BBC Scotland has been exposed as shifty and hypocritical

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By Kenneth Roy

If you are sufficiently moved by the referendum ishoo to want to reply to Nick Robinson’s blogs, you are at liberty to do so on the website of the BBC’s political editor. When I checked last night, his last two blogs on the subject had attracted 900 responses from both sides of the border and argument.

By Kenneth Roy

If you are sufficiently moved by the referendum ishoo to want to reply to Nick Robinson’s blogs, you are at liberty to do so on the website of the BBC’s political editor. When I checked last night, his last two blogs on the subject had attracted 900 responses from both sides of the border and argument.

Not many are worth reading for the elegance of their language. The same points are made repeatedly, and there is a tendency to communicate slogans with the help of exclamation marks – thunderstrikers as Lord Beaverbrook called them. The old monster was fond of thunderstrikers and had a habit of speaking in them. But he knew how to use them.

When one of his editors, Charles Wintour, was to be found late one morning in a Fleet Street pub – a very unusual place to find the chilly chappie at any time – his proprietor tracked him down by telephone and broke the disturbing news that the opposition had scooped the Evening Standard on the escape from prison of the notorious Alfie Hinds.

‘Mr Wintour, may I give you a piece of advice?’, Beaverbrook asked ominously.

‘Of course, Lord Beaverbrook, three bags full, Lord Beaverbrook’ – or words to that effect.

‘Mr Wintour, my advice to you is this. You will not find Alfred Hinds in El Vino’s public house. Good-day to you, Mr Wintour!’

Now, that is how to use an exclamation mark – selectively and artistically. The poor thunderstrikers in the responses to Nick Robinson’s blogs are simply hanging around at the end of poorly constructed sentences. They are loiterers without intent.

The wonder is, however, not that most instant responses to blogs are so badly written but that they exist at all. They have become a self-parodying commentary on the standards of our factory system of education, but at the same time an accessory of modern democracy. Like sliced bread, they have somehow come to be expected.

They are resisted here, much to the consternation of some aggrieved readers. My defence is in two parts. The first is historical. The Scottish Review existed as a print journal long before the internet was the phenomenon of the age and, in my unreconstructed way, I still think of it as a magazine put online while retaining the customs of print rather than as an online magazine: there remains a distinction in my mind. The second is practical. We would not have the time to correct the spelling or punctuation, even if the technology allowed us to do so. For both these reasons, we continue to publish an old-fashioned letters column, using only literate contributors who are prepared to identify themselves.

These customs fail to endear us to a lot of people. Nevertheless, the weekly readership has grown from a moderately depressing 500 in February 2008 to a moderately encouraging 17,000 in the first hungover week of 2012, despite the wilful absence of instant reactions. We can at least boast of the virtue of consistency. We have never had these comments. We shall have them over the editor’s dead body.


I suspect that the internet patriots loosely known as cybernats were monopolising the Scottish political editor’s website and that the comments section had become an embarrassment to the BBC.


The BBC, in this same sensitive territory, has been shown to be inconsistent, shifty and hypocritical. For while it is possible to respond at once to one of Mr Robinson’s blogs, as some do, or to one of Robert Peston’s, it has recently become impossible to comment on the blog of Mr Robinson’s opposite number at Holyrood, Brian Taylor, or Mr Peston’s opposite number at Pacific Quay, Douglas Fraser. The decision to ditch the comments box has opened up a divergence in editorial policy between London and Scotland. What is acceptable and actively encouraged south of the border is suddenly unacceptable and actively discouraged north of it.

This looks poor. It suggests that we are not quite ready in Scotland for robust exchanges of opinion on politics – or rather that we were once ready for it but that, for some reason, we are no longer fit to be trusted. Had the curtain been pulled down on responses to Mr Robinson’s blog, the BBC might have been congratulated for a last-ditch attempt to save the English language. As it is, the discriminatory approach smells.

The timing is particularly suspicious. Messrs Taylor and Fraser became reply-free zones last autumn, within six months of the election of the SNP majority government, and the general ban on comments has been extended into the first weeks of 2012 and the explosive reaction to David Cameron’s upping of the independence ante. The word ‘censorship’, always damaging to the BBC’s reputation as the public service broadcaster, is now being bandied about by supporters of the governing party. The indictment is indeed rather worse, including allegations of political partiality.

The muddled thinking at BBC Scotland was exposed last weekend in the inept handling of an invitation from the producers of ‘Newswatch’, the BBC’s own weekly feedback slot. ‘Newswatch’, on the back of the referendum stooshie, gave house room to complaints about the Taylor-Fraser black-out and asked the management to put up a spokesperson for interview. The refusal to do so was unhappily revealing. It raised the possibility that controller MacQuarrie and his mates have decided that, on this one, it is prudent to take the Fifth.

Rather than be confronted by awkward questions from Raymond Snoddy, Pacific Quay prepared a statement for use on the programme. It was not only read out by Mr Snoddy but printed on the screen – a cruel punishment, if richly deserved. The statement was such an outstanding example of Orwellian double-speak that I will reproduce it more or less in full:

BBC Scotland has decided to disable the capacity for public comments to be regularly appended…the pages will, however, occasionally be opened for comment. We believe that by determining which particular issues might best be explored by the inclusion of public comment online, we will allow a more flexible and more adaptable approach to be taken to how we cover the main news issues in Scotland.

There is (you will have noted) no logical explanation for the decision, merely a woolly statement of the decision itself. The phrases ‘more flexible’ and ‘more adaptable’ are normally to be found born dead on the glossy pages of corporate annual reports. The suggestion that a comments box is part of ‘how we cover the main issues’ is fatuous. ‘Disabling the capacity’ is a queasy euphemism. ‘Might best be explored’ is a leaden way of saying nothing. In short: the punters can only say something if the BBC decides that it’s a subject on which the punters should be allowed to say something.

As to the real agenda here, I suspect that the internet patriots loosely known as cybernats were monopolising the Scottish political editor’s website and that the comments section had become an embarrassment to the BBC. The management could never admit this, so has got itself into another fine mess. Of course I could be wrong in this assumption. If so, the BBC will be the last to tell me. Whatever the explanation, we can be reasonably sure that, if it persists with its present policy, it will be among the first victims of an independent Scotland – blown away in an avalanche of exclamation marks. But since it will probably be blown away anyway, perhaps it feels it has nothing to lose.

 

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review