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BBC bias conspiracy is a cybernat delusion that harms the SNP's cause

Comment: It's time Nicola Sturgeon dealt with anti-media paranoia in her party, says Andrew Collier.

By STV News

Published 27 Jul 2016.

Every weekday morning at 7am, a secret meeting takes place in a small windowless room at Pacific Quay, the Glasgow riverside headquarters of BBC Scotland.

Senior news executives discuss the stories of the day and how they should treat them. They are usually joined on a conference call by Whitehall government special advisers. From time to time, a leading official from Downing Street is also on the line.

The agenda is straightforward: To work out which Unionist items should be played up, and how the Corporation should spin its coverage to maximise damage to the SNP and the Scottish Government.

Does this really happen? No, of course it doesn't. But there are a considerable number of people in the SNP and the wider Indyref2 movement who seem to believe it's exactly the sort of thing that does go on.

From MI5 conspiracy theorists to dwellers in the Celtic twilight, Scotland's independence cause has long attracted the support of those with singular and colourful imaginations. But attacks on the media in general, and the BBC in particular, in the run up to and since the 2014 referendum have created a paranoia not seen before in the SNP's history.

To these people at the medicated end of the national cause, newspapers and broadcasters are the full-on, cask strength enemy. They're viewed as working together enthusiastically in a common battle for the obliteration of nationalism and all it stands for, with editors and journalists maliciously crawling over each other in order to earn their knighthoods and CBEs.

This grand cybernat delusion has become something of a cottage industry. Complaints and theories choke up social media. Crowdfunding has been employed to feed the beast. An entire book has been written obsessing against the BBC. There are even, God forbid, now plans to make an independent TV documentary on the alleged bias (not, presumably, to be offered up to Pacific Quay).

Believe me, I know about this stuff. I spent years working in communications for the SNP and the Yes campaign, and it plagued me and others endlessly. It was intensely frustrating to work on carefully building relationships with the so-called MSM (mainstream media) only to see the cybernumpties try and undo it all again.

It isn't just the broadcasters (STV gets it too). These people also go for the throat of many newspapers. Some of these -- notably the Mail, Express and Telegraph -- do have an embedded policy of attacking everything the national movement stands for, and so to an extent are fair targets for sensible criticism.

Other papers such as the Scotsman and Herald are soft unionist and more nuanced. The Daily Record was fairer and more sympathetic during the referendum campaign than its Labour-supporting history led us to expect, and The Scottish Sun -- the country's biggest selling daily paper -- went as close to backing independence as it felt able. Yet each and every one was verbally firebombed in the same brutal way.

However, because of its high profile and penetration into households, the BBC was -- and indeed remains -- the cybernats' main target. Peak Anger arrived days before the 2014 vote in a series of demonstrations outside Pacific Quay, intimidating staff and forcing the presence of the police.

These angry, bullying and highly negative manifestations of a victim mentality were the very last thing we in the Yes campaign needed just before the most vital vote in Scotland's history. We can only speculate how much damage it did in those last hours in swaying people back towards No.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the BBC (or indeed STV or Sky for that matter) was or is flawless in its coverage of Scottish politics. Sometimes infuriating mistakes have been made, particularly during the referendum campaign, and the balance wasn't always fair.

There are of course also ongoing issues with the BBC and how it treats Scotland in terms of funding and programming. The Scottish Government wants to see Pacific Quay given more control over output, budgets and commissioning to better reflect our interests, needs and priorities -- all eminently sensible.

This though is big ticket stuff and has little to do with day-to-day news coverage. As I've said, mistakes have been made in this, but no media outlet ever gets anything completely right.

What I do know from my own experience is that all -- yes, all -- the BBC Scotland journalists I know are experienced, highly professional, decent people dedicated to their craft. The really important thing to them isn't the politics (although I'd venture many are probably independence supporters) but the quality of the output.

They're wearily resigned to the abuse they get and have the confidence in themselves and the material they produce to be able to shrug it off. But frankly it's a draining, unpleasant pressure they neither need nor deserve.

If there's going to be an Indyref2, then this stuff is once again going to be ramped up to hysterical levels. And again it's going to be damaging to the Yes cause. How are No voters to be converted when they get the impression that these supporters are representative of those wanting to run a new Scotland?

Of course, as you'd expect, Nicola Sturgeon has condemned this kind of activity. Presumably she's aware of the damage it can do. But she's never really acted as if she's fully engaged with the issue and her critical remarks have sounded somewhat platitudinous -- as if cybernattery is a cross to be borne rather than an important dysfunction to be tackled.

A firm and unequivocal Stop This Now message from the party would make a real difference and at least moderate this nonsense. Why it hasn't done so to date remains a complete mystery to me and to others.

Yes supporters need to befriend the media, not constantly vilify it. The best way to sell the idea of a mature, responsible and tolerant democracy is to have a mature, responsible and tolerant campaign to project that democracy to those who remain sceptical. That means nurturing the messengers, not shooting them.

Over to you, Nicola.

Comment by Andrew Collier. Andrew is a freelance writer and broadcaster covering Scottish politics, business and religion. A former Scottish correspondent of the Sunday Times, he has just returned to journalism after working for five years as a communications strategist for the SNP. He was also a speechwriter for Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.