Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave her keynote speech to the Scottish National Party’s annual conference yesterday, saying there would be a referendum on Scottish independence by the end of 2023. “Trust me,” she said. “The time for that choice is approaching.”
“The United Kingdom is after all a voluntary union of nations...Frankly it is not up to a Westminster government which has just six MPs in Scotland to decide our future without the consent of the people who live here.”
Before Sturgeon had even finished speaking, a spokesman for the UK government knocked back her request for a consensual approach to planning the next referendum, using the UK government’s slogan “Now is not the time”.
It seemed like a newsworthy moment. And autumn conference speeches by the leaders of governing parties normally lead the TV bulletins that night whatever their content. But coverage of the speech by the BBC yesterday seemed to lend weight to Scottish Independence supporters' claims that the Scottish Government faces the most hostile domestic media in the world.
BBC Scotland appeared to mount almost a blackout of the speech. It was not covered at all on the Reporting Scotland news programme at 6.30 pm or the one that follows the Ten. It was mentioned on the lunchtime news - but there was no audio or video footage of the speech.
On Radio Scotland 'DriveTime’ evening news show, the headline report of the speech featured comment from a Conservative List MSP Murdo Fraser. It was the equivalent of leading the Ten on the Day of Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference with a quote from Ian Blackford. In the show, BBC Scotland’s political correspondent David Wallace Lockhart gave a dismissive summary over a few seconds, saying that there was nothing new in it - although Sturgeon did use the speech to confirm that the Scottish Gov will fund the youth conference at COP 26 after Westminster declined.
BBC Scotland’s news magazine show The Nine started with a 20-minute package of quite extraordinary dullness about vaccines for school children but, as far as I can tell by watching on fast forward, there was no footage and no mention of Sturgeon’s conference speech at all.
The BBC should be an important source of news about Scotland - it is funded by a form of taxation and has many more resources than any other broadcaster. Sky and C4 usually cover Scotland like a foreign country with one correspondent apiece.
The BBC has pro-UK instincts - and its Board is now run by Conservative Party placemen but I don’t know if the apparent speech blackout was caused by some sort of directive from the top or by self-censoring agenda-setting by cowed staff.
But Sturgeon is popular in Scotland. In May, the SNP won 62 of 73 constituency seats - if Holyrood was a First Past the Post parliament like Westminster that would translate to a huge majority. The speech blackout did not go unnoticed - it was discussed on Twitter and in the National.
The sense of bias is not confined to the BBC. Many of the newspapers on Scotland's newsstands are Scottish editions of London-based publications and are implacably opposed to independence.
Even the Guardian, despite its generally progressive stance in other areas, often adopts a hostile tone in its coverage of Scotland’s independence-supporting parties. This is generally ascribed to its closeness to the Labour Party, which resents the loss of seats in Westminster that were once important to hopes of Labour success there.
Today, in response to Sturgeon’s speech the Guardian ran a one-sided editorial denouncing the SNP and disparaging claims of progress against social-democratic targets. It failed to mention Scotland’s progress on child poverty - it has introduced a child payment and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation finds that it is doing significantly better than England on this metric. The poorest neighbourhoods in the UK 15 years ago were all in Scotland - now they are all in England.
Scotland has also made significant progress against climate change targets with almost all of its gross electricity needs being met by renewables. More than 80% of all the trees planted in the UK last year were planted north of the border, and Scotland has reduced emissions more than any other country except Sweden. The Guardian editorial deliberately misquoted Greta Thunberg - in a recent comment, she was more making a general point that the bar is set too low on green achievement than questioning the detail of what Scotland is doing.
The FT is generally the UK’s most consistently good paper in the UK, but even it is prone to unbalanced coverage of Scotland. In a piece last week the New Statesman’s Scotland editor Chris Deerin reported that the Scottish government is ‘running out of options’ when it comes to a referendum. The FM is “unlikely to pull a haggis out of a hat”, wrote Deerin, pimping his tired cliche with a cheap stereotype.
He also reported that - with the fig leaf ‘critics believe’ - the Scottish government enacted the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child into Scots Law solely in order to pick a constitutional fight with the UK government. The piece neglected to mention that all parties, even the Scottish Conservatives supported this measure in Holyrood. It comes after a long campaign by children’s rights organizations in Scotland which have been advocating a rights-based approach for many years, and have worked to introduce consultation with children and young people into many areas, including Government.
Many Scots are starting to look beyond the United Kingdom towards a future where the priorities of government are more in line with the way Scots vote. This is about more than political game-playing and stunts like the BBC news blackout of Sturgeon’s speech are unlikely to have much effect over the long term.