Sunday, 8 June 2014


By Mark Cooney

THOMAS JEFFERSON erected the pillars of a democratic society when he stated: ”Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Fast forward 200 years and the comment by the third President of the United States is starting to sound profoundly naive on these shores.

The impartiality of a country’s media is a cornerstone of democracy. In the 21st Century, people no longer just seek the truth, they demand it. But in "reporting" news related to the Scottish Referendum vote this September, the BBC and London-owned Scottish newspapers increasingly appear to have adopted the journalistic values of Pravda.

There is a growing rumour (make that growing resentment) in Scotland that the BBC is not impartial. In fact, it looks grossly partial on one specific issue; the Independence Referendum.

I grew up believing that Auntie always told the truth and was fair to both sides of any story. I thought the only narrative it preached was fact. I especially believed it was not aligned to any political agenda or to any cause, other than telling us all how things really are. It was almost ingrained in my mind that the BBC’s mantra was to present the facts and let the adults arrive at their own judgements.

It’s comforting to the human soul to know that someone in this complex world will always tell us the truth. We like to know we are defining our opinions based on cast-iron facts. And we thought they were facts because the BBC said so.

But, together with the Scottish mainstream papers, we are witnessing growing evidence that it is presently trying to control, twist and stifle the debate in favour of a Westminster status quo. With just three months to go to voting day, the BBC has already joined sides with the English State it knows and understands.

To mislead the people of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales on such a seismic event is unforgivable. Through its blatant strategy of promoting one side of the political spectrum at the expense of the other through selected news reports, biased interviews and the closing down of public comment on its web pages, the BBC has shattered its own fabled impartiality. In Scotland, at least.

The enviously high bar of editorial standards that Auntie once set herself are now so low that not even Mister Fantastic on a soup only diet could limbo under it. Her publicly-funded corset has fallen around her ankles. And that’s more than a bare cheek, it’s public indecency.

Firstly, there is the glaring lack of any real cross-examination of unionist advocates’ statements on news and debate programmes, while in contrast there are very well prepared grillings facing any champion of independence, with questions often designed to wrong foot them.

The BBC’s presenters, particularly Andrew Neil, Jeremy Paxman and Andrew Marr, have been treating independence interviewees as the main "target" on their shows and subjecting them to both barrels. Overly aggressive, dismissive and sneering, they launch a barrage of follow-up questions, often only to be left defeated by a smarter person with a better argument. (Check Referendum-related videos on YouTube and decide for yourself).

There’s even been a sense of shadenfreude from several BBC presenters when they think they’ve got the indie guest pinned on the studio ropes. It’s noticeable and it's unsavoury.

Of course, it's encouraging to see presenters performing with intensity when questioning pro-independence folk. That's what good journalists should be doing. But the contrast in the mild mannered and shallow questioning of unionist politicians’ statements is stark.

Perhaps they could ask the Labour hierarchy why anyone should trust their economic arguments after they alone oversaw the collapse of the UK’s banking sector, which has been attributed to Gordon Brown’s and Alistair Darling’s utter disregard of industry regulation.

Something that stands out on these BBC programmes is the patronising manner in which the presenters and their studio guests from Westminster almost refuse to acknowledge the SNP as the democratically-elected government of Scotland.

It has been chosen by the people of Scotland to run our country in a competent manner and to represent the interests and wishes of ALL its citizens. They’re not just "trying to grab a bit of the limelight" as one barely known Tory minister accused an elected SNP MSP on Question Time.

The BBC is not giving us veritas on BOTH sides of the argument. Indeed, its presentation of the debate is almost beyond satire.

Rather than wake up to the fact the people of Scotland are no longer cozened and publicly redressing the obvious imbalance, the BBC has instead responded to increasing complaints by throwing a tantrum and closing down comments on its Scottish web pages.

These are the actions of our national public broadcaster in the 21st Century. It’s a defensive action that has polluted the waters of editorial transparency. But the BBC’s charge list doesn’t end there.

Think about the membership of the arch unionist business club, the CBI, which has been a registered "No" voter. Think about the dumbing down of Newsnight Scotland in its relaunch as "Scotland 2014". The show is presented by Sarah Smith,  daughter of former Labour leader John Smith and a lady who has deep Labour roots. Should the BBC not, at the very least, be trying to be seen as impartial?

Meanwhile, academics in Scotland have studied the BBC’s news output and noted there were many more unionist-led stories than independence-led, and that unionist claims were given far greater prominence than those on the nationalist side.

A recent major BBC Scottish history programme series was also accused by historians of having a very anglo-centric narrative. 

After, of course, the producers omitted damning evidence of English oppression and barbarity, and a country forced against its will into the Union in 1707 by a small band of Scots nobles who were rewarded with gold and English lands.

Programme advisors, some of whom were eminent historians, distanced themselves from the 10-part series before it was finished. The BBC promoted it as a kind of ultimate guide to Scottish history. But the academics challenged its accuracy, to say the least.

As well as saying it was too anglo-centric, the failure to front it with a historian has also been heavily criticised by professors and the public. Instead, a prepared script by the BBC was given to an archaeologist to narrate. The chosen presenter has also publicly admitted he is pro union. Academic advisers quit before programmes were completed.

Professor Allan Macinnes, of the University of Strathclyde, resigned from the series' advisory board after its first meeting. "I thought the whole production was dreadful," he said. "The first script I got was so anglo-centric I couldn't believe it.

"It was written on the basis as if Scotland was a divided country until the Union came along and civilised it.

"At the time, England was divided, France was divided, Germany didn't even exist. I would like to see a wider European context.”

Why did the BBC ignore the advice of these historians? And why did it not choose a more authoritative figure to present it? Like a historian perhaps?

Does the BBC have any major news anchormen or women, or history programme presenters in Scotland who are not pro union?

And it’s not just the BBC. It has been revealed that the vast majority of Scotland’s daily newspapers also have a strong unionist agenda. Again, impartial is not a word Scots would readily use to describe most of our country’s written press.

Pro-union stories get maximum coverage, with every angle covered to the third degree that it’s almost becoming Monty Pythonesque in its absurdity. The "No" camp can make any nonsensical claim about the effects of independence and its given generous air time and column inches.

A former Labour defence minister makes a fantastical assertion that an independent Scotland will actually lead to the World Order being disrupted, and it immediately becomes headline news. But rather than the claim being thoroughly investigated and then soundly discredited, it was promoted as a serious possibility through large sections of the media.

Well, if the consequences of voting for independence is Peebles being dynamited off the map by an intergalactic terrorist in a Portsmouth-built Death Star, there isn’t much we can do to prove otherwise. It’s just one of those unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld would have mused.

At the same time, a positive pro independence story, such as a unionist MP saying Scotland would be much better off running its own affairs in its own country, is often challenged by all and sundry, or reduced to a lower ranking news item, or not even published.

In January this year, the BBC Trust found BBC Scotland guilty of having misled the public after a Reporting Scotland item misrepresented an Irish politician in relation to a story on EU membership post-independence.

Raymond Buchanan, who reported the item for the BBC, resigned days before the Trust announced its intention to carry out an investigation.

Despite the guilty verdict, BBC Scotland management refused to apologise and have yet to issue any correction.

There can be no doubt that stories harmful to the "No" campaign are being heavily censored by our media. Positive news for the "Yes" side is being curtailed.

We know this because we all live in the third Millennium these days and can find the facts and stories published elsewhere at the click of a mouse. There’s a world of data out there.

I’d like to tell Auntie that sometimes in Scotland, in clement weather anyway, we pick up interesting stuff on the wireless and telegram. We now even know that three guys in a cramped washing machine landed on the moon in 1969, that there are repeats of Bullseye on the telly and that 95% of other countries in the world are now independent.

Banning public comment on Scottish politics is an anachronism. Why would the BBC want to do anything that would discourage the people, the source of its licence-fees, from letting the national broadcaster know what the nation thinks? Isn’t that anti-news? Is it, dare I say it, bias?

Channel 4’s recent excellent coverage of the Referendum makes the BBC’s immature communication attempts look akin to an episode of Teletubbies - albeit everyone in Teletubbyland is treated as an equal partner.

The BBC, sometimes known as a "national treasure", often boasts about its world renowned image as the purveyor of truth.

Here's an excerpt from its own charter:

"Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC's commitment to its audiences.  It applies to all our output and services - television, radio, online, and in our international services and commercial magazines.  We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected."

On September 18, the people of Scotland will vote on the Referendum question on whether we think Scotland should be independent, like much of Planet Earth.