In last week’s New Statesman interview, Alistair Darling likened Alex Salmond to Kim Jong-il for remarking that Ukip’s unexpected success in Scotland was partly due to the extent to which Nigel Farage had been “beamed” into the country during the European election campaign. Yet Salmond’s observation was spot on. It highlighted a fundamental problem affecting Scottish television. This used to revolve around the argument over whether there should be a separate Scottish Six O’Clock News, given that since devolution national BBC News coverage of health, education, policing and many other matters has been irrelevant north of the border. Now, the problem has got much worse.
The blanket coverage of Farage in Scotland almost certainly helped Ukip enjoy its first success here – and it is not the SNP that might have won that sixth European seat but the Greens. Ukip won 10.4 per cent of the vote, the Greens 8.1 per cent. For anyone to argue that the two parties had equal coverage is preposterous. I rarely saw a Green candidate on television, whereas Farage was rarely off it. This is because the BBC’s priorities and allocation of airtime reflected the parties’ positions in the UK as a whole (read England), so we in Scotland had to suffer wall-to-wall Farage even though before the campaign his party barely registered in opinion polls north of the border.
The lack of a Scottish Six O’Clock News is a major democratic flaw. Every night, BBC viewers in Scotland have to sit through half-hour bulletins that may have no domestic news that is relevant to their lives. We have to wait for the end of the bulletin before the most important stories get aired – and then on a regional news programme starved of resources and talent.
The independence campaign has thrown up a new problem, quantified by Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland as a bias in BBC coverage of 3:2 towards remarks favourable to the No side. Now that the official campaigns have started, there are rules governing how much time is given to each side; however, practice shows that it is not about minutes measured with a stopwatch but about attitudes and assumptions.
I have been taking notes. One notorious lapse in impartiality was Andrew Marr’s interview with José Manuel Barroso, in which the BBC journalist failed to challenge the European Commission president when he likened Scotland to Kosovo and declared that EU membership would be “difficult, if not impossible”. Later, interviewing Alex Salmond about Barroso’s comments, Marr felt free to interject: “I think it would be quite hard to get back in [to the EU], I have to say.” That was something a BBC presenter certainly did not “have to say”.
On another occasion, Gavin Esler hosted an edition of Dateline London in which the four guests mocked Salmond, though neither the SNP leader nor any representative of the Yes campaign was there to give balance. Discussing whether Scotland might have to join the single currency, Esler opined: “Scotland will have to take the euro, that’s the deal.” Really? A deal, surely, will come at the end of negotiations and given there is no rule and no precedent regarding a region seceding from an EU member state, neither Esler nor anyone else should be making such categorical statements.
Standards of broadcasting are at the heart of democracy. As Scots search for facts shorn of opinion and bias, the BBC needs to sharpen up.
Angus Roxburgh is a former BBC Moscow correspondent