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Salmond's fury after being banned from rugby broadcast

ALEX Salmond yesterday accused the BBC of "losing the plot" and questioned whether it could be trusted to stay impartial in the run-up to an independence referendum after it banned him from appearing as a rugby pundit on political grounds.

The First Minister had been booked to appear on a light-hearted TV sport show ahead of yesterday's Six Nations clash between Scotland and England, but the appearance was cancelled at the eleventh hour by BBC political adviser Ric Bailey because of "heightened tensions" over the independence referendum.

Emails obtained by the Sunday Herald show the First Minister promised not to politicise the event and BBC Sport didn't "anticipate any problems" until Bailey's sudden intervention.

The First Minister said he intended to raise the "very serious issues" arising from the decision with the chair of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, when he visits Edinburgh next week.

Salmond said the ban was "what you get in tin-pot dictatorships. I'm afraid it looks like the BBC are on the run from Downing Street at the present moment or being run from Downing Street.

"It's a totally unsustainable position which raises all sorts of questions about their impartiality and their role as a national broadcaster and basically if they can be trusted to conduct themselves as an impartial broadcaster in the run-up to the referendum campaign."

The Sunday Herald understands Salmond was already planning to present Patten with complaints about the BBC's coverage of the referendum, including reporters referring to "separation" and "separatism" instead of independence.

The rugby spat, with its implications for the BBC's coverage between now and the ballot in 2014, is now likely to top Salmond's grudge list.

The First Minister was booked by Carl Hicks, editor of BBC TV Sport, to appear with former Scotland player Andy Nicol and England's Jeremy Guscott for a live show outside Murrayfield.

Salmond's office emailed Hicks to reassure him Salmond was "not looking in the slightest to make any kind of political or constitutional points".

On Thursday evening, Hicks told the Government he was "checking this out with our Editorial Policy team, but don't anticipate any problems".

However on Friday the offer was withdrawn on the orders of Bailey, the BBC's chief political adviser in London, because of "the nature of the political debate around Scotland's future".

In 2009, Bailey allowed Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party, to appear on BBC Question Time, provoking a public outcry.

"The BBC is obliged to treat all political parties registered with the Electoral Commission and operating within the law with due impartiality," Bailey said at the time.

Salmond yesterday launched a stinging attack on the adviser, accusing him of "blathering", panic, and behaving like a "Gauleiter", the name given to regional Nazi leaders under Hitler which has come to mean an overbearing bureaucrat.

Speaking in advance of the Calcutta Cup game, the First Minister explained he had been expecting to appear on BBC1 at lunchtime to give his predictions for the results of the first three Six Nations matches and discuss Scottish rugby.

"That was all settled fine, but then Ric Bailey, the political Gauleiter we should call him now, intervened to say this shouldn't happen and, really, he's lost the plot. The guy has just totally, utterly lost the plot. I can't imagine he's thought through the implications of this."

THE First Minister also said the BBC would naturally broadcast Prime Minister David Cameron during the London Olympics this summer, so why object over the rugby? "The guy has just obviously panicked and doesn't know what he's doing. BBC Scotland, needless to say, weren't consulted at all. They were just treated as they are normally treated.

"I'm seeing Chris Patten on Thursday in the Scottish Parliament, chairman of the BBC Trust and former chairman of the Conservative party, so that should be a lively meeting."

It is understood Bailey told Scottish Government officials he was worried about "heightened tensions" between England and Scotland, and claimed BBC Scotland agreed with his decision.

He also claimed the SNP would object to Cameron appearing in similar circumstances at Twickenham – Bailey was told that was "presumptuous" by a senior Scottish Government official.

It later emerged that BBC Scotland director Ken McQuarrie was unaware of Bailey's action. Salmond said the BBC was failing to live up to its duty to be a national broadcaster.

"I would imagine people like Ric Bailey are in thrall to Downing Street now and that is actually the worrying thing. What this means is that an editorial decision, a journalistic decision on the BBC by the sports editor, has been overridden for political reasons by the political advisers. "That's what you get in tin-pot dictatorships. You're not meant to get it in the BBC."

But the Scottish Tories said it was Salmond who was guilty of "bully-boy tactics". A spokesman said: "This is an embarrassing way for Scotland's First Minister to behave. There is now a disturbing pattern of behaviour emerging from the SNP against anyone who dares to stand up to them. All this nasty rhetoric is not helping us have a positive debate about Scotland's future."

A Scottish Labour spokesman added: "I'm sure Scottish Rugby fans would rather the First Minister concentrated on getting behind the team rather than getting his face on TV."

The BBC said it had an obligation "to ensure it achieves due impartiality across all its output. Given the nature of political debate around Scotland's future and the proximity of local government elections, it was decided that it would be inappropriate to give undue prominence at the moment to any single political leader in the context of the Scotland-England game."

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