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Sunday, 19 December 2010

Unionist bias at BBC Scotland?

I hate to ask that question, because the BBC has been an invaluable part of my life since I was a child, and my first instinct is to spring to its defence when it is attacked, as it always has been, on many fronts and for many reasons.

The BBC is a unique institution, and is recognised as such throughout the world. It has been a vital channel of communication, information and hope for occupied and oppressed countries  across the globe throughout its long history, as well as being a major engine of culture.

But from its monopoly status in certain  aspects of its operations, through regular accusations of bias and partiality - from just about every interest group imaginable - to complaints about the allegedly excessive salaries and perks of its senior management, the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, is a target.

It has been variously accused of being




biased towards libertarianism

sexually permissive

too bold in its programming

not bold enough

nationalistic and jingoistic

not patriotic enough

of concealing the realities of war

of being too open about the realities of war

The list goes on and on. It is accused of being a slave to balance in reporting, and yet is regularly accused of lack of balance. It is at one and the same time apparently anodyne yet radical in its style.

The BBC could reasonable respond – and does - that the mutually contradictory range of criticisms levelled at it are demonstration enough of its objectivity and lack of bias.

It has a major foe, potentially its nemesis - the Murdoch organisation, a force for evil in the world if ever there was one in my book, masquerading as free and fearless populist press, responding to the wishes of the people as shown through sales, with the unspeakable Fox News as its model for keeping the ‘free’ world informed. The Murdoch Press believes that the BBC is monopolistic, and hold this belief without any sense of irony.

So I instinctively spring to the BBC’s defence, an aged Don Quixote, saucepan on head, stumbling forward on Rosinante, but with no Sancho Panza to offer moral support. Hands off the Beeb!


I am reluctantly forced to conclude that there is something which, if not yet rotten in the state of BBC Scotland, is giving off a highly dubious aroma.

I am torn between recognising that it is virtually the only medium to offer any real coverage to the SNP among the biased media of Scotland, to regularly feeling that the coverage contains a distinct bias towards the unionist case.

There is perhaps some reason to expect a kind of metropolitan myopia from the BBC at  Broadcasting House in recognising the aspirations of a very large segment of the Scottish electorate to secure the independence of their country, and towards the political party that embodies that viewpoint, the Scottish National Party, even though it is the current choice of the Scottish people and forms the Government in a devolved Parliament.

Buried in the heart of London, within easy reach of Westminster and the politicians and civil servants who govern the UK, they are a part of the Westminster village, and absorb its values by a process of osmosis almost. Scotland only occasionally intrudes into their consciousness sufficiently to warrant real attention. And it is, after all, the British Broadcasting Corporation, but it is not the UK Broadcasting Corporation – the UKBC!

But there is no such excuse from number 40 Pacific Quay in the great Scottish city of Glasgow, a mere forty miles or so away from Holyrood. Yet any objective observer could only conclude that, in the lead-up to the 2007 election and in the three and a bit years since,  there have been many instances where the SNP has not been given a fair throw of the dice, and the niggling suspicion that the dice are loaded and the game is not being played according to Hoyle lingers.

I take heart from the fact that Brian Taylor, a fine journalist who exhibits high journalistic standards at all times, and whose objectivity has never been called in to question by any reasonable person, is BBC Scotland’s Chief Political Reporter. But Brian is one man.

Joan McAlpine, a highly professional journalist herself --  a columnist with The Scotsman, has explored this criticism vigorously in an article  today on her blog, Go, Lassie, Go .

She does not avoid coming to grips with specifics, naming BBC Scotland reporters and commentators and exploring aspect of their backgrounds and affiliations that might raise questions in the minds of a reasonable observer.

Now no one is suggesting, least of all Joan, who herself is a prominent SNP supporter and a candidate for a seat in Holyrood at the next election, that reporters do not have a right to political opinions and affiliations. What she argues for is a level playing field, and that political affiliations do not intrude into the objectivity of salaried journalists in a public broadcaster like the BBC.

So, BBC Scotland – sit up and take notice! There is a growing sense of disquiet among many nationalists, and among fair-minded democrats who are not nationalist supporters, but who value the freedom of the press and media, that while there may not yet be something rotten in the  state of Pacific Quay, it is time to get the fridge thermometer out and check


  1. CBeebies Pacific Quay frequently tell us that it is their job to hold the Scottish Government to account. Well, no actually: we're paying you to hold politicians of all parties to account, not just whoever is in power this week. To be fair, Newsnicht does a reasonable job of doing just that, albeit on a shoe-string budget; Reporting Scotland most definitely doesn't, and that's the one that gets the viewing figures.

  2. I agree. After watching John Pilger's riveting documentary on 'The War You Do Not See' last night on ITV, the question marks over press and media journalism are writ even larger, with the BBC at the front of the queue.

  3. It is not the job of BBC Scotland news department or any TV news station to 'hold the Government to account'. They are there to report the news and not manufacture news.

  4. It is the job of journalists - and that's what media reporters are supposed to be - is to hold power to account. Since most power - not all - at any time rests with those in authority, then they are the principal target. Reporting, as the Pilger documentary showed, can simply result in news media regurgitating the "fact" they have been fed by the PR of the powerful.

    And the concept of balance can often mean that an unsustainable policy of moral equivalence of all viewpoints is adopted. The best journalists report objectively, but unless they also comment and take a position, they are not worthy of the name. The BBC is guilty of sanitising successive wars in the name of patriotism, but BBC Scotland is guilty of not reporting Scottish nationalism fairly.

    Nevertheless, the SNP government. like any government, must be held to acount.

  5. Oh Peter,

    I think you are being far too fair to BBC Scotland.

    I would not be surprised at all if I heard Reporting Scotland terminated with the following :-

    "And finally. The SNP are shite you know. Good night."

    We generally get a far better coverage from BBC London. And that's saying something.


  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I don't agree, Rab. I monitor the BBC output very closely, and we do get a fair shake a lot of the time.

    It is easy to confuse objective questioning of politicians with bias when it is our guy being interrogated, and to selectively ignore the equally hard time given to other political parties. That's stereotyping, always a danger for partisan supporters- like me!

    But there is cause for concern. and a close eye has to be kept on coverage.

    Thanks for posting, Rab - and a Merry Christmas and a Guid New Year

  8. Hi Peter,

    Merry Christmas.

    I'm sorry if I seem to be flogging a dead horse, but though we agree on many things, I cannot let you away with arguing that the BBC are not anti-SNP. I agree that it is hard to see the things you believe in being opposed in interviews and not jump to the conclusion that your view is being discriminated against, and as you say, we as partisan viewers must guard against such attitudes. I constantly remind myself in such situations that it is not only a job requirement of the interviewers that they do so but necessary for the health of democracy that politicians be held to account for their views and actions.

    And here is the rub. It is a media interviewers' duty to do this with ALL politicians, not just some of them. I agree that BBC Scotland is as equally capable of giving the Tories or Liberals almost as hard a time as the SNP and yet when interviewing the SNP elements of disrespect, increased aggression, interruption and sarcasm enter the frame.

    When we come to the Labour party, then all is sweetness and light. Seldom is a difficult or inconvenient question or proposition put or pursued, respect is the order of the day and contradiction - almost never. And if on the rare occasion a difficult question is pursued the interview is quickly brought back into the standard pro-Labour format.

    Can you imagine a BBC London interviewer referring to the Labour party as "we". Or a Labour party interviewee, on being asked a moderately difficult question, responding in a moderately aggressive voice "Are you finished?" and not only getting away with it but the subject changed? No, neither can I, yet both such incidents have occurred in BBC Scotland within the last couple of months.

    Please Peter, stop apologising for these cretins. They disgrace their profession and undermine democracy.


  9. Merry Christmas, Rab

    Since early 2007, I have taken a very detailed interest in politics, especially Scottish politics, and I have monitored press and media out put very closely, because bias undoubtedly exists.

    While recognising some bias on BBC Scotland (that was the purpose of my blog)I just do not recognise the situation you portray.

    Brian Taylor, the chief BBC political reporter is a model of objectivity. The others vary, but in the main we got a fair shake from Gordon Brewer and Glenn Campbell when he was more active on the scene than he is now.

    Without the BBC, we would have virtually nothing, with the honourable exception of Politics Now and Bernard Ponsonby on STV.

    The BBC gives us Newsnight Scotland, The Politics Show Scotland, BBC Scotland News, Channel 81, the weekly coverage of FMGs at Holyrood.

    To say that these are invariably biased is, frankly, nonsense. I collect clips from them for my YouTube channel, and regularly am able to select useful, unbiased reporting.

    If you want to know what bias is, watch Fox News - that's what we'll get if Murdoch has his way.

    To criticise some aspects of BBC Scotland reporting is fair - to refer to them as cretins is offensive, and unwarranted. No good case was ever helped by hyperbole and overstatement, and I repeat - the danger is stereotyping - generalising from highly selective instances.

    I have issues with the BBC, but to deny their powerful role in our democracy - and in the world - for over three generations makes us sound ridiculously parochial, and frankly, immature. We can't afford to be seen like that - our casue is much bigger.

  10. Hi Peter,

    OK I consider myself rebuked, but am unrepentant.

    We will just have to agree to differ. Friends do sometimes.


  11. Hi, Rab - I hope you had a good Christmas and weren't haunted by the ghost of Lord Reith!

    2011 is near, and with it the build-up to the May election. The SNP must cultivate its friends and try to convert its enemies, and the second part is the hard part.

    But we have a secret weapon - Iain Gray ...