Pinocchio, Columbo and Gordon Brewer


  By a Newsnet reporter
I sat up last night and watched Newsnight Scotland, I don’t always but for some reason I tuned in.
So appalled was I by first the treatment of Martin Sime, Scottish Charities head, and then the brazenly one sided ‘discussion’ that followed that I persuaded the Newsnet chief to send an email to Mr Brewer pointing out the shortcomings of the programme.

The ‘interview’ with Sime was bad enough, with Brewer seemingly unwilling to pursue the point being made by Syme which was that £2.5 billion was being cut from the welfare budget by Westminster.

But it was the discussion that followed that highlighted a continuing and in some cases, a growing problem at BBC Scotland. 

The discussion began with Brewer reading out what were apparently examples of “extreme” language being bandied about by parties and organisations.  Amongst these was Richard Baker’s description of Alex Salmond as someone who “lies instinctively”. 

Brewer could have listed a multitude of other extreme accusations levelled against Alex Salmond, including “bare faced liar” and even Johann Lamont’s “Pinocchio” jibe that brought yet another rebuke from the Presiding Officer. 

He could even have reminded viewers of comments from BBC colleagues such as Glenn Campbell who once labelled Kenny MacAskill as “the toast of Tripoli” or Douglas Fraser who recently compared the SNP to a North Korean dictatorship.

However, in the list of statements and press releases was one from the SNP which used the word “insult”.  The press release related to the re-admission of convicted arsonist Mike Watson to the Labour party.

It was used in relation to the lives that Watson had endangered when he deliberately set fire to curtains in a Perth hotel.  Watson received a prison sentence after pleading guilty.

Is ‘insult’ really an extreme word or phrase?

The studio discussion that followed saw former Labour advisor Simon Pia given a platform in order to attack Alex Salmond and ‘cyberbats’, who he accused of publishing “nasty and abusive stuff”. 

Cybernats, for the uninitiated, are people who use the new media to challenge Unionist views.  That there are extreme views expressed is not in doubt, but this extremism is not, as the Scottish media would have you believe, a one way street.  There are pro-Union online commentators who post similar extreme views.

Joining Mr Pia in the studio was writer Katy Grant who at least kept to the discussion without party political attack.

Mr Brewer failed to respond to our email – not surprising really.  But the programme raises yet again fundamental questions as to how a person like Simon Pia can be allowed onto the BBC to launch unchallenged attacks on Alex Salmond?

Mr Pia’s attack on non-Unionist commentators is the second such attack allowed broadcast by BBC Scotland after the Herald’s Magnus Gardham was allowed to make similar accusations on the Shereen Nanjiani show last Saturday.


But away from Brewer and extreme language, another worrying development is the use of the ‘Columbo Question’ by BBC Scotland presenters.

For those of a certain vintage, Lieutenant Columbo – played by the late Peter Falk – used to catch out the guilty party with use of the “just one more thing” question when it appeared his interrogation had ended.

The question caught the perpetrators off guard and they invariably gave the detective rope with which he then hung them.

This week saw two such examples of the tactic when first Alex Salmond then John Swinney fell victim to this new BBC Scotland ruse.

Salmond was giving an interview on renewable jobs when interviewer Hayley Miller unexpectedly threw in a question on his recent apology after giving the wrong figure on college funding.  Mr Swinney was being interviewed by Ms Miller’s colleague, Gary Robertson when an interview on Hall’s of Broxburn was hijacked at the end and the same issue raised.

Gary Robertson wouldn’t give up as Swinney refused to confirm or deny whether he knew Mr Salmond’s figures were wrong at the time the First Minister read them out.  It was clear that the Finance Minister was refusing to play the BBC man’s game.

Mr Swinney does say at one point “I am aware of all of the information in government budget documents”, however this doesn’t mean that John Swinney was aware at the time that the figures given out by Alex Salmond were wrong.

Indeed Gary Robertson follows this acknowledgement by the Finance Minister by asking Mr Swinney again if he knew – demonstrating that Mr Swinney’s reply was sufficiently unequivocal.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Swinney himself believed the figures read out by the First Minister correct and only realised later that they were in fact wrong.  Such an admission may have been embarrassing for the Finance Secretary who decided that avoidance of Robertson’s question was the wiser option – a typical politician.

However that didn’t prevent Robertson from asserting that John Swinney did indeed know at the time, the BBC man repeats the assertion time and again, which Swinney again neither confirms or denies. 

The interview had failed to elicit a clear admission from Swinney, but the BBC Scotland man simply decided he was guilty.

The dangers of drawing conclusions became evident when Gary Robertson’s assertion was used by Johann Lamont in an attack on Mr Swinney at First Minister’s Questions.

Lamont’s use of the interview is not in itself a problem; such interviews are commonly used by politicians to attack opponents.  What made this case different was Mr Swinney’s refusal to confirm or deny the claim being put to him by Robertson, who simply took it upon himself to extrapolate a more generic confirmation about “government budget documents” into a definitive “he knew”.

That this was picked up by the opposition is not surprising.

But with the BBC now increasingly being seen as lax with its inclination to brand as guilty those who have yet to be proven so, then it is incumbent on presenters to be careful on what they assert as truth, especially now that Sir David Murray is demanding an apology over the corporation’s handling of the Rangers tax case story.

Listen to Gary Robertson interviewing John Swinney here: