“I pray God to deliver me from my friends,” remarked Voltaire. “I will defend myself from my enemies.”
The Daily Mail columnist Chris Deerin is afraid he might be falling for Nicola Sturgeon — join the queue, mate — but you don’t need to swoon over her political nous and personal charisma to wish the First Minister refuge from her more enthusiastic comrades.
Sturgeon made a pitch for a restructured BBC in her Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival on Thursday. Free from jargon and jeremiad, her analysis identified key industry challenges and proposed practical solutions. It was a considered, literate, ambitious, and constructive presentation, more so than the standard BBC-at-a-turning-point ministerial spiel.
The First Minister counselled a shift towards federal governance of the BBC, including the creation of a dedicated Scottish TV channel and a second English-language radio station. Based on a blueprint first floated by the Corporation itself, Sturgeon’s plans bear the promise of innovation and creative expansion. The Beeb, she was at pains to say, was not biased but had made some mistakes and could avoid these in future with more homegrown content targeted specifically to the Scottish market.
There are a few snags, of course. The point of the BBC is to be a unifying British institution and ceding power over it to Edinburgh will only enhance Scotland’s sense of separateness from the rest of the UK. Then again, that is the inevitable logic of devolution. More pertinently, it’s not clear where content for this new channel would spring from, given the tiny creative pool and limited scope for original productions north of the border. And I hate so to be vulgar but TV channels cost money and the country isn’t exactly swimming in twenties right now. Bairns not broadcasters, you heartless Yellow Tories.
But none of these is the biggest hurdle to the First Minister’s ambitions. That honour goes to the people around her, the people she shares parliamentary benches with, the people who whoop for her in foam-fingered ecstasy at party conference. Take her predecessor, who this week attacked the BBC’s erstwhile political editor Nick Robinson, branding his and the Corporation’s coverage of the referendum “a disgrace”. Robinson, Alex Salmond announced, should be “embarrassed and ashamed” of his reporting during the campaign — the BBC after all was comparable to Pravda.
The beef originates in one of the uglier episodes of the referendum. Robinson was accused of bias after some terse questioning of Salmond and a flawed package on the evening news, culminating in thousands of nationalists surrounding the BBC’s headquarters in Scotland. Robinson expressed “regret” over the incident and analogised the nationalists’ behaviour to Putin’s Russia.
Even if that is an overblown comparison, there was an atmosphere of intimidation against the BBC. When flag-waving pro-government mobs descended on Pacific Quay, Salmond called it “peaceful and joyous”. (Sturgeon, it is worth noting, suggested the screamers might want to go deliver some leaflets instead, what with there being a referendum on and all.) The politics of recrimination unleashed in 2014 lingers on, as can be seen in the responses to Nick Robinson’s latest comments. One cybernat terms him a “colonialist p—k”, another “an odious, lying, tory loving w—-r”, while a third tweets: “What makes you think you would be safe in Scotland? We all know what you look like, but you don’t know us!”
Fuelled by repeated accusations of “bias” — the only evidence for which is bald assertion — some nationalists have become obsessive, contemptuous, and downright paranoid about the Corporation. They have deputised themselves as a patriotism police, patrolling the airwaves for crimes against the nation and the nation’s party. The charge sheet is long and covers everything from reporting unhelpful facts to conducting insufficiently deferential interviews with SNP politicians. Entire websites are dedicated to lurid conspiracy theories about the BBC, a favourite being the claim that the Great British Bake-Off was a Unionist ploy to throw the referendum.
It’s not all fun and game pie, though. There is sincere, in-the-guts hatred for the Beeb amongst the ranks. During the referendum, one of the leading nationalist websites demanded to know: “Why are both the ‘Scotland Correspondent’s on BBC Scotland 2014 English?”
Consider too the public Facebook group, Push the BBC off Pacific Quay, complete with an illustration of the broadcaster’s Scottish headquarters being shoved into the River Clyde. The page is a bulletin board for the kind of conspiratorial ramblings that used to arrive in green ink with second class postage. Every malfeasance of this “anti-Scottish unionist propaganda mouthpiece” is documented in excruciating, creatively punctuated detail as the tone swings merrily from paranoid to vicious. Of Jim Naughtie’s reassignment as a roving reporter, one post laments: “Unfortunately he will not be sent to Syria… which is a real shame”. There are detours to denounce Labour “traitors”, praise Putin as the saviour of the world, and decry the invention of ISIS by the Western media. But the obsessive focus is the BBC and its manifold wickedness.
You might dismiss this as a group for anonymous cybernats but amongst the 436 members, I counted four SNP MPs, two MSPs, and at least four councillors.
It may be “arrant nonsense” to suggest Nicola Sturgeon longs to “exert political control over the BBC” but others have the itchy fingers of a meddler. It’s not hard to imagine why such people are tearing at the leash to have broadcasting devolved. For them, the BBC is just another head of the same hydra. Whether it’s the Archers or the Labour Party, Armed Forces Day or JK Rowling — Britishness is the beast at the heart of it all.
I work for their putative rival — STV is the Sharks to the Beeb’s Jets — and though like all hardened street gangs we do share a Starbucks, they are nonetheless The Other Side. Monster that I am, I have never gone in for the idolatry that attends much public discussion of the BBC. It’s not my Auntie and while I grasp its role in our shared history, it does not inform my identity. Bear that in mind when I say I found their reporting over the last few years well-crafted, fair-minded, and at times excellent.
Reporting Scotland was consistently engaging and it is a shame that Scotland 2015 didn’t begin life as Scotland 2012. The forensic interviews of Gordon Brewer and the sober and reliable analysis of Douglas Fraser were complimented by stand-out talents Laura Bicker and James Cook, who have since gone on to bigger and better things.
But the Corporation’s referendum coverage was a tale of two BBCs, and while the output from Pacific Quay was strong the same cannot be said of its network operation. Nick Robinson’s RBS report left a lot to be desired — faults of error, not conspiracy — but he is a convenient scapegoat for wider problems.
There were some national correspondents, those who appeared to discover Scotland sometime in August 2014, who showed an astonishing ignorance of the key issues. As Sturgeon pinpoints, “some network journalists came into the campaign very late on” and as they struggled to grapple with debates that had been running for two years “sounded less than fully informed”. I can be blunter than the FM: They sounded arrogant, imperious and sometimes sneering.
Nonetheless, the faults of a few do not define the Corporation, however much loud people shout to the contrary.
Nicola Sturgeon’s proposals are impressive and deserve serious consideration but they cannot expect a fair hearing in this air of acrimony. She won’t change the BBC’s relationship to Scotland until she changes her party’s attitude to the BBC and robust, critical, independent journalism more broadly. The current First Minister cannot extend the hand of friendship while the former First Minister sticks the knife in yet again.
It’s time Sturgeon wrestled back the remote and turned down the volume.