BBC Scotland and the curious case of the changing headlines

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  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
Today Newsnet Scotland publishes a ruling from the BBC Trust that should serve as an alert to people who believe that the BBC can be trusted to report the independence referendum in a truly impartial manner.
 
The episode that led to the ruling was as open and shut a case as could be imagined.  The BBC’s news blackout that followed Lucinda Creighton’s complaint that her views had been misrepresented was equally blatant and was evidence of a corporation unable to appreciate it has issues.

  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
Today Newsnet Scotland publishes a ruling from the BBC Trust that should serve as an alert to people who believe that the BBC can be trusted to report the independence referendum in a truly impartial manner.
 
The episode that led to the ruling was as open and shut a case as could be imagined.  The BBC’s news blackout that followed Lucinda Creighton’s complaint that her views had been misrepresented was equally blatant and was evidence of a corporation unable to appreciate it has issues.

However there are other less noticeable examples of what appears to be a calculated attempt at manipulating news in favour of the anti-independence campaign.

On Wednesday BBC Scotland published an article following an apparent statement from Ratings Agency Fitch.  The agency had issued a bizarre statement that made reference to a proposed currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Attempts at locating the report proved fruitless and there was no link to it on the BBC site.  The ‘report’ coincided with a statement from Fitch that reaffirmed the UK’s downgraded credit rating of AA+ and described the outlook for the UK economy stable. 

The headline on the original BBC article read – ‘Scottish independence: ‘Neutral’ effect on credit, says Fitch’

However within half an hour the headline had mysteriously changed and the keyword used was now ‘unstable’.

Scottish independence: Use of pound ‘unstable’, says Fitch

How had this happened and who was responsible?

The headline had (according to Newssniffer) been amended at 19:55, thirty five minutes after it originally appeared with the ‘neutral’ headline.

Beside the main article sat an analysis by BBC Scotland’s Business and Economy editor Douglas Fraser.  According to the BBC’s own timestamp Mr Fraser’s analysis appeared 19:50, five minutes before the headline change on the main article.

Interestingly, Mr Fraser’s piece was headlined – Pound ‘unstable’ after independence

Were the two linked?  Did Fraser’s headline (if he applied it) lead to the main story headline being altered?

We don’t know, but what is not in doubt is that someone at BBC Scotland changed the original headline to give it a more anti-independence thrust.

It wasn’t an isolated incident.  Something similar happened with an article that reported on the latest funding-gap claim from the UK Government.  In that case the headline portrayed the claims from the Treasury in a manner that suggested they were fact.

The original headline stated – ‘£1.6bn funding gap’ of independence.

The headline stayed for most of the day, before resorting to a more accurate and balanced – ‘Treasury claims post-Yes funding gap’.

What prompted that change?  Had someone complained to the BBC, did they feel that it was job done and the message had been pushed successfully?  Whatever the reason for the change, the BBC had given several hours comfort to the UK Government before adopting their much vaunted ‘neutrality’ and letting the headline reflect fact as opposed to agenda.

By late Wednesday the story had dropped down the main news.  On the business section it was down to third.  However something rather curious then happened on Thursday morning when it was suddenly pushed back to the top of the BBC Scotland online business section.

Again, we’ll never know the reason for the headline changes and the decision to move it back to the top of the agenda.

There are several examples of these rather curious headline changes.  The most infamous is probably the article that followed an interview given to the BBC by Nicola Sturgeon that resulted in an appalling misrepresentation being applied to the headline.

In March 2012, SNP Depute Leader Nicola Sturgeon was interviewed by BBC Scotland’s Brian Taylor as a prelude to the SNP Conference in Glasgow that weekend.

The Saturday morning interview was a typical format with viewer’s questions being read out by BBC Scotland’s political editor and Ms Sturgeon answering them.

Mr Taylor asked a question on the banking crisis and how an independent Scotland would have coped.

Here, for those unfamiliar with the exchange is what was said:

The answer, whether you agree with it or not, was clear, Scotland could have coped with the banking crisis and would have worked with England to avert catastrophe, the same way as other countries had with banks that crossed their jurisdictions.

There was another point contained in Ms Sturgeon’s answer, the fact that America, Australia and Europe all contributed to the saving of RBS.  Indeed as revealed by Newsnet Scotland as far back as July 2011, the US Federal Reserve contributed a total of $600 billion to the bailout of both RBS and HBOS.

However, here is how BBC Scotland reported Nicola Sturgeon’s answer.

Relied on? – It must rank as one of the most blatant examples of misrepresentation ever witnessed at the hands of BBC Scotland, and that’s saying something.  How BBC Scotland managed to interpret Nicola Sturgeon’s words in this way simply beggars belief.

Within hours of the story taking its spot at the top of the corporation’s Scottish online news, staff were fielding complaints.  Newsnet Scotland were alerted by several readers and we watched to see if the article would be corrected.

For two full days nothing was done, until Monday when by then the story had disappeared from the main news page.  BBC Scotland quietly removed the offending headline and edited the article beneath to more accurately reflect the words of Scotland’s Deputy First Minister.

Mischievous and misleading headlines aren’t the worst examples of BBC Scotland’s failure to adhere to its charter which calls for impartiality, but the fact is they happen frequently and always favour the anti-independence camp as can be seen from this recent headline below which once again appeared to portray claims from the anti-independence campaign as fact.

The headline above is of course based on comments from Herman van Rompuy who had suggested newly independent states would be outside the EU. 

The BBC of course never published a similar article when Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo gave an interview La Vanguardia newspaper, nor when Viviane Reding gave her own interview to another Spanish journalist.

The reason of course is that both these interviews undermined claims by the anti-independence campaign.

The decision, albeit from a BBC Trust trying its best to wriggle out of the ruling, to find BBC Scotland guilty of breaking editorial guidelines in a broadcast that covered the EU membership of an independent Scotland, is the first official acknowledgement that things are not right at Pacific Quay. 

However it won’t result in any changes at the top, and sadly for the Scottish electorate, this pattern of behaviour will continue right up to the day of the referendum.  Will any newspaper or broadcaster even report the guilty verdict?  I’d advise people who read this contact their MSP and MP to ask for their own views.