TV News from the River Clyde
Here’s a strange thing. Two broadcasting organizations sit side by side on the Clyde, both offering news websites for the purpose of informing the public and nurturing Scottish democracy, as public service broadcasters should. Nothing odd there. But on the same day at the same time, one website leads with a large photo of Ruth Davidson and the headline ‘Ruth Davidson holds Downing Street talks’. The other has an equally dominant headline – ‘Sturgeon questions May’s ability to form government’. Ruth Davidson is nowhere to be found on the latter site, not anywhere. Can the priorities of Scottish politics look so different on the Clyde, between such close neighbours in the TV business? Can Ms Sturgeon be so much more important in the news sense of one organization, and Ms Davidson so dominant in the other? It’s the 12th of June 2017 in the afternoon, and it’s raining on both buildings – so it can’t be the weather. Both buildings relate to the Clyde in much the same way, so it’s probably not the feng shui.
What’s the press saying at the same moment? The Herald news website leads with ‘No 10 brushes aside Nicola Sturgeon’s call for cross-party “four nation” approach to Brexit talks’. No article on Ruth Davidson can be discerned. The Scotsman leads with ‘Nicola Sturgeon to seek “four nation” approach to Brexit’. A Ruth Davidson search comes up empty-handed! This is surprising (not least in the Scotsman) given her high visibility these days, but the fact must be faced. No Ruth Davidson at all.
Let’s call the broadcasting site with Ruth Davidson ‘website A’. We’ll call the other broadcasting news site (without Ruth Davidson) ‘website B’. The Herald (no Ruth Davidson) we’ll call ‘website C’, and the Scotsman (no Ruth Davidson!) ‘website D’. It turns out that B, C and D have something in common. They’re not BBC Scotland.
Could BBC Scotland have developed a thing about Ms Davidson? For example, could its highly prominent piece headed ‘Davidson says Scots Tory MPs will argue Scotland’s case “forcefully” (from the day before) hint at some sort of pattern? Such as perhaps the ‘Ruth Davidson given DUP gay rights assurance’, also from the BBC news website 48 hours earlier? Is it in any way significant that a visitor to the BBC Scotland news website in the few days after the general election might gain the impression that Ms Davidson was leading the Scottish party with the greatest electoral support?
Before 12th June is quite out, they’re at it again: another top headline with another big Ruth Davidson photo, ‘Brexit offer “could change” – Davidson’. It’s now officially a few minutes into 13th June, and I can barely keep up with all this Ruth Davidson coverage. STV aren’t keeping up either, because she’s not yet on their news website at all. STV just aren’t paying attention.
UntiI quite recently I had been haunted by the unhappy thought that Ms Davidson was, for the Scottish media, merely the new Jim Murphy. Recent events have proved her to be made of much more serious stuff. Jim was an illusion, but Ruth is very real. Yet much as Mr Murphy’s features for a while dominated Scottish news pages before the 2015 election (only Theresa May has managed the same range of expressions for photographers), Ms Davidson became the camera star on whom unionism was seen to depend. For the Scottish media in the main, pretty much anyone who might represent an alternative to Salmond and Sturgeon could become the acceptable face of unionism.
There’s a limit to how often Gordon Brown can be hauled back out of Jurassic Park. (Well, maybe there isn’t).
But Ms Davidson has been a godsend. The Herald and the Scotsman, of course, are published by commercial organizations, and owe no-one any editorial favours, so they can splurge on Ms Davidson at will. Should they wish to publish coverage more or less favourable toward any individual politician, or political party, or constitutional policy, that’s their business. It’s what we expect from the press in the UK, which with few exceptions on either side of the border has seldom made political impartiality part of its mission.
But the BBC, which as we know has an unshakeable commitment to impartiality, can’t be doing all this Ruth Davidson coverage for any reason other than its robust pursuit of objective political circumstance. Which throws the focus back on the clearly guilty party, STV. Has Ms Davidson offended STV? Are valiant efforts by STV journalists to get Ruth Davidson stories onto the STV news website being cruelly suppressed by STV executives? Is the STV building just along the quay from the BBC throbbing with resentment at the ruthlessness of it all?
By the same token, has anyone at the BBC risk-assessed all this Ruth Davidson coverage?
If Nicholas Witchell and Peter Hunt are assigned to provide more thorough coverage of Ms Davidson, will the Duchess of Cambridge be jealous? Could this jeopardize BBC access to the Palace? Can Ruth Davidson completely replace the Royal Family in BBC News output without offence to monarchist sensibilities in other parts of the UK – such as Northern Ireland? Could this imperil the Conservative’s power-sharing arrangement with the DUP?
Someone on Pacific Quay should investigate before this gets out of hand.