Fingers point at Auntie after the UK's "Near Death Experience"
Edinburgh - 19th September 2014
Anti-separation chiefs were jubilant last night as the "Better Together" campaign sealed an epic referendum victory, securing Scotland's place in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future. But in the cold light of morning, attention has started to turn to the wafer-thin margin by which the win was bagged. A full 49.7% of Scottish electors turned out to vote for a separate state - a figure only barely dwarfed by the 50.3% who voted against partitioning Britain. That was wildly out of line with confident predictions from only a few days ago of a margin as wide as 57-43. Already commentators are dubbing the shock outcome "a near death experience for the Union".
So far there have been few recriminations between the Unionist political parties, with most ire instead being reserved for the role of the BBC. Colin Brown of the Orange Order in Scotland said openly what many Labour and Conservative politicians have been saying privately today when he angrily branded the public service broadcaster as "treacherous". He pointed out that the BBC have a duty to foster cohesion of the British nation, but added bitterly: "If that's what they've been doing over the last fortnight, you could have fooled me. With 'Aunties' like the Beeb, who needs grumpy mothers-in-law?"
Although Unionist parties have been more circumspect in their public criticisms, eyebrows have nevertheless been raised over a series of high-profile stories that the BBC ran on news bulletins during the course of last week. "There was clear polling evidence at the start of that crucial week that we in the No Thanks campaign had started to steady the ship after the wobble of the notorious YouGov poll," noted Fred Canning, a Conservative local councillor in Dumfries and Galloway. "But then the BBC randomly threw our gains away by seemingly trying to convince voters that they would live longer with separation, or that they would die of radiation poisoning if they stuck with the Union, or most ludicrously of all that Britain might leave the European Union and then install Boris Johnson as Prime Minister! It was the most astonishing spectacle that has ever been witnessed from any national broadcaster anywhere in the western world."
The reference to "living longer with separation" concerned a story about Scotland's life expectancy record, which compares very poorly to almost all other countries in western Europe. The BBC appeared to be suggesting the Union might be to blame, and UK government ministers were left firmly on the defensive as they pointed out that London cannot be expected to control the poor lifestyle choices of individual Scots - a line of argument that "Yes" campaigners subsequently blasted as patronising or even racist. Meanwhile, the "radiation poisoning" story was about alleged concerns over the safety of British nuclear weapons on the Clyde, and the potential for a catastrophic accident.
Senior Labour activist Kenny Inglis agreed with Canning that the BBC's choice of news priorities implied that the broadcaster had turned against the Union for unknown reasons. "These were entirely contrived stories. They weren't in any way topical, nothing had suddenly changed. Scotland has had poor life expectancy numbers since Adam was a boy, and nuclear subs have been based in Faslane for decades without major incident."
But a well-known BBC Scotland journalist robustly defended the corporation's output towards the end of the referendum campaign. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she explained: "Frankly, I think the BBC at network level were in severe danger of losing their heads after the YouGov poll showed Yes on 51%. We were set for a week of 'shock and awe' scare stories about independence that seemed to have no other purpose than to deliver a No majority and save the Union. We could have suffered reputational damage in Scotland that would have taken decades to repair. Luckily cooler and more experienced heads prevailed and we rescued our coverage with balancing stories that scrutinised the possible downsides of remaining in the Union."
Can seemingly fanciful stories about nuclear catastrophe or a future Boris Johnson premiership really be regarded as "balanced"? Remarkably, Professor Emma McWilliams of Stirling University's Media Studies Department insists they can. "You don't achieve balance as a broadcaster by sort of treating the Yes campaign as the defendant in a trial, and simply allowing the 'prosecution' and the 'defence' equal airtime. Earlier in the campaign, there were BBC news stories about businesses and banks that would supposedly withdraw from Scotland in the event of independence, there were stories about how the EU would supposedly leave an independent Scotland out in the cold, and there were even stories about how an independent Scotland might be more vulnerable to threats from outer space! All of those left the Yes campaign hopelessly on the back foot. At some point the BBC were going to have to put the United Kingdom in the dock in a similar way. Fortunately they did their job - a bit late in the day, it has to be said, but better late than never."
However, the Orange Order's Colin Brown took issue with the idea that the BBC should even have been striving for balance in the first place. "You can't be 'balanced' on the existence of the country you serve. If you call yourself a British public broadcaster, you can't be neutral on whether Britain even has a future. You have to pick a side - and there's only one side you can pick if you don't want to be regarded as traitors."
The BBC Scotland journalist reacted dismissively to that suggestion. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if the word 'British' is in our name. It doesn't matter what it says in the BBC Charter. Above all else, what audiences have always expected from the BBC - especially during democratic elections and referendums - is fairness. If there's any conflict between fairness and 'backing Britain', they expect us to choose fairness without a second thought. I'm proud to say that's exactly what we did."
And out on the streets of the Scottish capital, there were plenty of signs that the BBC's controversial coverage had restored the faith of many backers of separation. 37 year old Stacy Brodie, who voted Yes yesterday, spoke for many when she said: "I'm gutted that we won't be getting our independence, but the BBC totally gave the Yes campaign a fair crack of the whip over the last couple of weeks. I grew up loving BBC programmes, and it would have broken my heart if they'd betrayed me and their other Scottish viewers by pumping out nothing but Unionist scare stories, but I should never have doubted them, they've been completely even-handed. You know, they've actually shown there's no contradiction between being the British Broadcasting Corporation and covering Scottish politics fairly. I'll be happy to keep on paying the licence fee in future years - no problem at all."