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Covering the Referendum on Scottish Independence

Friday 15 November 2013, 15:58

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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Is the Westminster political establishment asleep?

Westminster dusk

In 10 months an event is taking place which could result in the end of the United Kingdom as we know it, and which could trigger the dismemberment of these islands as a political unit.

To take some examples: for over 100 years the main debate in Northern Ireland has been about whether it should be part of the United Kingdom, but what if the UK as we know it no longer exists? Will Ulster choose to become independent? Will the Orkneys and Shetlands, who think Edinburgh is as remote as London, want to be part of an independent Scotland? What will happen to the Scottish regiments; to the Royal Navy whose nuclear ships will have to sail south, to the RAF?

The event I refer to is of course the referendum on Scottish independence. If there is a ‘yes’ vote then much of what we take for granted will have to be renegotiated.

As someone who was born and still lives part of the time just short of the Scottish border, I am bewildered at the apparent indifference to the debate that exists outside of Scotland.

Perhaps it is because the opinion polls show a clear majority saying ‘No’, but these figures are far less solid than some suppose, and the debate has hardly started. Few psephologists believe the actual result will be so clear-cut.

The British Broadcasting Corporation will inevitably be at the centre of the debate, not only because of its journalism but because it too may have to be broken up in the event of a ‘yes’ vote. It will also face criticism from all sides on its reporting and on whom it allows or does not allow to appear on its programmes.

The SNP leader Alex Salmond has already called Ric Bailey, the BBC’s Chief Political Adviser, a ‘gauleiter’ for stopping him from commenting on an England v Scotland Rugby match. If someone schedules Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ movie in the next few months - with its distinctly partisan historical account of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce - expect a row, and for it to be pulled from the schedules.

Those at the top of the BBC are well aware of what is at stake. I am told that when the Director General Tony Hall was appointed he said that the referendum campaign, alongside the issues around the renewal of the BBC’s Charter, was his chief concern.

Well, the BBC Trust has just published its guidelines for covering the referendum on Scottish independence and has asked for your comments. You can read them on the Trust’s website.

In Feedback this week I talked to the above mentioned Ric Bailey, whose bed of nails seems to get sharper by the minute. Here is our interview: 

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Ric Bailey, the BBC Chief Political Adviser on coverage of the independence referendum.

Do let us know what you think about that interview and about anything you have heard on BBC Radio. You set Feedback’s agenda, and I am proud to be your advocate.

Roger Bolton

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Thought the criticism of 'Profile' on today’s programme was way over the top. ‘Friends’ are always going to be cautious in respect of what they are going to say ‘on air’ and if the profiled person is part of an establishment, then they’re obviously going to portray them as Mr./Ms/Dr. average. Ms. Sheila Coleman’s contribution – which really did set the programme on fire - was all I needed to hear to put the jigsaw pieces together.

    Not too sure that 3 broadcasts are required, but can’t fault Ms. Rebecca Milligan’s presentations (Ms. Milligan’s PM interview with Mr. Nigel Farage during her ‘meal for 2’ series was excellent).

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    What will happen should the Orkneys and Shetlands say "It's our oil" and we want independence? The draft guidelines refer to the the importance of the reflecting the argument, not just the views of the two opposing sides. Gaelic speakers get a special mention in the guidelines, but what about the very important views of Orcadians and Shetlanders?

    It will be hard work trying to spot political activists disguised as ordinary folk making their way on to TV and radio. You know the sort: "I'm never been interested in politics, never voted in my life, but seeing all these pensioners unable to heat their homes..."


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