The Scottish election coverage – have we shamed the devil?

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By G.A.Ponsonby

It’s the day before the actual vote.  Tomorrow Scots will enter the voting booths and place their cross beside their party of choice.  Soon the nation will discover if it is to be Alex Salmond for First Minister or Iain Gray.

The electorate will have formed their opinion on who to vote for using a variety of means.  Tradition and emotion, personal circumstance and interaction with family and friends will all have played a part.

However there can be no meaningful deliberation without access to factual information, and for that we rely on traditional media outlets and journalists.

Newspapers

The print media saw a battle of the red-tops that pitted the Labour supporting Record against the Sun which two weeks ago came out in support of Alex Salmond’s team.  Both papers have pursued their campaign agendas in their own inimitable style.

The Record relied on political editor Magnus Gardham to contrive fantastic pieces in support of Iain Gray’s party that seem to suspend belief.  The Sun resorted to highlighting Gray’s propensity for running away from difficult situations and publicly accosted the hapless Labour front man as he campaigned.

The two ‘qualities’, the Herald and Scotsman, have an editorial stance that leans towards non-independence and their campaign output reflected that.  Of the two it is probably the Scotsman who gave the more in depth coverage and provided more by way of factual information and critical analysis.  The Herald these days seems more interested in Old Firm matters than political coverage, perhaps reflecting the Daily Record influences of its current editor.

One low point in the newspaper coverage was the decision by the Scotsman to publish a piece from former high ranking Labour party figure John McTernan.  McTernan suggested that sex offenders and other criminal misfits supported the SNP and that Labour ought to run a campaign around this.

It was a distasteful suggestion and was indicative of the moral vacuum that had corrupted the once proud party to the extent that McTernan believed such a gutter tactic would have been considered.  Incredibly, McTernan would turn up on BBC Scotland days later where his repugnant views were allowed air time.

But of course newspapers no longer carry the same influence they once did.  Circulation figures in Scotland reveal a sector on its knees and haemorrhaging readers month on month.  The new kid on the block is the internet where citizen journalism reigns supreme.

Sites like Bella Caledonia, the Scottish Review and of course Newsnet Scotland now provide an alternative to views that have prevailed, unchallenged, for decades.  These new sites have their own agendas of course but by and large, most would agree that they are a welcome counter to the more traditional news vendors.

At Newsnet Scotland every party leader has been contacted and afforded the opportunity to publish their views.  To date we have published articles written by the Greens’ Patrick Harvey, Colin Fox of the SSP, Tommy Sheridan and of course Alex Salmond.  Sadly, none of the Unionist parties have taken us up on our invitation which remains open.

But the internet, despite its abundance of web sites and blogs, still plays second fiddle to the media king of kings – broadcasting.

BBC and STV

STV’s coverage has been pretty good.  Their two debates have been very well handled by the vastly underrated Bernard Ponsonby (no relation) and the leaders’ podcasts saw the Scottish broadcaster embrace the internet medium.  The second debate, broadcast last night, was energetic and informative with Ponsonby grilling all four participants with equal vigour.

STV’s election specials have been made available to expat Scots through the internet and the station’s reputation has risen in the opinion of many onlookers.  All in all STV has provided a pretty balanced coverage of this election campaign which is more than can be said for their rivals over at BBC Scotland.

In broadcasting the BBC is king.  Freed from commercial constraints by dint of an annual licence fee of £145.50, the BBC is the number one source of news, opinion and analysis.  This is the medium of choice when it comes to informing and influencing the electorate, it is also controlled from outwith Scotland.

A lacklustre start to the Holyrood election campaign saw BBC Scotland barely acknowledge it.  Several days passed before the state broadcaster even got into first gear.  However, any thoughts that the slumbering giant was less than interested were dispelled by a truly shocking display of contempt for their own charter.

The campaign had moved into its second week when BBC Scotland decided to commission a poll that, they claimed, sought to determine the most popular policy from all the party manifestos.  The decision was bad enough given that the BBC’s own guidelines forbid polls of this nature being conducted during election campaigns.

But what made this even worse was that at the time of the poll, the SNP and Greens had yet to publish their manifestos.  Only Labour, the Tories and the LibDems had launched their party manifestos.

BBC Scotland carried out its poll and subsequently claimed that Labour’s cancer pledge was the most popular policy amongst Scots.

It can’t be emphasised enough just how much of an effect this had on the early stages of the campaign.  Newspapers ran with the story for days and the Labour party even modified their public statements in order to highlight their poll ‘triumph’.

BBC Scotland’s Chief Political Editor Brian Taylor appeared on Reporting Scotland heralding the poll.  Taylor had also helpfully declared, on the day of Labour’s manifesto launch, that Labour were getting their message across and that their policies were in keeping with their traditional values.  In the early BBC interviews the SNP’s Alex Salmond was pressed on why his party were trailing Labour in the polls.  Polls featured very prominently in BBC Scotland’s early campaign coverage.

However the boost Labour received from the BBC poll soon evaporated and what began to emerge was a party whose ’the Tories are back’ message was not swaying voters.  BBC Scotland’s fondness for headlining polls evaporated when first one poll then another began to indicate that the much heralded Labour win was not as certain as had been expected.  A 15 point lead for Labour disappeared and a clear trend began to emerge.

Labour re-launch

Labour’s campaign was floundering and when images of Iain Gray fleeing from a tiny group of protesters at Glasgow Central station appeared on TV, things went from bad to worse.  A hastily cobbled together campaign re-launch was announced and the SNP and independence were to be the targets.  The ‘Tory bogeyman’ message we were told was getting across … had fallen flat.

However BBC Scotland news bulletins described not a Labour campaign in chaos but a Labour party launching “an all-out attack on the SNP”.  Jackie Bird told Reporting Scotland viewers that Labour were continuing their “onslaught” against the SNP.  Brian Taylor refused to accept the new polls were an indication of things on the ground, he downplayed them and repeatedly urged caution.

It was news management from BBC Scotland who seemed more than willing to turn a blind eye to Labour’s campaign disintegration.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of BBC Scotland’s campaign coverage is the way it seemed to change focus just as Labour’s campaign focus changed.

Almost overnight BBC Scotland became obsessed with the independence referendum and renewables; both SNP core policy areas.  There was a concerted attack on Scotland’s renewable ambitions as several BBC Scotland news and current affairs shows began to question the SNP’s ambitious plans.

It was quite incredible to see the state broadcaster, paid for by us, launch such an unprecedented attack on plans that could define the nation for generations to come.  Conspicuous by its absence was any similar critical analysis of nuclear power plants.

One of the most bizarre aspects of BBC Scotland’s election coverage was the parachuting in of London correspondent Tim Reid.  When asked his views on the Holyrood election last week Mr Reid said: “As a political journalist I confess it has not been one of the most exciting campaigns I’ve ever covered.  We like gaffes, we like upsets, there have been a few of them but there haven’t been too many of them … it’s not been one that has set the heather alight and I think maybe that’s because we have known that May 5th has been the polling date for months and months … you seem to have been in this interminable election campaign.”

What message it was supposed to send to the Scottish electorate god only knows, but it was clear that Mr Reid wasn’t particularly taken by the Scottish election campaign.

There has been some decent election coverage from BBC Scotland, and some worthy interviewers; Isabel Fraser, Derek Bateman and Gordon Brewer have shown professionalism throughout and are worthy of praise.  However it has to be said that Chief Political Editor Brian Taylor’s performance during this campaign has been woeful. Off the pace, dreadful analysis and a failure to call it as it is.

Last night the BBC showed a clip of the last STV debate and, in keeping with ‘tradition’, it focussed on Labour’s target of the independence referendum showing Labour’s Iain Gray receiving loud applause.  It also made mention of the SNP poll lead and claimed that polling companies had a poor record of getting Scottish election results right.

There may be some BBC Scotland journalists who take issue with this article, perhaps believing colleagues or they themselves have been unfairly criticised.  Our response is simple, step out from behind the ivory tower and address the very real concerns of a great many people on whose licence fee your wages depend.

I leave you with the words of American journalist and author Walter Lippmann:

“… the most destructive form of untruth is … propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news … For when a people can no longer confidently repair ‘to the best foundations for their information,’ then anyone’s guess and anyone’s rumour, each man’s hope and each man’s whim becomes the basis of government … Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts.”

“In so far as those who purvey the news make of their own beliefs a higher law than truth, they are attacking the foundations of our constitutional system.  There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”