – to see something a lot more positive coming from the No campaign.”
Mr. Cameron and his advisers – when they get time out from trying to wind up Whitehall, academia, Russia and Putin, Spain and Spanish newspapers, oil magnates and business leaders to attack independence for Scotland – probably do think that, Kirsty. And of course he could spend more time getting the people of the south of England out from under the flood waters that are devastating their lives, instead of priming Eric Pickles to blame the Environment Agency.
Gary moves on to a much bigger question …
Gary Robertson: “Of course, one of the big questions is Will there be more devolution for Scotland if the result is a No vote? There’s a piece in Scotland on Sunday today asking where now for the Labour Party particularly. It seems that splits are developing, Magnus Gardham – and there’s talk of a previous commitment to tax raising powers to be reined back on, come the special conference in Perth.”
Before we come to Magnus Gardham’s reply, let me remind you of my analysis and views, repeated ad nauseam over recent months, weeks and days, that neither media nor commentators seem to understand the heart of this vital issue, nor indeed do some of the politicians. If you hope for recognition of that, or illumination of the issue from Gardham, Scott or Robertson, you are going to be disappointed yet again …
Magnus Gardham: “It’s - yeah, I mean, it’s a big issue for Labour – there are sort of genuine and – you know – principle differences – difference of opinion on this.”
Was it a struggle to get that out, Magnus?
Magnus Gardham: “Em – I think it is going to be very, very – eh - difficult for them to – to manage this. And - and to really get themselves into a place where they’re going to be able to say convincingly to voters that –eh - further devolution will be on offer- eh – in the event of a No vote.”
Gary Robertson: “Is Johann Lamont the woman to bring the Labour Party together? It seems there are divisions, not just amongst MSPs but involving MPs too.”
Kirsty Scott: “The Labour Party - yeah, absolutely. I – well I think she has to be. I think to change it now, you know, would be a bit of a disaster for them. I think Magnus is right, we do need to see some sort of -a greater sense of cohesion and purpose from the No campaign – and we haven’t seen that. A lot of the criticism of the YES campaign is we don’t have clarity on issues – that now people are saying, well persuade us. If we vote No, what will it look like? You know, why should we? And I think we haven’t seen that yet. So yes, there would …”
Magnus Gardham: “It’s interesting that you’ve got the LibDems at the moment making a concerted effort to try and get themselves and Labour, and the Conservatives on the same page – and Labour aren’t even on their own same page with this. It highlight how difficult it’s going to be …”
Already we’re in the same muddy water and blurred thinking that I’ve complained of all along on this question – both Scott and Gardham refer to Labour, LibDems and Conservatives without making it clear that they’re talking about the Scottish party organisations, not the Westminster parties to whom they are subservient, and who show every sign of being hostile to more powers for Scotland – for the very good reason that it would be electoral suicide to promote such a course in their election campaigns for the 2015 General election, given the widespread hostility in their own parties, in the Lords, in many institutions of state and among the electorate to giving Scotland any more, least of all after the Scots rejected the chance of being independent in a referendum.
As always on this point, it is difficult to determine whether journalists and commentators have failed to understand the issue, or whether they are sedulously avoiding it. Since I lean to the cock-up explanation in life and politics rather than conspiracies, I am forced to the conclusion that these professional journalists don’t understand this most fundamental of referendum issues.
Gary Robertson: “And clearly this plays into a narrative we’ve had from Alex Salmond – he will be trying his best to exploit that - If you vote No, you don’t get any change at all.”
By this point in the discussion, a distinct impression has built that this was not a discussion among three objective journalists examining two key aspects of the great debate now gripping Scotland (and gradually permeating into the wider rUK consciousness) but instead a discussion among three supporters of David Cameron, his love-bombing, devo something-or-other, and of the Scottish unionist parties trying to cobble together a united front to persuade the Scottish electorate that they won’t be monumentally screwed by UK and the Westminster parties after a No vote.
Now I’m sure this must be a mistaken impression, and not one Scott, Gardham and Robertson would want to give – they have their professional reputations to consider – and certainly not one that BBC Scotland would want to give at this time on their flagship weekend politics programme, having just axed their midweek flagship, Newsnight Scotland.
More care with language would have dispelled such a false idea, especially from the interviewer, e.g. “.. plays into a narrative we’ve had from Alex Salmond – he will be trying his best to exploit that” etc. in describing the First Minister and the Scottish Government’s view of the consequences of a No vote, a valid alternative viewpoint which is supported by a mass of statement from senior figures in the Commons, the Lords, and other non-governmental rUK bodies.
Let’s see how they continue …
Magnus Gardham: “Yes, as we know, surveys suggest that, eh, a beefed-up Holyrood would be the most popular outcome – more popular than the status quo, more popular than independence, you know – it’s kind of – there is evidence that people, eh – that people support that – yeah.”
“A beefed-up Holyrood” This is how Magnus describes his best understanding of the will of the Scottish people at a profoundly significant moment in Scotland’s history, when perhaps 47% or more of Scots committed to voting are gripped by a vision of complete independence, of a new, vibrant Scotland, free to determine its own destiny. But Magnus sees a completely different shining vision, “more popular than independence, you know – it’s kind of – there is evidence that people, eh – that people support that – yeah.”
Gary Robertson: “You mentioned that survey earlier, Kirsty – of course this is the BBC Scotland poll, indicating that Scots believe the economy’s the issue that will matter most when it comes to the referendum vote. Perhaps not a great surprise, because we’ve known for quite a long time that people feel this way – it reinforces it.”
Kirsty Scott: “It does reinforce it – in some ways I think it’s been a good lesson for us all, because we’ve been talking about – em – the currency and possible sterling monetary union and people said – actually, that’s not really what matters to the person in the street. Well, it is – they’ve now said Yes it is, we need to sort this out, we need to know exactly what’s going to happen on this.”
Gary Robertson: “And then we’ve had this figure – this £500 figure – for some time with some social attitudes surveys saying that £500 better of or worse off – it might sway a lot of the undecided voters.”
Magnus Gardham: “Well, I mean- I’m not surprised that the economy’s emerged as the key issue. I’m a little bit surprised actually – when you get into the specifics and, you know, looking at the currency, which clearly is very closely linked to the economy and issues like the EU – they’re a bit lower down ..”
Gary Robertson: “Pensions, certain welfare formats ..”
Magnus Gardham: “If you look at where the political rows have been, and where, you know, the stories that have dominated in the newspapers – we’ve been obsessing about, you know, currency union and EU membership and things like this – and they’re not absolutely at the top of people’s priorities.”
Gary Robertson: “Yeah, absolutely – a lesson there for the media – but also for the politicians as well, in terms of what they talk about in the seven months as we go forward.”
Kirsty Scott: “Yeah, absolutely – I think, you know, we’ve kind of forgotten that polls like these are so helpful – cause we tend to pick up - particularly in the media – pick up on issues which we think are important, but we understand what people really want to hear about – yeah and I think possibly next week we’ll see a kind of swing on what we’re talking about.”
Gary Robertson: “Are there difficulties – very briefly – on the economy? For either side?”
Magnus Gardham: “Well, I think it’s – I think it’s clearly a sign that the First Minister needs to, eh, needs to do more to get, eh, to sort of explain how he will grow the economy in an independent Scotland.”
Gary Robertson: “Thank you very much.”
Some may think I’ve taken a large sledgehammer to crack a very small nut here. Having written over three and a half thousand words (almost twice the daily output of a professional writer and about four times the output of a weekly political columnist) to comment on a 6m 38sec video clip, they may be right. Why did I do it?
Well, because I thought this little discussion, which shed little light on anything useful, contained within its structure and assumptions much that is wrong with BBC Scotland’s political output. (I also believe that there’s much that’s right about the rest of its output, including the wider contribution of Gary Robertson, whom I respect and admire for his work on radio and television.)
In my view the format was wrong, the selection of journalists for the discussion was quite evidently going to produce a one-sided discussion, and there was a failure to get to the essence of vital issues, not to mention a failure to understand them: the discussion was narrow and failed totally to air other views.
May I again, almost despairingly, offer the following questions to the BBC, to be asked in any future discussion of more powers and more devolution?
In the highly unlikely event of the three Scottish unionist parties ever reaching a core consensus on more powers after a No vote on September 18th -
1) How do they intend to persuade the Prime Minister of an already fragmenting Tory/LibDem Coalition (which may not hold until 2015), the Leader of the Labour Opposition , and whichever politician is currently at the head of UKIP to agree to incorporate their recommendations in their 2015 manifestos to the UK electorate, given that there is highly vocal opposition to more powers for Scotland among senior figures in all of them?
2) How do they intend to persuade them to make a definitive promises to do this to the Scottish electorate during the remaining months of the referendum campaign?
3) How do they think such a commitment would be received by an English electorate already groaning under austerity, assuming their homes are not under water because of a complete failure of their government to manage their flood defences?
4) How do they intend to persuade the MPs, the peers and the institutions who have expressed their adamant opposition to more powers for Scotland?
5) And finally, how do they explain to the large group - at one point a majority – within the Scottish electorate and the institutions comprising Civic Scotland - why they denied them a second question in the referendum that would have recognised their wish for such powers, if not for the obvious reason that UK and Westminster has no intention whatsoever of granting them?