At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Britain’s supposedly independent and impartial broadcasting stations submitted in the main to Margaret Thatcher’s diktat that they starve all Irish republicans of the “oxygen of publicity”. Historical and current affairs documentaries that might have given viewers across these islands a more informed understanding of the seeming intractable conflict were either not commissioned or kept off air. The only way producers of the news bulletins could think of getting around the ban was to dub soundbites from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness with the voices of actors.
They haven’t done anything like that so far with Alex Salmond or Kenny Macaskill – to the disappointment of the actors’ union equity, no doubt. Instead there has been an almost complete blackout of Scotland’s new breakaway party Alba. For broadcasters in this country to treat any perfectly legitimate, peace loving movement as if it were a terrorist organisation is not just a scandal but probably a breach of the guidance the regulator Ofcom issued to them at the start of the campaign (as I will explain).
To what extent this stems from caving in to pressure from rival party spindoctors, or just their own deep-seated, instinctive bias against the most effective advocate of Scottish independence in modern times, we’ll never know. But we do know they don’t want us to know anything about Alba’s alternative vision for our nation – and certainly not to discover how popular this is starting to become among Scottish voters.
There has been no proper exploration on either the BBC or STV of polls suggesting an immediate surge of support for Alba. The Panelbase survey this week suggested that this brand new breakaway party is on course to make a big breakthrough by seizing a seat in all of the eight electoral regions. That polling organisation has consistently shown Alba with around six per cent support and poised to leapfrog the LibDems in terms of both share of the votes and the number of MSPs it will command in the next Scottish Parliament – remarkable given how it did not even exist before this election campaign got underway. The Scottish press knew this was a big story and gave it appropriate space and projection.
Yet, when the country’s most respected psephologist, Professor John Curtice, sought to point up the significance of these findings on the BBC Scotland channel’s flagship news show The Nine the other night, there was no attempt by the anchorwoman Rebecca Curran to pick up on that angle. Ordinarily, this might just be put down to her not being a particularly acute political interviewer but it is doubtful whether the much sharper Martin Geissler would have responded any differently.
There seems to be a concerted effort underway throughout the far northern branch office of the BBC to act as if Alba is making absolutely no impact. Indeed, anyone following this election campaign only through the corporation’s grotesquely biased coverage could be mistaken for thinking that Alba remains nothing more than the name of the BBC’s Gaelic TV channel. Word appears to have gone out from the powers-that-be at Pacific Quay to deprive the party of the oxygen of publicly – doubtless in the hope that they can help to strangle at its birth.
All of the TV stations have barred its distinguished leader from all of the Scottish leaders debates. Their justification for doing so is that Ofcom rejected a complaint lodged by Alba about the exclusion of Alex Salmond. But in its controversial ruling the regular stated: “Broadcasters must also give due weight to the coverage of parties during the election period, taking into account evidence of past electoral support and/or current support.” (Emphasis added). Given their failure to respond properly to the Panelbase polls and the significance attached to them by the country’s leading polling expert, all of the U.K. broadcasters are arguably guilty of breaching that clear instruction from the body that oversees their adherence to the balance and impartiality requirements.
To her credit, Sarah Smith did make some mischief with Mr Salmond’s return to the political fray when she chaired the first of the main party leaders’ debates. She forced Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie into addressing the Alba factor and to speculate on what it might portend for their push for independence. But that was a brief one-off, and Alex Salmond wasn’t present himself to express a more positive perspective on why he has returned to the frontline of Scottish politics.
From the moment Alba was launched, it has been repeatedly savaged on air by leading presenters. To any fair or reasonable person there is no credible way of defending how Mr Salmond was treated on the airwaves when he announced his intention to seek a comeback to elected office. His encounter with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News was a more aggressive form of interrogation than police detectives are permitted nowadays to conduct when interrogating murder suspects. Anyone tuning into it unaware of the outcome of the Alex Salmond trial would never have guessed that Scotland’s former First Minister was acquitted by a female majority jury on all 13 of the feeble charges laid against him by the Crown prosecutors.
But the prize for a live on-air assault and battery must go to Gary Robertson for his brutal mugging attempt on Radio Scotland’s poor imitation of the Today programme. Because he has conducted a number of interviews of his own on the Russian news channel RT, Mr Salmond was expected to apologise for every controversial geopolitical manoeuvre by Vladimir Putin in recent years, along with the alleged poisoning in Salisbury of the renegade spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter by Kremlin agents. The fact that the Scottish Government has no powers to pursue its own defence and foreign policy – hence such matters are completely irrelevant in any current Holyrood election – was a basic point the ex-FM struggled to make on Good Morning Scotland because Mr Robertson rudely interrupted every time he tried to do so.
Sadly, this all matters because the Beeb remains, by far, the dominant source of news – north, as well as south, of the Border – because of the vast publicly-funded resources at its disposal. Yet anyone who wants to get a proper handle on how the most crucial Holyrood election since the dawn of devolution is shaping up must switch off their TVs and instead surf the blogosphere – whilst still being legally compelled to purchase a TV licence fee.
It’s at a time like this – when the survival of the British state in its present form is under serious threat – that the BBC reminds us that it is, ultimately, the British state broadcasting service.