BBC Scotland – Devil’s advocate or just plain Devil?

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There’s an old joke about two drinking companions, one has a wooden leg and the other a humph on his back.  One night, after pub closing time, the one with the humph takes a shortcut through the graveyard where he is accosted by the devil.

“What’s that on your back?” says the devil
“It’s a humph” says the frightened man
“Give it to me” says the devil who promptly removes it from the man’s back.

The following evening the man explains what happened to his single limbed friend and suggests that if he takes the same route home the devil might appear again and replace the wooden limb with a real leg.

So the one legged man does just that and as he enters the graveyard the devil duly appears.

“What’s that on your back?” says the devil
“Nothing” says the one legged man
“Here’s a humph then” says the devil and slams his friend’s old humph onto the man’s back.

Rather unfair on the poor man, he has received different treatment to that of his friend.  But then again, it is the devil after all and fairness is not what the devil is about.

But what if the entity was not the devil, what if it was a publicly funded body that is compelled to behave in a fair manner.  Well in that case the man would have cause for complaint – wouldn’t he?

And that brings us neatly to the BBC in Scotland and a question of fairness.  You see BBC Scotland is giving the hump to a great many people at the moment.

Most of the Scottish public are probably of the opinion that the BBC does a decent job.  It brings them ‘Strictly’, ‘Masterchef’, ‘River City’, ‘East Enders’ and a host of other well produced and reasonably entertaining programmes.  Reporting Scotland brings us the ‘news’ from around Scotland (oh, and football) and London does the ‘big’ items and the ‘serious’ politics.  If you really, really want to know about Scottish politics then you can listen to Kaye Adams every day at nine or Brian Taylor on a Friday lunchtime, they cover everything Scots need to know, don’t they? – then there’s Newsnight if you don’t have to get up for work the next day.

It’s all neatly packaged so that Scots don’t fret themselves too much, especially at prime-time where on Radio Scotland there’s either music or football on offer – hours of it in fact.  There’s a lot of football on Radio Scotland and a plethora of presenters, commentators and/or pundits.  Radio Scotland has a Sportsound team worthy of a population of 50 million people, never mind 5 million.

So, what’s the problem, why an article dedicated yet again to the BBC in Scotland when it is doing such a fine job – and all without an increase in the cost of the licence?

Well, much like the devil in the graveyard, there is a feeling that BBC Scotland is not behaving entirely above board.  There’s an ever increasing sentiment that BBC Scotland are not being as fair and as balanced in their reporting of the Scottish political scene as they are supposed to be.  So suspicious are many Scottish viewers of the state broadcaster’s agenda that they no longer trust it to report political news to the Scottish electorate in an impartial manner.

But do these viewers and listeners have a case or are they simply indulging in mass paranoia and selective criticism?

Well, in order to establish whether there is a case to answer we have to look at how BBC Scotland is presenting the political news.

The UK is facing years of public sector cuts.  Labour left behind a huge deficit and the Tories, with help from the Lib Dems, are addressing the debt as only they know how – massive public spending cutbacks.

In Scotland the parties are starting to position themselves for the Holyrood elections in May 2011.  Whoever wins next year will have to administer a much reduced block grant, £1.3 billion less – the arguments aren’t about whether there will be cuts, but where the cuts will fall.

In the campaign-spotlight like never before will be the intriguing matter of Scotland’s place in the Union and whether we would be better off with fiscal autonomy or even full independence.

These are serious times, so important are next year’s Holyrood elections that it is absolutely imperative that Scots are kept informed of all sides of the political debate, that all evidence is reported equally and that all parties are scrutinised fairly and afforded equal airtime in which to make their case.

Conference coverage
If the starting pistol for 2011 was the recent party conferences then the BBC is not off to a good start.

Around a fortnight ago the SNP held their annual conference in Perth.  The conference, from the party of government in Scotland, ran for four days but the dedicated coverage from the BBC ran to two hours – all on the final day.

Two whole hours that, when the BBC eventually got around to providing the coverage, saw them pitch their camera right in front of the venue bar, apparently jammed between tables and chairs – there were no professional backdrop screens.  If the intention was to make the event look as cheap as possible the BBC did a fine job.

But at least they did broadcast two hours, it was after all better than nothing.  That much is true, however it wasn’t better than the amount of coverage afforded the Labour party conference a fortnight earlier.  That event generated not two hours of dedicated TV airtime but a staggering 140 hours(1) and this isn’t counting the almost wall to wall coverage given over to Labour by the Good Morning Scotland radio team, one of whom in an interview insisted on referring to the Labour party as “We”.

Yes, the Labour party conference was a UK event and the BBC threw its metropolitan weight behind the coverage, as they did with the Lib Dem and Tory conferences.  But surely even on a pro-rata basis the SNP coverage should have been in the region of 12 hours?  It also didn’t help that another BBC Radio Scotland presenter, fully four days before the SNP conference started, decided to inform Scottish listeners that the conference season was over.

At least this time BBC Scotland, throughout its marathon two hour coverage, resisted the temptation to attribute views to SNP Ministers that they had not expressed, although the BBC reporter who committed this ‘blunder’ at a previous SNP conference still managed to inform viewers that it was the Scottish Nationalist Party whose event they were covering – yes, national-IST party.

If coverage of conferences by the BBC’s Scottish outpost leaves a lot to be desired then coverage, or rather non coverage, of political news is at times even more bizarre.

Polar bears and nervous dogs
To carry out an in depth analysis of BBC Scotland’s coverage of news, particularly political news, would require several dedicated researchers and a great deal of time.  It’s not that they don’t cover whatever it is they are reporting well, or in a less than professional manner, it is just that they seem to completely ignore stories with huge implications as though they didn’t happen. 

The weighing of a polar bear or a story about ‘nervous dugs feart of squibs’ sometimes take precedence over an important political issue or event.

Think of it like this.  A man is shot in the street and you hear sirens.  However the police, when they arrive, step over the body and rush to slap a parking ticket on an illegally parked car and then drive off.

Your immediate reaction would be one of incredulity.  How could they miss the body lying in front of them and instead focus on the mush lesser offence?

Examples of BBC Scotland’s bizarre prioritising of news items happen almost every week and they usually have two things in common; minimise SNP beneficial news stories and maximise SNP harmful stories.

For example a few weeks ago on the day that the First Minister addressed the massive Renewables conference in Edinburgh, a conference attended by people from all over the world, BBC Scotland didn’t deem it important enough to mention it on that evening’s Reporting Scotland nor on Radio Scotland’s tea-time news programme ‘Newsdrive’.  However reporting Scotland did find time to broadcast an item about someone who was unhappy about Donald Trump receiving an honourary degree.

I don’t think there is any argument here about what was the more important event to Scotland.  If you wanted to see the conference covered then you had to wait until after 11:00 pm when Newsnight Scotland eventually covered it.  Why the BBC couldn’t edit a short piece for the huge number of people who watch the tea-time news, given the importance of renewables to Scotland, is difficult to understand.

Similarly on 23rd June this year when Labour MSP Hugh Henry launched his attacks on ‘The Gathering’ after the company that ran the event went bust leaving a £180,000 loan by The Scottish government unpaid, BBC Scotland gave it a high profile slot on that evening’s Reporting Scotland and Radio Scotland’s Newsdrive.  The BBC’s Raymond Buchanan went to great lengths to inform the viewers of Mr Henry’s comments and to leave them in no doubt about what he termed the ‘secret loan’.

However, in a later Holyrood inquiry into ‘The Gathering’ Mr Henry’s melodramatic accusations were described by Sir John Elvidge as: “An unsustainable interpretation of events”.  This public ridicule of the Labour MSP’s accusations didn’t quite result in the same coverage from BBC Scotland as his original attacks received.

There was also the recent humiliation of the Labour inspired ‘Alcohol Commission’ when its representatives appeared in front of the Holyrood health committee.  The commission’s alternative to the SNP’s minimum price proposal was left in tatters and the commission was shown to have little or no evidence to back up any of its claims.  However that too disappeared without trace, this despite pretty much every Labour attack on the SNP’s minimum pricing proposal having featured in BBC Scotland broadcasts or online articles.

It isn’t just political parties that are affected by these editorial decisions.  Campaign groups can also find themselves ‘black balled’ if their particular cause isn’t deemed worthy.  Announce that you are against Donald Trump receiving an honourary degree and the BBC Cameras will be positioned behind you as you put the phone down.  However, announce the start of a petition calling for an inquiry into the conviction of Al Megrahi and you’ll find yourself all but ignored until the petition is all but finished and ready to be handed over.  My god, even rants from a poorly informed American Senator are given more by way of coverage by BBC Scotland than well argued concerns of relatives of Lockerbie victims and knowledgeable legal figures.

There’s more, much, much more – SNP politicians hi-jacked with newspaper headlines in live TV interviews, technical problems plaguing SNP interviews (see time lag in clip below) and of course the old fallback – sheer rudeness, also in clip below:

Thanks to moridura for this clip:

Topical? yes, relevant to the cuts debate? certainly, sensational? absolutely.

Given that since the bail out we have been regaled by Labour politician after politician telling us that an independent Scotland would have been sunk by the crisis then this was big news, there was also the small matter that it was a UK London based Labour government that created the conditions for it to happen.  These same politicians had made a career out of telling Scots about something called the ‘Union Dividend’.  Well the cat was out of the bag and the BBC had a scoop!!

So, which of these stories formed BBC Scotland’s main news item on Sunday?

The answer is none of them.  BBC Scotland took, as the most important political news item of the weekend, a Labour party press release where Labour in Scotland had demanded the SNP publish their budget immediately.

As far as news went it was months old, Labour have been repeating this line almost weekly.  As a lead news item it was so dead that even Lazarus would have marvelled at the sight of this BBC Scotland resurrection.

The spending review from the new UK coalition may have heated it up a bit, but in terms of newsworthiness it was pretty obviously nowhere near the others.  Indeed the fact that the Labour administration in Wales was taking exactly the same timeline approach to budgetary announcements as the Scottish government, rendered Iain Gray’s attack faintly ridiculous.

But there it was, lead item on BBC Scotland’s Sunday early evening news and top political story on the BBC Scotland website.  This particular dead parrot was on display throughout Sunday and into Monday; meanwhile the other stories were left to wither.

Scots, unless they happened to turn on their radios at 08:15 on Saturday morning or found their way to this news site, have no idea that an internationally renowned economist has basically confirmed that Scotland is being ‘shafted’ by London.

The polls were mentioned though.  On Monday morning the BBC’s political editor Brian Taylor was asked to comment on them and this is what he had to say:

There you have it, they asked the wrong question.  Taylor even manages to completely miss the poll on economic powers that showed a majority of Scots in favour.

So, the message from BBC Scotland seems to be that if you want to catch news items that may strengthen the case for independence or are beneficial to the SNP then get up early on a Saturday or stay up late midweek.  Even then you are not guaranteed that BBC Scotland will not seek to manipulate the item away from a purely Scottish context as they did with Monday’s Newsnight Scotland item about the Norwegian oil fund.

Even late at night the BBC could not allow 5 minutes of discussion on how an oil fund may have benefited an independent Scotland, the discussion that followed the balanced and informative film (Well done Douglas Fraser) about the Norwegian fund focussed entirely on what such a fund would have meant to the UK and ignored what it might have done for an independent Scotland.

The studio discussion was typical BBC Scotland and an example of what we can expect in the coming months from those well paid editors currently enjoying the benefits of a licence fee the rest of us are compelled to pay.  The studio guest manages to make Norway sound as though it is a backward country with an economy that is on a par with Greece.  You could have viewed it on iplayer if it wasn’t for those pesky ‘technical difficulties’; the UK Newsnight from the same day is fine.

However if you really want to see the studio discussion then here it is – apologies if you are Norwegian:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ARkj8KMxjY{/youtube}

One final point:
In reading newspapers and watching and listening to the BBC’s political coverage we spotted something quite sly going on.  There appears to be a very crafty ‘tag-team campaign’ currently underway to try to plant the idea in the minds of the Scottish public that a deal between the SNP and the Tories is possible.

BBC Scotland seems to be doing this in two ways:
They are openly asking in TV interviews for politicians to comment on such a deal and in radio broadcasts they are implying that the SNP budgets have been passed as a result of deals from the Conservatives.  This isn’t a new ploy but it does indicate that the BBC will run with Scottish newspaper articles when it suits them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpOZMpa-Fbs{/youtube}

What few Scottish media outlets, if any, have reported is that the party who have voted with the Tories more than anyone else at Holyrood is ……….. Labour.

Notes:
1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/parliament/programmes/schedules