I’ll be perfectly, honest, I hate the amount of time a minority of people spend working themselves into an outrage about media bias in the independence debate. This isn’t because they’re always wrong but because rarely if ever does something constructive come out of it. We have 15 months to persuade the voting public that governing our own affairs is the right option and I’d rather our supporters were out chapping doors, delivering leaflets and sharing our arguments online than reacting to the unfair coverage our side of the debate receives in the traditional media.
There are exceptions to this however and tonight’s episode of BBC Question Time is certainly one of them. As a referendum special the BBC has found an audience made up entirely of 16-17 year olds and for that they should be applauded. Their choice of panel however raises more than a few questions (and as it turns out, a number of official complaints). Earlier this week it was announced that on the ‘No’ side of the debate would be Anas Sarwar MP (Labour), Ruth Davidson MSP (Tories) and George Galloway MP (Respect) and on the Yes side would be Angus Robertson MP (SNP). The fifth panelist would be the excellent journalist Lesley Riddoch who is somewhat devo-ultra.
As it stood this was a clearly biased panel with three unionists and just one Yes representative but yesterday events took a turn for the bizarre as it was revealed that UKIP leader Nigel Farage would be joining the panel. There are three major problems for the BBC with this situation.
The Donside By-election
A week today is the Aberdeen Donside by-election to the Scottish Parliament. There are five parties represented at Holyrood and all five are standing a candidate in the by-election. The BBC as an impartial broadcaster must realize that a panel featuring just three of these five parties and omitting the Greens and Lib Dems flies in the face of this impartiality. This is especially true as of UKIP’s last minute inclusion. They’re also standing a candidate for Donside but whilst they polled less than a quarter of the total number of votes of the Greens in the last Scottish Parliament election there will be no Green on the panel.
The BBC’s reaction to this will no doubt be that they are not required to represent all parliamentary parties on the panel immediately before a by-election. Whilst not ideal this would be somewhat more acceptable if it wasn’t for their justification for not including a Scottish Green:
The Greens have been on twice in the last 4 months”
This was a direct quote from the BBC’s spokesperson this afternoon in response to questions over their refusal to include a Green on the panel. There are a number of problems with this however.
Firstly, there is not one UK Green Party, there are three (Scotland, England & Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own Green Parties). Both appearances were from English Greens so this isn’t a particularly strong point to refuse the Scottish Greens on.
Secondly, Nigel Farage has personally appeared three times this year. Diane James (UKIP’s Eastleigh by-election candidate) and Paul Nutall (Farage’s deputy) have also both appeared. Farage has been on the panel on more occasions in the last four years than any other politician, 14 in total. In comparison, in our 20+ years of existence and 14 years of continuous representation in Holyrood (something UKIP has never achieved) the Scottish Green Party has had ONE appearance. The fact that our sister party in England & Wales has managed to be included twice since February is just not comparable with our near-complete exclusion for over a decade of parliamentary success.
Despite the attempts of their series producer, the BBC cannot deny that there is something special about this episode. They have chosen an audience of 16/17 year olds to reflect the voting arrangements of the referendum so to say that this isn’t somehow a special episode just seems farcical. They claim that the panel has been chosen to show the young people a ‘broad range of political opinion,’ a statement that flies in the face of the panel they’ve actually chosen. Sarwar, Davidson and Robertson are all perfectly legitimate though uninteresting choices and Lesley Riddoch provides some much needed perspective from outside the political arena but what possible use is there in exposing young Scots to the irrational tirades of two parties with absolutely no representatives in Scotland whilst there are clear alternatives without a space at the table? Indeed Respect does not actually stand in Scotland, Galloway having stood on a ‘Coalition Against the Cuts’ ticket in his unsuccessful attempt to re-enter Scottish politics.
Both of these parties were soundly rejected by the Scottish electorate in 2011 and in UKIP’s case, in every other election they’ve ever stood in here. Compare that to the Scottish Greens who have elected MSPs to every Scottish Parliament and who have a scattering of councilors across the country. Even Better Together think UKIP is an irrelevance to Scottish politics, having refused their attempts to join their campaign.
If the goal was to provide the broadest possible range of opinion, how can they justify four panelists for the No side of the debate and just one for Yes? Surely these young people would have benefited far more from a second Yes speaker from a non-nationalist tradition than from either of two politicians who don’t actually represent anyone in Scotland? The BBC have clearly recognized the importance of the referendum in their audience selection so there is simply no way for them to say that independence is not relevant to the debate. This can easily be interpreted as a breach of their own impartiality in the debate and a point to which they just do not have an answer.
The Greens Reaction
Amazingly, we’re not thrilled by this and have lodged a complaint with the BBC in writing to their Executive Editor. We have two fantastic MSPs, either of whom could have tackled UKIP’s reactionary, racist and neo-Thatcherite agenda head on. As for Galloway, his ravings about the suffering of Catholics in an independent Scotland will hang in the same hall of shame as Ian Smart’s comments about Poles and Pakistanis.
This could have been a fantastic opportunity to explore both sides of our constitutional debate from different perspectives but the BBC has decided that a really good rammy between two old white men who like shouting over each other will make much better TV.
Convener of Young Greens