The president of the SNP, Michael Russell, has had a go at the press and the BBC. He says the BBC’s treatment of Scotland is an open sore. He says programmes broadcast from Scotland are heavily weighted against nationalism. And he says journalists in the written press – and I suppose he means people like me – are in danger of becoming propagandists. All in all, these are pretty heavy allegations, and someone should say something in response. So here goes.

Firstly, I’ll start with Mr Russell’s remarks about the written press because, in some ways, they are the most frustrating part of what he said. Every time he attends an SNP meeting, he said, someone complains about bias in the media and Mr Russell seems to agree with them. Some of the press, he said, is a cauldron of anti-SNP vitriol and one of the reasons, in his view, is that there is no regulation that forces impartiality on written news sources – hence the danger of us becoming propagandists.

However, Mr Russell appears to misunderstand a few of the basics here. Firstly, there’s a difference between news and opinion. The piece I’m writing in The Herald today, for example, is not news, it’s opinion, and as you can see, other Herald journalists are also expressing different opinions in different pieces. The article Mr Russell wrote for The National was also opinion rather than news and to be fair, most people get this. However, there are some readers (and politicians) who seem to assume that because a newspaper includes unionist opinion, it must therefore be a “unionist paper”. This is one of the reasons they scream “bias”.

But we need to be careful about this because the perception of bias can do strange things to your head. The Herald, for example, is accused by some of being “unionist” and by others of being “nationalist” and that’s because when people complain about bias, what they really mean is that they’ve spotted opinion that is not the same as theirs. Hence the woman who complained on Twitter that she was so sick of bias in the BBC she was going to subscribe to the Morning Star. In other words, what she wanted wasn’t objectivity, she wanted bias that was the same as hers.

This, I think, is how perception of bias often works, although I’m not denying Mr Russell's point that most papers come at news from a particular political stance, including of course the newspaper in which he made his remarks. But people can see what’s going on. Was a socialist ever converted by the Telegraph? Was a Tory ever turned by the Mirror? No. We drift to media that agrees with our own bias and so Tories read The Telegraph and Labour supporters read the Mirror, and so on. It happens this way because that’s the way we like it.

Of course, there are potential downsides and to be fair to Mr Russell he acknowledged them in his piece. Facebook and Twitter, he said, mean we create our own output, cutting out moderation by “gatekeepers”. But Mr Russell must know what that means. It means unionists scrolling through stuff that says unionists are right and nationalists scrolling through stuff that says the opposite, and, as I say, while in some ways that’s not a problem – it’s just the way humans work – it’s when people scrolling through Twitter see something that’s not the same as their own opinion that they scream “bias”. To quote Mr Russell himself, it has dangerous downsides.

As for the BBC, Mr Russell claims the organisation must be held to a higher standard than newspapers which it is failing to meet and singles out Question Time for criticism. The audiences for that programme, he says, do not accurately reflect the balance of opinion in Scotland and he says even programmes made here are weighted against nationalism. He also suggests the BBC’s coverage is becoming even more Westminster-centric “no doubt enforced behind the scenes by a Tory UK Government determined to bring the organisation (and Scotland) to heel”. He concludes that the BBC has let itself down badly and that its treatment of Scotland is an open sore.

But where do you start with stuff like that? For one thing, Mr Russell completely ignores the fact that the BBC established a new Scotland-centric channel in 2019, which has had execrable viewing figures partly because Scottish nationalists called for a boycott due to – you’ve guessed it – “BBC bias”. Mr Russell also seems to support the idea that BBC Scotland is prone to “framing” stories about the Scottish Government in a “negative” light which is based on an assumption, of course, that reporting the fact that something is going wrong for the Scottish Government amounts to bias rather than accurate reporting.

All of this stuff is pretty troubling to be honest, and Mr Russell’s language doesn’t help – “cauldrons”, “open sores”, “brought to heel” and so on. We also need to be a lot more subtle about what’s really going on. The BBC is not, and cannot be, completely unbiased – it is an organisation made up of human beings – but it does seek to control the bias, which is the best it can do. The problem – as happens with Question Time audiences – is that objectivity in broadcasting is not an exact science and will always be subject to the scrutiny of viewers who feel their opinions are not being fairly reflected.

Sadly – encouraged, I’m afraid, by Mr Russell and others – a perception has grown among some nationalists not only that the BBC is biased but that it’s plotting against nationalism. Mr Russell says, for example, that we are a long way away from the “old type” of BBC. But where is his evidence? He also says the BBC has let itself down badly with regard to serving Scotland with impartiality. Again, show me the evidence Mr Russell.

And lastly I have one more question for the president of the SNP which is this: where exactly – I want programmes, dates, times – is his evidence that broadcasts from Scotland are heavily weighted against nationalism? Can he mean that news programmes include criticism of the SNP, in which case what would he rather have? The SNP is in government – of course it’s going to get criticised. Of course, the BBC, The Herald and others are going to report when there’s a crisis or when its policies or people are in trouble. That’s how it works. And that’s how it should work. Criticism, Mr Russell, is not the same as bias.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.