Greg Philo: Broadcasters often end up going for the safest option

THE BBC’s decision not to include Alex Salmond in their coverage of the Scotland v England rugby match was, for them, the correct one.

For broadcasters covering politics, the first rule is that they reflect the balance between the government and the opposition – that is the core of our parliamentary democracy.

If they had approached him because he happened to be at the match, there would have been no problem.

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But if Mr Salmond initiated the contact, then it would have triggered the BBC’s editorial rules about balance. The subsequent outcry from SNP figures highlights the difficulties broadcasters have in covering the political arena.

The need to ensure impartiality, something all broadcasters are obliged to uphold, is paramount in the minds of broadcasters.

They know they will have to deal with a welter of complaints for perceived bias this way or that. It means the political coverage in the crucial main news bulletins and in contentious areas will often end up going for the safest option.

Broadcasters go with their natural instinct and will often avoid anything particularly controversial. In the case of the independence referendum, there are numerous controversial issues that could be examined.

Take, for example, the issue of racism against English people living in Scotland? Or who is going to discuss the possible effects on an industry such as tourism if Scotland were to become independent. What about sectarianism in Scotland?

Broadcasters’ content is also limited by the way broadcasters are forced to select their speakers. While newspapers can allow more space for independent comment, the broadcasters are duty-bound to give balanced air-time to the politicians.

The broadcasters need to be a bit more brave and to see part of their job as being to upset cosy relationships between politicians, and to bring in more and varied comment from people who are not afraid to ask the difficult questions.

Greg Philo is professor of communications at Glasgow University.