Andrew Marr is supposed to be one of the BBC’s leading interviewers. It’s true that he is recovering from a stroke, and his mind may not be as sharp as it once was, but that’s no excuse for bringing his personal views into an interview. That is directly in contravention of BBC guidelines which state that the viewer should not be able to discern the personal opinions of the interviewer when a politician is interviewed. Yet we see this sort of behaviour time and time again when the BBC’s London Scots contingent present programmes dealing with the referendum.
I met a lot of London Scots when I lived in the city for a decade. Many of them had left Scotland because there were few opportunities in their chosen careers. They remain of the opinion that Scotland is a bit of a basket case, and want Scotland to remain a basket case as it validates their decision to leave. Andrew Marr displays many of the same symptoms.
During his interview with Alex Salmond on Sunday’s Politics Show, Marr asserted that it would be very difficult for Scotland to gain EU membership, saying: “I think it will be quite hard to get back in, I have to say.”
Challenged by Alex Salmond, Marr tried to backtrack, saying this wasn’t his opinion or the BBC’s. But it was clearly a personal opinion coming from the same man who sat quietly and nodded when José Manuel Barroso made his controversial statement that Scotland would be out on its ear. The statement was roundly condemned by a diverse range of European politicians from both the left and the right, and dismissed by real experts in EU law, none of whom thought Barroso even had the right to express his opinion in such a way, never mind agreeing with his dubious assertion.
Yet Marr did not even raise a quizzical eyebrow. Which can only mean that either Marr hadn’t done his research, or that Barroso’s comments chimed with Marr’s own beliefs. Or indeed both, since these are not mutually exclusive scenarios. In either event, Scotland was shortchanged and the independence debate was distorted. And we pay this guy’s wages with our licence fees.
This is also the man, let us not forget, who came to Edinburgh and asserted that anti-English racism underlies much of the demand for Scottish self-determination. Again Marr distorted the independence debate. At least on that occasion he did not make the remark in his capacity as a BBC interviewer, but his status as one of the BBC’s leading on-screen presenters ensured that his views got wide coverage in a UK media which is eager to depict independence supporters as swivel eyed racists.
A BBC staff member expressing his or her support for independence during an interview with a Unionist politician would be equally objectionable. This is not a partisan point here. However it’s obvious to one and all that the bias expressed by the BBC’s staff is entirely in one direction. And I don’t mean Harry Stiles. I don’t think the boyband has ever given its views on the Scottish debate, although if they were against independence you can be sure it would rate a mention on the main news at 6.
The bias on the BBC has now got beyond parody. It is so bad that when the excellent BBC Scotlandshire site was launched, some people thought it was the real BBC. Derek Bateman, in his thoughtful and unfailingly informative blog posts, says that there is no conspiracy amongst BBC staff to campaign against independence, and I believe him. However what there certainly is is an ethos of British nationalism which runs throughout the BBC, and it is written into its DNA.
When that is combined with the fawning nature of BBC Scotland’s management towards its London bosses, and organisation’s clear hierarchy in which London based reporters are considered a cut above mere provincials, you get a toxic mess where those who do have Unionist bias are free to express it. Especially if you’re a star performer called Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil, James Naughtie or Kirsty Wark.
We are after all talking about a broadcaster that can describe a sewing programme as “Great British”. If an organisation is prepared to lay claim to needlework for British nationalism, it will have a tendency towards British nationalism in other respects as well. And when we’re dealing with the Scottish independence debate, British nationalism is pretty much all we see on the BBC.
There are some things which happen above Derek Bateman’s paygrade. It was reported last year that the Foreign Office had been contacting English language publications in Spain, requesting that they publish items favourable to the stance of the UK Government in the independence debate. If the UK Government has being doing this with publications in foreign countries, then what exactly has gone on in private communications between – say – the former Tory cabinet minister Chris Patten, currently chair of the BBC Trust, and the UK Government which is the BBC’s sole shareholder? That’s not something we’re likely to be told for 30 years. And that’s without getting into the question of whether a former Conservative cabinet minister can ever be an unbiased arbitrer in a highly politicised debate.
Have the top levels of BBC management decided to foster British nationalism and a sense of Britishness as it became apparent that Scotland was going to hold a referendum on independence? There’s certainly been a plague of Great British this and Great British that on the BBC of late. In the context of an independence referendum, even the title of a sewing competition looks like it is being politicised by the Unionists. We should be told. we pay the BBC’s bills. But we won’t be told.
So what to do? I’m not going to call on people not to pay their licence fee. Due to my partner’s age and health condition, we get an exemption and don’t have to pay. It would be hypocritical for me to call on others to take the legal and financial risks involved with non-payment. That’s a decision that individuals must make for themselves.
When this independence campaign kicked off, we all knew that the independence cause would find precious little support in the mainstream media. That opinion was however the preserve of those who already supported independence. Now that opinion has gone mainstream. Scots are becoming increasingly aware of the bias in our media, and especially the shocking disservice provided by BBC Scotland. That awareness helps the independence campaign, and we must do all we can to ensure that the awareness grows and spreads.
Whatever the outcome of the vote in September, Andrew Marr and the BBC are going to be the big losers. Their credibility is in tatters. There will be a reckoning with Scottish licence fee payers, one way or another.