‘Billboard-gate’: The case against a BBC Scotland ‘conspiracy’

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Derek Bateman makes a personal case against the plan for anti-BBC Scotland billboards, and argues for a rational critique of the BBC’s coverage of the Scottish independence campaign

The Yes movement at war…or is it handbags? The billboards campaign again exposes that we don’t all think alike. There’s a surprise. The fundraiser to mount hoardings across the country accusing the BBC of ‘misreporting Scotland’ has run into headwinds from those who don’t like the message.

And I’m one of them.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

The clear message is that all this is deliberate. And organised. It is part of a plan to tilt opinion against the SNP and independence. BBC journalists are willing participants or perhaps convenient stooges implementing a master plan. In short it is a conspiracy. In this he is backed by other members of the infromscotland group.

The trouble with this analysis is simple. It’s not true. It’s not true and it’s not possible. Anyone with common sense or any experience inside an organisation understands there is a collective ethos or corporate mindset and subconsciously follows it – which does happen at the BBC whose origins, management configuration and internal protocols tend towards reflecting a status quo. In this case that means Britain. This idea of conveying the coherence of the UK is now written into the new charter settlement. It means that when there is a threat to the status quo, as there was in the 1990s over a Scottish Six, the Director General went to the Prime Minister to move jointly against it in case it threatened the Union. Which makes you think about the indyref…

But that’s not the same thing as journalists conspiring to twist announcements to read like criticisms of the SNP. That needs a structure in which word comes down through layers of staff to the journalists. It means telling a journalist what to say or what to write even against his better judgment. It means over 200 staff keeping quiet and never spilling the beans. It suggests all staff are party to an undeclared plan and word doesn’t leak out. Nobody complains. Everybody is malleable or has no political views of their own. (I take some responsibility here having revealed the doubtful dealings of the head of news with the Labour Party but the point was to ensure that contact stopped. In other words a BBC journalist objecting to any possible interference.)

Jackie Bird
Jackie Bird

The anti BBC outlook is insulting to the people working there and I’m always uncomfortable about the demonisation of individuals. Jackie Bird for example is one of the most professional presenters of an early evening news programme the BBC has ever had. For 20 years and more she has anchored the show and read the cues and occasional questions written for her. She does not determine content let alone political direction. She doesn’t arch her eyebrow or spit out Sturgeon’s name as some suggest in order to imply criticism. But just writing those words will send some into apoplexy.

On-air people love the recognition (oh yes they do) and are normally handsomely remunerated so they can take the flak. But it’s an unattractive trait to blame presenters and reporters as individuals for failings that can be institutional and – in my experience – caused by poor management, resourcing and staff cuts. I know that will never cover every questionable slice of output and when I listen I still hear stuff that makes my hair stand on end. Mostly it’s poor journalism from people who should know better and as soon as I hear it, I know what the BBC critics will make of it. The corporation is its own worst enemy and its unending silent response to criticism doesn’t work in the modern social media forum.

So scrutiny of the BBC as the main information source and the one we are obliged to pay for, is legitimate and appropriate. But do we need a hoardings campaign to reinforce it?

I share the view that the next stage of the indy campaign will have to learn lessons from the past. It will need refinement and radical change. Some things we cherish may have to be re-thought. For example? Well, if you speak to No folk now in doubt and toying with transferring over, you’ll find they are uncomfortable with the flag-waving and kilty apparel of demos. But surely that’s who we are! That’s true and we shouldn’t pretend to be what we are not.

Yet it remains true that doubters are put off by blatant nationalist signalling, because they want to feel they make a rational choice not a crude, saltire-faced one. They don’t want to be associated with anything that’s easily mocked. So do we tell them to get lost or do we reconsider? (I know there are bigger considerations like the oil price but never underestimate the importance of detail).

I think the anti-BBC case has been exhausted. It sounds like beating a drum to death. People have got the message and those who are suspicious of the BBC will carry on being so. But for many, it remains trusted and respected and when they see the giant hoardings questioning their judgment it tells them this is the work of obsessives. That’s how it’s seen and it won’t convince anyone to switch their vote.

Also, if we are to win, a day will come when the BBC will report how opinions are moving and how impressive Sturgeon is in Brussels and Berlin. Programmes will be made showing us how Scotland might become the 28th member instead of the UK. What do we say then about the journalists telling us a story that suits our narrative? Are they still distorting the truth or are they now to be trusted? The seeds of suspicion are firmly rooted.

Still, I think we should all do what we think is the best thing and I probably wouldn’t have mentioned the billboards except I was somehow linked to it. So to be clear, I don’t support the idea and have asked not to be mentioned as a site author or source as that is clearly taken as endorsement. But nor do I disrespect people for doing it, people who have helped shape the new media we enjoy today. Actually, I might put that on a billboard…