It seems like ancient history, but it’s less than a year since the independence referendum. A lot has happened in the meantime, not least the SNP’s General Election success under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership.
But some things never change, and one of them is the beef between the BBC and Alex Salmond over its coverage of the referendum campaign. This is deeply personal. Mr Salmond feels he was targeted by the BBC’s then political editor, Nick Robinson, and has accused the corporation of “behaving like Pravda”.
The Today presenter Jim Naughtie said yesterday that Mr Salmond had an “obsession” with the BBC and raising his spat with Robinson was “bizarre”. But the remarks were actually a response to Robinson’s intervention at the Edinburgh Book Festival last week. The former political editor described the SNP supporters who had demonstrated outside the BBC before the referendum as “something out of Putin’s Russia”.”
It was the Guardian journalist George Monbiot, not Mr Salmond, who initially took Robinson to task over this in a Guardian article last Friday. Mr Monbiot claimed these had been spontaneous “anti-establishment” demonstrations.
But Robinson seemed adamant that they were government inspired. “What you call ‘anti-establishment’, he tweeted “runs government in Scotland. Governing parties protesting outside a media HQ not a good look.”
Indeed, 4,000 flag waving demonstrators outside the BBC’s HQ was not a good look, which was why the Yes Scotland campaign had nothing to do with it. Its head, Blair Jenkins, repeatedly said he did not think the BBC was biased in its coverage.
Nor did the Scottish Government’s media people organise the demonstrations. They stated that Robinson was “fair and professional”. It is important to differentiate between actions that are transparently mounted by the state to intimidate broadcasters and genuine demonstrations of public anger.
This animosity towards the corporation runs very deep among nationalists. I addressed dozens of meetings and events during the referendum and the vehemence of the discontent about the BBC always took me aback. This is the case even at book festivals among people who would normally be the most staunch defenders of public service broadcasting.
I don’t entirely understand this myself. Perhaps I’m too close to the BBC having worked in it for more than 20 years, but I’ve never been convinced that there is any systemic bias. Except in this respect: the BBC has always tended to take its agenda, if not its actual news content, from the press.
Typically, BBC producers look at the morning newspapers to see what stories are dominating the day. If the papers are all saying that Mr Salmond’s independence plans are economically ruinous, that businesses are threatening to leave Scotland in droves and that a Yes vote will cause another Great Depression, they can’t help reflecting this in their coverage.
This has nothing to do with BBC impartiality or balance. It will generally give a right of reply and equal time to both sides of the story, though that was extremely difficult when three out of the four major parties in Scotland were hostile to independence. But on the whole the balance was observed.
But what SNP supporters heard nevertheless was simply their leader being attacked day by day over oil prices, Nato, EU membership, black holes and so on. It’s all Mr Salmond heard as well. After nearly a quarter of a century as leader of the SNP he felt battered and bruised, as his autobiography made clear.
None of this excuses intimidation of journalists; but nor does it excuse mistakes made by journalists. Lost in the row about state intimidation was an apology – at least I think it was – from Robinson for his reporting of Mr Salmond’s speech to foreign correspondents.
This was the one where the FM answered Robinson’s question about the impact on Scotland of RBS moving its HQ to London but the reply didn’t appear in his report. Robinson now admits this episode was a “source of regret”.
Well, everyone makes mistakes. I’ve always thought Nick Robinson was one of the better political editors at the BBC. He illuminated politics with genuine insight in his reports instead of merely parroting what politicians had said about each other.
It’s time for both Mr Salmond and Robinson to lay this one aside. As for the BBC, it does need to mend fences with the party that has just won the greatest landslide in Scottish electoral history. You can’t have half the country believing the BBC is biased.
The sooner responsibility for broadcasting, like press regulation, is devolved to the Scottish Parliament the better. That would dispel the widespread suspicion, however unwarranted, that the BBC is the propaganda arm of another country. The BBC’s editorial independence would remain, but at least the grievance culture would be repatriated.