The best way for our national broadcaster to defend its reputation for impartiality would be to give viewers more, and better local news coverage, writes Ewan Crawford
WATCHING Newsnight last week I was left in little doubt that the BBC was involved in some sort of odd plot to decriminalise heroin while ingeniously conspiring to advance the cause of Scottish independence.
On Friday’s edition, during a discussion on illegal drugs, the right-wing commentator Peter Hitchens questioned why the broadcaster was allowing the comedian, Russell Brand, to present a programme aimed at pushing a “debased” policy.
Earlier in the week, the Labour MP and chair of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, Ian Davidson, accused “Newsnat Scotland” (great gag Ian) of being “clearly biased for a long time against the Unionist parties”.
This rant was followed up in a newspaper by a personal attack on the presenter, Isabel Fraser, for being either incompetent or involved in a conspiracy after a Newsnight contributor was not appropriately identified as being an SNP sympathiser.
The former Labour provost of Glasgow, Michael Kelly, confirmed in The Scotsman last week that the Labour hierarchy was indeed convinced that BBC Scotland had been infiltrated by Scottish nationalists.
I have no reason to doubt Michael’s or Mr Davidson’s sincerity on this issue, or the care with which they have chosen their words. It seems the Labour leadership in Scotland does actually believe the SNP has set out to (successfully) enter activists into the BBC, a conspiracy to which the corporation is either a willing and shady participant or an ignorant dupe.
Voters and viewers might also want to reflect on the fact that Mr Davidson has referred to the SNP as neo-fascist, and to take these public comments into account when his Scottish Affairs Committee produces its various “neutral” reports on the dreadful calamity that would befall the people of this country should they vote to be independent.
However, I fear I might be a prime example of the SNP’s “project infiltration: BBC”. I managed to fool the current affairs department into giving me a job as a news producer and now appear as a pundit on political matters.
The fact that I am described as a former SNP adviser on these occasions is no doubt some cunning diversion tactic to take attention away from the sleepers in the production team.
The final proof, I guess, is that I am still a member of the BBC Scotland Cricket Club (I scored a handy 56 last week since you ask). Maybe the club is just a front for covert discussions on the field of play between overs about how to bring down the Union. After all, walls have ears you know.
Back in the real world, all BBC staff must abide by a weighty document called Editorial Guidelines which, among other things, commits news producers to the idea of “due impartiality”.
It was this commitment that prompted me to leave the BBC. During the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Labour fought a negative, but very effective campaign. As a producer it was my job to ensure this campaign was represented and scrutinised fairly along with those of the other parties.
After the election I decided I didn’t want to do this any more so I left. That is a decision that has also been taken by other BBC staff members who went on to work for, or stand for, Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
The fact that I and my ex-colleagues chose to leave suggests that the idea of infiltration is not that effective. Otherwise, wouldn’t we all have stayed to pursue the cause from within?
As BBC programmes are made by human beings, mistakes are bound to be made and it is reasonable for political parties to complain when they believe there has been an error or poor decision. Indeed I have been complained about and I have then switched sides to do the complaining.
But given the level of scrutiny, it is fanciful to suggest that an individual journalist could get away with persistent bias even if he or she wanted to.
That is not to say that there aren’t some big issues at stake. The whole notion of impartiality is not straightforward, whether on drugs policy, Scottish politics or any other current affairs issue.
When dealing with climate change, for example, or the MMR vaccine, should two sides of the story be given when the overwhelming scientific evidence points in one direction? The danger here is that the sense can be given that a topic is a matter of controversy when there is none.
For BBC policy in relation to Scotland, the independence campaign means there are also new issues to be considered.
The No campaign is now basing its strategy on an appeal to British nationalism and identity, part of which it says are institutions like the NHS and the BBC.
Whether it likes it or not, the BBC needs to be aware of how it has been dragged into this debate and to think carefully about how it is being used in this way.
In addition, it seems hard to square the BBC’s public purpose of promoting citizenship with the amount of Scottish news and current affairs routinely broadcast, particularly peak-time television. Stories about Scottish public services still very rarely make it onto the network news.
The only occasion I can remember a BBC director-general admitting to acting politically was when John Birt wrote that he had fought proposals for an enhanced Scottish news programme, the so-called “Scottish Six”, because of what he thought would be the damaging consequences for the Union.
But the issue is not whether this would help or hinder independence but whether there is sufficient programming to help people make up their minds.
Aside from distractions about individual bias, that is surely something all parties and both sides in the campaign would want to see.