I don’t know if the prospect of punters evading the licence fee without landing in the clink has caused a stramash in BBC Scotland’s executive bunker, but of late its referendum coverage seems to have inched closer to even-handedness. It’s hard to be sure, because I can’t include Labour’s Perth Conference in my stats, since it turned out to be comedy rather than news. But there have been a couple of occasions recently where prominent Unionists have been somewhat discomfited to encounter robust and pertinent questioning, rather than the usual “Why don’t you spout unchallenged drivel into the microphone for five minutes while I make us a nice cup of tea?”
I’ve probably kyboshed things now. Jim Naughtie and his sword of truth will be back on Good Morning Scotland very soon, itching for an opportunity to announce “And now, Thought For The Day with Blair McDougall”. Still, in a world of rabbit droppings you have to be grateful for the odd chocolate raisin.
That said, with a charter review on the horizon it’s still a bit of a stretch to say the Beeb has an interest in disseminating information that might actually be useful to the electorate. We all know where that leads. The obvious tactic, therefore, is to broadcast a series of head-to-head debates, with eye-catching personalities adding a veneer of light entertainment to reel in the viewers. Boxes duly ticked, BBC Trust cooing contentedly and, if you get the format right, no chance of anyone accidentally being enlightened. Hence, before our very eyes, last night’s celebrity smackdown between Jim Sillars and George Galloway on Newsnight Scotland.
They’re certainly an engaging pair of mavericks, and you can see why the respective campaign leaders might wish to keep them out of the spotlight, with cattle-prods if necessary. Any spin doctor trying to convince either of them to toe the party line had better have a good therapist on speed-dial. Both advocate a form of socialism that would make Ed Miliband spontaneously combust, and both, if Alex Salmond walked out into the road in front of them, might struggle to remember which pedal was the brake.
Jim’s now been a member of three political parties, thanks to the rare characteristic of having rock-solid principles, and is so detached from the present-day SNP that he’s practically on St Kilda. He’s a master of the type of ringing phrase that makes you think “poet” rather than “smartarse”. His vision of Scotland’s future, In Place Of Fear II, evoking the spirit of Nye Bevan’s hymn to the Welfare State, makes Anas Sarwar’s recently trumpeted “red paper” look like The Ladybird Book of Pissing About. This is not a man in whose face you slam the door, unless you want it to fall off its hinges.
Coincidentally, George has also been in three parties, if you include the G Galloway Worship Party. He devoured Roget’s Thesaurus at an early age, possibly force-fed by classmates who found him irritating, and has been famous ever since for his rhetorical flourishes, although the queue behind him at the Co-Op checkout has not always appreciated these. We all enjoyed his finest hour, when he memorably slapped a hostile US Senate Committee all round Capitol Hill, but I suspect not many of us would accept a used car from him, even if he offered it free and threw in £500 for fuel.
The two stood at their respective lecterns facing the inquisitorial panel: Gary Robertson, who obviously never sleeps, Isabel Fraser, whom we all feared had been kidnapped, and Laura Bicker, revelling in having such an appropriate surname for a referendum correspondent. Jim was in conventional jacket and tie and George in a tuxedo and wing collar, looking like he’d just breezed in from a champagne reception, even though he doesn’t drink, because his ego is intoxicating enough.
The debate itself was a bit of a jaw-dropper. George charges £12 a throw for his anti-independence roadshow Just Say Naw, as if he’d ever be so monosyllabic himself, so we were looking for all sorts of zingers from his script. Instead, all we got was the standard Better Together bilge-fest: Alex Salmond, currency, SNP, banks leaving, banks needing bailed out anyway, Alex Salmond, border posts, Alex Salmond, shipyard job losses, SNP, oil running out, oil crashing, Alex Salmond, NATO forcing Scotland to keep Trident, yadda yadda. He even trotted out Mr Barroso, now officially enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary under “busted flush”! Sorry, George, if that’s your entire argument I want my money back and you’re lucky I haven’t set BBC Rogue Traders on you.
To be fair, there was a bit more: we were treated to an exchange of catch-phrases. George stole Jim’s “nonsense on stilts”, which Jim had used to describe currency union. George, naturally, expanded it to encompass the whole idea of self-determination, a concept great for Palestine but disastrous for Scotland. Later Jim hit back, pulling a note from a breast pocket George’s tuxedo didn’t have, and reminding his opponent of the time he’d described his pro-Union Labour and Tory bedfellows as “two cheeks of the same backside”. That’s probably not the exact terminology with which George regaled a grateful Oxford Union, but remember, Jim’s a gentleman.
Well, kind of. There was a moment when Jim cheekily wondered aloud if George could suggest a home for Trident south of the border, since he was an “English MP”, whereupon the Gorgeous One threw a contrived anti-racist strop. Oh, the infamy! The nonsense removed its stilts and started bouncing about on a pogo stick.
It was noticeable that Jim seemed to become more authoritative as the discussion wore on. He even snuck in a positive word for EFTA, simultaneously short-circuiting George’s tedious “ooh, we’ll be up a gum tree with the EU” argument and sending thousands of viewers scurrying to Wikipedia to find out what the hell EFTA was. George, meanwhile, got progressively louder and boomier, as if he was announcing the last train home. Metaphorically, perhaps he was.
And Jim did produce the night’s most memorable phrase: that Scotland was in the process of shaking off its greatest handicap, the “myth of inadequacy”. Not to mention the most head-scratchingly optimistic statement: that after a Yes vote Scottish Labour would arise rejuvenated “with Middle England off its back” and win the 2016 election. With Monty Python’s parrot running them a close second, no doubt.
So, in my own little opinion poll of one, I hereby award the points for last night’s tête-a-tête to Jim, while George leaves with nothing. Except his undying affection for himself, and the controversy that constantly dogs his footsteps.
Of course, in complete contrast to the BBC, I’m totally biased. Please feel free to send me your complaints about lack of balance. My reply will be similar in content to their standard response, but slightly more succinctly worded.