Is the BBC in danger of stoking up cross border resentment?

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Last month the SNP confirmed that Scottish students would not face tuition fees when studying at Scottish universities. Those from outwith Scotland will have to pay a fee.

The news followed the UK coalition’s announcement of plans to cut back on state funding for higher education in England and instead increase the fees that students currently pay in order to attend English universities.

However BBC Scotland reported the news that Scottish students would face no tuition fee charges with the bizarre headline: English, Welsh and N Irish ‘face Scots degree fee rise’

What immediately stands out from this headline is that it gives the news from a non-Scottish perspective.  Indeed the article was introduced with the sentence: “Students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who go to university in Scotland could face annual fees of up to £6,000.”  It wasn’t until the fourth sentence down that Scottish readers were actually told how the announcement affected them, and even then the article used the term ‘Scots’ and not Scottish students, never mind the more correct ‘students resident in Scotland’.

The fact that the Scottish government’s policy does not differentiate on grounds of nationality but rather on residency – so English, Welsh and NI students could in fact find themselves paying nothing if they already lived in Scotland – didn’t seem to register.

The other peculiar thing about the article was that, unusually, the BBC decided to solicit the views of members of the public. The majority of the subsequent comments published (7 out of 9) were from outside Scotland.

The headline appeared to imply a kind of educational apartheid on the part of the Scottish government.  Other reports at the time suggested that a student leader in England had threatened to try to mobilise English students in order to travel to Scotland to demonstrate. One professor, Tom Gallagher, went further and wrote: “One test of the BBC’s editorial values will be the extent to which it gives a voice to those who think that education minister Michael Russell’s decision to single out English students for a massive financial levy is nothing less than racist.”

Did the BBC headline cause this outbreak of scotophobia? Of course not, these sorts of comments and claims have been common currency amongst some of the more fundamentalist Scottish Unionist types for years. However the BBC ought to realise just how headlines like these will read to some of the more ‘imaginative’ elements on both sides of the border.

That’s why the story we highlighted yesterday regarding the shortage of flu vaccines in England was so troubling. Here we had the BBC reporting on a very English problem and, quite appropriately because it is an English health matter, targeting the article at an English audience. It contained a bland quote from a Scottish government spokesperson that appeared to have been elicited by a journalist asking a question.

However within the space of a few hours the article had completely lost its original thrust which was about the running out of vaccines in certain parts of England and the scouring throughout Europe in search for extra supplies. It had morphed into a grotesque tabloid style piece headlined ‘English hit back in flu jabs row’.

This is base journalism at its very worst. The wording of the headline ‘English hit back in flu jabs row’ suggested the nation of England and its people had been attacked in some form. The attacker, or accuser as the BBC maintained in the article, was Scotland.

The gist of the revised article was clear – Scotland has surplus flu vaccine and all but refused to release these stocks in order to help our southern neighbours who didn’t have enough. Worse, it claimed that Scottish civil servants had falsely accused the English authorities of not even requesting assistance.

For the BBC to craft the headline they did at the time of the tuition fees announcement may have been unfortunate but to do the same thing again so soon suggests that there may be an agenda at work. By remarkable coincidence this new story, again questioning Scotland’s relationship with England, sees the BBC soliciting the views of the public.

Two stories, two reckless headlines portraying the English as victims of the hostile Scots, and the same two articles asking for comments from readers.

The use of language and imagery in order to stoke up the fires of resentment is nothing new, nor is it confined to the UK. In the USA of course the tragic shootings involving US Senator Gabrielle Gifford have resulted in a furious backlash against the right wing Sarah Palin who has a fondness for using gun imagery when attacking opponents. Palin used phrases such as “taking people out” and talked of a “hit list”, she also urged people to “reload” and “aim” when describing how to deal with opponents; the darling of the Republican right even used maps on her website complete with rifle crosshairs superimposed on the districts occupied by political rivals.

One victim who was fatally wounded in the recent attack was Federal Judge John Roll.  During a period of intense debate over immigration Judge Roll presided over a $32 million civil rights lawsuit filed by migrant workers against an Arizona rancher. Right wing talk-radio shows and commentators cranked up the controversy and spurred audiences into making threats against Roll.

Of course emotive language is part of the political lexicon, however it has to be used with self-restraint.  Using a style of language that persuades  supporters to invest just that little bit extra in the cause is perfectly acceptable. Manufacturing a grievance and contorting a news story in order to create division and resentment is not.

There are certainly sporting rivalries between the nations of Scotland and England and there are those amongst us who have little respect left for the corrupt powerbase that is Westminster, just as there are still those who revere the Gothic structure’s centuries old chambers and halls.

However surely we can do without the once respected BBC resorting to sensationalist hyperbole when reporting on cross border issues such as the so called ‘flu row’ and the distinctively Scottish approach to education. Continuing to craft these kinds of headlines may inadvertently nurture a very different and more extreme set of adversaries.