BBC sought no info from Electoral Commission over CBI registration debacle


  By a Newsnet reporter
The BBC failed to ask the Electoral Commission a single question regarding the controversy surrounding the CBI’s aborted registration as an official supporter of the Better Together campaign.
Responding to a Freedom of Information request submitted by Newsnet Scotland, the Electoral Commission (EC) has revealed that it has no records of any communication between itself and the broadcaster, despite the issue dominating recent news headlines.

The response from the EC followed a Freedom of Information request from Newsnet Scotland.  We asked the EC, “for all correspondence between the Electoral Commission and the BBC relating to the CBI’s registration and subsequent deregistration with the Commission.”

However in what was a surprise, the EC revealed it had had no communication with the broadcaster whatsoever.

In an official response, the EC’s London HQ simply said: “The Commission does not hold information in relation to your request.”

Surprised by the response from London, Newsnet Scotland sought confirmation from the Electoral Commission’s Edinburgh branch that they had not fielded any questions from the BBC.

A spokesperson replied: “Obviously I can only speak personally for the Scotland Office at the Commission but we definitely didn’t have any correspondence with the BBC over the CBI (anything related to broadcasters and media comes to me so I would have seen it).

“The Commission are really thorough on FOI requests so I would be confident that none exists (and again, given the Scottish media angle I would have been alerted had any correspondence come into one of our other offices).”

The reluctance of the BBC to question the commission over the CBI’s aborted registration will puzzle many, given the broadcaster’s own role as a member of the CBI and the nature of the controversy surrounding the whole episode.

The issue of the CBI’s stance on the independence debate and its original controversial decision to register as an official No campaigner led to a string of bodies, including STV, quitting the lobbying group.  However the BBC, despite pledging to suspend its own £22,000 plus per-year membership, backtracked on the pledge when it emerged the Electoral Commission had accepted a request from the CBI for the registration to be rendered void. 

The BBC also revealed it had held its own talks with the CBI at the height of the controversy.

The BBC’s membership of the London based group only emerged after BBC Scotland reporter James Cook revealed the corporation had been a secret CBI member for decades, handing the pro-Union group hundreds of thousands of pounds in licence fee cash.

The situation has led to an internal dispute between the BBC and the National Union of Journalists in Scotland after the union attacked the BBC’s continued membership of a group it said holds well documented anti-independence views.

This week, Newsnet Scotland revealed that in his submission to the Electoral Commission, CBI Director General John Cridland had given what appeared to be false information in seeking to have the registration nullified.

Cridland claimed the registration original form had been submitted without the group having received legal advice.  However, interviews given by the CBI chief days after the CBI announced it had registered with the EC heard Mr Cridland admit the CBI had indeed received advice.

Documents acquired by Newsnet Scotland under Freedom of Information legislation revealed that Cridland had made a private phone call to the Chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, on April 23rd – the night before he made the official request to have the CBI’s registration nullified.

Mr Cridland’s request to have the CBI’s registration nullified was finally accepted by the EC, and an announcement made on May 1st.

However, since then, a list of restrictions set out and agreed by Mr Cirdland, relating to the CBI’s referendum related output, appear to have been broken after the lobbying group launched an attack on independence three weeks later.