Victoria Derbyshire BBC Radio 5 16 Sept 2013 10.00 am -12.000 noon
Debate on the Scottish independence vote
This was a classic example of the BBC’s interpretation of balance and consisted of a number of regulation issue BBC propaganda tricks.
The programme was held in Scotland (Glasgow) which meant that the pro-independence crowd were on home ground. A venue outside of Scotland would have been less partisan for two reasons: first, holding it in Scotland meant the audience was inevitably overwhelmingly Scottish (with a massive overrepresentation of Glaswegian residents) and second, it underpinned the idea that this is s a matter only for Scotland. Those representing England, Wales and Northern Ireland were not only thin on the ground , but either in full agreement with Scottish independence (including English people living in Scotland) or less than full hearted in their presentation of pro-unionist views and, in some cases, unreservedly pusillanimous in their putting their case, with one Englishman saying an Englishman had no right to tell the Scots how to vote.
There were a couple of hundred people involved. Right at the start Derbyshire employed the favourite Any Questions trick of saying the audience was not scientifically selected to represent the population at large (with the implication that its collective opinion was not worth anything), then blandly treating expressions of opinions as though the audience was scientifically selected. In such circumstances the large majority of any audience treat the individual and collective opinion as having the same meaning as a scientifically selected poll. Indeed, it is dubious whether many in any audience would really understand what “scientifically selected” means in this context.
A second favourite BBC trick is to turn the debate into pantomime. In this case the pantomime was created by dividing the audience into three groups which sat apart from one another: those in favour of independence, those against it and the undecided. The for and against camps were mysteriously on 36% each with the undecided on 27% (where the missing 1% went was not explained). This division was seriously at odds with recent polls which show a very significant lead for the NO camp, for example, the latest YouGov poll in Sept for the Times which showed the No camp on 52% and the Yes camp on 32% (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/10316878/Alex-Salmond-on-course-for-defeat-in-independence-referendum.html). It is reasonable to ascribe the discrepancy between the reality of the public opinion and the debate’s audience to being deliberately manufactured by the BBC, because it is wildly improbable that the Yes and NO camps would be equal simply through chance. Why would the BBC do this? Either, for political reasons, to create a spurious equality to weaken the NO camp’s effect or , simply for dramatic effect, to produce a programme which looked as though it was dealing with an issue which was on a knife-edge.
The three groups sat separately and if members of each group changed their minds about where they should be sitting during the debate they moved to a different group. There was not much movement. However, the division did allow the presenter Derbyshire to pretend that there was a meaningful debate going on as she earnestly questioned each person who did move and routinely asked people if they were tempted to move.
There were two people representing the campaign groups Yes Scotland (SNP MEP Fiona Hislop and the comedienne Elaine C Smith best known for her role in Rab C Nesbitt) and two for the Better Together (Labour MP for Glasgow Central Anas Sarwar and Alan Savage an English businessman with the Orion recruitment group). Sarwar had the distinction of being a non-white face amongst a sea of ol’whitey. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/galleries/p01gt3s5). Indeed, I think he may have been the only black, brown or yellow face on show.
The Yes camp displayed a strong hysterical strain with frequent yelling and clapping, and speakers who assumed that bald assertion represented argument with gems such as “Scotland is stinking rich” and “Scottish independence is worth dying for” , mixed with a cloying victimhood with the wicked English cast as the culprits for all that is wrong in Scotland (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b039wz0t/clips). The limits of evidence advanced by the Yes camp began and ended with citations from Wikipedia (I kid you not).
The NO camp were much more restrained and asked a great number of questions which the Yes camp simply could not answer, questions about the armed forces, public sector pensions, immigration and the Pound (The http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b039wz0t/clips).
The various “expert” commentators such as the BBC Scottish staffer Brian Taylor adopted the “there is no clear answer” ploy when asked to comment on, for example, the share of taxpayers’ money Scotland receives.
At the end of the meeting Derbyshire gave out the Yes/NO/undecided figures before and after changes:
At the start of the debate At the end of the debate
Yes 80 84
No 80 83
Undecided 60 53
That will allow the Yes camp to represent it as a victory.
The programme was an amorphous unfocused mess. That helps the Yes camp, because what people will remember is not the arguments about particular issues but the bald assertions, victimhood and emotional outbursts.
What was almost entirely missing was discussion of the position of England. There was one speaker who called for an English Parliament, but this provoked little comment. The position of Wales and Northern Ireland received more attention. The English were also treated differently in one other respect: there were English speakers who live in Scotland putting the independence case in a way which painted the Scots as victims of England. There were no Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish speakers putting the English case.
This debate was almost certainly a taste of what the BBC (and probably the rest of the broadcast media) will provide during the Referendum campaign.