If you haven't seen/heard Alex Salmond's exchange with the BBC's John Sweeney yesterday, it's worth following this link and having a listen, because it's one of the most extraordinary things I've ever heard. What Sweeney's almost comically hostile attitude reminded me of was the guidelines for BBC presenters in the 1980s and early 90s when dealing with Sinn Féin spokespeople. Although interviews with Sinn Féin were permitted, they weren't to be regarded as anything remotely like normal interviews with normal politicians, where at least part of the purpose is to allow the interviewee to get his or her point across. Instead, presenters were expected to do anything and everything necessary to destroy the credibility of the interviewee, and to constantly remind viewers that Sinn Féin were not a legitimate political party with a legitimate viewpoint, but rather a public relations front for filthy terrorists and murderers.
Incredible though it may seem, that was almost exactly the posture Sweeney adopted towards Salmond yesterday. He literally treated Salmond, a former First Minister of Scotland and a current Privy Counsellor, as the equivalent of a terrorist spokesperson. Sweeney was theoretically in the position of interviewee, but from the moment he opened his mouth, his single-minded objective was to deny the legitimacy of Salmond as an interviewer on the basis that Salmond is a paid Putin stooge, to deny the legitimacy of any questions Salmond asked on the basis that they were coming out of the mouth of a paid Putin stooge, and even to deny the legitimacy of the subject that he had been invited on the programme to speak about because it had been selected by a paid Putin stooge. It was clear that he had decided in advance that he would regard his participation in the interview as a failure unless he effectively pulled off a full-blown coup against the interviewer and managed to spend the whole ten minutes putting Salmond on the ropes about a completely different subject, ie. Salmond supposedly being a paid Putin stooge.
At several points, Sweeney attempted to contrast the different practices of the BBC and Russian-owned RT, on which Salmond's weekly TV show runs. But let me just ask the obvious question: can anyone imagine a BBC interviewer putting up with the behaviour that Sweeney exhibited yesterday? Off the top of my head, I cannot recall a single example of a guest on the BBC being allowed to spend an entire interview ignoring the actual subject of the interview and instead making a prolonged personal attack on the interviewer. The closest I can think of is Jo Swinson asking an awkward question about John Humphrys' views on his female colleagues, but that was much briefer and much more courteous, and she only got away with it because of truly exceptional circumstances. Normally the outside interests of the interviewer are completely off limits. Sweeney also suggested that RT does not allow criticism, whereas people are permitted to criticise the BBC on the BBC, but is it actually true that there's any real distinction there? I've seen limited criticisms of RT expressed on RT, and yes, I've also seen limited criticisms of the BBC expressed on the BBC. In both cases, the broadcaster itself is the gatekeeper of the extent and type of criticism that is aired, by virtue of being able to select which people are or are not invited to speak. Former BBC Scotland presenter Derek Bateman has often noted that he hasn't been invited to take part in any BBC programmes as a pundit or commentator since he started making constructive criticisms of the corporation on his blog. Paul Kavanagh, a fierce critic of the BBC, has similarly observed that he is never invited onto BBC programmes, in spite of the fact that as a regular columnist on The National he is on a list of people recommended to the BBC on an ongoing basis as possible pro-independence guests. By contrast, a small number of 'safer' pro-independence guests such as Angela Haggerty (broadly a defender of the BBC) appear extremely frequently.
What Sweeney did yesterday was eerily reminiscent of Nick Robinson's outburst against Salmond on social media a few months ago, which leaves us with the distinct impression of a BBC that now views itself as being in a state of open warfare with the former leader of the UK's third largest political party, and doesn't see any problem with that. I have to say I'm struggling to imagine the BBC losing the plot quite so comprehensively with the former leader of any of the main London-based parties, which raises some troubling questions about underlying attitudes within the BBC towards the Scottish independence movement. Is the ludicrously contrived link between Salmond and the Russian menace being used as a conveniently deniable outlet for the contempt some senior BBC journalists and presenters have always felt towards the SNP in general? If so, how can the BBC be trusted to cover Scottish politics and the independence issue impartially?
Incidentally, what yesterday's interview was actually supposed to be about was Newsnight's bizarre decision to use a backdrop featuring a doctored image of Jeremy Corbyn in front of the Kremlin as part of a Bolshevik-style poster. Salmond did a heroic job of dragging Sweeney kicking and screaming back to that topic, which produced this remarkable moment about three minutes in -
Alex Salmond: The mainstream press are accusing Jeremy Corbyn of being a Kremlin stooge. So why should you picture him against the Kremlin?
John Sweeney: Because somebody has poisoned two British citizens, or rather one British citizen and his daughter, and you cannot buy this nerve agent in a shop.
What? I mean, what?! How does that reply make any logical sense unless the BBC are insinuating that Corbyn was somehow involved in the poisoning himself? I asked that question on Twitter last night, and Sweeney (who must have been searching for his own name, because I didn't tag him in the tweet) offered this retort -
"James! The exchange was more nuanced than that. I pointed out @AlexSalmond takes money from the Kremlin’s chums and that too many Putin critics get shot. After a bit he cut me off."
Words fail me. If anyone can detect even an ounce of "nuance" in Sweeney's unhinged, paranoid rant about a veteran Scottish politician supposedly being a puppet of the Russian state, you're doing better than me.