Monday 15 September 2014

BBC bias and the Tommy Sheridan interview

I know that it isn't possible to extrapolate from a single interview the overall level of institutional bias in a broadcaster, so I'm making it clear that's not what I'm trying to do in this article. The fact is that studies have already shown strong levels of bias against Scottish independence in BBC coverage, so this article isn't intended to prove that the BBC is biased, it is to analyse how this bias presents itself.

The interview in question, from the Sunday Politics Show, was conducted by Andrew Neil (a former Tory party activist and editor of Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times) and featured the Scottish socialist politician and Yes campaigner Tommy Sheridan. I'm no big fan of either man, but I see that they are proficient at what they do. Tommy Sheridan is undoubtedly a talented public speaker, and Andrew Neil does a more-or-less professional job of asking the questions he's supposed to. 

Even though I agree with Tommy Sheridan on Scottish independence, I'm always happy to see him asked questions about the subject, because he's great at articulating his vision for a better Scotland. I don't necessarily agree with him on all of it, and I find he occasionally fails to answer the question properly (find me a politician who doesn't when recording an interview), but he speaks with passion and backs up a lot of what he says with evidence.

So the problem with the interview wasn't the fact that Tommy Sheridan was asked questions, but the way the questions were asked.

The interview started out with the classic Unionist tactic of trying to conflate Scottish independence with the SNP. Sheridan eloquently rebuffed this stance, pointing out that the SNP are actually the elected government of Scotland, and will remain so until 2016 - no matter which way the referendum goes. Then he went on to explain that the Yes campaign is about the whole future of Scotland, not just the success or failure of the SNP.

One of the tactics used by Andrew Neil was to use a Trotsky quote to try to undermine the case for independence, but it came across more as a tactic to smear Tommy Sheridan as a "Trotskyite" than anything resembling a good faith attempt to learn anything about the socialist case for independence.

Neil refers to what he calls "Trotsky's famous dictum" that "socialism in one country is impossible" but the question betrays Neil's lack of even a rudimentary understanding of what Trotsky's work on perpetual revolution actually meant. There's no way that Trotsky ever intended the phrase to mean that socialism should never be attempted! That would be ludicrous. Socialism develops at different degrees in different countries, that's what Trotsky's work was about! There's a huge difference between taking the statement to mean that socialism cannot exist in a vacuum (that international solidarity is fundamental to the success of socialism) and trying to spin it to mean that socialism should never even be tried at the national or regional level.

The question was hopeless in it's own right because it relied on a misappropriated out of context quote, but from the BBC perspective it served the purpose of associating the Scottish independence movement with an extreme left word ("Trotskyite") that very few people understand the meaning of. A word which is far more often used as a crude insult-word to throw at "leftie types", than one with an actual meaning to be deployed in serious political debate over the merits of different branches of communist ideology.

Tommy Sheridan raised the subject of BBC bias several times during the interview, although he was too much of a gentleman to make it a personal accusation against his interviewer. One of his complaints was that a report predicting a Scottish oil and gas boom had had no BBC coverage at all since its publication.

The lack of coverage of this positive oil report contrasts sharply with the blanket uncritical publicity afforded to the scaremongering comments of Ian Wood the week before. Wood's comments were framed by the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media to make it seem that the SNP were overestimating the remaining Scottish oil reserves by some 50%, even though Wood's comments also implied that the projections from George Osborne's Office for Budget Responsibility had massively underestimated remaining Scottish oil and gas (by a much bigger margin than the SNP were supposedly over-estimating).

In their desperation to bash the SNP and fearmonger about the Scottish oil industry, the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media failed to even note the massive discrepancy between Ian Wood's projections and those of the Westminster establishment.

It was soon pointed out that the widely cited Ian Wood estimates of 15-16.5 billion barrels contradicted the findings of his own Woods Review on Maximising Oil Production report from February 2014, which cited the 24 billion figure used by the SNP numerous times. One can wonder why a man would want to abandon the conclusions of his own report, just six months after it was published, in order to feed different, much more specific (but apparently unsubstantiated) figures to the anti-independence campaign. What one doesn't need to wonder at, is the reason why the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media reported Wood's comments so uncritically, without subjecting his contradictory claims to any kind of scrutiny. They didn't scrutinise his claims because it was convenient to their narrative that "Scottish independence is a huge risk".

The contrast between the BBC reaction to the two different oil stories is telling. They reported one without even conducting the most rudimentary scrutiny, and they failed to even mention the other. One fit the news narrative perfectly so it was afforded uncritical blanket coverage, the other was completely ignored because it contradicted the news narrative.

The worst question of all in the interview was one of the last, and it was a complete stinker. The question relied on the assertion that "one of your 'comrades' on the yes side is Brian Souter ... another of your 'allies' would seem to be Rupert Murdoch".

If the debate is to be reduced to picking "bad people" who happen to agree with your stance on Scottish independence, then the tactic can easily be reversed by pointing out that extreme-right groups like Britain First vehemently oppose Scottish independence.

It's blatantly obvious that you can be pro-independence and have nothing to do with Brian Souter, just as you can be anti-independence and consider Britain First to be the abhorrent bunch of extremists that they are.

Smearing a left-wing supporter of independence by association with Brian Souter, is just as bad as smearing a left-wing Unionist by association with extreme-right unionist supporters like UKIP and Britain First. It's such an appalling debating tactic that it's an insult to children to describe it as "playground politics".

Only a complete idiot would be convinced by such a weak "tarnish by association" argument, and that's before we even get to the point that Murdoch has only just begun to allow a few pro-independence bits and pieces in his publications, because he famously hates to be seen to have backed a loser. 
If anyone should be expected to know all about Murdoch's hatred of appearing to back a loser, it should be Andrew Neil himself, who worked for Murdoch as the editor of the Times between 1983 and 1994. If Murdoch was really a strong supporter of Scottish independence, we might have expected his vast media empire to have taken up the cause at some point before the last few days of the campaign. 

In my view unionists should be extremely disappointed with this ridiculous "tarnish by association" line of questioning because the BBC has had years to come up with better questions than that. If that's really the final "big gun" question in an interview just days before the referendum, then the anti-independence BBC are clutching at straws.

The bias in BBC coverage of the Scottish independence debate has been plain for all to see, but the problem from the unionist perspective must be that bias alone is clearly not enough to win the debate. If even at this very, very late stage in the game the questions asked of leading Yes campaigners consist of the same old myths (Scottish independence = SNP), the same old Unionist fearmongering about the oil industry, and some ridiculous efforts to smear Yes campaigners by association with "bad people" (the interviewer's former boss!), it strongly suggests that despite their obvious bias, the anti-independence BBC don't have a single well formulated argument against independence at all!

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