Someone blundered at the BBC last week. The sports department thought it would be a good idea to ask Alex Salmond to give his tuppence-worth on the Calcutta Cup game against England; somebody in the political department said no, and the invitation was withdrawn. An unseemly rammy kicked off which shows no signs of abating. Salmond has now lodged a formal complaint with the BBC, while Parliamentary time has been occupied debating whether the term Gauleiter is pejorative, reducing Holyrood at a stroke to a livestream version of a Usenet bulletin board from about 1996. (A certain Mr Godwin was unavailable for comment.)
This all seems very unnecessary. The First Minister is a wily old cove, but even he would have struggled to slip a coded message to vote for independence into a discussion about when players can enter a ruck from the side. In any case, his office had made it plain that he had no desire to talk about anything other than rugby. The decision to veto his appearance was a clumsy intervention by political operators who should have known better, and sits at odds with the well-worn practice of getting cabinet ministers to wander up to the camera at sporting events and splutter out a few platitudes, to show that they’re just like us really.
In response, however, the SNP kicked out with all the deftness and measured judgment of Dan Parks in a pub car park. As well as describing Ric Bailey, the hapless chief political adviser who censored Salmond’s appearance, as a ‘political Gauleiter’, the party’s spokesman accused the Beeb of acting like a ‘tinpot dictatorship’. Worse, insinuations were made that the broadcaster might not be trusted to cover the independence referendum fairly. The clack-clack of spin-doctors setting down markers for future skirmishes was unmistakable.
A government that aspires to a seat at the international dinner table ought to show better awareness. Somewhere south of Berwick-on-Tweed, the BBC’s Persian TV network is being subjected to a sustained campaign of intimidation by the Iranian secret services. Iran is preparing for a crucial election and fears the BBC’s coverage will undermine the government. Stop me if this narrative sounds familiar. The crude techniques used in Iran are admittedly a few gears up from complaining about ‘tinpot dictatorships’: reporters have been accused of apostasy (a capital offence in Iran), taking bribes and dealing drugs. Fake websites have been set up making allegations about its reporters. But running parallel to this covert intimidation has been a constant stream of invective from the government accusing the BBC of partisan involvement in the country’s affairs. For all its faults, the BBC is recognised around the world as a standard-bearer of free and independent journalism. Politicians who call its impartiality into question, especially on the subject of election coverage, risk putting themselves in some pretty unsavoury company as they step on to the world stage.
The only politician who will emerge from this ugly spectacle with their reputation enhanced is the one who calls the whistle on the whole shoddy episode. Unfortunately, there is little sign of any of the main players doing this any time soon. Not Salmond, who is often myopic regarding the line between winning an argument handsomely and outright bullying. Not the opposition parties, who clutch desperately for any straw they can chuck beneath the wheels of the SNP juggernaut. (On Scotland Tonight this week, Ruth Davidson called for all the emails between the BBC and the First Minister to be published because “then we would see a different picture”. I fear people’s view of the matter would still be obscured by the speed at which their eyes glazed over). The BBC, for their part, seem bemused by the way a flutter of indecision in London’s catacombs of power can spark a hurricane of outrage at Bute House. As Kate Higgins observed more generally this week, these phoney stushies are boring and unedifying. In sporting parlance, Alex Salmond needs to bounce back from his one-match ban and focus on the next game, for the good of the nation.