Ofcom clears STV of political interference after press smears

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Scottish Television has been cleared of allegations that it allowed its TV output to be influenced by the Scottish government after an investigation by industry regulator Ofcom.

The ‘cash for programmes’ allegations were made after Scottish Government sponsored three programmes on the channel during the year of Scottish Homecoming, including Scotland Revealed, Made in Scotland and The Greatest Scot.


Scottish Television has been cleared of allegations that it allowed its TV output to be influenced by the Scottish government after an investigation by industry regulator Ofcom.

The ‘cash for programmes’ allegations were made after Scottish Government sponsored three programmes on the channel during the year of Scottish Homecoming, including Scotland Revealed, Made in Scotland and The Greatest Scot.

The allegations had featured in articles by The Scottish Sunday Express and The Times newspapers and were then seized upon and embellished by opposition politicians.

Labour’s Holyrood leader Iain Gray said at the time: “The suggestion that Alex Salmond attempted to manipulate Scotland’s largest commercial broadcaster is deeply concerning. Alex Salmond’s obsession with trying to manipulate the media tallies completely with these revelations.”

The Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Iain Smith said: “Independent broadcasters aren’t there to act as PR agencies for the Government. These letters raise serious questions for both STV and the Scottish Government.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Ted Brocklebank asked whether the SNP “had a role in removing popular programmes, like The Bill” and asked “how much editorial influence” the SNP had received for sponsoring the shows.

However, after carrying out an in depth investigation Ofcom has rejected any suggestion that the SNP government had attempted to influence the output of the channel and rebutted allegations of political interference in STV’s programme schedule.

STV responded to the news that they had been cleared by saying:
“We are pleased that Ofcom has refuted any suggestion of political interference in our programme schedule. As STV has asserted, Ofcom’s findings now confirm that allegations made in a Sunday newspaper, suggesting that the Scottish Government influenced STV’s programming, are completely unfounded and inaccurate.

“The three flagship series investigated by Ofcom – Scotland Revealed, Made in Scotland and The Greatest Scot – were enjoyed by large peaktime audiences in 2009. We are delighted that today’s ruling draws a line under these false accusations of any wrong doing.

In search of breaches
On finding no evidence of political interference Ofcom then, quite unexpectedly, decided to extend the investigation beyond the three programmes and searched through 57 other STV broadcasts going back over a two year period.  After reviewing a further 906 minutes of material  the regulator managed to find 18 minutes that it claimed contravened industry regulations.

These additional findings have featured prominently in Scottish newspaper articles that have striking parallels with the original smears.

This is how BBC Scotland reported the Ofcom findings:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-MDfjx58CU{/youtube}

An example of the so called breaches were a series of short one minute long information films called ‘Time for change’ that highlighted the benefits of learning new skills and the funding available.

Ofcom wrote:
“The generic references to the courses served to present the sponsor’s service i.e. encouraging people to consider taking courses in order to learn new skills in a clearly favourable and positive light.  It appeared to Ofcom, therefore, that this series had been created as a vehicle to encourage viewers to use the sponsor’s service, (in this case, Learn Direct Scotland’s service), to seek out advice about suitable courses and available funding. As such, the programming appeared akin to an advertisement for the sponsor.”

Another one minute series of programmes called ‘A day in the life’ centred on elderly people with dementia who need special care and brought this reaction from Ofcom:

“It appeared to Ofcom therefore, that these short, one minute programmes had been created as a vehicle to reassure viewers that the Scottish Government’s National Care Standards work in the favour of elderly citizens. As such, the programming appeared akin to an advertisement for the sponsor.  Ofcom therefore considered that the series promoted the sponsor’s interests, in breach of Rule 9.5 of the Code.”

Another breach was a series of short programmes based around the experiences of young people who had been through the Children’s Panel; the programme was sponsored by The Children’s Panel.

Ofcom wrote:
“In Ofcom’s view, while there was no reference to the sponsor during the programmes, the way in which the programmes referred to the improvements to the children’s lives that had resulted from various interventions and forms of assistance, served to present the sponsor, whose role and purpose is intrinsically linked to such work, in a favourable and positive light.  It appeared to Ofcom, therefore, that these programmes had been created as a vehicle to encourage viewers to view the work of the Children’s Panel in a positive light. As such, the programming appeared akin to an advertising feature for the sponsor.  Ofcom therefore considered that the series promoted the service provided by the sponsor, which resulted in it being found in breach of Rule 9.5 of the Code.”

Other misdemeanours included the mention of red meat and Ayrshire streaky bacon in a programme entitled ‘The Great Scottish Meal’ which was also deemed advertising by Ofcom.

The list of broadcasts deemed to have been in breach of rules is listed below as is the reaction of the SNP’s political opponents together with a response from STV:

Breaches of Rules 9.4 and 9.5

  • Time for Change, sponsored by Learn Direct Scotland, series of five programmes, 3 March 2008 and 11 April 2008
  • Learning Journeys, sponsored by The Big Plus, series of three programmes, 1 October 2008 to 2 November 2008
  • The Great Scottish Meal, sponsored by Specially Selected Pork, episode one, 24 November 2008, and episode three, 26 November 2008
  • A Day in the Life, sponsored by National Care Standards, series of five programmes, 2 March 2009 to 6 March 2009
  • My Journey, sponsored by the Children’s Panel, series of three programmes, 14 September 2009 to 18 September 2009

Breaches of Rules 9.6 and 9.7

  • The Great Scottish Meal, sponsored by Specially Selected Pork, series of four programmes, 24 November 2008 to 27 November 2008

Tavish Scott, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: “At a time when difficult spending decisions have to be taken, the SNP have been spending millions of tax payers’ money on advertising to promote them. This is wholly unacceptable and has got to stop.”

Ted Brocklebank, Scottish Tory culture spokesman, added: “STV needs to take these findings seriously to ensure that it cannot be accused of being a propaganda machine for government. The SNP must not interfere again in the editorial independence of STV.”

STV said: “In Ofcom’s wider review of all relevant sponsored content spanning a number of years, we note the regulator’s findings of some technical breaches unrelated to the claims of political interference in a minority of short form, one-minute programme inserts dating from 2008. No complaints from viewers were received by STV in respect of any of the 57 programmes that were considered by Ofcom.

“Of the 906 minutes (over 15 hours) of material, broadcast over a two-year period, under investigation by Ofcom, just 18 minutes of short form social action programme inserts raised concerns.  This was completely unrelated to any unfounded suggestion of political interference.

“STV broadcasts hundreds of hours of sponsored programmes every year, and has delivered over 500 one minute programme inserts since 2003.  We have robust compliance arrangements in place, and a long and successful track record of delivering award winning sponsored and social action programming.”

The full Ofcom report can be viewed here.

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