TRUST me, I’m a journalist. I mean it: for the next 800 words or so, I’m going to do my best to be informative, accurate, and entertaining and then you’re going to call me an idiot. I’m not complaining. I’m just pointing out the facts: trust me, I’m a journalist.

The reason I’m saying this now is because of the furore over comments made by the BBC reporter Sarah Smith. What happened was that, during a News at Ten programme, Ms Smith said Nicola Sturgeon had “enjoyed the opportunity to set out her own lockdown rules and not have to follow what’s happening in England and other parts of the UK”.

But the First Minister took umbrage at this. “Never in my entire political career have I ‘enjoyed’ anything less than this,” she said. “My heart breaks every day for all those who have lost loved ones to this virus.” Which prompted Ms Smith to try to clarify things: “I had meant to say … she has ‘embraced’ the opportunity to make a policy unique to Scotland. I said 'enjoyed’ by mistake.”

Now, I have no idea what Ms Smith’s political opinions are, but there are a few things worth saying about the original news report and the First Minister’s response to it because they reveal quite a bit about the BBC, the SNP, and the relationship between politics and journalism.

First, the news report. The problem with reports of this kind in which broadcasters are asked to analyse the day’s events is that they’re trying to do an almost impossible job: analyse what’s going on while appearing to be totally factual and unbiased: in other words, express an opinion without appearing to express an opinion.

But the premise is flawed. Sarah Smith. Me. You. We are not unbiased. As soon as a journalist decides to cover one story or another – or use one word or another – they are being influenced by unconscious bias. Ms Smith was also self-evidently not giving us untainted facts, she was expressing an opinion and it would help if the BBC used the right word for it – opinion – and stopped acting, in its rather hoighty-toighty way, like it’s completely unbiased. It isn’t: it seeks to control bias, which is a totally different thing.

But as well as defending Sarah Smith, I’d also like to make an appeal to the First Minister here, because her response leaves a lot to be desired. First, her tweet was doing a thing that journalists get a lot: responding with how-dare-you horror to something you haven’t actually said. Ms Smith was suggesting the First Minister was enjoying, or embracing, the political elements of the crisis, not the personal consequences for the victims, and it was unfair of Ms Sturgeon to suggest otherwise with talk of loved ones and broken hearts.

Ms Sturgeon also needs to be careful about the pot she stirs. I was talking to a colleague recently who told me that he’d been seeing a therapist because of the vilification and mockery he’d received from SNP supporters, including ministers, and the effect that it had on his self-confidence. You might say: "If you dish it out, you gotta take it", but all I would say to senior SNP politicians, including the First Minister, is: before you single out a journalist, take a look behind you at the snarly hordes you are about to unleash and encourage.

The other problem with tweets like the First Minister’s is that they encourage something else that’s troubling: a belief among some of her supporters that the BBC is institutionally anti-independence. The BBC is like any other large organisation in Scotland: there are people in it who believe in independence and there are people who don’t, and it does at least have rules that seek impartiality. But, in tweet after tweet, its critics accuse it of being anti-independence and the result is what psychologists call an availability cascade: a belief that grows because of the number of people saying it.

The cascade also has another curious effect. SNP supporters who believe the BBC is biased against independence have boycotted its coverage. For them, this preserves the cascade, but the problem for the BBC is that other viewers – unionists, left-wingers, right-wingers – are doing the same thing for different reasons.

Which leads us back to poor Sarah Smith standing there with a microphone trying to navigate it all and appear neutral. What she’s saying to us is: “Trust me, I’m a journalist – a neutral, unbiased BBC journalist”. But perhaps the BBC could be more honest about what’s really going on: she is expressing an opinion. And perhaps, when she hears the opinion, the First Minister could try to be a little less touchy.

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