BBC Scotland and ever questionable headlines

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   By G.A.Ponsonby

It wasn’t the biggest scoop of the year, not even of the day, but yesterday Newsnet Scotland highlighted what appeared to be a very subtle attempt by BBC Scotland to portray First Minister Alex Salmond as somehow alone in paying tribute to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Alone in the BBC’s online coverage, BBC Scotland decided to headline their online article on the death of Mrs Thatcher with the following: ‘Salmond pays tribute to Thatcher’.

It wasn’t just the singling out of Mr Salmond, who was not alone in either Scotland or the UK in having paid tribute, but the use of surnames to describe both the former PM and the First Minister.

However, in a rather surprising move yesterday lunchtime saw the headline suddenly changed from a portrayal of Mr Salmond alone having paid tribute, to an acknowledgement that the respectful statements on the death of the former PM was cross party.

‘Scottish tributes to Lady Thatcher’ was the new headline that appeared over the article at 12:00 noon yesterday.  A welcome change, but too late of course to undo the subliminal damage that would have no doubt been done to the First Minister.

The new story was moved from top position within minutes of the headline changing, remaining in top spot only in the specific politics section.

But was the original headline merely an unfortunate choice of words by BBC Scotland, or is it an example of an underlying trend to create headlines that are damaging to the SNP and by extension independence?

For the last few months Newsnet Scotland has been quietly monitoring aspects of the BBC’s online news coverage in Scotland – in particular stories that involve politicians who, for lack of a better description, find themselves in trouble.

Our findings suggest a rather more sinister aspect to headline writing at BBC Scotland than one would expect were negative headlines the product of mere chance.

The images immediately below are of politicians or councils who have found themselves in the headlines for the wrong reason.  There is something missing from each of the headlines – that is the political party the politicians or councils represent, or represented at the time of their alleged misdemeanour.

The party missing, you will not be surprised to know, is Labour and the list is not exhaustive.

Now have a look at similar headlines involving politicians from another political party in Scotland and we see a very clear difference in the presentation of the story.  The headlines make it clear that the party involved is the SNP.

Of course the most notorious example of a contrived online headline occured back in March 2012 when, following an interview with Brian Taylor, the words of Nicola Sturgeon were very blatantly misrepresented.

The online headline: ‘Sturgeon says an independent Scotland would have relied on UK for RBS bailout’ appeared on an online article despite Ms Sturgeon stating clearly, when asked by Mr Taylor, that an independent Scotland could have coped with any banking collapse.

It was fully two days before the headline was corrected…

A similar episode followed Mr Salmond’s trip to the USA in order to promote Scotland and attend the handover ceremony for the Ryder Cup.  The initial BBC Scotland article highlighted the cost of the trip, describing the official delegation as “Alex Salmond’s Ryder Cup trip”.

Following complaints, BBC Scotland later corrected the pejorative headline to a more accurate one, but still managed to imply something that had not happened – Alex Salmond, despite the image, had not played golf on the trip.

These examples are absolute proof of nothing of course, but are certainly an indication of something – of that there is no doubt.  The circumstantial evidence that there are parts of BBC Scotland that warrant scrutiny is building.

Last night, BBC Scotland reporter Glenn Campbell, in what was billed as a report into the visit to the USA by First Minister Alex Salmond made a claim that is demonstrably false.  The report on Newsnight Scotland was typical Campbell who spent more time trying to undermine Salmond than actually reporting on the First Minister’s visit.  He appears to have been sent in order to find someone prepared to cast doubt on the NATO membership of an independent Scotland.

The BBC man stated that the compassionate release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi had “strained relations” between the USA and Scotland, a claim that he knows is false given that he put this very allegation to a US official back in 2009 and was given short shrift.

Back in September 2009, Campbell whilst on another trip to the USA, found himself at a press conference in Washington where he was allowed to ask a couple of, what can best be described as loaded, questions to US state department official Ian Kelly.  The full transcript of the exchange is reproduced below.

Campbell: “Glenn Campbell from the BBC.  Has the United States forgiven the Scottish Government for releasing the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing?”

Kelly: “Well, our views on that issue, of course, are extremely well known.  Again, we’ve passed these views both in private channels and in – also publicly. I think just about everything that we have said to the governments in London and Edinburgh through diplomatic channels have mirrored what we’ve said publicly.  I don’t think it’s a matter of forgiving anybody.  I think all along, we recognised that Mr. MacAskill had the right to do what he did.  We objected extremely strenuously at many different levels and in many different channels to the release of Mr. Megrahi.”

“I think at this point, we’re looking to move on.  We’re looking to continue the very important cooperation that we have with the United Kingdom and with Scotland.  We have very deep and abiding ties with Scotland.  These ties are cultural.  They’re – we share political values.  We have many family ties.  My own father, as you probably can guess from my first name, is Scottish.  He was born in Edinburgh.  So we’re looking to move on.  We’re looking for a – to continue this important relationship that we have with Scotland.”

Campbell: “Is there any diplomatic price for the Scottish Government to pay?”

Kelly: “We are very close allies, and I think allies – I don’t think we’re looking to punish anybody, per se.  There’s no tit-for-tat here.”

Newsnet Scotland said it yesterday and I’ll repeat it today.  Anyone who has concerns about the role of the BBC in its reporting of Scottish politics and the referendum should get themselves to Glasgow on Saturday May 18th and lend their support to the people behind BARD2014.

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