There are lessons from Northern Ireland for the SNP’s row over Nick Robinson and the BBC

The row between the BBC’s outgoing political editor Nick Robinson and the former Scotland first minister Alex Salmond  reminds me of experience in  Northern Ireland during the Troubles  where there was a similar lack of fundamental agreement about the political destiny of the country.

Nick’s row arose out of questions he put to Alex at a news conference towards the end of the referendum campaign. The SNP were playing  down the theme  which turned out to be the clincher in the vote which kept Scotland inside the UK – at least for now. The questions were about the  potential  cost of independence including a threat of withdrawing the headquarters of the RBS bank  from Edinburgh to London. Salmond declined a second follow up question but Nick kept pressing off- mike. A write up of the exchanges on the BBC website   included the claim that Salmond “ didn’t answer” the questions. This charge was furiously rejected by Salmond and supporting websites and  resulted in an angry demo to BBC Scotland in protest.

Salmond’s first reflective response was perhaps muffled out of consideration for Nick contracting lung cancer. But the row shows no sign of ebbing upon his   recovery  and imminent  translation as a presenter of the Today programme.  Nick returned to the fray in his Election Notebook, regretting the use of the phrase “ didn’t answer” but  accusing Mr Salmond of “an utterly calculated attempt to put pressure on the week before the referendum”.

Alex Salmond in reply said last week:

For some months I have said nothing at all about auld Nick because it is unfair to criticise someone who is not able to answer back. Now he is back.“ The BBC’s coverage of the Scottish referendum was a disgrace, as was Nick’s own reporting of which he should be both embarrassed and ashamed.”

I can only assume that Nick has had BBC permission to continue the exchanges in the Guardian with a robust defence of BBC values and his own reporting, while regretting  the particular offending words .

Control. That, in a word, is what politicians have so often craved to have when it comes to the BBC. In the heat of battle, when their blood is up and they can see the white of their enemy’s eyes they simply do not understand why the nation’s broadcaster doesn’t see the world exactly as they do.So, it has been down the decades and across the political spectrum… Now we can add the name Alex Salmond to that list. Scotland’s former first minister – a man I once described on air as the “canniest politician on these isles” – has taken aim at the BBC, labelling it a “state broadcaster” and accusing it of producing “Pravda-like” propaganda during the referendum on Scottish independence.

This reads like an attempt to have the last word. And indeed there are signs of a new leaf being turned when Alex Salmond’s successor Nicola  Sturgeon invited Nick and his wife to dinner at Bute House.  Astute politicians usually realise that rows with journaliats  have diminishing returns and reporters  try to avoid keeping their heads in the noose.

Nicola also delivered a more balanced verdict  than Salmond’s , replicating a distinction between the BBC’s UK network coverage and the locals of BBC Scotland ( which mind you, the SNP also tilts  at regularly). This is a very familiar  differentiation to those of us who served in BBC NI .  She also called for  a new  BBC Scotland TV channel and a federal structure for BBC governance UK wide, in  her shopping list for the BBC’s charter review.

Outside criticism of the BBCs editorial  stance has come from the massively interesting left-leaning former BBC Newsnight correspondent now with Channel 4 News Paul Mason who claims :

 I’m absolutely sure that the BBC believes it is a unionist institution

To read this with the Troubles in mind is a huge irony. At the start the BBC in Belfast was bitterly attacked by many unionists for failing to live up to their idea of the British Broadcasting Corporation.   Criticism later diversified. The esteemed Maurice Hayes recently  reviewed  the latest account of the endlessly fraught relationship between the BBC and the official world by Robert Savage.

The interesting thing is though, that we troops on the ground were  usually shielded from most of the pressure and never even heard of much of it at the time. ( Note the qualifications, “ usually and “most of.”)  Great clashes  between the BBC and the British government over the IRA like Carrickmore and Real Lives were existential but causes celebres apart. There are thank goodness, no Scottish equivalents.

Practical newsgathering  proceeded sometimes with blazing rows and quite a few jars but well enough. However as a far less august political editor than Nick, I had to put up with pressure such as an on- camera rant by Paisley himself lasting 45 minutes ( transmission eventually faded out) accompanied by keening and  ululations from his groupies and the odd thump from supporters from whomsoever on the streets. It went with the territory. I won’t say we always got management backing but we usually did. The clashes had unspoken conventions which prevented them getting out of hand.

SNP -dominated Scotland is comparatively new territory and I hope similar conventions apply. It is absolutely essential that BBC workers in both Scotland and London stand together in unity to resist  divide and rule pressure from politicians. Fight your battles in private. BBC Scotland has been less good than BBC NI at maintaining this essential unity in the past. It is needed more than ever today. The fact is that impartiality and fairness are finally in the eye of the beholder and require a degree of consensus above the party battle. Even without the added factor of the political violence we endured in Northern Ireland, when the future of the UK is at stake, the battle will sometimes be fierce.

BBC governance is in flux but in whatever final form it takes, it will need clarity of thought and the courage  to stand up to pressure. Scottish representation  in governance must be  guaranteed to be high grade, respected, courageous, unbiased, full of editorial and  political savvy and without a hint of cronyism.  Like  judges, the BBC and Channel 4 should not be accountable  to the Scottish  parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, any more than to Westminster, for their editorial judgments, however much some of them may be flexing their muscles for more powers in areas of government.

For the BBC the  range of opinion to be  considered  extends beyond Scotland to the UK as a whole and even to the artificial construct  of all reasonable people everywhere.This provides valuable protection for its journalists and the diversity of its audience alike. And it  guarantees that the BBC  is neither unionist nor nationalist.

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  • handelaar

    You completely misrepresent the nature of the original complaint and this is outright incorrect:

    A write up of the exchanges on the BBC website included the claim that Salmond “ didn’t answer” the questions. This charge was furiously rejected by Salmond and supporting websites

    Robinson *edited out* Salmond replying to his question from video footage, then *broadcast* that edited footage with the claim of not answering laid over the top in voiceover. Robinson lied, on purpose, to attempt to influence a public vote.

    Robinson (who isn’t merely “a former student member of the Conservatives” but spent time on the staff at Conservative Central Office in his 20s as the face of entirely-fake ‘grassroots’ campaigns, in Julian Lewis’s dirty tricks department at the back of the research office) refuses to apologise having been caught redhanded by other broadcasters who didn’t doctor the footage, and maintains that this was some sort of accident.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Totally agree, but the lie of omission by the BBC was followed by another lie, where Nick took a mulligan and asked a completely different question which there was no time to answer and pretending that Alex moving on was avoidance, rather than the fact that the BBC taking two attempts to ask a question was simply incompetence on its part.

  • Brian Walker

    handelaar, The report is open to criticism but why should a political editor seek improperly to influence a public vote when he can so easily be caught out and risk his career and reputation? The failure to answer was on the substance of Alex’s reply not that he failed to talk and was badly expressed..

  • gendjinn

    Privatise the BBC. Then those that want it can pay the license fee, those that don’t will be freed of it.

  • gendjinn

    Ahhh, when you can’t dispute the facts, create doubt that there is motive.

    This has been very well covered elsewhere and it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that both the BBC and Nick Robinson behaved disgracefully and unethically during the Scottish independence referendum.

    Of course that’s how the BBC behaved during the entirety of the Troubles. And continue to do so by never broadcasting any documentary about state murder outside of BBC NI.

  • handelaar

    Your counterargument to a matter of documented fact appears to be “that is a stupid thing to do and therefore it could not have happened”.

    That’s really not how this works.

  • WindowLean

    “The BBC believes it is a unionist institution”, is there anyone who would dispute that??

  • kalista63

    Yep, the current issue overr the McGuigan shooting and the prisoner’s letters caper are prime examples of the BBC making issues when there aren’t any. The Pvoos have been assisting in the recovery of The Disappeared for years and Brian Rowan was all over the media quoting/posting his past articles on the letters but the BBC, espescially Crawley, keep playing the unionist game. In fact, Eamon Mallie had to give Crawley & Sam McBride a lesson in journalism yesterday

  • kalista63

    That thing Churchill said about how quickly a lie travels. They also have an unfortunate habit of sticking in people’s minds.

  • Janos Bingham

    It’s beyond funny to hear anyone from Channel 4 ‘News’ claim bias in reporting. Jon Snow’s daily North London lefty-luvvie right-on entertainment show should be had up for a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act.

    Sure it’s fun to watch at times; but a news programme it is not.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If Crawley was playing the “unionist game” would he not be treated by SF and SDLP representatives like Alex Ferguson used to treat the BBC?

  • Scots Anorak

    I think the key fact with regard to the BBC is that, although it is supposed to enjoy operational independence, the charter renewal process gives considerable power (momentary or strategic rather than day-to-day) to whatever party or parties happens to form the Westminster Government of the day. By definition, unless broadcasting is devolved, the capacity of a small party such as the SNP to exert such influence is severely limited, and Scotland is just the sort of strategic issue amenable to it. Indeed, it doesn’t only affect Scotland. It can hardly be a coincidence that the Corporation has now, at a time of acute humanitarian crisis, suddenly started referring to desperate and dying refugees as “migrants”, thus implicitly supporting the xenophobic Conservative view of the issue.

    In the current context, that overarching Westminster control may well mean that Scotland once again has to do without a proper media offering adequately reflective of devolution (which happened as far back as 1999) or of the unique history and heritage of the country (which was always there).

    If Westminster were being canny, it would agree to a quasi-federal BBC but without actually devolving broadcasting. As matters stand, I suspect that Scotland will get neither, and the BBC will continue fiddling spending figures by means of brass-plate productions, which may well lead to a mass boycott of the licence fee and will bring us a further step along the road to a second referendum.