By Martin Kelly
Last week, following the Ian Davidson debacle on Newsnight Scotland where the Labour MP accused Isabel Fraser of having an anti-Unionist agenda and latterly, of conspiring to ambush him, new Herald political editor Magnus Gardham drew attention to another guest on the show.
The legal expert preceding Mr Davidson’s appearance had challenged the claim that the Scottish Parliament did not have the legal authority to hold an independence referendum.
Mr Gardham pointed out that the expert, Andrew Tickell, was an SNP supporter and blogger, and that BBC Scotland ought to have made this clear to the viewer.
He wrote: “Andrew Tickell was introduced simply as an Oxford University lawyer without mention of his role as a high-profile Nationalist blogger, who writes online under the pseudonym, ‘Lallands Peat Worrier’.”
Mr Gardham came in for some criticism following his article with many people, including Newsnet Scotland’s own writers, pointing out that he himself frequently appears on BBC Scotland as a commentator with no mention of his own pro-Union stance.
However, missed in all the kerfuffle was the obvious question: Just why is it that so many commentators are allowed to present their political views on BBC Scotland discussion programmes without their own political leanings being made clear?
Mr Gardham is correct, the political background of pundits who appear on political programmes ought to be made clear to the viewer – it’s actually a no brainer.
However the former Daily Record scribe may have unwittingly opened up a can of worms with his new found desire for transparency in the small broadcasting world of the Scottish political pundit.
BBC Scotland’s political commentators come from a very small pool. Journalists, ex-spin doctors and academics regularly appear on shows such as Newsnight Scotland and other similar current affairs programmes. More often than not these pundits are presented as objective analysts of the Scottish body politic who have no agenda.
Viewers are invited to consume the ‘message’ from each of the talking heads and of course some will be influenced by what these ‘neutral’ experts say.
But what if a pundit has an agenda? What if their view is coloured, or is in danger of being coloured, by their own political background and/or loyalties?
Hence, the seizing of a single Newsnight Scotland episode, that ‘hid’ the background of a legal expert who happened to be pro-SNP, by both Mr Gardham and Mr Davidson.
In Mr Davidson’s opinion, any non-disclosure of an expert or pundits political background is evidence of a conspiracy and merits an apology from the presenter or the BBC.
It is this ‘non disclosure’ habit that Mr Gardham has unwittingly drawn attention to and one that Newsnet Scotland has highlighted on more than one occasion. The political make-up of BBC Scotland pundits is one of the areas that needs to be addressed in the run-up to the 2014 referendum.
The overwhelming number of commentators who appear on BBC Scotland TV and radio programmes have a pro-Union background. In the last edition of the Politics Programme, the show featured a three man panel who discussed and analysed the independence debate and Scottish politics.
Not one of the panel gave views from a pro-independence or pro-SNP standpoint, all were pro-Union and their contributions reflected their leanings. BBC Scotland introduced each of the journalists with no mention of the fact that their writings were very clearly pro-Union, one of them was Magnus Gardham.
Indeed a quick look at some of the regular contributors to BBC Scotland current affairs programmes highlights the extent of the problem and the overwhelming number of pundits who have links to pro-Union parties.
The list of journalists with clear pro-Union leanings is just as extensive – Alan Cochrane, Magnus Gardham and Torcuil Crichton to name but three.
All of these pundits are, more often than not, introduced as impartial observers of the body politic which according to Mr Gardham’s new definition of impropriety, calls into question the impartiality of BBC Scotland itself.
BBC Scotland’s over reliance on the same people for so called ‘expert’ opinion, has created a kind of Unionist dominated old-boy network where only the views of 'those and such-as-those' are deemed acceptable and is an ever growing problem.
So let’s get behind Labour MP Ian Davidson and Herald journalist Magnus Gardham as they strive to ensure balance and objectivity from our state broadcaster. Let’s insist on absolute transparency and demand that BBC Scotland make clear the political background of any and all of its guest commentators.
Once established then the next goal will be to ensure an equitable representation of all sides in the independence debate – full independence, devo-max and status-quo. Let's consign to history the travesty that sees Unionist contributors dominate debate and discussion whilst simultaneously being passed off as impartial analysts.