BACK in April 1995 I had been chief executive of the SNP for only a few months when a major broadcasting controversy compelled the opposition parties to go to court to seek to restrain the BBC from interfering with a Scottish election.

The Panorama programme intended to broadcast a full-length interview with Tory prime minister John Major just two days before a Scotland-wide local government poll.

It was, in the the end, Labour and the LibDems which succeeded in getting the interdict which prevented transmission, despite an urgent last minute appeal by the BBC.

That outcome was unexpected but it did force the BBC to suspend showing the programme in Scotland and – given transmitter patterns at that time – also to black it out from screens in parts of the North of England.

The BBC were quick to lash out at the surprise verdict. Tony Hall, now director general but then managing director of news and current affairs, was contemptuous describing the Scottish judge’s decision as “narrow” and “risible”.

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In addition he sought to justify the BBC’s position by claiming that any interference in the right of a broadcaster to decide what and when to transmit was a step down a slippery slope which would eventually mean that broadcasters would be unable to do their job.

That was nonsense.

BBC management should have been welcoming fairness and demonstrable impartiality rather than having to be dragged to those essential elements of a democracy kicking and screaming. The court case was necessary because they were failing to do their job, not because anyone wanted to interfere in it.

Re-reading his views and comparing them to the arguments put forward by broadcasting companies in the last few weeks about the skewed and partial “leaders debates” that are either underway or planned, it is clear that he and his fellow media moguls have, like the Bourbons, learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.

Leaders debates did not become an issue in the UK until 1997 when it looked, for a brief moment, as if Tony Blair and John Major might agree to one. They didn’t, and it was only in 2010 that the SNP once again had to resort to legal action to make the point that it is not enough, whilst the UK continues to exist, for broadcasters to argue that there are adequate, fair opportunities for the Scottish parties to be heard by Scottish audiences.

That cannot be true if the UK-wide parties (of which all but one Scottish party are merely branch offices, to quote Johann Lamont ) get vastly more exposure beamed into people’s homes in Scotland night after night during a campaign.

A system which meets the fundamental test of democracy has to ensure that all the parties get broadly equal air time and broadly the same opportunity to be heard.

Presently broadcasters present a view of the election in which the SNP – a choice available to every Scottish voter and with the third highest number of seats at Westminster – gets only a fraction of the coverage given to the Tory, Labour or

Liberal parties when broadcasting output is considered as a whole.

Of course the old argument is that only the two largest parties can form a UK Government. The Liberals rightly object to that as they stand in every UK seat. But the issue at an election is not just who forms a UK government, it is how individual voters cast their ballots in each individual constituency.

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In that matter the SNP – running on a platform which has at its heart a challenge to the very system of UK governance – is being massively disadvantaged. So, to be fair, are the Greens.

The BBC, ITV and now Sky will never understand that fact because it runs counter to their deep-seated metropolitan bias towards Westminster and the narrow politics of that place.

Consequently it is essential that there is a body separate from the broadcasters which is charged with the duty, at election time, or ensuring that debates are planned, conducted and broadcast with complete impartiality and rigorous fairness.

This week’s SNP manifesto will repeat our commitment to legislation to establish such a body whilst we are still part of the UK. We must also entrench such arrangements for elections in an independent Scotland.

The Panorama case almost a quarter of a century ago clearly shows that broadcasters are neither able nor willing to address and resolve the basic issue of political balance during elections. Legislative change is therefore the only way forward.