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  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
The referendum campaign entered a new phase last week - the TV debates.
 
Last weekend the Sunday Herald revealed that First Minister Alex Salmond had accepted Alistair Darling's 'anytime, anywhere' challenge to a live TV head-to-head.

STV stole a march on its BBC rival and set up a mouth-watering clash between Salmond and one of either David Cameron or Alistair Darling.  If Cameron refused to appear by July 16th, said Salmond, then he'd meet Darling when the Commonwealth Games finished.

Despite initially welcoming the statement from the First Minister to a debate with Darling, crowing that they'd smoked him out, the Better Together campaign then performed a shock volte-face.

STV were given the elbow and the broadcaster was accused of bowing to pressure from Alex Salmond by agreeing to a post-Games date.  That the First Minister's stance had not altered one jot since Better Together had welcomed his initial statement, mattered not.

Alarm bells should have rung when it emerged that on the same day Darling withdrew from the STV debate a mysterious, and hitherto unreported, invite from the BBC had been proffered to the No campaign.  It saved Darling's skin and allowed the anti-Independence alliance to claim their man was still prepared to debate Salmond.  How fortuitous I thought.

You can only really hope to get away with this kind of contrived nonsense if you have a media willing to run with it, and not seriously question your claims.  The Herald, Scotsman and others duly did.  STV, to their credit, challenged Better Together's statement by releasing each of the rival campaign's response to their invite.

The role the BBC played in helping Better Together was further confirmed when a statement from the First Minister's office revealed that his own BBC invite had only arrived fully one day after Better Together had publicly accepted theirs. 

The No campaign were able to present themselves as having accepted the BBC invite, the FM was unable to do so because he hadn't received one.  It helped the pro-Union narrative which was hastily presented to the Scottish public.

But why did No campaign strategists pull Darling out of the STV debate?  They had after all been goading Yes for months with the 'anytime, anywhere' boast.  The reason was to prevent exposing Darling to a broadcaster over which they have little influence.

This BBC's 'Saving Private Darling' move shouldn't shock anyone who has watched the broadcaster's reputation disintegrate as the referendum campaign has progressed, and indeed it doesn't surprise me.  What we are in fact witnessing are those who back the Union preparing themselves for the Yes onslaught.

Each side is mobilising its forces for the final battle and the BBC is firmly in the Better Together camp.  The BBC has for months been filleting its news and current affairs staff to ensure only those trusted to deliver the pro-Union message remain in key positions.

News is very carefully managed to minimise negative impact on the No campaign – think the CBI membership fiasco, the news blackout of Lord George Robertson's NATO invite for Putin and Darling's 'Blood and Soil' interview.  By contrast, anything that damages Yes is afforded maximum coverage – think Salmond's Putin remarks, the carefully orchestrated 'Cybernat' outrage and the dodgy poll suggesting Scots back Trident staying on the Clyde.

Experienced and respected presenters like Isabel Fraser, David Millar and Ken MacDonald have been marginalised and popular programmes such as Newsweek Scotland given the chop. 

Dated programmes such as Newsnight Scotland and Headlines are replaced by poor quality clones – Scotland 2014 is shockingly bad and the shambles over Crossfire left a toe-curlingly awful hour of radio last Sunday.

Pro-Union anchors James Naughtie and Sarah Smith have been parachuted in from south of the border.  These presenters are consolidated with 'pundits' such as Professor John Curtice and a host of other elite pro-Union talking heads.

This is Fortress BBC and it is beginning to revel in its pro-Union credentials, even to the extent of regularly promoting the news agenda of hard-line right wing Unionist titles like the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.

So Better Together has abandoned STV, taking pot-shots as it went, and retreated to the trusted No campaign terrain of the beeb - from where it issues challenges to Salmond.  Meet me on August 12th says Darling.

Salmond will accept eventually, of course he will.  However he'll play his STV card for all it is worth and so he should.  STV stole a march on the BBC and their debate invite is still a campaign issue.

In December last year I described the referendum campaign as three-stranded, the three being traditional media, online and face-to-face. 

The Yes campaign has won the online battle hands down.  The No campaign has no equivalent to this site, Wings Over Scotland or Bella Caledonia and Duggy Dug's animations are still to realise their full potential.

The face-to-face battle has been won by the amazing grass-roots activists of Yes.  The emergence of Radical Independence is key to engaging Scotland's less affluent communities.

The traditional media is owned by No.  With the exception the Sunday Herald, the newspapers are overwhelmingly anti-independence.  But the big beast always was the BBC.

The battle lines are thus drawn.  It's coming down to what we all knew it would with the London controlled BBC and newspapers owned outwith Scotland lined up for No against grass-roots activists and online citizen journalism on the side of Yes.

Can Yes defeat the collective might of the colonial media?  Time will tell.  But Scots overcame similar odds seven hundred years ago because they believed they could.

Belief can prevail again.

 
[Newsnet comment.  Today, Sunday, will see yet another protest held outside the headquarters of the BBC in Scotland.  Up to 1700 people are expected to be in attendance at a peaceful protest against the BBC's pro-Union stance in its coverage of the independence referendum.

The demonstration will, more than likely, be ignored by the traditional media.  However in the unlikely event that Scotland's media decide the event is newsworthy then they may seek comment from those in attendance. 

With that in mind Newsnet Scotland has today republished the first half of our 'Dirty Dozen' article that highlighted six of the worst examples of BBC coverage of Scottish political issues.  The article can be referenced by anyone wishing to explain just why they are attending the protest.

Part Two is still in draft form and will be published some time in the near future.  It will of course contain the Lucinda Creightin episode for which the BBC has still to apologise and broadcast a correction.]

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