Scottish nationalists and the BBC – and a very British solution

Updated: Dec 6, 2019

Since the BBC was founded, and even in recent years, authoritarian regimes and intolerant groups have sought to suppress the BBC’s reporting. In some cases, brave people have risked their liberty, and even their lives, to provide BBC news reporting. In some countries, brave people have risked their liberty, or even their lives, simply to access that news from the BBC.

The same can be said of many other news reporting organisations, but only the most blinkered  claim that the BBC’s reporting does not consistently achieve the highest standards of accuracy and impartiality.


The BBC, like any large organisation, is not without its problems, but when it comes to reliability and objectivity in news reporting, the BBC is among a small group of truly excellent organisations.


The thing that those who seek to suppress BBC news have in common, from communist regimes during the Cold War, to the rulers of Zimbabwe and Iran more recently, is a fear of people finding out the truth.


Enter the Scottish nationalists. They built their 2014 case for separation on a false prospectus, and during the referendum campaign their leaders shamelessly attempted to bully the BBC and prevent proper challenge of their arguments.


In the run up to the 2014 referendum, the BBC went out of its way to present both sides of the argument, even when one was evidently weaker than the other. For an example of this, witness the ability of ‘Business for Scotland’ to get on the BBC, despite the lack of evidence for their assertions and the small proportion of employers and staff which they represent.


Despite this, the nationalists targeted the BBC in Scotland, and some BBC journalists in particular, with a campaign of smears and intimidation.


After the people of Scotland voted decisively for Scotland to stay part of the UK, most people thought they could move on. But the nationalists still haven’t forgiven the BBC for what they see as undermining their campaign - and which most other people see correctly as reporting the news.


The most fervent nationalists will take any available opportunity to attack the BBC. Any perceived slight or disrespect to nationalist dogma or the leaders of the nationalist movement is decried as ‘bias’, and accompanied by calls for intimidating demonstrations. This month, we’ve seen further nationalist calls for a demonstration outside the BBC’s building in Glasgow.

Thankfully, most people realise that those who encourage and participate in these demonstrations are either deluded, or (worse) deliberately deceitful. The demonstrators either don’t want to hear the truth, or they want to suppress it.


But the demonstrations still have a corrosive impact, as they are covered by the media (including the BBC, of course) and they are noticed by BBC staff. Some of these staff may be reassured that they are doing something right, as they would be reassured by the BBC being banned in North Korea, for example: it’s pretty clear who the good guys are in this situation. But others may indeed be intimidated, and forced into changing their behaviour in some way.


What can we do about this? How can we counter the nationalists’ vitriol?


We have to let people express their opinions, but we do not need to be silent in the face of this attempted intimidation. We can fight lies and smears with facts and our own views, by making sure the moderate majority understand the truth about why nationalists attack the BBC.


I believe we should not do this by organising counter-demonstrations, and playing the game of confrontation which the nationalists would like to provoke. Rather, we should politely and consistently remind anyone who will listen (i.e. not the haters outside Victoria Quay, who are a lost cause) of the context and purpose of the demonstrations. We should also continually point out that the flag-wavers outside the BBC are a tiny minority of Scots; it’s important that people outside Scotland get this message.

Another thing we can do is to ask politicians to stand up for the BBC. This is where, in Scotland, many of us have a particular problem: many of us have SNP MPs or MSPs.


The SNP leadership know full well what is going on here, but are all too often disgracefully silent. They could rein in the demonstrations by stating directly their confidence in the BBC. But they often don’t, or if they do it’s in very half-hearted terms: they sometimes point out that it’s a bad look for their campaigners to be demonstrating outside the BBC; rather than actually defending the quality and impartiality of the BBC’s reporting.


Some senior nationalists even join in the abuse. Paul Monaghan famously supported a conspiracy theory about the BBC’s weather map. A more sinister twist this week has seen Alex Salmond using the Kremlin’s Russia Today as a platform to attack the BBC – a real ‘through-the-looking-glass’ moment.


We need to pressure our politicians, even the SNP ones, to do the right thing in this situation; and we need to call them out when they don’t. We can do this by email, online, by post, or even in person: challenge them to back the BBC, and draw your conclusions from their responses.


And finally, on the list of things we can do: we can carry on watching and listening to the BBC. So, my final rallying cry is a very British one: don’t take to the streets; instead, put the kettle on or crack open a beer; turn on the BBC in whichever form you prefer; and be prepared to be entertained, educated, and - most importantly - informed.


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