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 But hours before the Six Nations match, the invitation was withdrawn, after Ric Bailey, the BBC's political adviser, concluded that it could "heighten tensions" ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence, and might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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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