Yesterday’s television news coverage of the YES Campaign launch in Edinburgh was - to me - reasonable in scope, coverage and comment. From the brief morning coverage on the BBC News Channel, eclipsed by the Leveson Enquiry, through the lunchtime and evening news bulletins, both on BBC and STV, there was effective and balanced reporting.
Since it was Friday, there was no Newsnight Scotland, and I did wonder if Newsnight would cover it at all. But they did, and in thirteen and a half minutes, managed to confirm the deep suspicions of the legion of SNP BBC bashers that the BBC is institutionally and consciously biased against Scotland independence movement. I do not share that view, but this programme betrayed at the very least very poor editorial judgement, and at worse, a distinct anti-independence bias by the presenter, Emily Maitlis – or by whoever structured and scripted her approach.
She set the tone of the report in her opening remarks.
“Sunlight and blue skies is about the best advert the nationalists could have hoped for today as they linked arms, fixed grins and launched their campaign for independence. But the Scottish Government doesn’t want to hold the referendum until 2014. And two years is a long time to hold a smile.”
The Allegra Stratton report that followed the cue, opening with a display of union jacks, plangent music and “It’s often called the most successful union the world has ever seen …”
It is indeed often called that, mainly recently, and almost exclusively by strident unionist propagandists. Not that that the rigorously impartial BBC would ever call for such a person to script Allegra’s lines, but as the intro went on, I had to fight down that ignoble suspicion. The First Minister’s opening remarks were briefly shown, then a quick segue to the Save the Union Campaign’s YouGov opinion poll. Allegra noted that the Save the Union Campaign were not yet up and running, but she and Emily were clearly going to remedy that by doing their job for them – all in the interests of balance, you understand.
So they ran their poll slides for them (note the base – source: YouGov pro-union campaigners). Do we really need the Save the Union Campaign when we have the BBC, Allegra and Emily? Such a question would be churlish, and as a defender of the BBC, I would not dream of raising it. More slides, with a voice-over clip of Nicola Sturgeon on the currency and the decision to keep sterling.
Another Union Jack, shots of Westminster and more criticism of a monetary union, with a lot of “some say that” negative comments, then Professor Jim Gallagher is trotted out with much doom-saying about monetary union during the split up of Czechoslovakia. What Professor Gallagher’s position on independence is unknown to me, but I feel one might get a clue from the posts he has held (see Wiki link above).
Another clip from Lewis Goodall of the Institute for Public Policy Research on corporation tax. Allegra then re-enters in voice-over, with the faintly astonished comment that “The SNP have their own facts and figures.”
It should be noted at this point that the YES Campaign launch was not – and was never intended to be – an unveiling of policies and arguments: it is the beginning of a two and a half year campaign where arguments for independence, already well-ventilated, will be fully fleshed out and presented to the electorate, and those arguments will come not only from the SNP but from a wide range of political views and organisations committed to Scotland’s independence.
However, instead of covering it as such, the BBC – or at least Newsnight - has clearly decided fill the gap created by the confusion and tardiness of the Save the Union Campaign by attacking policies before the debate has even begun. This was the whole thrust of the programme.
Allegra Stratton is clearly baffled as to why the Union is not being saved and what the hell is holding them back. She has been provided with an answer by the Labour Party, which she duly delivers. Alex Salmond is due to testify before the Leveson Enquiry in June. Great revelations will then occur which will create feelings of revulsion among the Scottish electorate over Salmond’s relationship with the Antichrist himself, Rupert Murdoch. This, of course, according to Allegra’s Labour script was what caused the SNP to “do badly in the local elections”. The fact that there is not a shred of evidence for this Ladybird Book of Scottish Politics nonsense reveals the shallowness of the London BBC’s understanding of Scottish affairs and Scotland, which only periodically intrude into their metropolitan consciousness.
What it reveals about the Save the Union Campaign is that it will be Labour-dominated, locked in Labour’s old and failed smear-and-innuendo and incident-obsessed opposition politics (e.g. Megrahi) that have served them so ill in Scotland. Far from taking heart from this, it should worry nationalists deeply, because it will debase and degrade the great debate that must take place in Scotland.
Allegra Stratton’s report closes as it began, with a forest of Union Jacks and a saltire lurking in the bottom corner. But the worst was yet to come from Emily Maitlis …
Emily acts as an essentially passive feed and prompter for Alistair Darling – on the poll, on the currency, on devo max and on the referendum timing - allowing him to preview his Save the Union Campaign arguments, such as they are, ahead of the June launch.
Then to Stewart Hosie MP, the SNP Treasury spokesman who is subjected to a very different agenda and style of questioning. Emily Maitlis puts Alistair Darling’s allegation that the Scottish people were being asked “to take unqualified (sic) risks at the most uncertain economic time”.
Stewart Hosie patiently explains the role of the Bank of England as the central bank, both for rUK and an independent Scotland, and makes the vital distinction between fiscal policy and monetary policy. But this doesn’t wash with Emily, who gets animated over the question in a way noticeably absent from her passivity with the admittedly soporific personality of “the former Chancellor”.
Emily gets excited over the European example and “ … it might not be a great idea to try and shoehorn two economies into one currency!” To her chagrin, Stewart agrees with her. She interrupts in a panic – “But you don’t know what would happen – you wouldn’t be able to make those decision independently.”
Emily returns to the poll – the Save the Union Campaign sponsored poll – and, voice and expression loaded with scepticism, says “Doesn’t it tell us a lot about your campaign that it’s [the referendum] not even on the table for two years?”
As Stewart Hosie, a man of considerable dignity, intellect and restraint, comments on polls in general and “strange, skewed questions” in this one, Emily Maitlis interrupts him -
“The truth is if somebody offered you devo max, whatever that constitutes – a bit more power – the SNP would be pretty happy with that, wouldn’t they?”
Stewart Hosie: “The SNP stands for independence, the SNP is campaigning for independence, and the campaign was launched today, Emily.”.