We’re all biased. Well, I am. My bias is towards an independent Scotland free from the grip of the British state. But should the leanings or even the political passions of everyone be on display? Should everyone who takes part in public debate or who plays a role in public life be expected to declare if they are Yes, No or Don’t Know?
Would it help others make up their mind if they were?
I was wondering about personal declarations when I read, I think for the third day running now, a version of the Shona Robison story – you know, the one where Dundee’s evil Rosa Kleb from the Bond movies silences the friendly professor from the Forces of Good. It’s been a dripping roast for journalists uninspired by for example Labour MPs treating their own Bedroom Tax vote in the Commons as just another meaningless gesture – so allowing pairing with government MPs. (An opposition debate is of course gesture politics but in this case that is exactly the point and was a chance to show that this matters enough to justify a moral victory. Instead the effect is to neutralise Labour opposition to the removal of the subsidy by rendering them ridiculous – to SNP, Tories and voters – when next they speak out).
But in the case of Evil Shona, new nickname The Silencer, she found herself in an awkward spot not because of her instincts but because she spoke out without realising how it goes these days when nationalists dare to veer slightly off course – a course set by the No campaign and enforced by a pliant media. Professor Chris Whatley strikes me as exactly the kind of experienced and well-informed voice we need in our debate and, usually, academics manage to pique my interest with original thought even when they are basically coming down on one side or the other. It seemed to me though that Robison wasn’t objecting to his expressing a view on independence, but rather that he was doing so simultaneously with assuming professional responsibility for an academic programme requiring neutrality. At least the Five Million Questions programme appears to be so…as it says: “At our best the universities are ancient repositories of the knowledge, and hopefully some measure of the collective wisdom, of Scotland. In what is an impassioned and partisan debate the objective neutrality of academia is ideally placed as a forum for illuminating discussion. Indeed, at the University of Dundee, we see such a role as the duty of our institution at this pivotal and exciting moment.” Now I don’t for a moment question the academic neutrality of Professor Whatley but given how, as they say, this is a deeply partisan debate, did he consider it entirely appropriate to be chairing the inauguration of Dundee’s Better Together campaign? Ask yourself, if you are heading a publicly-funded project on politics and are therefore the figurehead for it, do you genuinely think that it makes no difference to anyone’s perception of the project that you take the chair at the establishment of a partisan group taking sides in the very subject you are researching? At the very least this is a question any reasonable person would ask and, since Robison’s constituents will be aware of this and no doubt her supporters are moaning about it, is it neo-fascist gagging of honest opinion or a fair response from a local MSP that she questions it? Since the outrage of Better Together is focused on the right to speak out, do they deny that same right to the local representative on behalf of constituents? Adding in Minister to imply this was somehow government bullying is the spin doctor’s flick knife. But frankly, she should have known better. The whole background and record of Better Together has been based on the Damien McBride school of sewer politics. It was only weeks ago that the right to speak out of another Scottish academic Elliot Bulmer was brutally challenged when his work appeared in the Herald without a credit to Yes Scotland which had paid him. How the Mourners for Truth wailed in despondency and wrung their hands at the injustice. Mr Bulmer was after all a dangerous nationalist. Pity he hadn’t been in Better Together so the same Unionist hypocrites could have lauded him like Chris Whatley. The thunderous outrage of the one-eyed bullies at Better Together who were happy to see Vitol’s lawyers closing down debate and National Collective, will be a legacy issue when this is over, leaving the sourest of aftertastes. When the moral high ground is assumed, with media support, by an organization largely funded by the man whose fortune comes from the immoral activities of the Vitol company, poor wee Scotland really is a laughing stock.
And so is Louise Richardson, principal of St Andrews who has been quick in the past to step in to the public affray. She was immediately open to be quoted on the importance of academics not being bullied and rushed a letter around her staff as if some declaration had been made in Holyrood that henceforth all universities were to be quarantined. If this was an attempt to close down a row she needs judgement therapy. She managed to make it feel as if academia was under a general threat, playing (deliberately?) into the manufactured controversy. Staff must be free to speak their mind, she announced. And yet, curiously when asked what her mind was, she declined to answer. Why not? Perhaps the truth is that she sufficiently cute to know that actually declaring your politics might give people the idea you’re biased and you never know when a job opportunity might arise where that could be awkward? Is she hedging her bets for future consultations with the Scottish government? It seemed to me she was doing exactly what Chris Whatley should have considered – that some activity can appear to conflict with your primary role – and that Louise wasn’t falling into that trap. So it’s all right for her staff to open up and express a view but she’s isn’t so daft. I thought she made herself look very silly standing up for the absolute right to speak out – when her own university wasn’t even mentioned – but bottling her own right to do so for personal reasons. Very brave.
This bias business affected my own career and I was from time to time accused of political bias, sometimes for being nationalistic! I was nationalistic. But the difference is that I never did, and never would, break a professional rule in carrying out my duties. I have far too much respect for the BBC and for the audience and my colleagues and interestingly in 25 years I was never subject to a successful formal complaint of bias. There was always plenty of smear and implication but facts, never. A classic complaint was one from the Highlands who said I was expressing personal views on air because I asked the question: Is the Coalition the most right wing government Britain has had? We did three interviews and left listeners to decide, so why the complaint? I checked out the name and address and what the complainer didn’t tell us was his position as Lib Dem candidate. And they say you can’t trust the BBC. I see Alf Young this morning in the Scotsman saying he aches for a better-informed debate but is being “drowned out by the fervour of the committed.” Does he mean Prof Whatley?