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 But hours before the Six Nations match, the invitation was withdrawn, after Ric Bailey, the BBC's political adviser, concluded that it could "heighten tensions" ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence, and might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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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times