Was rather flattered - and a little perplexed - to find Jimmy Wales following me on Twitter the other day. The founder of Wikipedia is one of Time magazine's most influential people in the world, but not know for taking a close interest in Scottish politics. Until now. Wiki has entered the row over anti-Scottish comments on the BBC's Any Questions programme on Radio Four. Someone tried to include Baroness Deech's broadcast comments about Scots in her wiki entry. Wales objected because he argued that it unbalanced her short entry and that this one incident did not justify that. (The discussion provides a fascinating insight into how wiki checks material ) Wales, and some other wiki editors, also questioned whether this really was a row since nothing had appeared in the mainstream media. This struck me as fascinating given that wiki itself has had to fight for recognition. Certainly the web is jumping with conspiracy theorists and unbalanced commentary so must be treated with caution - especially when it comes to serious allegations. However in Scotland the internet is increasingly used as an outlet by a significant section of the population who feel the media does not represent their point of view. It was also disappointing that the wiki editors took the audience response to the comments by Deech and her fellow guest Douglas Murray to be evidence of approval - and confirmation that they were uncontroversial. Wiki editors clearly do not understand that the approval of an English audience in Sutton Coldfield, a leafy suburb of Birmingham does not reflect Scottish opinion - something even the BBC seems to acknowledge in its standard reply to complaints here.
I was caught up in the wiki discussion as the only MSM journalist to comment on the story - in The Scotsman - and am cited as a reliable source confirming that some folk are not too happy with Deech, Murray and the BBC. Alas, because I do not (yet) have a wiki entry, there is some debate over the significance of my intervention. I felt obliged to correct details of my CV, on the wiki discussion page, but resisted the temptation to get really petty and point out I have 870 Twitter followers compared to Baroness Deech's paltry 104. Jimmy Wales has 18,655 so is unlikely to be impressed...
If you still don't know what all the fuss is about, here is an abridged version of my Scotsman column. I should, however, point out that the story was first highlighted by Newsnet Scotland and then shared extensively around the web.
Greg Dyke once described the BBC as “the glue that binds the nation together” But can that really be the case? For the last ten days or so, a protest has been building on the internet, and social networks like facebook and twitter, as a result of an extraordinary outburst of intolerance on Any Questions, the flagship Radio Four current affairs show. One of the panelists who caused the most offence was Baroness Ruth Deech, a former governor of the corporation. The other was Douglas Murray a polemicist whose precocity is matched only by his talent for self-promotion. They were discussing the release of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing when Deech launched into what can only be described as an rant. She is an academic and lawyer best known for chairing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Yet her language was intemperate in the extreme, like a Jeremy Clarkson column without the jokes: “It’s been very embarrassing for the rest of us. And it started me thinking along these lines, if Scotland wants to be independent, OK, be my guest, go ahead.....go off on your own, because actually, we're all subsidising them I think, by way of benefits and all sorts of reasons."
Murray a young neocon who is expected to shock, went further: “There is not very much to do if you are the Scottish Justice Secretary in a devolved Scottish Assembly. You can at least read the one important bit of news that comes across your desk in the last five years. The problem that I think the most galling thing about this whole thing is this pretend, horrible, charade building in Edinburgh called the Scottish Parliament and the horrible charade politicians who inhabit it and who occasionally crawl out of the darkness and explain something to the rest of us, as if we’ve never thought of moral questions before." He went on to describe Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond as “horrible grandstanding, Mickey Mouse politicians,” and mocked suggestions that the Scots were a compassionate people.
If Britain really was one nation under the flag, it didn’t seem that way in the Birmingham suburb from where the show was broadcast. These were not the comments of maverick oddballs. The audience cheered, applauded and laughed with Deech and Murray. It was the aural terrain more often inhabited by shock jocks and went further than attacking Salmond, MacAskill or the devolved settlement. It was Scotophobia writ large. Can you imagine a serious Radio Four Show getting away with similar comments about the Irish Dail? Would it be acceptable to describe the Major of London as “crawling out of the darkness”? It would be unthinkable because, from a metropolitan perspective, Boris presides over the centre of the universe. Edinburgh and Scotland are on the dark side. Compare the silence over this incident to the blanket coverage, in England and Scotland, of any anglophobic incident during the World Cup Finals, where the word racist is often bandied about. Where are the phone in shows devoted to Scotophobia?
Given that 90% of the population of the UK resides in England, it is, perhaps understandable that the views (prejudices?) of the majority will be indulged, even on Radio Four. Two YouGov polls, one in 2007 another earlier this year, showed that around two thirds of English people think Scotland is subsidised by the rest of the UK. Only 12% of Scots agree. There is an alternative version of Scottish English power relations that is very seldom heard on "national" talk shows, even north of the border. It would include the fact that Scotland is entitled to 95% of the oil revenues that have made Britain rich these last 30 years – a fact pointed out most recently by the Nobel Prizewinning World Bank Economist Joseph Stiglitz. There is the 1970s government-commissioned McCrone Report which predicted an independent Scotland could become fabulously wealthy. It was classified and kept secret for 30 years. There is the fact that the official government statistics GERS, published earlier this year show Scotland in surplus by £1.3billion in 2008-2009.We can argue the details, or course. But we seldom get the chance because a consensus appears to have been manufactured suggesting that Scotland is the poor, ignorant sponger up north. It is strange, isn't it, that neocon and anti-Scottish views like those expressed by Deech and Murray seem terribly familiar. The alternative, Scottish nationalist view, seems radical and unusual because it is so seldom given a platform. It is kept outside the mainstream, separate from the manufactured consenus. Note the decision to exclude the SNP from the leaders debates with dominated the General Election. It’s difficult to see how the BBC, so heavily weighted towards the centre of population, can tell two opposing stories at once. As a national glue, it's getting a bit tacky.