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By a Newsnet reporter

Trailed all week by BBC Scotland, Sunday night’s referendum debate was the political anorak’s dream match-up; Unionists versus Nationalists in a head to head.

Days after the launch of the Yes campaign and – chaired by BBC Scotland’s most respected political presenter, how could it fail to energise the ‘Great Debate’.

But fail it did.

An utter shambles of a programme where viewers were treated to partisan speech after partisan speech, each masquerading as a question.

Tribal hostilities replaced intelligent debate as the rhetorical rent-a-mob took advantage of an over polite chair.  It started with a front row Unionist allowed free reign to make a smear laden speech against Alex Salmond and went downhill from there.

This was no debate, it was a verbal stoning.  Flanked by Unionists on either side, Nicola Sturgeon was also accosted by several audience members, each giving voice to a plethora of media scare stories that have emanated from Unionists over the last few months.

Sadly, Isobel Fraser took the role of passive observer as Sturgeon tried to deal with the Unionist pincer attack.

A pumped up and very aggressive Ruth Davidson behaved appallingly throughout.  The former BBC Scotland presenter even appeared at times as though she was in charge, firing questions at Nicola Sturgeon and, in best BBC interview fashion, talking over the Deputy First Minister, thus making her replies inaudible.

A cheap stunt involving a letter should have been dealt with the Chair, or the producer, but it somehow made it through to the scheduled edited broadcast.

Anas Sarwar contributed little and arrived with a strategy that seemed to consist of nothing more than using any and every question to launch an attack on the SNP.

Patrick Harvie sat on the sidelines watching it play out.  When invited, all too infrequently, to contribute, the Green MSP’s contributions were easily the best of the four.

This is no reflection on Sturgeon, who had clearly been targeted by her two Unionist opponents and was effectively ‘taken out’ by the continual verbal assaults from whispering Sarwar and hectoring Davidson.

The audience was selected using the BBC’s own criteria – we don’t know what this entails but judging by the questions, the crowd seemed less inclined towards Nicola Sturgeon than anyone else.

In my own analysis of the audience participation I found that of the 26 politically partisan submissions by audience members, no fewer than 18 attacked either the SNP or independence.  Only 8 audience members spoke out in favour of Nicola Sturgeon’s party, or voiced opinions that could be interpreted as such.

In short, anti-SNP speakers were allowed more than double the opportunities to speak.  Moreover, the length of time awarded to these audience members was considerably more than pro-independence speakers.

Those who have been critical of Nicola Sturgeon’s performance ought to reflect on this verbal assault.  Sturgeon faced attack after attack, and that the Deputy First Minister managed to make any headway at all is a minor miracle.

Here, for those interested, is an edited segment showing every single speaker.  It really is quite revealing.

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