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The British establishment strikes back

THE BBC employs 24 fearless political journalists whose names you are liable to recognise, starting with Nick Robinson, its political editor.

Brian Taylor, Scotland's man on screen, is usually listed among these, like his counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland, as a "national editor". That's not, of course, the half of it.

There are, for example, five correspondents stationed at Westminster along with editors, researchers and the like whose sole business is politics. Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff are similarly staffed, although not as lavishly. Various programmes – Newsnight, Today, The Daily Politics, The World At One – have their own political journalists, as do English regions.

There's more. How many of those known as presenters, hosts or newsreaders – the Paxmans, Warks, Marrs – consider themselves to be engaged in political journalism? Then add the BBC's operations around the world: 22 journalists in the United States will be doing a lot of politics this year. In fact, the tally of political correspondents runs into the 100s.

I have no quibble with that. I'd argue, in fact, that, with BBC cuts falling disproportionately on journalism thanks to an overpaid management botching the licence fee negotiations, staff could soon seem thin on the ground. The corporation's newsgathering is a vast undertaking.

How many people knew, then, that the BBC feels the need for a "chief political adviser"? All those experienced political journalists with their layers of editorial management around the place, and still a full-time person is required to "advise throughout the corporation on political impartiality and independence, oversee policy on polling and other aspects of editorial policy, and organise for the industry the UK's system of party political broadcasts".

Those are Ric Bailey's own words. The former executive editor of Question Time has been advising the BBC – all of it – on politics since 2006. However, what he omits to make clear is that he doesn't advise. He decides. Under the corporation's editorial "guidelines" (which are mandatory, curiously enough), Bailey has the final say over much of the BBC's political coverage.

Here's one such guideline: "Any proposal to invite a politician to be a guest on a programme or area of content where to do so is the exception rather than the rule, must be referred to chief adviser politics." It was by this process, one presumes, that Bailey decided to allow Nick Griffin of the BNP to join the Question Time panel in 2009, and then sanctioned the party's participation in the Today programme the following spring.

On the latter occasion, the political adviser advised that Griffin's crew should be allowed airtime "to compensate for not participating", as the Independent reported, in the previous night's prime ministerial debate. Alex Salmond was also barred from that affair, as you might remember. So who "represented the BBC on the team which negotiated the first ever television election debates between the prime ministerial candidates"? That was, in his own words once more, Ric Bailey.

We have an individual, then, with an extraordinary amount of power when it comes to deciding whether a politician is seen or heard. We also have a man who has form, shall we say, when it comes to sparing us the dulcet tones of the SNP's convener. Whether that makes Bailey a gauleiter, in the proper sense, is another matter. The word is a distraction: the fact is that the BBC's journalism is as independent as the chief adviser allows.

Last weekend this meant, in practice, that Salmond was forbidden to chat about rugby on TV. His office had advised that he would be available before last weekend's Calcutta Cup match between Scotland and England. Then Bailey issued – the only appropriate word – a ban. Two other attempts by the first minister to participate in radio broadcasts were also rebuffed.

The BBC explained all this in a statement by declaring that "the Scotland-England match was not an appropriate setting in which to give one single political leader that level of prominence". Bailey himself referred to "the nature of the political debate around Scotland's future". What did either claim mean?

That the BBC will decide the nature of the debate? That a Scotland rugby win (no chance) might have provided the SNP with a propaganda opportunity? Or would the corporation be ensuring, as Salmond wondered in Holyrood on Thursday, that David Cameron does not grace our screens when London hosts the Olympics?

If nothing else, it seems the BBC has developed a policy for dealing with Salmond's enthusiasm for the cameras in the two-and-a-quarter years before an independence referendum. Boris Johnson, mayor of London, can pull off all sorts of televised stunts as he campaigns for re-election. Cameron can be solicited for his thoughts on the resignation of England's football manager. Scotland is different.

The BBC is a state broadcaster. Does that mean it has a duty to defend the state and the status quo? The BBC is also, in theory, an organisation with a federal structure, dedicated to a kind of pseudo-devolution designed to reflect the interests and concerns of 8.9% of the population of these islands. So remind me: where was Bailey when Gordon Brown was urging Scottish football fans to support England in their World Cup efforts? Or was that not "political"? Trivial, I know. The point is as substantial as the First Minister's knowledge of rugby. But we are in the area – if subtitles are handy – of mickles and muckles. The question of the state broadcaster's role in the political process becomes crucial when the existence of the state is being called into question.

As things stand, Salmond has been invited by Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, to lodge a complaint. Typically, the first minister will instead lodge a "dossier" and Patten will adjudicate. The peer has also promised that he will approach the challenge of the referendum with "sensitivity". We'll see.

The BBC is not the only institution in this position. Last week it was suggested that Sir Peter Housden, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government – our "top civil servant" – was being kept from discussions with his London colleagues lest he, in effect, tell tales to Salmond. The story didn't amount to much, for practical reasons, but it followed previous accusations from opposition parties and the Unionist press that Housden had "gone native". It's an interesting use of the old colonial phrase. How is the Hereford-born former schoolteacher supposed to conduct himself? Without bias, obviously. But he also has a duty to advise and assist a First Minister hell-bent on independence. In other words, he is supposed to carry out Salmond's wishes. Yet when Housden attempted this very thing last year by briefing his officials on the implications of a referendum, he was leapt upon for "partisanship". He cannot – for he is not supposed to – win.

The common feature in both these tales is obvious: the establishment strikes back. The British state is expressed through its institutions. None of these will emerge unscathed during the battles of the next two and some years. In the meantime, they risk forgetting that they belong as much to 8.9% of Britain's population as they do to anyone else. Treating people as a problem to be managed is never a good idea.

Not that the BBC would ever put it like that, of course.

'Britain'

bites back

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