By a Newsnet reporter
BBC Scotland is facing serious questions over its handling of the independence debate after it was found guilty of breaching its own editorial guidelines on accuracy.
According to documents seen by Newsnet Scotland, the broadcaster is said to have misled viewers by implying that a foreign minister had said that a newly independent Scotland would be forced out of the European Union.
The ruling by the BBC Trust follows a broadcast on January 25th on BBC Scotland’s flagship news programme Reporting Scotland.
In the item, which coincided with a trip to Dublin by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, viewers saw an interview with the then Irish European Minister Lucinda Creighton in which the minister told interviewer Raymond Buchanan that she believed a newly independent Scotland would have to apply for EU membership and that this process could be lengthy.
The broadcast also contained comments from Scottish Secretary Michael Moore who was heard to say that a newly independent Scotland would find itself out of the EU having to negotiate its way back in.
There then followed what many viewed as misreporting of Ms Creighton’s remarks when the BBC reporter told viewers that both Ms Creighton and Mr Moore “shared” the same view.
The broadcast was seized on by pro-Unionist politicians and commentators who launched attacks on Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, claiming the Scottish Government’s own stance on EU membership had been undermined.
However in a surprise move, the Irish Minister issued a series of official responses distancing herself from the interpretation placed on her interview. Lucinda Creighton complained her words had been “misconstrued”, “spun” and “manipulated”.
The Irish Minister also made it clear that her views on EU membership following a Yes vote were in line with those of the SNP and not, as suggested by the BBC, with Michael Moore.
In their draft ruling the Trust said the broadcast, “was in breach of the BBC’s Editorial Guideline on Accuracy,”
However the Trust added that, “there was no evidence that the BBC had knowingly and materially misled audiences.”
In the draft minutes of the appeal, the Trust says: “The complainant said that BBC Scotland, in its coverage of the interview with Ms Creighton, gave the misleading impression that Ms Creighton thought an independent Scotland would be forced to leave the EU and would then have to negotiate its way back in from outside, and the misleading impression that her views were at odds with those of the Scottish Government.”
In its conclusion, the Trust said: “The Committee, on balance, agreed with the complainant in relation to this particular broadcast.”
It added: “The Committee agreed that this juxtaposition of clips, connected as they were by the word ‘and’, would have led viewers to believe that Ms Creighton and the UK Government shared the view that Scotland would be outside the EU and would need to negotiate its way back into the EU. The Committee concluded that this piece was therefore, in breach of the BBC’s Editorial Guideline on Accuracy.”
Newsnet Scotland can also reveal that, despite not challenging a claim by the complainant that the BBC employed a news blackout of Ms Creighton’s emails to Nicola Sturgeon and Newsnet Scotland, the Trust refused to uphold a claim that the BBC broke guidelines on impartiality.
According to the Trust, a Sunday afternoon interview with Scottish Government Minister Fiona Hyslop on the Politics Show, offered an opportunity for the Scottish Government to “set the record straight”.
It wrote: “In the Committee’s view, Ms Hyslop had plenty of opportunity, which she employed to some extent at least, to emphasise that Ms Creighton understood the Scottish Government’s timetable and that Scotland would not be “thrown out” of the EU.”
This, said the Trust, when placed alongside further opportunities offered by the BBC reporter to both the Irish Minister and the Scottish Government meant there was no breach of impartiality.
It added: “Overall … the Committee decided that the further interview opportunities and invitations to comment that Mr Buchanan had offered, plus the extensive interview with Ms Hyslop the following day, meant that there had been no breach of the Accuracy or Impartiality guidelines.”
However, the Trust dismissed claims by BBC Scotland that the clarification statements issued by Lucinda Creighton had no news value and added nothing to the debate.
The Trust said: “The Committee agreed that there was some new information in Ms Creighton’s statement about what Ms Creighton understood in relation to the Scottish Government’s intended timetable for negotiations. It noted that BBC Scotland’s judgement had been that this clarified little and did not constitute a further news story in its own right.”
The decision by the Trust to investigate the issue followed a refusal by the BBC’s own Editorial Complaints Unit to carry out its own inquiry. In July, the BBC’s internal complaints department refused to deal with the complaint, citing a technicality in the way the complaint was drafted.
Commenting, the individual who launched the initial complaint, said: “This complaint has taken almost a year to reach a conclusion, which is nothing short of a disgrace considering its significance in relation to the independence debate.
“For fully eleven months, pro-Union politicians and commentators have cited Lucinda Creighton as evidence to back their claims that a newly independent Scotland would be forced out of the EU. Indeed many have been provided a platform by the BBC themselves.
“Only last week Ruth Davidson became the latest Unionist politician to misrepresent the views of Lucinda Creighton when she listed the Irish Minister amongst people she said believed Scotland would be outside the European Union after independence.
“Whilst I welcome the Trust’s ruling that the BBC misled viewers when they broadcast the initial interview, their failure to acknowledge the news blackout that followed her subsequent emails to Nicola Sturgeon and Newsnet Scotland is just as bad. If wall to wall coverage on TV, Radio and Online was considered appropriate for the original interview then the same should have been provided for Ms Creighton’s follow up statements.
“This ruling will do little to assuage fears that the BBC is now institutionally corrupt and incapable of covering the independence debate in anything approaching a balanced manner.
“There is now an urgent need for an independent inquiry into BBC Scotland. Those at the top must explain why there was a complete news blackout when Lucinda Creighton complained that her words had been manipulated and spun.
“Who took the decision to employ a complete news blackout?”
Newsnet Scotland has asked BBC Scotland for a response to this ruling. As yet we have received no reply.
[On Sunday, Newsnet Scotland will publish an editorial which looks at this episode in depth. This story would not have been pursued had it not been for citizen journalism. Please help us continue by supporting our crowdfunding appeal below.]
[Newsnet comment – The Lucinda Creighton episode is a thorn in the side of the BBC in Scotland and one which was easily avoidable had basic journalistic practice been adhered to.
The original report by Raymond Buchanan attempted to link the views of Ms Creighton to those of Michael Moore, especially with regard to whether Scotland would lose its membership of the EU after a Yes vote. A simple question posed to the Irish Minister would have removed any doubt as to her own view.
Sadly that did not happen and Unionists used the misleading broadcast and subsequent reports in order to portray Ms Creighton as holding views that we now know she did not.
When the Irish Minister issued her subsequent statements alleging she had been misrepresented, it ought to have been a major news story, given the profile the BBC had afforded her initial comments. Sadly, the BBC refused to report the statement which would have neutered a major Unionist attack line in the independence debate.
The ECU dragged its feet and was only compelled to address this complaint after being prompted to do so by the BBC Trust. That they refused to investigate the complaint merely compounds the BBC’s handling of the whole affair.
The Edinburgh Agreement, signed by both the Scottish and UK Governments makes it clear that impartiality was to be at the centre of any referendum coverage.
According to the signed agreement: “The governments agree that it will be important to ensure that broadcast coverage of the Referendum is impartial. Broadcasters, Ofcom and the Electoral Commission will discuss the best way to achieve this.”
Clause 44 of the BBC Agreement provides: “The BBC must do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality in all relevant output.”
The BBC in Scotland should have reported Lucinda Creighton’s clarification statements in the same manner it reported her initial interview. It didn’t and in employing a news blackout of Ms Creighton’s clarification comments – given in an official capacity to Scotland’s Deputy First Minister – it surely broke guidelines over impartiality and accuracy relating to all relevant output.
That the Trust refused to find BBC Scotland guilty of a breach of impartiality guidelines despite overwhelming and damning evidence, now casts a shadow over the Trust itself.]