Referendum 2014 – BBC ramping up the coverage

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By G.A.Ponsonby

Last Spring BBC Scotland announced its intention to ramp up its coverage of the independence referendum as we entered the final year of campaigning.  An extra £5 million was pledged by the new DG of the BBC Tony Hall. 

This would fund fifty temporary roles, some new documentaries as well as referendum debates.

By G.A.Ponsonby

Last Spring BBC Scotland announced its intention to ramp up its coverage of the independence referendum as we entered the final year of campaigning.  An extra £5 million was pledged by the new DG of the BBC Tony Hall. 

This would fund fifty temporary roles, some new documentaries as well as referendum debates.

Last month BBC Scotland began this ‘ramp up’ by revealing that London based presenter James Naughtie would join its special referendum team.  Naughtie duly arrived and replaced Gary Robertson at the helm of Good Morning Scotland twice a week.

On Thursday I listened in to Mr Naughtie’s show and recoiled at the sheer level of anti-independence propaganda that was being passed off as news.  If this is an indication of the kind of ‘ramping up’ we can expect then the Yes campaign is in for a particularly bumpy ride.

Several clips from Thursday’s Good Morning Scotland show serve as examples of what we can expect from now until September 18th 2014.  Last Thursday was ‘Carwyn Jones Day’ in the Scottish media and given the Labour politician was in Scotland to attack independence, the BBC as ever, rolled out the broadcasting red-carpet.

The first of the clips is the Good Morning Scotland newspaper review which, if you listen, is nothing more than Naughtie and his co-presenter Hayley Millar reading out anti-independence headlines from known anti-independence newspapers.  The newspaper review is a regular item on GMS which, given the pro-Union credentials of the newspaper industry in Scotland and the wider UK, is basically a run through the day’s anti-independence headlines.

In the following example, most of the headlines are as expected simply attacks on independence.

In another set-piece on Thurday’s show we had Hayley Millar interviewing her BBC Wales colleague James Williams in what was little more than a promo for Labour’s Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones visit to Edinburgh.  Neither Millar nor Williams offered anything by way of criticism of Jones’ ridiculous claim the he could block a currency union between an independent Scotland and the remainder of the UK.

There was though an interesting interview on Saturday when Williams met a journalist not prepared to accept the glossed over analysis Millar had lapped up.  Hear Williams’ evasive performance when BBC Scotland reporter Isabel Fraser asks him a simple question.

Note that Isabel Fraser didn’t work to any agenda, nor was she asking unreasonable questions, but James Williams was clearly very uncomfortable with someone going off message.  That was as telling an interview as you’ll hear on Radio Scotland and the reason that Isabel Fraser has been sidelined by BBC Scotland.

But back to Thursday and even the discussion that usually pits one pro-Union commentator against one pro-independence commentator, ditched any pretence of balance and we had the unbelievable experience of witnessing three Unionists in the shape of Naughtie, Professor James Gallagher and the CPPR’s Jo Armstrong basically agreeing with one another.

This discussion was a classic example of misrepresentation in order to attack a non-existing argument.  Naughtie introduces the discussion with the falsehood that there is some kind of claim by the SNP that Scotland alone is let down by the current funding handed out by Westminster.

He then goes on to encourage a discussion based on another falsehood, insisting that somehow it is being claimed that a currency union is a decision for Scots alone.  He repeats the lie, and it is a lie, again as the discusison progresses.

The discussion deteriorates quickly as Naughtie appears to forget his role and indulges his own pro-Union prejudices.  There’s even a comical moment when Gallagher himself appears to believe he is now confirming Naughtie’s own pro-Union views.

This is what happens when a pro-Union organisation places pro-Union employees in key positions and interviews pro-Union reporters and academics on the implications of speeches made by pro-Union politicians.

The narrative is reinforced with the continual reading out of headlines from pro-Union newspapers.

That same day the Co-operative scandal began to engulf the Labour party.  An unimaginable story involving class-A drugs, a bank bailout, lewd sexual allegations and donations to the Labour party was all over the newspapers south of the border.

In Scotland a visit by a known pro-Union politician to Scotland in order to deliver a pro-Union speech saturated the Scottish media.

This is the pattern of the independence referendum coverage from the BBC.  Any and all unionist politicians or Westminster committees need only make a statement attacking one or more aspects of Scottish independence and the BBC will amplify the claims regardless.

Carwyn Jones claims on currency were two things, economically ignorant and constitutionally mistaken.

Jones clearly has no idea of the economic damage the remainder of the UK would inflict on itself should it take a disastrous decision to reject a currency union.  Many of its own businesses would suffer by having to convert currency and of course the rUK’s balance of payments would take a hit.  The rUK, already having lost its triple-A credit rating, would be in danger of a further credit downgrade.

Jones, as Isabel Fraser eventually managed to get her BBC colleague James Williams to admit, has no veto over whether Scotland and the rUK enters into a sensible currency agreement.  His bluster could have and should have been challenged, but that would have destroyed the very reason for his visit which was to place currency at the top of the independence agenda.

Jones was joined by the usual suspects in the shape of the increasingly foghorn like Alistair Carmichael, a man who has taken the post of Scottish Secretary to a new low, and former Lib Dem MSP, now Lord Jim Wallace.

Missing these days from BBC reports and interviews on currency is the admission from leader of the Better Together campaign, Alistair Darling, that a currency union would be in the interests of the rUK.  Darling made this admission during a Newsnight Scotland interview in January.

Now we are being asked to believe that something that is in the interests of the rest of the UK is somehow going to be blocked by them.

It’s precisely these kind of contradictions that call into question the saturation coverage afforded Carwyn Jones’ visit and speech.  Jones, once he crossed the diplomatic line by attacking the policies of the host government, should have been vigorously challenged on his claims by our media.

Think Tanks

We had the same coverage days earlier when a report was published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies.  Their report was published, coincidently, one day prior to a scheduled publication by the Scottish government.

The IFS report was presented by the pro-Union media, including the BBC, as the independent, non-partisan conclusions of a respected academic body.  It was nothing of the sort of course and its timing ensured that the Scottish Government’s own report the following day was effectively eclipsed.

Any report that claims to be able to predict the economy of a country fifty years into the future should be treated with ridicule.  There were also glaring gaps in the IFS’s scenarios.

Not factored into the IFS ‘best case scenario’ was Sir Ian Wood’s report that said efficiency improvements in the oil and gas sector could bring an extra £200 billion into the Scottish economy.

The IFS also bizarrely failed to appreciate that an independent Scotland would be free from the shackles of the current UK’s immigration policies that are preventing skilled workers from coming to Scotland, and dissuading foreign students from staying.

It also based its oil revenue projections on the appallingly pessimistic forecasts of the Office of Budget Responsibility, a body created by UK Chancellor George Osborne.  The OBR forecasts have been laughed at by industry figures.

Finally it assumed Scotland would pursuer the same policies as the Westminster Government.

The IFS is what is known as a think tank and the BBC in Scotland has an unhealthy over reliance on such bodies.

Think tanks dominate news reporting at BBC Scotland, probably as a result of the cutbacks that mean real journalism is becoming more and more difficult.  Last week we saw the opinions of several think tanks and other bodies used as cheap and easy news fillers for BBC Scotland.

Reform Scotland launched an attack on nursery provision last week on the day the Scottish government made an announcement to increase funding.

Transport Minister Keith Brown had to defend the new borders rail after it was described as “insane” by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The think tank the CPPR is also a favourite of the BBC and enjoys much the same access to BBC Scotland’s assets as was given over to the IFS when it publishes similar ‘balanced’ and ‘politically neutral’ reports into Scotland’s future economy.  They are also fond of using figures kindly supplied by the aforementioned OBR.

Some say the independence debate will begin in earnest on Tuesday with the publication of the long awaited White Paper, and it might do.

However do not be fooled into thinking the BBC is somehow going to up its own game and suddenly start challenging Unionists on their claims, or even press Better Together on how we’re going to be better together when the Barnett Formula is eventually scrapped as Alistair Carmichael admitted yesterday.

Too many good BBC Scotland presenters are being marginalised and seem to find themselves in the early morning weekend slots that make little impact.  The more high profile and influential positions have been reserved for those presenters that can best be described as predictably loyal to the London imposed template.  Gordon Brewer, James Naughtie, Hayley Millar, Gary Robertson, Jackie Bird, Douglas Fraser, Glenn Campbell and Mhairi Stuart won’t cause pro-Union politicians and campaigners to have sleepless nights.

This broadcaster is not to be trusted in this debate and needs to be watched like a hawk.  Last week was no more than political propaganda with the Scottish Affairs Committee, the IFS and the visit by Carwyn Jones all political set-pieces designed to undermine the independence campaign.

This is the template the BBC will adopt.  If Carwyn Jones opinion can be headlined uncritically then so too can the opinions of every pro-Union minister from every devolved administration.

Indeed the Unionists could enjoy a headline every single day next year if each Lord, former or current UK Government minister, former or current devolved administration minister or each think tank issued a statement, speech or report.

The BBC wouldn’t go this far of course, but when things aren’t going well for the No campaign, it’s always an easy way to move the agenda and deflect attention.