The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

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 But hours before the Six Nations match, the invitation was withdrawn, after Ric Bailey, the BBC's political adviser, concluded that it could "heighten tensions" ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence, and might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.