If the media were the rat race and snake pit of popular imagination, Faisal Islam would have chosen a different career. Conscientious, serious and cheerful, the political editor of Sky News would never have stayed in journalism and would never have wanted to stay either.
Instead, he has become a British success story. His parents arrived from the subcontinent in the 1960s — in a sign of how our times have changed for the worse, they passed through Kabul and marvelled at the sophistication of its café life. The name they gave their son means Islam is never going to pass as a man whose family came over with William the Conqueror. With that in mind, a correspondent on Twitter asked last month if he had had trouble covering UKIP, whose members can give the appearance of being borderline or actual racists.
Islam replied that just once in his career had he met fanatics who had made it as clear as they could that an accident of birth barred him from covering politics in these islands. The “only place in the world I have been questioned about suitability to report a story on basis of nationality — not UKIP, an SNP rally.”
An activist at an SNP conference in Aberdeen had asked: “Why don’t Sky send a Scottish reporter?” Scotland, Islam said as he digested the implications of the insult, was experiencing “straightforward dark nationalism”. Islam’s Sky colleague Niall Paterson backed up the story. He said nationalists also questioned the right of Scottish reporters to report if, like him, they had once lived in London. He was, apparently, a “quisling”.
That very night, swastikas and Qs for quisling were sprayed on Labour and Conservative party offices in Scotland. They had campaigned successfully against independence. Therefore they were traitors.
Before that we witnessed a grim moment, which revealed the dark side of Scottish nationalism better than anything I have seen. In the last days of the Scottish referendum campaign, a well-organised demonstration equipped with professional banners marched on BBC Scotland’s offices in Glasgow. The protestors demanded that the BBC sack its political editor Nick “the liar” Robinson after he had upset Alex Salmond, then the First Minister of Scotland.
I had to take a deep breath and let this Putinesque act sink in. Supporters of the ruling party in Scotland were mobbing an independent broadcaster to intimidate it into sacking a correspondent and giving its leader favourable coverage. When Salmond lost, I thought the Scots had had a narrow escape. He, however, does not seem to realise he has lost. At the SNP conference in March he asked for the power to control BBC Scotland be devolved to Holyrood, so its anti-nationalist bias can be “resolved”. I’m sure you can imagine the frightened, forelock-tugging journalism that capitulation to his demand would bring.
The SNP once promised that it would build a sweet “civic nationalism”, which would bear no resemblance to the nationalisms that have blighted Europe’s history. As it turned out, Scottish nationalism, like so many other nationalisms, looked for an “other”, an enemy to define itself against. For without one where would the nationalist be? He needs the enemy’s plots and schemes to unite the nation behind him. They not only justify the national liberation struggle but provide the essential explanation for the nationalist’s defeats. Like the right-wing journalists, who blame the “left-wing” BBC for the failure of the populace to conform to their prejudices, and the leftists who think they lose elections because the right-wing tabloids brainwash working-class readers into voting against their interests, Scottish nationalists must use the media as an excuse for their failures.
As always, if you look hard enough you can find a grain of truth behind the fantasy. BBC bias, when it exists, is more liberal than conservative, although its most biased coverage is of the monarchy and religion. I don’t doubt that there is a deep subconscious bias in favour of the status quo in Scottish broadcasting as in all forms of broadcasting. But to find it Scottish academics with stopwatches had to chop up programmes and work out how many times their side had had the last word. As they announced their victimhood, they showed no understanding that broadcasting has mechanisms to ensure fairness, which politicians can and do use. Nor did they admit their dirty secret, which is the same as the dirty secret of Alex Salmond’s friend Rupert Murdoch and the right-wing critics of the BBC: they don’t want impartial television journalism; they want journalism biased in their favour.
Few understand that nationalists are as willing to turn their own people into enemies. When they vote against independence they have failed their country. They have renounced their heritage. They have joined with the foreign enemy to crush the nation’s aspirations and deny it the chance to seize its manifest destiny.
Journalists in Scotland are being hit with two stab-in-the-back myths. If they’re not Scottish, they have no right to cover a country whose nationalists demand ethnic purity of reporters. But if they are Scottish, and ask questions nationalists don’t like, then they are traitors, who have decided for their own cowardly or corrupt reasons to “talk Scotland down”, as Alex Salmond is fond of saying.
One Scottish editor told me that the menace and hatred had transformed Scottish life. He thinks that many Scots share his regrets at the collapse of civility. The moment Salmond lost the referendum, he says, was when he egged on his supporters to march on the BBC. Sensible citizens in liberal democracies don’t vote for mobs.
Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor, may have grasped this. She has abandoned the violent imagery that filled Salmond’s thuggish speeches. She accepts — or finds it politic to pretend to accept — that journalists should be free to report without fear. As her supporters took to Twitter to abuse Faisal Islam as a “London prestitute” (geddit?) because he had mentioned their prejudices in passing, her official spokesman issued a statement saying: “The First Minister thinks Faisal is a fantastic journalist — tough but fair — and as she has made clear on a number of occasions denigration of people has absolutely no place in democratic political debate.”
Sturgeon looks to me as if she is trying to tranquilise her zealots. I hope she succeeds because the way the mood among defeated nationalists is turning, someone is going to be hurt.