By a Newsnet reporter
BBC Scotland is tonight facing accusations of selective reporting after comments from First Minister Alex Salmond were removed from news bulletins.
The issue centres on TV and Radio reports from the broadcaster which covered exchanges at today’s First Minister’s Questions from Holyrood.
In today’s session, leaders of all three opposition parties attacked Mr Salmond over an interview he gave to GQ magazine in which the First Minister said there were “certain aspects” of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership he admired. The interview, in which Mr Salmond also made clear his opposition to Mr Putin in many key areas, was made prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea.
However pro-Union politicians have seized on the interview and have launched a sustained attack on the SNP leader. In the Holyrood chamber the attack continued with Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont accusing the First Minister of having damaged Scotland’s reputation.
She said: “Will the first minister now withdraw his ill-judged comments and apologise to the people of Scotland and the people of Ukraine?”
The First Minister responded to the Scottish Labour leader’s accusations by pointing out that one of her own colleagues, Labour peer George Robertson, had recently called for Mr Putin to be invited to join NATO. Robertson’s comments, given in an interview after the Russian President had annexed Crimea, were criticised by the UK’s biggest Ukranian organisation.
The First Minister read out a statement from the president of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, Zenko Lastowiecki, who said of Lord Robertson’s invite to Putin: “We can’t comment on his reasoning but is extremely bizarre whilst insulting to the Ukrainian nation who are on the edge of a precipice driven by Russia.”
However, despite showing the leaders of all three pro-Union parties attacking Mr Salmond over the issue of his interview, BBC Scotland edited out the First Minister’s response which highlighted the remarks of the Labour peer.
The BBC refused to broadcast this response from Alex Salmond in TV and Radio news bulletins
The issue has dominated BBC political news coverage with TV and Radio bulletins highlighting Unionist attacks on Mr Salmond. Coverage has also included critical statements issued on behalf of the Edinburgh branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB). Despite this, BBC Scotland has refused to report Lord Robertson’s remarks or the response from the AUGB.
On Tuesday Newsnet Scotland reported that the parent organisation of the Edinburgh branch had criticised Lord Robertson’s comments.
In his full response, Zenko Lastowiecki said: “George Robertson’s comments on Russia are as ill-advised as those on Scottish independence. The fact he has tried to distance himself from his comments regarding Russia speaks volumes.
“His views seem spectacular given his former role in NATO but are wide of the mark. We can’t comment on his reasoning but is extremely bizarre whilst insulting to the Ukrainian nation who are on the edge of a precipice driven by Russia.”
Newsnet Scotland can also reveal that Mr Lastowiecki statement, together with the video of Lord Robertson calling on President Putin to be invited to join NATO, was passed to key figures at BBC Scotland on Tuesday evening. Head of Radio Scotland Jeff Zycinski, Peter Strachan of BBC Scotland News, BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor and Political Reporter Glenn Campbell all acknowledged receipt of the communication.
However, despite being made aware of both Lord Robertson’s NATO invite and the response from the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, there has been no mention of either on BBC Scotland.
The ‘blackout’ by BBC Scotland of Lord Robertson’s Putin remarks, and the response from Zenko Lastowiecki, mirrors a similar episode in 2011 when former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray caused a diplomatic row after linking the independence of Montenegro to ethnic cleansing and war crimes.
To raucous laughter from the Labour benches Mr Gray claimed that Montenegro had needed “two world wars, the Balkan conflict, ethnic cleansing, a war crimes tribunal and a UN peacekeeping mission” in order to achieve independence.
Montenegro reacted to the slur with fury, firing off official letters of complaint to Labour leader Ed Miliband and Iain Gray – ironically a letter was also sent to First Minister Alex Salmond.
Marijana Zivkovic, chargé d’affaires at Montenegro’s British embassy, expressed her “deep regret” at the Scottish Labour leader’s comments. Ms Zivkovic pointed out that their nation was the only former Yugoslav republic to stay out of the Balkan conflict and actually provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the bloodshed.
Writing to the Scottish Labour leader, she said: “Your statement that Montenegro was involved in ‘ethnic cleansing’, including references to ‘a war crimes tribunal and a UN peacekeeping mission’, is simply incorrect.”
The diplomatic row made front page headlines and was carried by newspapers in Scotland and England. However, in a move that provoked controversy, BBC Scotland adopted a news blackout and refused to report the story.
When finally one BBC presenter, Isabel Fraser, confronted the Scottish Labour leader over two weeks later in a late night interview, Gray repeated the slurs.