I’ve just stopped laughing…

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By Derek Bateman
 
I’ve been unable to post for 24 hours, having been convulsed with laughter at Labour claims of pro-independence bias at the BBC.  Every time I sat down to write I ended up shaking with hilarity until my sides ached.  It’s only now my hands have stopped trembling long enough to hold the keyboard.

For sheer brass-necked audacity you have to admire these spin doctor types, inhabiting as they do a parallel universe of grudge and grievance, of black-and-white and right versus wrong…a world in which any assertion can be advanced even though totally detached from reality and, even as they watch, sections of the media repeat their confections of innuendo for a mass audience.

Former Daily Record political hack and Gordon Brown lieutenant (the more usual term is shit-kicker) Paul Sinclair managed to convey two ideas through the Scotsman – one, that the BBC was failing to be impartial and was complicit in working with Yes, and two, that the treatment of the No side generally was unfair and people should sympathise with them.  Believe me, I’m trying.

The actual “complaints” were, to people with lives in the real world, trivial and not worth detailing.  But, as ever with these occasional eruptions in the ever-simmering volcano of politics and media, the resulting outpouring of putrefaction contains evidence of what’s really bubbling away underground.

To me, it confirms first, that one of the lessons Sinclair learned was that you never let anyone off the hook.  Even those you have on your chain must be reminded regularly of their duty to comply, by yanking it.  The media after all is almost exclusively in the No camp.  Do you know anyone from your neighbour to the best analytical brains in Scotland who would disagree with that? Of course not.

But to Sinclair the truth isn’t enough.  He must constantly whip them into line to avoid slacking and create an impression of an alternative reality in which the plucky No camp is struggling against the institutional might of the BBC and other untrustworthy elements.

Secondly, it hints at a possible breakdown in a relationship, that between Sinclair and John Boothman, head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland.  This is not, as nationalists might have it, a self-serving and dubious affair.  John Boothman was a political producer at BBC for many years and was famous for his unrivalled network of contacts in the Labour movement.

Contact with Sinclair would be as normal as tea and biscuits for him and mutually beneficial.  Sinclair was carrying on the long Record tradition of working hand-in-glove with Labour and that was natural territory for Boothman who had a Labour background.  The difference is that Sinclair could spin a pro-Labour line – and was expected to – and could editorialise in his copy.  For Boothman that would be very difficult indeed, even if he had the motivation.  (For those convinced of blatant pro-Labour bias at the BBC, I intend in coming posts to give my view more fully).

If the emails from Sinclair to the BBC were leaked at Sinclair’s request – and there’s no confirmation of this – it is designed to put the frighteners on the BBC, to warn them that anything and everything could turn up in the public domain unless they play along with him and to whip up synthetic Labour anger suggesting the media just won’t take a reasonable line. 

Do you think someone who worked for Gordon Brown where Damien McBride was schooled, could leak his own emails to put pressure on the BBC? Do you think he could do such a thing, this close adviser who writes the lines Johann Lamont delivers at FMQs? Sinclair’s emails were sent to Labour MPs and MSPs as well as to the BBC.  Therefore, if the Scotsman received them from a BBC source, how did the BBC get the PLP emails? And vice versa.  They must have come from someone with access to both.  Who could that be? Make up your own mind.

All of which suggests a breakdown in the old pals act with Boothman.   And I’m not surprised because what isn’t widely known is that Sinclair had a name for trying to interfere in BBC news decisions to influence output.  This is not unusual for those who are the mouthpiece of politicians.  All sides do it. 

I have sat beside producers reduced to tears after being called to account by a hectoring spad.  When there is a damaging story, the party hacks will call up the producer and harangue them to get them change tack while the programme is being made, sometimes luring them with a “better” line but always warning that a complaint will be made.  They threaten journalists.  At the BBC of course, the etiquette demands politeness and feigned respect for these bullies.  The correct response is to tell them where to go.

But what I didn’t like about Sinclair-Boothman was the informal and insidious way it developed, so instead of old pals, it became almost one of master and servant.  Sinclair seemed to assume the right to call the BBC head of news to account.  It was going on right up to the final weeks before my departure.

As an example, you’ll recall the notorious leaked John Swinney briefing paper from March which appeared to say the SNP government knew of, but was hiding, big spending commitments in years ahead.  I was presenting the Saturday Good Morning Scotland and we dissected this in the first item after the 8 am news.  We gave it a good 10 minutes looking at all aspects.  The following Monday John Boothman called me over and asked what the programme had done with the Swinney report.  I checked and said it had been the lead item, given top billing.

He explained in exasperation that he had received an email from Paul Sinclair demanding to know how we had covered it and said he was always receiving these demands from him.  He was at that moment framing his reply.  I said Sinclair could just listen to the radio like everybody else and suggested he tell him to f**k off.  He gave me the impression he’d like to but couldn’t.

This exchange left a sour taste for a journalist.  Why should the head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland be personally drafting explanations of editorial decisions to Johann Lamont’s office? Didn’t Sinclair bother listening or did he sleep through the first hour and instead of using the iplayer just email his pal at the BBC who would check for him? When did anybody at the BBC, let alone an executive on £100,000 of public money, become an agent of the Labour Party, offering a personalised service no other  licence-fee payer or political party gets?

Sinclair contacts Boothman, Boothman contacts presenter and Labour interference goes down the line to the programme production team who are made aware of the scrutiny.  Aim: Keep applying the pressure

If Johann Lamont doesn’t know what the BBC has broadcast what makes her think her bag-carrier should be able to access the head of news to find out? And is it really about finding out what was broadcast, or isn’t Sinclair’s email really designed to intimidate, to say: We’re listening to everything you do and if you make a single slip, we’ll be on to you.   And that, in all probability, is what eventually happened.  Because Sinclair wasn’t put firmly in his box, he believed he could carry on trying to influence BBC editorial decisions until he found he wasn’t getting his way and ran to the papers to embarrass the BBC.

We did an item on another programme in which we questioned how effective the Yes campaign was.  There was widespread concern at its lack of impact so we examined that idea.  As soon as we were off air there was an email from John Boothman asking bluntly how were going to balance it with the No side.

We were puzzled as we had done a questioning item on Yes, hardly a puff piece and there is no actual requirement for strict balance at this stage.  And yet here was the head of department, most uncharacteristically, immediately requesting in an email from home, how this would be balanced.  My guess? Sinclair called him and demanded to know when his side would get equal time and the request was passed on to the programme-makers within minutes.  I know I could be wrong, but the way this happened looked very strange.  The irony of course was that we did a knocking piece on Yes and still they weren’t satisfied.  Aim: Keep up the pressure.

Now there is no reason why a head of news shouldn’t have a relaxed relationship with those in public life and on occasion share a drink and a bitch to clear the air.  But there’s a difference between that and a regular inquisition of decision-making in which the one representing the public institution does the fetch-and-carry.  If Sinclair or Labour want to complain there is a  laid-down complaints procedure.  Interestingly, they rarely use it.  Why bother, when you have your own man inside answering your demands and passing your views down the line to the staff?

Managers have to know where to draw a line and relegate personal feelings when necessary.  This inquisition by a political party appointee was inappropriate and crossed a line.  Boothman should have said from the outset that editorial decisions were for him, not for Sinclair and he wouldn’t respond to demands for explanations.  He would respond to formal complaints and would meet privately to listen to criticism from time to time.  The current bust-up may indicate that Boothman is fighting back, forcing Sinclair to take another tack…which is to shift the target and apply pressure en mass to the Director of BBC Scotland.

Almost everything I know about spads and spin doctors is unhealthy and against the public interest.  Is it time to formalise some rules for so-called advisers so they are made accountable perhaps by public examination by an MSP committee?

Incidentally, what does it tell us about the media that this story appeared in the Scotsman at all? Well, it’s certainly legitimate because – if – it came from Sinclair, it is a recognisable source, it is a genuine area of public interest and there is a right to know.  And journalists feed off leaks and tips, as I used to do.  But you see how easy it is if you’re in a position of authority to access the newspapers and set the agenda. 

And the way this works is that the paper knows the deal: It must give enough prominence as reward for the leak and shouldn’t interrogate the story too deeply or will risk not getting any more titbits.  It is media manipulation.  To be journalistically honest the Scotsman should have challenged the assertion in the emails by pointing out that apart from a Labour Party campaign of vilification there is no one and no evidence suggesting remotely that there is pro Yes bias at the BBC.

We had another example in Scotland on Sunday at the weekend where, and I’m guessing from past events, David “Fluffy” Mundell phones up and suggests the bedroom tax may be devolved.  Really? No one has confirmed it as government policy, it would be a petty and opportunistic offer if it were, and it’s a desperate attempt to defray the rancid publicity the Coalition is getting. 

But, for SoS this is a Government minister telling them something new.  What is a story-hungry reporter to do ? So, true or not, it is the splash story and the idea was further endorsed in the paper’s leader.  So with one call, the Government has used the media to float an idea and win support.  Simple.  And they say Scotland’s single Tory MP has no influence.

Courtesy of Derek Bateman