By G.A. Ponsonby
BBC Scotland Head of News, John Boothman is today facing questions after senior management at the Scottish broadcaster were found guilty of having distorted the news on Radio Scotland.
Following a complaint from a member of the public, an investigation by the BBC Trust found senior management at Pacific Quay in Glasgow had issued false information after it was alleged they had interfered in the editorial decision making of a morning news programme.
In a document seen by Newsnet Scotland, the Trust also found that decisions taken by senior management at Pacific Quay had broken guidelines on conflict of interest and that statements issued on behalf of BBC Scotland had “misled” the complainant who had to endure an “extremely long time” before his complaints were addressed.
The incident involved an appearance in a TV advert by BBC presenter Colin Kelly, which had promoted the Glasgow Science Centre. Mr Kelly was also the presenter on Radio Scotland’s news programme Morning Briefing.
On the 28th July 2011, the week the advert was being broadcast, a story broke that involved the Science Centre. The story concerned continuing technical problems with Glasgow Science Centre’s rotating tower. Sandra White, MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, was questioning why the tower was again closed to visitors during a busy time of the year, and she called for an inquiry.
However, despite the story appearing across the BBC Scotland news spectrum, the story was missing from Mr Kelly’s morning show.
BBC Scotland received a complaint that Mr Kelly should not have been allowed to appear in the advert, and that the story had been deliberately dropped from his show after ‘interference’ from senior management at the broadcaster’s Glasgow HQ at Pacific Quay.
The corporation’s Glasgow management defended the decision by saying Mr Kelly had not been a regular presenter and the advert was not, as the complainant had claimed, for the Science Centre but was in fact for STV show The Hour.
BBC Scotland bosses also denied there had been any editorial interference from senior management when deciding not to include the story in Mr Kelly’s programme.
The defence by BBC Scotland management that Mr Kelly was not a regular presenter was dismissed by the Trust who concluded that “…on a common sense view and even if Mr Kelly had worked on the programme for a shorter time, it was clear from the Guidelines that Mr Kelly should not have been given permission to appear in the advertisement because of the potential conflict of interest with his news presenting.”
It said: “In conclusion, on this first element of the appeal, the Committee agreed that there had been a clear breach of the Guidelines on Conflicts of Interest.”
The watchdog also discovered that, contrary to claims by BBC Scotland, the advert had indeed been for the Science Centre.
However its most damaging finding was reserved for the claim that there was no interference from BBC Scotland management in the decision to drop the item from Mr Kelly’s show. The Trust apportioned no blame to Mr Kelly who they described as having conducted himself appropriately by seeking permission from BBC Scotland management, but found earlier denials from the BBC that senior management had interfered in the programme’s news content were false.
In an earlier response to claims that senior Management had influenced the content of the news programme, BBC Scotland said there was “no truth in the allegation” that a senior manager had asked for the item on the Science Centre to be dropped from Morning Briefing.
In investigating the complaint, the Trust found that a decision had indeed been taken by the show’s producer to include the item on the show but that senior BBC Scotland management had instructed her to reverse the decision.
It wrote: “The Committee noted that the Producer of the programme said it had been her intention to include the Science Centre story in that morning’s programme. It further noted that the Newsgathering Editor, supported by the Head of News and Current Affairs, had made the decision that the item should not run on Morning Briefing,”
The Head of News and Current Affairs is John Boothman, and the Trust said that Mr Boothman backed the official – Peter Macrae – who “had instructed the Producer not to use the Science Centre story on Morning Briefing.”
This, said the Trust, meant that “the programme’s agenda had been distorted” which breached guidelines.
In a damning conclusion the Trust also dismissed BBC Scotland management claims that they had not issued false and misleading information.
It wrote: “Moreover, it had demonstrably been the case that a news editor had, indeed, intervened. Whilst the BBC considered it was not false to assert there was ‘no truth’ in the allegation, the Committee agreed that the effect of the statement was to mislead the complainant.”
The Trust also criticised BBC Scotland over the length of time it had taken for the matter to be resolved, saying:
“On the delays the complainant had experienced at various stages of the BBC’s handling, the Committee agreed that these delays had been unacceptable. The Committee was dismayed to note the extremely long time – since the end of July 2011 – that the complainant had been pursuing these issues.
“Having regard to the Editorial Guidelines on Accountability, the Committee concluded that there had been clear breaches of those Guidelines in relation to the handling of this complaint.”
Liam Robertson, who pursued the complaint said: “How can we trust BBC Scotland’s journalism when controversial stories are dropped due to senior managers not being able to follow their own guidelines?
“What really concerns me though is the culture of denial at BBC Scotland. They denied everything without even doing a proper investigation, dragged out my complaint over two years and then, as the Trust concluded, they ‘misled’ me.”
“It’s been an utter failure at every stage of the process and it makes me wonder how many other breaches are going unnoticed?”
[Newsnet Comment – This judgement is a damning verdict on the culture of arrogance that pervades the BBC in Scotland. That the item dropped from Mr Kelly’s show was not of national importance is not the issue.
If a producer has been leant on to drop a minor news item then how many other producers have faced similar intimidation from John Boothman or others acting with his support?
At a time of national importance, it is absolutely incumbent on those in power to ensure that our state broadcaster can be trusted to report accurately and fairly.
Too many stories have failed to see the light of day at BBC Scotland. One very recent example is the racist tweet posted by BBC Scotland pundit Ian Smart. Despite the Labour blogger’s tweet featuring in almost every Scottish newspaper and on STV, BBC Scotland has had a complete news blackout of the episode.
Similarly, the diplomatic row just prior to the 2011 Holyrood elections when former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray linked the independence of Montenegro to ethnic cleansing and war crimes, was also blacked out by BBC Scotland.
The BBC has also shown little interest in pursuing the very many scandalous stories that have emerged from a council whose leader once commanded the broadcaster’s full attention and who was regularly invited onto BBC Scotland political programmes in order to attack the Scottish Government.
The resignation of Glasgow Council leader Stephen Purcell in 2010 resulted in BBC Scotland’s interest in the local authority waning. The continuing scandals surrounding his replacement, Gordon Matheson, have all but been ignored by Pacific Quay management.
The Scottish NUJ recently claimed that a culture of bullying and intimidation is prevalent at BBC Scotland. This judgement by the BBC Trust will raise suspicions that this culture of intimidation extends to the reporting of political news.
A Holyrood Commitee announced last week that they did not trust the BBC to cover the Commonwealth Games and the independence referendum to the standards required and questioned eividence presented to their committee by John Boothman and his boss Ken MacQuarrie.
In an effort at saving the reputation of the BBC in Scotland, BBC Scotland management should now face a full public inquiry into the culture at Pacific Quay.]