by George McKechnie

Nationalism and the BBC

September 14, 2013 | by George McKechnie

In the run-up to the Scottish referendum many followers of the Yes campaign for independence accuse BBC Scotland of editorial bias in favour of the Better Together movement to maintain Scotland’s place within the Union. In the face of a mainstream press, both London and Scottish based, that is almost exclusively unionist and often aggressively opposed to independence Yes Scotland supporters have focused their media criticism at the BBC, arguing that its own editorial guidelines require the broadcaster to be fair, impartial and objective in its coverage.

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Nationalist supporters allege that despite such regulations BBC Scotland is guilty of misleading and negative reporting and displaying ‘institutionalised political prejudice’ against the independence campaign. The evidence for such claims include a failure to provide equal representation for both sides in debates and discussion programmes and giving prominence to unionist inspired stories while burying or ignoring reports favourable to independence. The BBC, inundated with complaints of unionist bias, has stood firm rejecting these and maintaining that its reporting and commentaries are fair and impartial.

Perhaps inevitably, given the paucity of coverage on this issue in the print media, the debate and the arguments both for and against have primarily been played out online where nationalist and Yes Scotland supporting websites such as Newsnet Scotland and Bella Caledonia publish regular examples of what they claim is BBC unionist bias. Neither the SNP controlled Scottish government nor the official SNP has joined the general condemnation of the BBC’s coverage of the referendum campaigns although the fractures between nationalist politicians and the Corporation were laid bare when the Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee decided to investigate BBC Scotland’s capacity in resources and staffing to cover major events such as the referendum. In its final report the Committee concluded that it was a matter of considerable regret ‘that BBC Scotland had initially declined our invitation to give oral evidence’. It also raised concerns that because of staffing cuts BBC Scotland may be unable to deliver high quality coverage of events over the next 18 months (i.e. the referendum).

Broadcasting is one area not devolved. It remains within the control of Westminster, while it is SNP policy that a separate broadcasting authority should be set up in Scotland. However similar calls from politicians, commentators and academics will go unheeded, certainly this side of the referendum, and if a majority of the Scottish people say no to independence broadcasting powers will stay in London. In 2005 the then Scottish Executive, controlled by Labour, rejected a recommendation from the Cultural Commission that Edinburgh and London should revisit the regulatory arrangements for broadcasting in the 1998 Scotland Act. It was, Labour maintained, rightly a reserved matter and the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. A separate Scottish broadcasting channel was not required.

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It would be a mistake to believe that any unease within the BBC towards the Yes Scotland campaign and Scottish nationalism itself is a modern manifestation of the political landscape of the early twenty-first century, motivated only by the current threat to the union. The BBC is the definitive British national organisation – one of the few remaining pillars of the British establishment and, arguably, of the very concept of Britishness itself. It is inconceivable that it would be other than a standard bearer of the status quo, in essence a unionist body. When the former Director General John Birt resisted Scottish demands for a ‘Scottish Six’, to opt out of the Six O’Clock News, he merely reinforced this reality. He said later, ‘Opting out of the Six would be a powerful symbol of Scotland moving away from UK-wide institutions. It could encourage separate tendencies’. The BBC’s position was backed by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who, wrote Birt in his memoir The Harder Path, was ‘quick, as ever, to grasp the case’. ‘Let’s fight’, Blair told Birt. Alasdair Milne recalled in DG Memoirs of a British Broadcaster that when he was appointed Controller of BBC Scotland in 1968 he was given a ‘polite wigging’ from Tory politicians like George Younger and also ‘jittery’ Labour MPs who believed that there was a ‘strong SNP cell in Queen Margaret Drive’. The emergence of the nationalists as a political force in the late 1960s unnerved the unionist parties and they naturally assumed that the BBC would be anti-nationalism.

The BBC as a beacon of unionism is deeply ingrained and stretches back through the decades to the period between the two world wars when the Scottish National Party was created from the merger between the left-leaning National Party of Scotland and the right-wing Scottish Party. In 1935 the BBC refused the SNP‘s application for pre-election broadcasts, and it was not until 1965 that the SNP had its first party political broadcast. In 1936, when the National Programme broadcast a series Three Nations – A Historical Survey, looking at nationalism in England, Scotland and Wales, the BBC developed specific internal editorial guidelines to ensure that no part of the programmes could be used as a propaganda vehicle for Scottish nationalism.

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The guidelines, laid out in an internal memo circulated by the Director of Talks, J. M. Rose-Trump, insisted that there should be no emotional appeals, ‘no references to the distant past with its alleged injustices. One gets out of the realm of purely propagandist talks by the nationalist in Scotland, intended to attract more Scottish people to their side,’ Rose-Trump wrote. He insisted that the series should focus on practical matters, particularly those which highlighted the problems faced by nationalism. These included issues such as the administrative and constitutional difficulties of producing a workable scheme for devolution and the ‘inconsistencies of the nationalist case’. However, pleasingly, Rose-Trump did concede that the series should not deny ‘that Scotland has its own separate culture’.

These efforts to silence or control political appeals to Scottish nationalism came at a time when the SNP had little popular support and posed no threat to the mainstream unionist parties. But Rose-Trump’s apparent nervousness merely reflected concerns within the BBC that had been in place since the early 1930s when the political establishment in London and Scotland feared that nationalism might present problems for the union.

In the wake of industrial and economic collapse, large-scale unemployment and mass emigration in the 1920s, quickly followed by the Depression, the ongoing debate about the condition of Scotland, and Westminster’s apparent indifference to it, caused concerns in many unionist circles. Calls for home rule were supported – at least for a period – by the two most popular daily newspapers, the Daily Record and the Scottish Daily Express. The emergence of a dissident and breakaway unionist group in Cathcart on the south side of Glasgow alarmed the political establishment, particularly when this led to the formation of the Scottish Party made up of unionists who demanded some form of home rule. The angry public debate over Scottish home rule spread from the Scottish press to the London newspapers with The Times leading the broadsides warning that ‘the malcontents’ were sufficiently numerous and important to carry weight with impressionable Scotsmen, and that the Scottish Party ‘cannot easily be dismissed’.

It was against this background in June 1932 at their monthly meeting in London that the BBC Governors decided to dispense with the services of their Scottish Regional Director, David Cleghorn Thomson. One member, Lord Gainford, described Thomson as very capable but unsuited to his position because of personal faults, ‘such as conceit, egotism, tactlessness and so forth’. Another board member, Lady Snowden, said that from what she had heard from ‘outsiders’ broadcasting in Scotland would never prosper so long as Thomson was Regional Director. The Board instructed the Director General, John Reith, to see Thomson and explain that he was ‘considered unsatisfactory, request his resignation, one year’s notice being given’.

Some governors also believed that Thomson supported Scottish nationalism, which was unacceptable to the BBC and in particular to a Board filled with hand-picked establishment figures, many of them, like Gainford and Snowden, political appointments. Gainford, a Liberal, and former Postmaster General, had been the first chairman of the British Broadcasting Company before it became the BBC. Snowden, the wife of the Labour politician and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, was the main force within the Governors to remove Thomson from office. The BBC historian Asa Briggs said Snowden brought cultural and political clout to the Board, ‘she was one of the most controversial governors’. She was a constant irritant to Reith who took to calling her ‘the Scarlet Woman’. In his diary he remarked, ‘what a poisonous creature she is’.

Snowden’s antagonism towards Thomson and his alleged links to Scottish nationalism surfaced four years later, when Thomson had been removed and Snowden was no longer a governor. In December, 1936 a note on Thomson’s case marked ‘Staff Private’ which was sent to the Postmaster General, George Tryon, said he had been asked to resign or accept dismissal because he had exhibited ‘certain defects’ as the public representative of the BBC in Scotland. These included ‘violent quarrels with certain public men’; and a ‘general feeling of untrustworthiness and inability to handle staff’. Lady Snowden, the note said, had become aware of the situation in Scotland ‘and the prejudice to broadcasting which was resulting from Mr Thomson’s bad public contacts and from his enthusiasm for Scottish nationalism’.

In addition to the Tyron note there is other substantial documentation in the BBC Written Archives at Caversham to confirm that it was Scottish and London establishment fears about Scottish nationalism and Thomson’s suspected nationalist sympathies which finally convinced the Governors to sack him. Thomson left his position as the first Scottish Regional Director of the BBC on 10 April, 1933. The BBC announcement was brief, stating only that Thomson had resigned his appointment with the Corporation. In a separate statement, Thomson claimed his resignation was due to disagreements over matters of policy in Scotland, ‘and a consequent unreadiness on my part to continue to work in the face of obstacles which have proved insuperable’.

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The story of Thomson and his fate holds a mirror to the response of the Scottish and British establishments to the surge of interest and enthusiasm for Scottish nationalism in the early 1930s, but particularly its apparently increasing attraction to the unionist middle class. Thomson was an intellectual and cultural connoisseur of the time; to all intents and purposes he was an establishment figure. Yet his passion for all things Scottish and his closeness to many leading commentators, some nationalists like Compton Mackenzie, William Power, George Blake and George Malcolm Thomson, caused concerns in some circles in Edinburgh and, fatefully, also at BBC executive and boardroom level in London.

Thomson had been chosen personally by Reith and sent to Scotland in 1926 as Northern Area Director, subsequently appointing him as Scottish Regional Director in 1928. He fitted Reith’s ideal profile of a BBC executive, particularly one to lead the Scottish operation. Thomson was a classical product of upper middle-class Edinburgh, the son of a doctor he had attended Edinburgh Academy and gone on to Edinburgh University and then Baliol College, Oxford. He had trained as a lawyer but had opted for a career in journalism and twice stood, unsuccessfully, as a Liberal candidate, all before he was 24 years old.

He had a high regard of his own abilities as a playwright, poet and composer, qualities which he pursued in Scotland both personally through various theatre, musical and arts organisations and professionally by opening up the airwaves to cultural broadcasts. As a journalist he also responded to the economic and social difficulties with important current affairs programmes such as What’s Wrong with Scotland? in which over several weeks in late 1929 Scottish politicians, authors, businessmen and commentators were invited to recommend ideas and solutions. By any measure Thomson was a key figure in the formative years of broadcasting in Scotland. Yet histories of the BBC make few mentions of him; in W. H. McDowell’s 1992 officially approved history of BBC Scotland Thomson rates one reference, his appointment as Regional Director.

Thomson, if sidelined in the BBC memory, has been noted by some historians, particularly for his angry opposition to London’s much-heralded regional policies and also for the concerns he raised about BBC centralisation which he regarded as contrary to Scottish interests. In the late 1920s the BBC launched the Regional Scheme aimed at centralising and securing the authority of London over the Regions, which included Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its effect was to remove much of the autonomy and decision-making away from the regions. One BBC executive was dismissive of the Regions, ‘their local culture is considered inferior to the universal culture of the metropolis’. The voice of the BBC became London-centric, as Reith wished it to be, a strategy supported by his senior staff who were wholly convinced of their metropolitan superiority and who resisted any attempts to pander to regional variations in taste, ‘which, in any case, they considered to be merely capricious. The BBC gazed out of its metropolitan base on to an audience which it regarded vaguely or sometimes with indifference’, said one historian.

Eventually Thomson himself understood that his clashes with colleagues in London had weakened his position in Scotland but he was unaware – at least until later – that forces in Scotland outside the BBC were attempting to undermine him or that there was a growing belief that he was personally sympathetic to Scottish nationalism. Increasingly he found himself isolated and when Reith eventually confronted him and told him he could resign or be sacked he appealed to him to find him another post in London, such as Editor of the Radio Times. He did so by reminding Reith that he had only agreed to the original posting to Scotland at Reith’s personal request. ‘I said I should like an opportunity to take John Buchan’s advice –to which you replied, “Why was I not satisfied to be advised by you?”’

The view that Thomson was sacked because of personal and managerial failures is perpetuated in a recent ‘insider’s look’ in The BBC in Scotland: The First 50 Years, written by the retired BBC executive Pat Walker. Walker claims that among staff ‘dislike for Thomson was growing’ and ‘the Scottish director’s lifestyle and pyrotechnic displays of management had wearied London colleagues in general and Reith in particular. It was his short fuse in dealing with colleagues that caused the greatest concern’. There is no dispute that Thomson frequently clashed with executives in London, and that he was arrogant, often acting without tact or diplomacy, and regularly complained to Reith about London’s interference and control over the Scottish Region. However this version takes no account of BBC internal documents which challenge the issue of staff morale, their loyalty to Thomson, and which also open up further the issue of nationalist sympathies within the BBC Scottish Region. Reports on Thomson and the Scottish Region, written separately in the months before he left by two London executives, provide an alternative and positive view of him and the Scottish operation.

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Lindsay Wellington, the Regional Co-ordinator, charged with investigating alleged shortcomings in programme building and business controls, reported that he found the Scottish station ‘in a more lively condition and potentially a source of better programmes than any other region I have visited’. Wellington, while recommending a structural reorganisation to deal with the business issues, praised Thomson’s external relations work, ‘he is essentially a man of public affairs, which seems to be what Edinburgh wants at the moment. He is a figure in Edinburgh, which is all to the advantage of the Corporation’. In March, 1933, Rose-Trump, who as Director of Talks had been asked by Reith to investigate staff morale and specifically the strength of support for nationalism, wrote that his general impression of the station and the staff was extremely favourable, ‘I was struck by the enthusiasm of everyone I spoke to and by a sense of loyalty both to the BBC and to the Scottish Regional Director. The output of energy and ideas is remarkable’. Rose-Trump told Reith that he found the station a great deal more favourable than he had anticipated, ‘Thomson deserves credit for having got together a staff with such abilities as I have not found in any other regional station’. Rose-Trump told Reith that the nationalist sentiment was ‘clearly very strong among some members of staff’ and in some quarters ‘over-strong’. However, he added, this was ‘a healthy manifestation and quite easily capable of reasonable control’.

With the exception of a question mark over Thomson’s business skills, both reports appear to be at odds with the personal views about Thomson expressed by two governors and later by the BBC to the Postmaster General. And Rose-Trump’s questioning of the staff about their nationalist leanings provides further evidence that Reith and the board of governors were concerned about possible connections between the BBC Scottish Region and Scottish nationalism

Thomson, himself, unwittingly or naively, gave some legitimacy to links to nationalism when he edited the book, Scotland in Quest of Her Youth, published in 1932. Described as a ‘scrutiny’ of Scottish consciousness and cultural identity, it included contributions from leading Scots, among them nationalists such as Neil Gunn, Robert Hurd, Eric Linklater and Compton Mackenzie. It was unlikely to have been greeted warmly by the BBC governors. In the introduction Thomson described the then National Party as ‘a very virile young political party’, a ‘significant force in politics’ and he connected political nationalism and the cultural revival with the development of regional broadcasting. ‘Broadcasting’, Thomson wrote, ‘has provided an increasingly valuable platform for the views of those who, whether nationalist in politics or not, are vitally interested in the future of Scotland as a cultural entity’.

Most of the writers in the book had taken part in one or more of the various series focusing on the problems of modern Scotland which Thomson had broadcast on the Scottish region during the previous three years. He wrote, ‘all have been actively engaged in the general movement which has brought about a sudden revival of interest in Scotland’s destiny’. Thomson does not at any point in the book express personal support for nationalism, only indicating that he welcomed the arrival of political nationalism as an adjunct to the Scottish renaissance. And in a letter to Major W. Gladstone Murray – a senior advisor to Reith – Thomson said he had enjoyed a unique experience in his own country during the emergence of the political national movement, ‘a movement with which, incidentally, I am wholly out of sympathy’.

In the weeks before the announcement of Thomson’s forced resignation the BBC was anxious to control what he might say in public. In return for assurances from him that his departure would be professional and dignified the Corporation agreed to give him an ex-gratia sum of £1,000 in addition to all severance, redundancy, holiday, pension and expense payments due to him. Val H. Goldsmith, the Director of Business Relations, was given the task of finalising the financial arrangements and controlling the public and press aspects of Thomson’s departure. On 8 of April, 1933, two days before the announcement, Thomson assured Goldsmith that, whatever his personal feelings, he would not display any unpleasantness or bitterness in public, ‘you can rely on me absolutely to honour my word regarding my actions at this juncture with regard to a dignified bearing’.

Thomson and Goldsmith had also agreed that in making any public statements Thomson would refer to ‘policy differences’ about the Scottish Region between himself and BBC in London. The phrase was suggested by Goldsmith and when Thomson wrote asking what these might be Goldsmith replied: ‘for example you had backed the nationalist policy strongly’. Thomson, in response, said he was grateful to Goldsmith for letting him know that the Governors ‘disagreed’ with his nationalist policy, ‘it is to me privately a matter of great importance to have found out at last part of what the Board considered a substantial reason for their decision’. Goldsmith’s reaction to this was to attempt to separate his own words from the Governors. ‘I do not know that the Governors have ever mentioned your nationalist policy’, he wrote. He had mentioned that Thomson had backed the nationalist policy strongly because ‘it is very definitely an issue between two sections of the Scottish press’. Thomson wrote again to Goldsmith reminding him that he had repeated his remark about backing the nationalist policy. ‘Every intelligent person in Scotland knows that I have often repeated in public that I am opposed to the nationalist policy, and no careful follower of the programmes in the past seven years could accuse me of backing the nationalist policy’, Thomson said. He sent this letter to Goldsmith one day after he had officially resigned; only at the end did Thomson discover that no matter his protestations of innocence the BBC Board of Governors had decided they did not want someone in charge of the Scottish region who, it was believed, was close to the Scottish nationalist movement.

Through the summer months of 1933 the BBC sought to assure influential Scottish political and business opinion that the Corporation was not supportive or sympathetic towards Scottish nationalism. In October 1933 the BBC Programme Board received a report from the Director of Programmes which claimed that this had proved a successful exercise. ‘Responsible opinion in Scotland was apparently unanimous…that the dis-association of the Corporation with the Scottish nationalist movement was welcomed’, the report stated. Reith and the Board of Governors may well have been legally and editorially at arm’s length from the political position towards nationalism taken by its unionist opponents in London and Scotland but in such matters the BBC hierarchy could be depended upon to ensure that broadcasting protected the interests of the government. Reith’s dictum that ‘broadcasting should be established under the auspices of the state, but certainly not conducted by the State’, did not mean that on occasion broadcasting policy decision-making could not be conducted in the interests of the state, interpretated simply as being the interests of the government of the day. The name on the door was the ‘British’ Broadcasting Corporation, and Reith ensured, with the support of the Governors, that listeners in London, Cardiff, Belfast and Glasgow had ‘gentle but frequent reminders of their nationality, their membership in the British nation’. The BBC strived to develop a unitary and consensual version of Britishness, ‘to make Britain a community of listeners’.

In The BBC and national identity in Britain 1922-1953, published in 2010, the American historian Thomas Hajkowski suggests that between the wars the Corporation played a pivotal role in sustaining and reinforcing ‘a complex sense of national identity in Scotland’, that it existed to reflect the politics, society – the culture – of Scotland. The evidence for this analysis is that ‘special days’ such as St. Andrew’s Day or Burns Night ‘allowed for the expression of Scottish patriotism, and that, despite its admitted hostility to political nationalism ‘it did permit expressions of cultural nationalism, and debate of political issues’. In the early 1930s the BBC Governors and its Director General’s dispensation on what was ‘allowed’ or ‘permitted’ did not extend to accepting that its Scottish Regional Director might have political views with which they disagreed, and if he did, finding the evidence to support the charge. The BBC’s fear of nationalism even extended to issuing instructions to a London executive to investigate feelings of nationalism among the staff; and in the wake of the sacking of Thomson to carry out soundings across the Scottish establishment to confirm that they were now assured that the BBC and its executives in Scotland were not sympathetic to Scottish nationalism. Expressions of Scottish patriotism had limits.

Thomson embraced cultural nationalism. The programmes he pioneered on the BBC Scottish Region and the arts and education organisations he joined – a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a director of the Scottish National Theatre – provide evidence of his passion for Scotland and the arts. Thomson’s other representation of ‘nationalism’ during his tenure as Scottish Regional Director was focused on the autonomy of Scottish broadcasting and the threats to it he perceived from the BBC’s policy of centralisation. Following his departure he continued to argue this case in press articles, pamphlets and books. In October, 1935 he wrote, ‘Scottish broadcasting will never, be really worthy until the task of its programme board is in essentials something more than a skilful process of chink-filling applied to a structure devised and dictated from the South’. In 1937 he asked ‘Why should Scots hear only the metropolitan utterance in comment on and criticism of contemporary events and works of art and letters?’ The fact is that Thomson cared more, and said more, about internal BBC politics surrounding centralisation and regionalism than he ever did about external political nationalism. The accusations made against him by the governors and others, both at the time and later, were false. There may have been other good corporate reasons to sack him – his arrogant behaviour and alleged poor business management skills – but no evidence exists to support the case that he either sympathised with or supported Scottish nationalism.

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Like most of the interwar intellectuals Thomson was politically aware but although his political and social views changed between the early 1920s and late 1930s he was never a member or active supporter of any nationalist party or group in Scotland. His political commitment and journey took him from the conservatism of Edinburgh and Oxford, and post-war Liberalism to the post-depression Labour Party and socialism. At the 1935 General Election he stood unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate in Leith, and again at a by-election for the Scottish Universities seat in 1936. His conversion to socialism is likely to have occurred after he left the BBC and spent six months with the Rev. George MacLeod – later the founder of the Iona Community – at the Pearce Institute in Govan, working with the poor and unemployed in the district’s slums.

The BBC’s first Scottish Regional Director labelled by the BBC establishment as an enthusiast for Scottish nationalism did have views in common with other Scottish intellectuals and commentators. But it was not with those calling for home rule; he turned to the left and found shared ground with such writers as Edwin Muir and Lewis Grassic Gibbon who argued that the solution to the interwar condition of Scotland was to be found in socialism.

When Thomson left the BBC he was still only 33 years old. In middle age he cut an increasingly frustrated figure continually badgering BBC producers for work, to write and present arts programmes. His successor as Scottish Regional Director, Melville Dinwiddie and other BBC executives in Scotland adopted a compassionate and patient attitude towards him. When one religious producer found himself under pressure from Thomson Dinwiddie admitted that many others had faced similar requests, adding, ‘it has been very difficult to deal with them. London registry has many files on him, both confidential and otherwise’. In 1957, when Dinwiddie retired, Thomson, then aged 56, applied, unsuccessfully, for his old post then re-designated as BBC Controller Scotland.


George Malcolm Thomson: The Best-Hated Man

George McKechnie

Argyll Publishing, PP286, £15.99, ISBN 978 1 908931 32 0

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