By a Newsnet reporter
The BBC’s internal complaints department has refused to look into allegations that the corporation deliberately employed a news blackout of comments made by Irish European Minister Lucinda Creighton after she clarified her stance on the EU membership position of an independent Scotland.
Citing a technicality in the way the complaint was drafted, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit [ECU] has refused to investigate claims that the BBC were guilty of selective reporting, claiming the complainant did not specifically name the programme in question.
The issue centres on an interview Irish Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton gave to BBC Scotland reporter Raymond Buchanan in January of this year in which the politician said a newly independent Scotland would have to apply for EU membership.
The interview coincided with a visit to the Irish Republic by Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and received widespread coverage across the Scottish media. It also featured prominently across the whole of the BBC’s Scottish spectrum.
Also broadcast by BBC Scotland were comments from Scottish Secretary Michael Moore who claimed a newly independent Scotland would find itself “outside the EU having to negotiate its way back in”.
However, a controversial claim by the BBC reporter that Ms Creighton ‘shared’ the views of the Scottish Secretary and that her comments ‘chimed’ with those of the senior Lib Dem MP were later undermined when Ms Creighton issued several official statements making it clear she believed her stance had been “misconstrued” and “spun”.
In a response to Newsnet Scotland the Irish Minister made it clear that her own view had in fact chimed with those of the Scottish government and not, as suggested by Mr Buchanan, Lib Dem MP Michael Moore.
Days after the BBC aired the interview, she told Newsnet Scotland: “I was asked about the future of negotiations with the EU in the event that Scotland votes for independence. I thought that my reply was largely in line with that of the Scottish Government. I certainly did not at any stage suggest that Scotland could, should or would be thrown out of the EU. Scottish people are citizens of Europe.”
She added: “My understanding is that the Scottish Government has already committed to a negotiation with the EU between 2014 and 2016, if you vote for independence in 2014. If my interview suggested something other than that, this was not my intention. I think my comments have been misconstrued – if so I sincerely regret this.
“As SNP Westminster Leader, Angus Robertson said ‘Negotiations on the terms of membership would take place in the period between the referendum and the planned date of independence’, and that, ‘The EU would adopt a simplified procedure for the negotiations, not the traditional procedure followed for the accession of non-member countries’.
“I think that sums up the situation quite well.”
A similar response was also sent to Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after the MSP sought her own clarification following the BBC Scotland reports.
Despite the original interview and claims by Michael Moore featuring prominently in BBC news coverage days earlier, the broadcaster refused to report the clarification statement from the Irish Minister, including her complaint that her views had been misinterpreted and ‘spun’.
In an official reply to another licence payer who had provided a quote from Ms Creighton in his complaint, a statement issued on behalf of the BBC’s Head of News read:
“As to the quotes you give from the email, I am not sure what they add to the sum of human knowledge.”
The BBC also denied that its coverage of the interview with Mr Creighton contained claims that a newly independent Scotland would be “thrown out” of the European Union. Addressing Ms Creighton’s comment in which she said: “I certainly did not at any stage suggest that Scotland could, should or would be thrown out of the EU.” – The BBC responded by saying:
“Nor did anyone else – so not a news line”
However, in a new development Newsnet Scotland can now reveal that the BBC has refused to even consider a complaint that the corporation was guilty of partial reporting in refusing to provide any news coverage of the Irish Minister’s statements given after the initial interview.
In an official response, the ECU wrote to the complainant: “If your complaint had been about the Reporting Scotland report in isolation then the ECU could have looked into your complaint, but we cannot consider complaints that there has been an imbalance in the coverage of an issue across a range of output.”
The ECU official added: “I have therefore agreed with the Head of Public Policy for Scotland that he will provide you with a further response on this issue, and he tells me he will do so at the earliest opportunity.”
However, despite fourteen days having elapsed, there is no sign of any response.
Newsnet Scotland can also reveal that the complainant, a member of the Newsnet Scotland team, was forced to endure a near two month wait before the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit issued its own response and was only prompted into doing so after the BBC Trust became involved. To date well over five months have passed from the time of the initial complaint.
The issue of EU membership of an independent Scotland has been at the forefront of anti-independence attacks with several high profile Unionist figures claiming Scotland would not automatically keep its existing membership and might be forced to join the euro if it had to re-apply. Better Together head Alistair Darling said such a re-application could take as long as ten years.
The SNP insist that any re-negotiations would take place whilst Scotland remained a member of the EU and would be concluded within the two year period following a Yes vote. This view, as well as being backed by Ms Creighton, was also recently endorsed by senior Danish politicians and academics who said a newly independent Scotland would be able to renew its existing membership without too much fuss.
[Newsnet comment – The Lucinda Creighton episode is a thorn in the side of the BBC in Scotland and one which was easily avoidable had basic journalistic practice been adhered to.
The original report by Raymond Buchanan attempted to link the views of Ms Creighton to those of Michael Moore, especially with regard to whether Scotland would lose its membership of the EU after a Yes vote. A simple question posed to the Irish Minister would have removed any doubt as to her own view.
Sadly that did not happen and Unionists used the misleading broadcast and subsequent reports in order to portray Ms Creighton as holding views that we now know she did not.
When the Irish Minister issued her subsequent statements alleging she had been misrepresented it ought to have been a major news story, given the profile the BBC had afforded her initial comments. Sadly, the BBC refused to report the statement which would have neutered a major Unionist attack line in the independence debate.
The ECU dragged its feet and was only compelled to address this complaint after being prompted to do so by the BBC Trust. That they refused to investigate the complaint merely compounds the BBC’s handling of the whole affair.
The Edinburgh Agreement, signed by both the Scottish and UK Governments makes it clear that impartiality was to be at the centre of any referendum coverage.
According to the signed agreement: “The governments agree that it will be important to ensure that broadcast coverage of the Referendum is impartial. Broadcasters, Ofcom and the Electoral Commission will discuss the best way to achieve this.”
Clause 44 of the BBC Agreement provides: “The BBC must do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality in all relevant output.”
The BBC in Scotland should have reported Lucinda Creighton’s clarification statements in the same manner it reported her initial interview. It didn’t and in employing a news blackout of Ms Creighton’s clarification comments – given in an official capacity to Scotland’s Deputy First Minister – it surely broke guidelines over impartiality and accuracy relating to all relevant output.]