First Minister Alex Salmond has questioned the political impartiality of the BBC after leaked emails showed the corporation reversed a decision to allow the SNP leader to appear on an afternoon rugby show after pressure from political advisor Ric Bailey.
The refusal to allow Mr Salmond to appear as a pundit in light hearted pre-match coverage of yesterday’s Calcutta Cup match has caused a furious row with the SNP leader likening the behaviour of the BBC to that found in a “tin-pot dictatorship”.
Mr Salmond had been booked to appear alongside former rugby internationalists Andy Nicol and Jeremy Guscott. An email from BBC TV sport editor Carl Hicks had confirmed the booking after the BBC had been reassured that Mr Salmond would not make any mention of politics.
However on Friday the offer was blocked under the orders of Bailey. The London based political advisor cited “heightened tensions” over independence as the reason for withdrawing the offer.
Commenting on the decision Mr Salmond said it appeared that the BBC was now being run from Downing Street. Mr Salmond also revealed that BBC Scotland had again been ignored by London based chiefs who he said had panicked.
“The guy has just obviously panicked and doesn’t know what he’s doing” said Mr Salmond who added: “BBC Scotland, needless to say, weren’t consulted at all. They were just treated as they are normally treated.” BBC Scotland head Ken McQuarrie was not aware of Baillie’s decision.
“I would imagine people like Ric Bailey are in thrall to Downing Street now and that is actually the worrying thing. What this means is that an editorial decision, a journalistic decision on the BBC by the sports editor, has been overridden for political reasons by the political advisors.
“That’s what you get in tin-pot dictatorships. You’re not meant to get it in the BBC.”
The First Minister also questioned whether the BBC could now be trusted to cover the independence debate in a non-partisan manner and said: “It’s a totally unsustainable position which raises all sorts of questions about their impartiality and their role as a national broadcaster and basically if they can be trusted to conduct themselves as an impartial broadcaster in the run-up to the referendum campaign.”
The allegations by Mr Salmond are believed to be in addition to concerns that the Scottish Government were already planning to raise with Chair of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten who is due to visit Edinburgh next week.
The SNP leader said that he anticipated a “lively meeting” with Mr Patten who he is scheduled to meet on Thursday.
One of the concerns that will be raised involves the practice of BBC reporters, including BBC Scotland, of using the pejorative term ‘separation’ or ‘separatists’ when referring to independence and independence supporters.
The First Minister also pointed to widely expected broadcasts by Tory Prime Minister David Cameron in the run-up to the London Olympics as evidence of double standards.
However, speaking on Friday just as the story broke, Scottish Tory leader, and herself a former BBC Scotland presenter, Ruth Davidson defended her former bosses and accused the First Minister of “insulting” rugby fans.
Ms Davidson said: “I’ll be in the stands at Murrayfield tomorrow, proud to support my country. Just because you do not agree with everything the SNP says does not mean you are anti- Scottish or talking Scotland down.
“I am definitely Scottish, but I’m British too, and it’s an insult to me and thousands of others who feel this way to suggest we are somehow unpatriotic.”
A spokesman for Ms Davidson described Mr Salmond’s comments as “bully-boy tactics” and claimed it was “an embarrassing way” for him to behave.
A Scottish Labour spokesperson accused Mr Salmond of wanting to get his face on TV saying: “I’m sure Scottish Rugby fans would rather the First Minister concentrate on getting behind the team rather than getting his face on TV.”
SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson MP said:
“This ban on Scotland’s First Minister by the BBC’s chief political adviser in London is bonkers. He has overruled his own editors and journalists in the manner you’d expect in a banana republic.
“The excuse about the local elections makes absolutely no sense – they don’t take place in Scotland until May, another three months!
“The serious issue here is the BBC’s excuse about the ‘political debate around Scotland’s future’ – which will be underway for the next two-and-a-half years. Are they suggesting that Scotland’s First Minister is to be banned from ‘business as usual’ programming by the BBC’s political bosses in London until 2014?
“And does this political ban from BBC coverage apply to David Cameron during the London Olympics this year, for example?
“The BBC is Scotland’s national broadcaster, and these are serious questions which raise important issues about the BBC’s coverage of the referendum – which must be fair, impartial and consistent to all participants, and at all times.
“The concern is that these decisions are being taken by the BBC’s political bosses in London in a high-handed, ad-hoc manner – and that is in the interests of no-one in Scotland.”
The row has ignited twitter with comments expressing a mixture of anger and puzzlement. One tweeter asked why it was fine for Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones to comment on the Ryder Cup, and the Rugby World Cup but the Scottish First Minister is prevented from speaking about the Six Nations.