Alex Salmond, the BBC and the impartiality question

The SNP leader's rugby punditry was cancelled on grounds of impartiality. Is he right to raise conce

Another day, another Nazi jibe -- this time from Alex Salmond, who has described a senior BBC official as a "political Gauleiter", the name given to Nazi regional leaders.

The Scottish First Minister had been due to appear as a rugby pundit on a TV show ahead of the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield between England and Scotland. Salmond would have appeared alongside former international rugby stars, Andy Nicol and Jeremy Guscott, to give his predictions for the match. (England went on to win 13-6).

Salmond, who had been booked by BBC sports editor Carl Hicks, had given assurances that he would not discuss constitutional or political matters. But hours before the Six Nations match, the invitation was withdrawn, after Ric Bailey, the BBC's political adviser, concluded that it could "heighten tensions" ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence, and might influence voters in May's Scottish local council elections.

Predictably, Salmond was unimpressed:

I would imagine people like Ric Bailey are in thrall to Downing Street now, and that is actually the worrying thing. What this means is that an editorial decision, a journalistic decision on the BBC by the sports editor, has been overridden for political reasons by the political advisers. That's what you get in tin-pot dictatorships. You're not meant to get it in the BBC.

But arguably, it is exactly what you are meant to get in the BBC. The corporation's strict impartiality rules are well-documented and certainly are sometimes over-zealously applied -- I blogged last week on the censorship of the phrase "free Palestine" from a rap freestyle. The editorial guidelines specify that care must be taken over "any proposal to invite a politician to be a guest on a programme or area of content where to do so is the exception rather than the rule". While this can be balanced by "ensuring that, for example, potentially favourable content includes other individuals with differing views", the rules are even stricter at the time of an election or referendum.

While Salmond's Nazi comments have caused controversy (with rival politicians accusing him of "hysteria"), he is unrepentant, with a spokesman saying:

The First Minister was rightly referring to over-officious BBC officials, and the real concerns about editorial decisions taken by BBC journalists being over-ruled by bureaucrats on political grounds.

Although his comments about the BBC being "in thrall to Downing Street" imply that it is somehow at the unionist's behest that his appearance was cancelled, Salmond is by no means the first politician to fall foul of this extra care around elections and referendums. Indeed, this has a precedent. In late 2009, the BBC turned down a request from Downing Street for the then prime minister Gordon Brown to appear as a pundit on Match of the Day 2. The show's producers decided that it would be inappropriate in the run-up to the general election.

It is certainly not unheard of for politicians to appear on sports programmes -- in 2005, Tony Blair became the first prime minister to do so when he appeared on BBC1's Football Focus. But crucially, this did not coincide with an election or referendum.

The cancellation of Salmond's appearance is clearly an instance of the BBC being extra careful given that Scottish independence is a political hot potato. Over-cautious? Possibly. There is certainly a strong argument that this was excessive given that a date has not even been set for the referendum, and it might not take place til 2014. Latter day Nazism? Probably not.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser