Future news

One year on: the SNP, the BBC, and the Scottish neverendum

Reuters/Paul Hackett

The Scottish National Party (SNP) hate the BBC, which may sound harsh but makes sense when you think about it.

The BBC – the British Broadcasting Corporation – is the ultimate symbol of Union, the cultural embodiment of the United Kingdom, and one of its great achievements. At the Future of Journalism conference at Cardiff University last week official BBC historian Jean Seaton described it as one of the UK’s “great gifts to the world”.

Revered and emulated around the world for the quality and political independence of its content, and deeply loved at home, the SNP has long recognised in the BBC an obstacle on the road to independence.

Last month Alex Salmond was blaming the BBC, and former political editor Nick Robinson in particular, for their role, as he perceives it to have been, in the defeat of the pro-independence campaign one year ago today.

No surprise there, perhaps. For Salmond, as for many other UK politicians down the years, from Labour left to Tory right and all shades of opinion in between, the BBC is a convenient scapegoat for the failure of the cause. The 55-45 majority for Union was seen by the SNP not so much as a legitimate expression of Scottish democracy – they have been engaged ever since in a very public debate about the conditions which would in their view justify staging a second referendum as soon as possible - but a product of BBC propaganda and other nefarious influences from the South. The BBC, you see, hoodwinked the Scots into voting against their own best interests.

But Salmond as first minister went further than mere criticism when, at the height of the independence campaign, he encouraged SNP-supporting crowds to demonstrate outside BBC Scotland’s HQ at Pacific Quay, demanding the sacking of Robinson for an interview he had conducted in which the first minister perceived some bias.

Robinson’s offence, it seems, was not to treat Salmond with the respect or deference expected by the First Minister, but instead to ask some probing questions of the man who would have been the first leader of an independent Scotland.

Standard journalistic procedure for the BBC, you might think, as for the ABC, applied to every party and every leader, and often the cause of political flak. It’s kind of what we expect from impartial public service media; by Salmond, on the other hand, it was characterised as shameful.

Robinson compared the SNP’s campaign against him to Putin’s Russia, which is unfair, since Russia’s nationalists actually kill their media opponents, or at least exile them to Siberia for a spot of hard labour. Scottish nationalism is a tamer beast, seeking only to “shame” Robinson and his colleagues into confessing their sins and behaving more amenably in the future.

The SNP’s campaign against the BBC predates the independence campaign, though. In 2007 the then-minority SNP government in Holyrood established the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, chaired by former head of BBC news and current affairs Blair Jenkins (who subsequently led the SNP’s ‘Yes’ campaign).

The Commission’s report made the case for a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation, complementing but not replacing the BBC. The proposal was received favorably across the political spectrum, meshing with the agenda of a Scottish government which believed then, and still does, that the BBC systematically treats the Scots badly; that it starves BBC Scotland of resources, locks Scottish producers out of the UK network, deprives Scots of their authentic national culture, is irredeemably London and anglo-centric.

Even though the massive BBC Scotland facility at Pacific Quay had not long opened for business; even though BBC Alba provides at a cost of ten million pounds annually a dedicated gaelic language channel for Scotland’s 58,000 gaelic speakers; even though, from founder John Reith himself down to the current era of Naughtie, Mair, Wark and Marr, Scots have been prominent in its design, development and delivery, the BBC was referred to by Salmond as the English Broadcasting Corporation, which “marginalises our creative community” and “denies our talent the chance to be successful”.

There was absolutely no evidence of such marginalisation, as I wrote in The Guardian at the time, and much evidence to the contrary. Scotland’s relationship to the cultural powerhouse of the BBC has been an asset to our small nation in the global era, allowing Scots to leverage the BBC’s prestige and presence in a way that a more localised SBC could never have done.

The “Yes” campaign was clear that an independent Scotland, had it come to pass, would have walked away from the UK’s unique public service media system, replacing it with a Scottish Broadcasting Service.

The Scots voted No to independence, however, even as they gave the SNP an unprecedented landslide in Scotland’s Westminster seats at the general election eight months later.

For the moment, therefore, the SNP must work within the framework of Union. To that end, in her Edinburgh TV festival speech Sturgeon proposed a less radical solution to the perceived anti-Scottishness of the BBC – the creation of a digital public service channel dedicated to Scottish production, and a new radio channel.

Not unlike the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation in concept, and reportedly based on the BBC’s own more recent plans for Charter renewal, but abandoned by the corporation after the Tories’ imposition of 750 million pounds worth of cuts on the BBC, the proposal is unlikely to get anywhere in austerity Britain, as the SNP well know. But in making it, and having it rejected (as one imagines it will be, unless perhaps the Scots funded it themselves from a tax rise?) there will be opportunities for renewal of the English Broadcasting Corporation narrative as part of the broader anti-Union agenda.

Meanwhile, as with so many areas of policy in Scotland these last years, the genuine challenges faced by the Scottish creative economy, and the development of innovative local solutions to meeting them, continue to be submerged by the politics of nationalism and the government’s belief that only independence will give Scotland the power to resolve its cultural, as well as economic challenges.