Independence and the EU – How BBC Scotland were caught misleading the public – Part One


  By a Newsnet reporter

On Thursday 19th December, following a near year-long complaint against BBC Scotland, the BBC Trust finally came to a decision.  The ruling, yet to be officially announced but leaked to Newsnet Scotland, was that BBC Scotland had misled viewers over a high profile news item broadcast on the flagship news programme Reporting Scotland.

  By a Newsnet reporter

On Thursday 19th December, following a near year-long complaint against BBC Scotland, the BBC Trust finally came to a decision.  The ruling, yet to be officially announced but leaked to Newsnet Scotland, was that BBC Scotland had misled viewers over a high profile news item broadcast on the flagship news programme Reporting Scotland.

The landmark decision found that on January 25th 2013, BBC Scotland had broken editorial guidelines on accuracy on an issue key to the independence debate.

The broadcast item centred on an interview given by the then Irish European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton.  Viewers watching that night’s edition of Reporting Scotland would have been left with the impression that Ms Creighton was of the belief that a newly independent Scotland would be forced to leave the European Union.

The broadcast led to complaints being fielded by the BBC.  Fully ten months after the initial complaint had been lodged the Trust had made a decision – and one tenacious complainant had been exonerated.

However the Trust embargoed the decision, which they insisted could not be revealed for another four weeks.  Ten months had already elapsed and the BBC watchdog wanted to delay for one more month.

The complainant broke the embargo, citing public interest.  The attempted delay by the Trust was one of many encountered by the complainant who had faced obfuscation and delaying tactics since lodging the initial complaint.

The story of the misleading broadcast didn’t start on the evening of the broadcast, it began weeks before in the news planning offices of the BBC’s offices in Glasgow.  It was there that a strategy was hatched.

The strategy saw two reporters, Glenn Campbell and Raymond Buchanan, handed the job of quizzing senior European Officials in an attempt at eliciting their opinion on the EU status of a newly independent Scotland.

One of those set to be quizzed was a little known politician named Lucinda Creighton.  Ms Creighton was Ireland’s European Affairs Minister and the country was about to take up its EU Presidency role.  A trip to Dublin had been scheduled by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, which would have garnered some positive publicity for the Scottish Government.

The BBC plan was to send Raymond Buchanan to Ireland to cover the trip, as Head of News and Current Affairs John Boothman revealed to Holyrood’s Culture Committee days before the visit.

Buchanan’s trip resulted in a pretty non-descript interview with Lucinda Creighton in which the buzzwords of ‘apply’ and ‘negotiations’ were heard.  However what happened next would have repercussions for Mr Buchanan and BBC Scotland.

When the interview aired on that evening’s Reporting Scotland a careful edit and not so careful voiceover by Mr Buchanan appeared to apply a wholly different emphasis to the Irish Minister’s unedited interview.

The Irish Minister and UK Government Minister Michael Moore, we were told, shared the same view.

It was never explicitly said by Raymond Buchanan, but the result of his poorly edited piece, which saw the two interviews almost spliced together, was that viewers were left with the impression that here was a foreign minister who backed the Unionist view that a newly independent Scotland would find itself outside the EU.

Unionists seized on the BBC broadcast and began attacking Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who had insisted Scotland could negotiate the continuation of its EU membership from within the EU.

Immediately after the interview was broadcast Newsnet Scotland decided to contact the Irish Minister to clarify her views.  The email response we received shattered the myth being perpetrated by the BBC and pro-Union commentators.

“I was asked about the future of negotiations with the EU in the event that Scotland votes for independence.  I thought that my reply was largely in line with that of the Scottish Government.  I certainly did not at any stage suggest that Scotland could, should or would be thrown out of the EU.  Scottish people are citizens of Europe.

My understanding is that the Scottish Government has already committed to a negotiation with the EU between 2014 and 2016, if you vote for independence in 2014.  If my interview suggested something other than that, this was not my intention.  I think my comments have been misconstrued – if so I sincerely regret this.

As SNP Westminster Leader, Angus Robertson said ‘Negotiations on the terms of membership would take place in the period between the referendum and the planned date of independence’, and that ‘The EU would adopt a simplified procedure for the negotiations, not the traditional procedure followed for the accession of non-member countries’.

I think that sums up the situation quite well.”

Unknown to Newsnet Scotland, the Deputy First Minister had also sought clarification from the Irish Minister.  The response received by Nicola Sturgeon echoed that received by Newsnet Scotland.

It was an open and shut case.  The BBC had, perhaps unwittingly, misled viewers into believing Ms Creighton held views that she clearly did not.  A complaint was lodged.

However, getting the BBC to admit it had made a mistake proved impossible, and so began a tale of obfuscation and delay and a test of resolve as one complainant pursued the state broadcaster.

The initial complaint was lodged against the BBC on February 2nd.  The reply arrived two days later and gave a response that didn’t address the complaint.  The BBC had, as it transpired, sent a generic reply after receiving several complaints.

This is a common practice with the BBC when faced with a raft of complaints.  A response is drafted and sent to every complainant regardless of the nature or wording of their complaint.

Most give up at that point.  However on receiving the generic response, the complaint was re-sent.  It was made clear that the generic reply was unacceptable and had not addressed the thrust of the complaint which was the news blackout that had followed Lucinda Creighton’s emails to the Deputy First Minister and Newsnet Scotland.

This time the complainant highlighted what he described as the “key part in bold”.

“BBC Scotland gave significant coverage to some aspects of the initial interview, which was bad enough.  However the corporation has thus far – one week after Ms Creighton’s email clarification – failed to report ANY of her very important statement.  This is partial reporting.”

This was the beginning of the obfuscation and delay that was to be the hallmark of the entire process.

It took fully eleven days for a second non-descript automated reply to find its way to the complainant; it was now the sixteenth of February.  Eight days later came a third automated reply, it informed the complainant that no estimate on when the complaint would be dealt with could be given.

It was now February 24th and was almost exactly one month after the original broadcast had aired.  In that time scores of accusations from Unionist politicians, journalists and other media commentators had falsely cited Lucinda Creighton as someone who was of the opinion that Scotland would be out of the EU if independent.

The same claims were now being made in the Scottish Parliament by MSPs who were also claiming the Irish politician had been subjected to intimidation by supporters of independence.  Scottish Minister Fiona Hyslop was herself accused of attacking the BBC.

Members of the public were filmed on topical programmes referencing Lucinda Creighton during debates on Scottish EU membership in the event of independence.

Raymond Buchanan’s broadcast on Reporting Scotland was now firmly embedded in a media dominated by pro-Union leanings.  The impression it had left people with was now being accepted as fact.

It would be over two months before the BBC deigned to respond again.

“Thank you for being in touch again about Reporting Scotland at 1830 hours on 25th January. I am sorry it has taken so long to reply.

I explained to you in my first response the BBC’s position on the claim that Ms Creighton’s interview had been “misconstrued” and on Raymond Buchanan’s linking remarks to the Secretary of State’s comments, in the light of both Mr Moore and Ms Creighton agreeing that Scotland would need to go through an application and negotiation process.

In your second complaint you say that Ms Creighton “clarified her statement” (that is, her interview with Mr Buchanan).  In her email to the deputy First Minister, she reiterated her comments to BBC Scotland that Scotland would be welcomed by its EU neighbours and that negotiations would have to take place and they could take some time.  She did not retreat from her position in our interview that “Scotland would have to apply for membership” and that there would be an “application and negotiation process”.

In view of what I say above, you will, I hope, understand why there were no good journalistic reasons to have deviated from the coverage we gave to this story across our output.”

It’s perhaps worth reminding readers that in her emails to Newsnet Scotland and the Deputy First Minister, Lucinda Creighton not only confirmed she did not believe that Scotland would be left outside the EU on independence, but that the SNP’s proposed timetable and plan for continuation of EU membership “sums up the situation quite well”.

In sending these official statements, Lucinda Creighton had become the first senior European Foreign Minister to signal support for the Scottish Government’s EU.  For a news organisation to claim, as the BBC did, that “there were no good journalistic reasons” to give the statements any news coverage was unbelievable.

Unhappy with this response, on May 3rd the complainant escalated the matter – as required by the BBC’s own procedure – to the BBC’s own Editorial Complaints Unit.

Six weeks later, and without even receiving an acknowledgement from the ECU, the BBC Trust were asked to look at the matter.

Throughout this period, BBC Scotland had managed to coax several other European foreign ministers from countries including Latvia, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg into expressing their own views, which were then turned into major news items by BBC Scotland.  Not surprisingly these interviews were also reported in a similar fashion to that which followed Creighton’s interview.

In at least one instance, Luxembourg, the BBC reporter involved – Glenn Campbell – was subsequently accused of misrepresenting the comments from the official.

Part Two … The Trust and the evidence from the BBC