BBC Scotland’s election coverage: it’s certainly one to watch … closely


by G.A.Ponsonby

It’s now the start of week four in the Scottish general election campaign and thus far it’s fair to say that BBC Scotland’s coverage has been lacklustre at best and second rate at worst.

Yesterday exemplified the way the state broadcaster has handled the campaign.  A Scottish current affairs radio programme that reviews the week’s stories made no mention of this week’s campaign talking points.

Shereen Nanjiani’s Sunday morning discussion show had a guest panellist, a journalist named Magnus Gardham from the Labour loving tabloid the Daily Record.  The Record this week had gone into bitter overdrive as the Labour campaign struggled, by describing respected Scottish acting giants Brian Cox and Alan Cumming as ‘Mouthy Nat Converts’ for daring to switch their political allegiances from Labour to the SNP.

The paper also took exception to rival Sun newspaper’s criticism of the Labour party by highlighting the fact that the Sun is an English based newspaper – as though that mattered.

Any concerns that the aforementioned Mr Gardham would use his guest slot on the BBC Scotland show in order to attack the SNP’s Holyrood campaign were dispelled when the show, quite bizarrely, ignored the Scottish election altogether, although it did find time to discuss English footballer Wayne Rooney who apparently swore into a camera last week.

Later that afternoon saw the Politics Show host what purported to be a ‘leaders’ debate’ that was as poorly handled and produced as it is possible to imagine.

The so called ‘debate’ was quite simply awful.  If BBC Scotland had wished to design a format that rendered any skilful debating or oratory skills worthless then this was it, as answers were routinely drowned out by heckling and shouting.  At one point the chair Isobel Fraser seemed to give up any attempts at controlling the flow as verbal anarchy took over.

All suffered to a degree but the misbehaviour seemed worse when First Minister Alex Salmond was about to make critical points.  The portion of the show that dealt with the Local Income Tax (LIT) issue was particularly unseemly.  Later BBC Scotland news bulletins provided clips of all four leaders with three given shots whilst talking directly to camera, the exception was Alex Salmond.

On the subject of LIT, we saw the second smear story of the campaign emerge when the Telegraph ran a story about a leaked document.  The document contained an estimate from the Scottish government’s advisors who had taken a look at the effects of the recession on the SNP’s favoured replacement for the unfair council tax.

Figures suggested that the effects of the UK recession would lead to a drop in LIT tax take in Scotland in 2011 that would see in a shortfall of between £366 and £396 million for a 3p rate when compared to the amount raised by council tax.  If the UK government refused, as did the last Labour government, to hand over the council funding subsidy of £374 million then the shortfall rose to between £740 million and £770 million.

The story of course claimed that the SNP had sought to cover the shortfall up by contesting in court a Freedom of Information request.  This was the angle pushed by the paper and seized on, quite understandably, by the SNP’s opponents.

This claim was undermined when it emerged that, at the time the SNP decided not to pursue LIT, Finance secretary John Swinney had already acknowledged in the Scottish parliament there would be a shortfall due to the recession.  Also acknowledged at the time was the threat of the then Labour government to withhold the £374 million.  It is also academic to this election campaign given that the SNP are not proposing to introduce the plan in this coming terrm as reported already by this very site.

The story was newspaper meat and drink and part of the rough and tumble of election campaigns.  It contrived to apply a 2007 pledge to a 2011 recession hit economy.  The ‘cover up’ aspect of the story ignored the accepted protocol that required governments of any hue to contest requests for civil servant advice to be disclosed.

Quite why it made it as the lead story on Friday’s Reporting Scotland isn’t clear.  The item was introduced by Sally Magnusson who exaggerated the already heavily qualified estimate by adding on a mysterious £30 million.  A shortfall of between £740 and £770 million had grown to £800 million by the time it reached Pacific Quay.

The report that followed saw BBC Scotland reporter Andrew Kerr hold up the leaked document to camera.  The camera also panned in on an image of the same document with Kerr’s voice dramatically explaining the shortfall.  The item made no mention of the “high degree of uncertainty” included as a caveat in the report or that the authors noted that figures were “difficult to predict”.  Mr Kerr also helpfully informed his followers on twitter that the SNP were under pressure over the story.

It raised questions once again over the editorial decision making at BBC Scotland HQ and one wondered why, on the day of a shooting on a nuclear submarine that resulted in a crew member dying, that the lead story on our ‘flagship’ news programme was basically a newspaper driven anti-SNP smear story.

It allowed the BBC’s week to end on a negative note for the SNP after the party had been boosted by an unexpected endorsement from a senior Lib Dem, backing from celebrity converts, a by-election victory and of course a disastrous publicity event for Labour that saw leader Iain Gray flee from a handful of protestors.

The Glasgow Central retreat story was also covered by Reporting Scotland, although the Beeb contrived to give lead story spot that evening to a piece about chanting by Rangers football fans.  By Friday the Rangers story had escalated but strangely it played second fiddle to the LIT smear story.

So, Rangers versus Labour bad news – result is a win for Rangers.  However Rangers versus SNP bad news and the result is a loss for Rangers.

We’ll end this particular analysis of the Beeb’s Scottish election coverage with a mention of their senior political editor Brian Taylor.

Last week Mr Taylor gave his opinion on the campaign issues as they arose, some unexpectedly.  To say his analysis of the unexpected events was surprising is a bit of an understatement.

On the support for Alex Salmond from senior Lib Dem MSP John Farquhar Munro Mr Taylor denied it was a snub to Tavish Scott and attempted to underplay the significance of the endorsement by claiming that the SNP had ‘enticed’ Mr Munro into making the statement.  The BBC Scotland editor provided no evidence for this claim of enticement and one wondered quite why he felt he had to make it.

The endorsement of the SNP by former Labour supporting actor Brian Cox was also dismissed by Mr Taylor who said of celebrity endorsements “I don’t think they matter all that much”.  The BBC man went on ask: “Does one really wake up and say – Brian’s switching, I’m going too?”

He also went on to angrily attack the protestors who confronted Iain Gray at Glasgow Central station.  At first dismissing it as “mildly amusing” he then angrily added: “I cannot be bothered with that sort of nonsense.”

It seemed that anything that damaged Labour that week was either dismissed by the senior BBC man or contemptuously ridiculed.

Meanwhile while he was analysing Labour’s manifesto launch, listeners were informed by Mr Taylor that the party were being true to their core values.  On automatic jail for carrying a knife Mr Taylor described the policy as “old solid Labour” and added that it was: “in keeping with Labour’s traditional working class base”.

Since when has the throwing people in jail in a kneejerk manner been “old solid Labour” and in keeping with traditional working class values?  If anything such ‘hang-em and flog-em’ rhetoric is the preserve of the Tories.

But Mr Taylor is nothing if not ‘fair’ when it comes to Labour and went on to inform the listener that “they [Labour] will be quietly content that they are getting the core message out there.”

Well someone is certainly getting Labour’s message out and the message is that this election is now up for grabs and not the one horse race that the Scottish media tried to portray it has this last few months.

We’ve said it before and we make no apologies for saying so again; keep a close watch on the crew at Pacific Quay, in such a close contest they know only too well that they carry significant influence in terms of ’informing’ many of Scotland’s undecided voters.