If you haven't been astounded enough lately, try watching the video in this tweet, because it's extraordinary. It's from the BBC coverage of the Winter Olympics, and features 2002 curling gold medallist Rhona Howie (formerly Rhona Martin) accidentally using the word 'Scotland' in relation to the Great Britain men's curling team. The host Clare Balding's reaction is staggering - instead of just correcting the slip, she puts the whole programme on hold for several seconds to deliver the kind of patronising admonishment that a parent might give to a three-year-old girl who keeps chucking jam at her grandfather's pet gerbil. Rhona Howie visibly shrinks into herself and mutters "sorry". Balding wraps the whole tragic episode up with the words "that's OK" in a tone of voice that menacingly implies: "It's not OK. Don't EVER do that again."
For the uninitiated, there are two basic points that will help to make sense of all this -
1) Clare Balding was technically correct - all Scottish athletes at the Olympics represent Great Britain, and Great Britain only, whether they like it or not.
2) Rhona Howie's slip was entirely innocent and understandable. Every single person who has ever represented Great Britain at the Olympics in curling has been Scottish. In every four-year cycle, there are nine major international curling events - four World Championships, four European Championships and one Olympic Games. In eight of those nine, Scottish curlers represent Scotland. It's only in the other one of the nine - the Olympics - that they represent Great Britain. All of the GB curlers in the current Olympics represented Scotland at the European Championships just a few short weeks ago, and as it happens they all won medals for Scotland - the women took the gold, and the men took the silver.
All of that being true, the natural thing for Balding to do would have been to casually say "Great Britain, you mean?", in which case Howie would have said "Great Britain, sorry", and there would have been no great fuss. But it's pretty obvious that either Balding or the person delivering instructions in her earpiece was 'triggered' by Howie's slip. They felt that mistakenly referring to Great Britain as Scotland was something that had happened far too often, and they were sick of it, and it needed to be made an example of, and stamped out once and for all. All of which raised a few eyebrows in Scotland, because in our whole lifetimes you could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times a BBC presenter, commentator or summariser has ever referred to a Great Britain team as 'Scotland', whereas the BBC referring to Great Britain as 'England' happens as a matter of routine. For example, last year, BBC Sport's official Twitter account tweeted about the "England" team in the Davis Cup - a truly jaw-dropping blunder given that Scottish players (including the not-exactly-obscure Andy Murray) have been the backbone of the Great Britain team in the Davis Cup for several years. The tweet was eventually deleted, but I don't recall the person responsible for it being hauled onto our TV screens and forced to issue a humiliating apology. There have been countless occasions when presenters such as Balding herself or John Inverdale have been guilty of the 'England' slip without making any sort of acknowledgement, apology or correction.
And yet we're expected to accept that the word Scotland being used too often is THE major problem that simply MUST be tackled by the BBC and be SEEN to be tackled? I almost wonder if there is something rather sinister and political going on here.
I've been watching quite a bit of the BBC's Olympic curling coverage, and even before the Balding incident I had the distinct impression that some sort of edict had gone out strongly discouraging the commentators from using the words 'Scotland' and 'Scottish', in spite of the unavoidable Scottishness on prominent display before their eyes. What made it obvious was Steve Cram's tortuous explanation of why Great Britain were absent from the new mixed doubles competition, which somehow managed to avoid making any mention of the fact that it was the Scotland team's responsibility to try to qualify Great Britain for the Games, and that they had narrowly failed. But I suppose if you acknowledge Scotland's official role in the Olympic qualification process, you must also acknowledge that any medals won would effectively be a Scottish as well as a British effort...and that would never do, would it? The only time I can recall hearing the existence of a Scotland curling team being mentioned in commentary was when Logan Gray launched into a prolonged anecdote about the use of corn brooms in the famous Canada v Scotland final at the 1991 World Championships. "Really?" said Steve Cram in a disinterested tone, as he apparently tried to shut Gray down.
The double standard is simply breathtaking. In a couple of months' time, the 2018 Commonwealth Games will take place in Australia. There will be no Team GB at the event. Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey will all compete as entirely separate teams. And yet, on past form, the BBC presenters including Balding herself will try to downplay that division as a meaningless technicality, and will routinely refer to Scottish medals as "more success for the Home Nations". You might remember that at Glasgow 2014, Matthew Pinsent (I think it was him, anyway) fronted a package that considered how "British" athletes' form at the Games might translate into success for Team GB once the temporary segregation was over - and remarkably didn't once acknowledge the elephant in the room, namely that Scotland was only a few weeks away from a referendum on independence that could have meant Scottish athletes would no longer compete for Team GB. A "No" vote was, it seems, simply being taken as a given by BBC Sport.
But who knows, eh? Perhaps Clare Balding has turned over a new leaf, and will sternly knock that sort of nonsense on the head in future. Without fear or favour, Clare, without fear or favour. Perish the thought that there is any sort of agenda here.