Michael Kelly: Showdown has put BBC objectivity to the test

Ian Davidson: took on BBC Newsnight twice - and won both spats. Picture: PA
Ian Davidson: took on BBC Newsnight twice - and won both spats. Picture: PA
Have your say

THE BROADCASTER now faces scrutiny over claims of ‘institutional political bias’ after spat between one of its journalists and a Labour MP.

Ian Davidson, Labour MP for Glasgow South West, is in pretty cocky form this week. He has just taken on the might of the BBC’s Newsnight Scotland and its stand-in presenter Isobel Fraser – and won twice.

His first victory was over the question of which parliament has the final say over the much delayed referendum, a question which his Scottish Affairs Committee has considered and pronounced on. Davidson’s logic was impeccable. The 1998 Scotland Act gave Westminster sole control over the constitution. The legitimacy of that law derives from the fact that it was passed in the wake of a referendum of the Scottish people. While it would be nice to have both parliaments agree on the number and wording of the questions through a Section 30 agreement, in the event of disagreement it is Westminster that has the ultimate legal responsibility to determine the terms.

Legal opinion is firmly on his side with opponents only able to argue that a case to the contrary might be made. As Davidson said, if you hire a lawyer to fight your case, that’s what he will do – a self evident hypothesis that Fraser found to be an “astonishing proposition.” The great Lord Wheatley once debated with me that Glasgow corporation’s car registration number G0 was not a valid index mark as zero was not a number. Well, it wasn’t until the Arabs invented it. So I find the proposition that lawyers will argue any case to be entirely credible.

Maybe Isobel should watch the BBC’s excellent interpretation of Bleak House. No-one who gave evidence to MPs was confident enough to say the case for Holyrood going it alone would be won. Davidson’s position is simply this: if Holyrood goes ahead and tries to hold the referendum on its own, the matter will be delayed in the courts for years – which may be part of the SNP’s cunning plan to avoid inevitable defeat.

Fraser refused to accept this view but what triggered off the personal spat was her ingenuous suggestion that, as Westminster had the power to delegate the handling of the referendum to Holyrood, it should do so right away, unconditionally. This ludicrous suggestion would, of course, completely remove Westminster’s influence in the matter and allow Alex Salmond to frame as many leading questions as he wants to ensure a win/win result from his referendum, whatever the views of the Scottish people. She also seemed irritated that here was a politician acting politically.

From the journalist’s point of view this was no doubt a fair question directly put. But it does contrast with the kid gloves’ treatment that the First Minster seem to receive from BBC Scotland. He is often allowed to appeared recorded rather than live and rarely in debate with opponents. Certainly, I have never seen him pressed on a similar question. Next time let him be asked that, as the Scotland Act clearly gives Westminster control over the constitution, why does he not just accept that and abandon his delaying tactics? The answer, I suspect, would see him acting politically.

Davidson won his personal attack on Fraser, refusing to apologise, going on to suggest that there was evidence of “Newsnat’s” bias and suggesting that she go and stand for election if she wanted to promulgate her own views. Despite her vehement denials of any partisanship, Davidson stuck to his guns and she had to move on, unsatisfied.

It was highly entertaining to see her outraged reaction – a common response from journalists used to the aggressive interrogation of others when a personal attack is made on them. It provoked her into claiming that there was evidence that she was not biased. I’m not sure she needs to produce evidence and even if she does, I wish her luck in proving a negative.

No, the onus is surely on Davidson to produce the evidence he claims he has that Newsnight Scotland and its presenters habitually favour the views of the Scottish Parliament over Westminster. No doubt it will be documented in time. So far, I have only been able to track down the opinion in Labour Party circles that Isobel Fraser “has form”. For those sad enough to spend Sundays away from church and the golf course, the most recent incident occurred when, on the Scottish section of the Sunday Politics, it is claimed that Fraser gave Labour’s Richard Baker a “roughing up” by condemning his policy as one of “managed decline” while handing an easy ride to “Yes” chief executive Blair Jenkins, the founder of Newsnight Scotland.

More generally, the party hierarchy have for some time been convinced that the Newsnight Scotland team has been infiltrated by nationalists. It points to one of its former editors, David Kerr, who resigned from the corporation to seek nomination as SNP candidate for the Glasgow North East by-election in 2009. After he lost the nomination and before party apparatchiks restored it to him, Alex Salmond promised him a job as one of his special advisers. He lost the election.

But there are many examples of presenters subsequently standing for various parties in election – Austin Mitchell, Robin Day. Michael Gove. That is insufficient to demonstrate institutional political bias. The BBC ruthlessly guards its reputation for objectively. And Jeremy Vine’s recent memoirs are testimony to the high standards of journalism that Newsnight demands. As a regular viewer and occasional guest of the programme, I have never experienced any bias.

Perhaps fault, if there is one, lies in the genesis of the programme. It emerged after devolution and the failure to establish a Scottish Six O’Clock News as the vehicle for serious Scottish political discussion. That was taken as to be generally supportive of devolution. If that brief were to be adhered to today, Newsnight would be required to be much more hostile to the SNP. They are, after all, now the only party to oppose devolution. Davidson won the substantive case hands-down. Whether he is invited back will be one test of the BBC’s objectivity.