BBC Scotland Can't Strike Rangers Balance
- 18 February 2013
On a day when BBC Scotland staff will take to the streets outside Pacific Quay to protest at job cuts, there remain huge question marks over the ability of their organisation to meet the terms of their own charter. “The BBC exists to serve the public interest”. It is highly debatable whether this remains the case, at least in Scotland. Agendas and bias should be utterly foreign to the BBC but more and more we are seeing those things creep into their work. Central to this idea of serving the public interest is the idea of “balance”, which has been sadly lacking from the BBC’s output north of the border. Despite this problem having been raised many times with them it was apparent again this past week.
I should start by saying that BBC Scotland presents something of a conundrum for Rangers fans. We have no real option but to pay our licence fee and fund them, but we find them not only at odds with our view of our club but simply unable to provide anything approaching a fair commentary on matters affecting it. The simple fact is that as a group we can’t hurt the BBC in the same way as we can a newspaper or an independent broadcaster because boycotting them does not hit them in the pocket. It was from that standpoint that I agreed to a couple of discussions with BBC Scotland producers and presenters recently about appearing on their shows.
I am not going to go into the content of these meetings too deeply because I would like to respect that they were private. However, I will say that it is apparent that BBC Scotland, at least in certain areas, understand that their programming is being harmed by the perceived anti Rangers bias which infects their output. They remain at loggerheads with the club and are refusing to apologise publicly for their “Madmen” montage featuring Ally McCoist. They also refuse to publicly acknowledge that they have an issue with imbalance in the panels which make up their sports programming. However, saying something publicly and recognising privately that there is a problem are two different things. The BBC know they made a mess of the McCoist issue and they know that continuing with panel shows which feature only those people who have been outspoken against Rangers in the past year, is leaving them vulnerable to accusations of bias. The more lucid, self-aware panel members also appreciate the imbalance that exists on the shows they appear on.
On the anniversary of the club going into administration, BBC Sportsound aired a show which featured Stuart Cosgrove and Graham Spiers as panellists, on a show presented by Jim Spence. Within minutes of the show airing, Spence had decreed that Rangers “are a new club although Rangers fans will argue the toss on that”. He said this unchallenged. It was a factually incorrect statement that could only have been made by an idiot, someone not in full possession of the facts, someone that wished to pander to an agenda against the club or a mix of the above. I’ll limit myself to saying that Spence is well aware of the facts. We shouldn’t expect more from Spence, he isn’t really capable of it, but we are entitled to expect more of the BBC. I genuinely don’t mind if they want to employ people who are willing to sacrifice their journalistic integrity and twist the facts about Rangers, but they should also employ people willing to highlight that agenda and challenge it.
Later in the week, with a panel consisting of Tom English, Graham Spiers and Gordon Smith (making a rare appearance), Spiers continued this line of propaganda with “technically Rangers are a new club”. Well, no. Technically, we are the same club. Technically, the SFA licence was transferred between corporate entities - something which could only have been done if we were the same club. Those are the technicalities so, technically, Graham was talking nonsense. Again this went unchallenged. There was no balance.
Now herein lies the problem, there are different ways of achieving balance. One is to have a panel in which each member is neutral, but given the current paucity of Scottish journalism and broadcasting this is virtually impossible. The other way to do it would be to have a panel which consists of those who detest or dislike Rangers, which the BBC already have plenty of, and balance it with those willing to stand up and reject their propaganda when it rears its head. Whilst journalists can openly declare that they support Dundee Utd or St Johnstone, anyone openly stating that they support Rangers would be hounded out of a job. Not providing any counter to the panellists who are hostile to the club is where the BBC in Scotland utterly fails in its duty.
I was invited on to the show on the 14th where Spence peddled his lies but could not appear due to work commitments. I was offered a studio in London to facilitate my participation but it didn’t meet my travel plans. It was clear the BBC wanted me on but I then woke up that morning to discover that they had offered the place to Paul McConville, Celtic fan, Celtic blogger, associate of Phil MacGiollabhain and regular attendee at Celtic functions (to talk about Rangers obviously).
Naturally, I contacted the producer of the show to voice my discomfort at this. I was told that if I appeared they would drop McConville from the show. I informed them that I was willing to try to change my travel plans to do so but asked who else was appearing. At this point I was told it was Stuart Cosgrove (which I already knew), Andy Muirhead from the Celtic blog, Scotzine, with Jim Spence and Graham Spiers as possible other participants. I made my feelings clear and declined. Let me explain why.
It was clear to me that the message on “balance” is still not getting through. It would have been bad enough for the BBC to think that me appearing with three journalists, who have been amongst the most outspoken critics of Rangers over the past two years, would have been “balanced”. However, for them to be contemplating a show that also included Muirhead and/or McConville would have been farcical.
The idea that I could have provided balance on a show which included two Celtic bloggers, two journalists in Spiers and Spence who are willing to ignore the facts on Rangers status to peddle “new club” myths and Stuart Cosgrove, no friend of the club, is utterly ridiculous.
Now, I’m willing to accept that perhaps the BBC didn’t know about the backgrounds of Muirhead and McConville. They do both masquerade as neutral in their own ways, McConville on the pretence of being an Albion Rovers fan and Muirhead by pretending his website is not a Celtic blog. Also, I must give the BBC some credit because, once the facts were presented to them, they clearly took on board the fact that to have those people appearing on the programme would have been ridiculous. However, they should not have needed me to tell them that.
An enraged Muirhead took to his Celtic website in his inimitable, semi-literate style to brand me a coward for not appearing, a bigot (a regular, baseless accusation), and complain about me ruining his shot at ‘stardom’. I’m not going to get into a slanging match with him because he’s not important. I’ll just mention this quote that a fine gentleman made me aware of, from Thomas Paine, “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason, is like administering medicine to the dead.”
I’m told McConville was quite put out too. I don’t have the time to wade through his spectacularly lengthy drivel to see what he said so I’ll content myself with the knowledge that apparently my refusal to go out of my way to appear meant neither of them got to spew their bile about my club on national radio. Why they were ever invited in the first place will remain a mystery. I would neither expect nor accept an invite to appear on the radio or TV to talk about Celtic. Whatever odd personality defect gives them the sense of entitlement to think they deserved to be on a show talking about a club they hate will also, thankfully, remain a mystery to me.
The BBC have to find a way to balance their own output without relying on appearances from fans, bloggers or ex lawyers who require to work under supervision. They have to balance their own panels and their own staff. It is not my job, the job of any other Rangers fan or Rangers fan representative to challenge Spence or Spiers on their lies – although we could. Fans should be on these shows to give the fans view, not to stem the tide of inaccurate drivel from those employed by the BBC. The BBC should be employing people to appear regularly on these shows that will pull people like Spence and Spiers up if they wish to stray from the facts. Until they do, they will continue to find it hard to get Rangers fans to take their output seriously and they will continue to damage what little credibility they have left.
Perhaps if they can balance their own output then they will find that Rangers fans are willing to engage with them again. Maybe they will even find the club more willing to cooperate with them. However as long as their website, radio and news outlets continue to churn out snide, agenda driven content, often with no factual basis, then the rift will widen and who knows, perhaps those responsible for upholding the BBC charter will start to take more and more interest in our little corner of their operation.