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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London