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Joan McAlpine: BBC failing Scots by allowing prejudice on the air

Greg Dyke once described the BBC as "the glue that binds the nation together" and in the field of popular entertainment he might still have a point.

One of the highlights of this year's Edinburgh Television Festival was a Doctor Who masterclass run by two Scots, the show's executive producer and lead writer, Steven Moffat, and the Timelord's sexy sidekick, Karen Gillan. Mr Moffat is a post-modern storyteller par excellence, with no political agenda. But Doctor Who is a perfect example of what Gordon Brown called the social union in action. It's a national institution turned contemporary craze which transfixes every corner of these islands - and it's written by a Scot and made in Wales.

But when you leave behind the inter-galactic wormholes and weeping stone angels and enter the real world, the BBC's claim to be a social adhesive falls apart somewhat. For the last ten days or so, a protest has been building on the internet as a result of an extraordinary outburst of intolerance on Any Questions, the flagship Radio 4 current affairs show.

One of the panellists who caused the most offence was Baroness Ruth Deech, a former governor of the corporation. The other was polemicist Douglas Murray. The panellists were discussing the release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing when Deech launched into her rant.

She used the "subsidy junkie Jocks" line that last got an airing from Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of the Sun and Jeremy Clarkson, who also writes for that paper. Both men specialise in provoking a response through contrived outrageousness - Baroness Deech, however, is an academic and lawyer best known for chairing the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority.

She said: "It's been very embarrassing for the rest of us.… if Scotland wants to be independent, OK, be my guest, go ahead, do what you want and please take back with you all the Scottish politicians - there's so many of them, starting with Blair and Brown and Campbell. Take them all back, and off you go. And go off on your own, because actually we're all subsidising them I think, by way of benefits and all sorts of reasons."

Her co-panellist Murray went further. He styles himself "Britain's only neo-conservative" and is much in demand on the TV couch circuit and in the opinion pages of British and American newspapers.

He said: "There is not very much to do if you are the Scottish Justice Secretary in a devolved Scottish Assembly. You can at least read the one important bit of news that comes across your desk in the last five years."The most galling thing is this pretend, horrible, charade building in Edinburgh called the Scottish Parliament and the horrible charade politicians who inhabit it and who occasionally crawl out of the darkness and explain something to the rest of us, as if we've never thought of moral questions before."

He went on to describe Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond as "horrible grandstanding, Mickey Mouse politicians," and mocked suggestions that the Scots were a compassionate people.

If Britain really was one nation under the flag, it didn't seem that way in the Birmingham suburb from where the show was broadcast. These were not the comments of maverick oddballs. The audience cheered, applauded and laughed with Deech and Murray. The BBC has yet to apologise for the offence caused.

Politicians need no protection of course, and everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But I would have expected the panellists on Any Questions to be reasoned and well-informed - this was the aural terrain more often inhabited by "shock jocks".

It went further than attacking Salmond, MacAskill or the devolved settlement. It was Scotophobia writ large. Can you imagine a show getting away with similar comments about the Irish Dil? Would it be acceptable to describe the mayor of London as "crawling out of the darkness"? It would be unthinkable because, from a metropolitan perspective, Boris presides over the centre of the universe. Edinburgh and Scotland, however, are on the dark side.

Compare the silence here to the blanket coverage, in England and Scotland, of any anglophobic incident during the World Cup finals. Where are the phone-in shows devoted to Scotophobia?

Given that just over 80 per cent of the population of the UK resides in England, it is perhaps understandable that the prejudices of the majority will be indulged, even on Radio 4. Those prejudices are well documented: Two polls by YouGov, one in 2007 and another earlier this year, showed that around two-thirds of English people think Scotland is subsidised by the rest of the UK. Only 12 per cent of Scots agree.

There is an alternative view of Scottish-English power relations that is very seldom heard on "national" talk shows: it would included the fact that Scotland is entitled to 95 per cent of the oil revenues that have made Britain rich these last 30 years. There is the 1970s government-commissioned McCrone Report which predicted an independent Scotland could become fabulously wealthy. It was classified and kept secret for 30 years. There is the fact that the official government statistics agency GERS shows Scotland in surplus by 1.3 billion in 2008-9. We can argue the details but we never get the chance because a consensus appears to have been manufactured suggesting that Scotland is the poor, ignorant sponger up north.

It's difficult to see how the BBC, so heavily weighted towards the UK's largest centre of population, can tell two opposing stories at once.As a national glue, it's getting a bit tacky.

Another event at the Television Festival this week encouraged participants to "build your own BBC". Perhaps the highly centralised corporation should take a tip from the Baroness and allow its Scottish arm to go it alone. We can still get Doctor Who, like dozens of other nations around the world.

 
 
 

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