BBC Scotland must stop pandering to Unionism

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by GA Ponsonby

This week’s new poll showing support for independence marginally ahead of support for the union may or may not serve as an indication of the result of the independence referendum as and when it is finally held.  

What it does show though is that neither side, unionist or nationalist, can claim to know the minds of the electorate.

It also demonstrates the absolute need for a full, frank and honest debate on Scotland’s constitutional future.

This then raises the pertinent, but as yet unasked, question of whether the BBC can be trusted to provide the non-partisan platform such an important debate undoubtedly needs if it is to encompass the spectrum of political views and thus inform rather than influence that debate.

If the flickering embers of recent news stories is anything to go by, then as things stand the BBC (especially in Scotland) has a long way to go before it can be entrusted with such a fundamentally important role.

Last week saw two LibDem MPs step into the constitutional debate.  It was no surprise when Danny Alexander and his colleague Michael Moore came out in support for the Union.

Both men are recent beneficiaries of the centuries old treaty.  Their occupancy of Westminster bestowed high office serves as clear proof of a little mentioned ‘Union benefit’.

The arguments from Alexander and Moore weren’t new, they have been heard before in various guises from numerous Unionist politicians before them.  What was new though was BBC Scotland’s reaction to one of them.

Within hours of Danny Alexander making his speech to what was a clearly heavily politicised dinner held by business lobbing group, CBI Scotland, BBC Scotland had placed a recording of the speech in prime location on its main Scottish online news page.

Note, not an edited extract of the speech as is the norm, but the complete uncut address.

This hitherto unknown change to BBC editorial policy ensured that Alexander’s anti-independence and anti-SNP views were made available to as wide an audience as possible.

To appreciate just how extraordinary this is then ask yourself when last BBC Scotland afforded such a privilege to the First Minister, or any other Scottish Minister for that matter.

If this was a first, then sadly the Radio Scotland interviews with Michael Moore and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon that followed were anything but.  What we heard were typical examples of BBC Scotland at its partisan worst.

The gentle prodding of Michael Moore was in contrast to the aggressive hectoring of Nicola Sturgeon.  It was reminiscent of the shocking treatment meted out to Alex Salmond by Gary Robertson during the early days of the recent election campaign.

It came a day after Labour’s Iain Gray had faced a markedly different approach at the hands of Robertson’s BBC colleague Hayley Millar.

The interview with Nicola Sturgeon saw the old interruption tactic employed by Robertson, who is fast acquiring a reputation as bad as that ‘enjoyed’ by colleague Glenn Campbell.

The explanation for adopting a more aggressive stance with SNP Ministers used to be that they formed the government whilst Labour MSPs did not.  What then is the explanation for the kid gloves approach used on UK government Minister Moore?

Constitutional interviews and broadcasts were not the only areas that called into question the BBC’s political balance.  The latest comedy of errors to beset the Edinburgh trams also presented more evidence that BBC Scotland is less than partial when it comes to matters political.

Two weeks ago a proposal by Edinburgh’s Labour group brought gasps of shock and shrieks of derision after it was passed when the Tory group gave their backing.

The loss making plan was not meant to be taken seriously and such was the self expressed shock within the Labour group that it was almost 24 hours before they had worked out how to try to spin their widely ridiculed proposal.

It was in danger of causing considerable damage to a Labour party leaderless and in turmoil north of the border.  Labour needn’t have worried though, for into the breach stepped BBC Scotland to provide cover.

The state broadcaster decided that rather than inform the nation that this latest national joke was in fact the result of Labour politicking gone wrong, that it would instead present the plan as one backed by unspecified ‘councillors’.

Within the confusing headline was a neat little admission that Labour had indeed proposed the plan.  A plan the BBC helpfully told us was designed to ‘save Edinburgh £230 million’.

From zero to hero, courtesy of the BBC.  It deflected attention and bought the Labour group some much needed time.  The circle was squared the following morning when Radio Scotland presenters ran with the line that the ‘crazy’ plan being passed was the fault of the SNP group who had refused to back the Lib Dem alternative.

When the SNP group then announced that they would block Labour’s plan at a hastily convened emergency meeting, the BBC seized on it and accused them of a U-turn and of causing further damage to the reputation of the project.

The SNP had faced a Hobson’s choice, back Labour’s ‘bonkers plan’ or back the Lib Dems’ less damaging proposal.

BBC Scotland had saved Labour’s bacon with some deft news manipulation and careful wording.

These two stories, Alexander and Moore and Labour’s bad tram joke, aren’t isolated examples.  We are still waiting for BBC Scotland to acknowledge the discovery of the letter sent by al-Megrahi from Greenock that further call into question his guilt and whether Libya played any role at all in the downing of Pan Am 103.  That BBC Scotland headlined another statement from a US senator 24 hours later suggests the selective reporting that has plagued Pacific Quay over Megrahi still prevails.

The independence referendum may well define Scotland for decades if not centuries.  It is therefore incumbent on all of us to ensure that manipulation of news is kept to a minimum and that the publicly funded broadcasting stage is made available equally to all sides.

BBC Scotland is currently the only game in town.  The power it possesses is leading to a complacency where it presenters seem to believe they are untouchable.

They aren’t, and they need to be reminded just who it is pays their wages.  It is all of us, every Scot, and this continual pandering to Unionist parties and their politicians has to stop.