BBC should serve the nation, not the Nationalists

What a guddle BBC Scotland has got itself into. First, Auntie announced that it would no longer carry Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid-19 briefing live every day and instead base its coverage on ‘editorial merit’.

This was welcome news for opposition politicians, who had grown concerned about the Corporation giving a daily platform to the First Minister, ostensibly to update the public on coronavirus, but which she had repeatedly used to make political statements.

Of course, Nationalists were furious, but they get furious over flags on shortbread tins. However, their concerted backlash, including a petition with 55,000 signatures and relentless attacks on the BBC from a pro-government publication, paid off. On Thursday, Pacific Quay reverse-ferreted and confirmed it would continue the live broadcasts ‘over the coming weeks’.

BBC Scotland director Donalda MacKinnon wrote in an email to staff: ‘We’ve said now that we’ll look at the briefings in the round – meaning we’ll broadcast them live on TV when we are in a period of the pandemic when there is significant public information being shared, such as new measures being introduced and implemented, rising rates of cases, a three-weekly review update or other public information.’

If you hold that statement up to the light, it reads: ‘Please make it all go away.’

When the original decision was announced, I commented that it would end up satisfying no one. If I was the sort of person who is above saying ‘I told you so’, I wouldn’t bring it up. But I’m not. I told you so.

MacKinnon has succeeded only in enraging the Nationalists, who are already perpetually enraged at the BBC, by proposing first to remove and now to alter what they recognise as a valuable soapbox. She has also confirmed to the other side of politics that BBC Scotland is so terrified of upsetting the ruling party it has given its supporters an effective veto on editorial decisions.

In an attempt at compromise, MacKinnon says that ‘other voices and perspectives’ will now feature alongside the briefings. If you’ve ever wondered what Ruth Davidson thinks about the use of meta-analysis in epidemiological research, now is your chance to find out.

This silliness springs from a fundamental dishonesty. If the briefings are purely a means for communicating public health information in the middle of a pandemic, it is bizarre to ‘balance’ this by platforming Tory or Labour spokespeople. How do you balance social distancing guidance? Bring on someone to recommend getting canned up and inviting the neighbours round for a session?

It is because the BBC knows the First Minister is using her briefings to make party political points, even if it cannot admit it, that it must strive for impartiality by giving slots to other politicians to make their own points.

All this could have been avoided at several stages. For one, BBC Scotland should not have seen it as its duty to hand over an unspecified length of air time every day to the First Minister. Yes, we found ourselves under the cosh of a pandemic and it is right that the BBC provides up-to-date coverage, but the daily briefing set-up was trouble from the start.

Public health experts say the format helps important messages reach more people, but while the demands of public health are primary right now, they do not suspend other considerations.

Given the unprecedented impact on individual liberty of ministerial decisions; the political row around the former chief medical officer; and concerns about the provision of PPE, testing and the decision to transfer elderly patients to care homes, the proper place for the briefing was in parliament, where MSPs could question decisions.

The First Minister’s swipes at Boris Johnson and the Tories during these briefings should have prompted action sooner from BBC Scotland. The Corporation’s responsibilities to its charter and licence fee payers include ‘acting in the public interest, exercising independent judgment and neither seeking nor taking instructions from government ministers or any other person’. At the very least, MacKinnon has allowed the spirit of those obligations to be undermined.

Nor will her new policy be the end of the matter. In three-and-a-half months’ time, we enter the regulated period for the Holyrood election, which brings with it more stringent impartiality requirements for broadcasters. Who knows where we will be with Covid by then but giving the leader of the SNP a long daily slot will be politically unsustainable.

How did BBC Scotland end up here? The answer lies with the Nationalist campaign of intimidation and delegitimisation waged against it since the early days of devolution, intensified with the coming to power of the SNP and reaching fever pitch in the 2014 referendum.

The aim was to cow the BBC into tamer coverage of the Nationalists for fear it would lose the trust of half the population otherwise. Research since suggests that has happened anyway. Scexiteers see BBC Scotland as no less an enemy than Westminster or the British state.

That troubles Pacific Quay, but if it believes it can pander its away out of the problem, here is something else to trouble executives: I am beginning to hear mainstream pro-Union politicians talk about the Corporation in a way comparable to the SNP’s rhetoric. Supporters of the Union know what the BBC itself knows: it was entirely fair and balanced in its coverage in 2014. If anything, it pulled its punches in interrogating the Yes campaign’s flimsy and fanciful proposals and costings.

Instead of defending the integrity of its journalists and editorial processes, Pacific Quay seems to have decided to concede a false premise then try to overcorrect it. This can be seen not only in its handling of the Covid-19 briefing but in the tone and content of the BBC Scotland channel and some politically questionable output from BBC: The Social. 

Appeasement has not inspired any greater warmth from separatists, and now the broadcaster is at risk of alienating the opposite camp. They look at the BBC falling over itself to please the sorts of people who descended on its headquarters in angry mobs and first shake their heads, then start to get ideas. If it worked for them…

The BBC is one of our great institutions and is deservedly a source of pride for millions of Britons, but it is losing its way north of the Border. BBC Scotland has forgotten a simple truth: it is the nation’s broadcaster, not the Nationalists’. 

*****

Angus Robertson used to be the Westminster SNP leader until he lost his seat to the current Scottish Tory leader. Now he’s trying to get into Holyrood by winning the seat currently held by the previous Scottish Tory leader.

He’s undoubtedly a man of ability and would fill the Mike Russell-shaped hole opening up on the SNP benches.

Which is why his musings on the mortality of No voters is such a grievous lapse of judgment. Robertson noted ‘the underlying change in the electorate’, with more young Yes voters and ‘55,000 predominantly No supporting older voters passing away every year’. This was ‘a likely net gain’ of more than 100,000 Yes backers.

For one thing, members of the party that has presided over the highest rate of Covid care home deaths in the UK should probably avoid this subject entirely. More to the point, the deaths of elderly people are no kind of gain at all. This sort of crass cynicism is why normal people hate politics.

*****

An email from Scottish Labour arrived in my inbox yesterday. Subject line: ‘SNP must show they have learnt lessons’. It was about preparedness for a second lockdown but it struck me that those seven words sum up Scottish politics. The SNP keeps failing and the opposition keeps failing to attach a political price to that failure.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © Batchelor at English Wikipedia by Creative Commons 3.0.

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