Salmond v. the BBC

Glen Newey · The SNP's Failed Injunction

Sleek and pawky Alex Salmond, first minister and Scottish National Party leader, has been in court challenging the BBC over the SNP’s non-inclusion in the final prime ministerial debate on BBC1. His grievance would be a bit more justified if the Nats were fielding candidates in Glossop or Penistone, and the rest of the UK. But as the SNP is only putting up candidates in Scotland (59 seats), it’s quite hard to see how Shrek could put himself forward as a UK prime minister in waiting. And then there is the usual question of line-drawing. If the nationalists had been allowed their place in the sun, why not the Greens, UKIP, the English Democrats and the BNP? Indeed, why not independents, or CURE, the Citizens for Undead Rights and Equality Party, fielding four candidates on a ‘zombie rights’ platform, to allow civil partnerships between living people and stiffs.

The SNP challenged the BBC in the courts on the eve of the final prime ministerial election debate between the three major parties’ leaders. The aim was not in fact to shoehorn Salmond into the debates, but to get an injunction to restrain BBC television from broadcasting the debate in Scotland. The Nats, who run the devolved Scottish Executive in Holyrood, were hoping to stop those of us who live in Scotland from watching. It was a pointless gesture, as the programme goes out on Sky, the internet and the radio anyway. The election campaign itself has a slightly shadowy feel, as devolved matters like health and education are ipso facto not campaign issues – though of course the unresolved West Lothian question means Westminster Scottish MPs will still be able to legislate these matters for Glossop and Penistone.

That said, since devolution the BBC itself has foisted on viewers in Scotland a different edition of Newsnight, which devotes its final 20 minutes to Scottish affairs. So every night at 11 p.m., just as Paxo is about to read out the headlines, there’s a drum roll and sennet, and we’re beamed off to the Beeb’s Glasgow studio for Newsnight Scotland. While audiences elsewhere get reports on third-world debt cancellation or human trafficking in Transdniestria, north of the border we’re subjected to picayune items about Dingwall’s neighbourhood watch, or the cattery inspectorate regime in Bute. It’s all got its place, of course. But it’s not exactly a window on the world. Presumably the BBC thinks its Scottish viewers are more parochial than those elsewhere. At least it vindicates me in my decision to evade my licence fee.

Of course there was no chance of the SNP action’s succeeding. The litigation in Edinburgh’s Court of Session has blown upwards of £50,000, which party supporters are being asked to cough up. Salmond and his lieutenants must have been well aware that the suit was doomed. It was ludicrously timed – why not take action before the first debate? Success in the courts was not really the point. Salmond presumably calculated that the stand – plucky band of Nats faces the might of the London-based Corporation – would play well in Ochil and South Perthshire, or Dundee West.

That the case was swatted down will doubtless be used to bolster the Nats’ self-image as a downtrodden underdog. Outside court, the SNP deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, said: ‘We will now take our case to the court of public opinion.’ It doesn’t look like the Nats will enjoy much more success there than in the Court of Session. The latest polls in Scotland have them dragging along at 19 per cent, in third place behind Labour (37 per cent) and the LibDems (24 per cent). It seems pretty idle to boast, as Shrek has, of 20 SNP members in the new Parliament.


  • 29 April 2010 at 2:23pm
    samjordison says:
    In what way does it vindicate your decision to "evade" your licence fee? Especially since you seem to watch the programme. Tut-tut.

    (Otherwise, thanks for an interesting blog post)

  • 30 April 2010 at 10:29am
    Glen Newey says:
    Well, there are several ways to evade the licence fee, not least by not paying it. And then you can not pay in different ways, for instance by having no telly that would incur the legal requirement for a licence. Have not watched NN for several years though presumably watching at a friend's or through someone's window would be OK. I think I saw it once at my mother's in 2009. I hope this sets things straight from the legal point of view for the LRB. I don't know if watching Mrs Duffy on YouTube counts.