Referendum Guidelines are ‘not rules’, BBC Head of Politics warns


  By G.A.Ponsonby
The BBC’s chief political adviser in London has said that there are no “rules of do’s and don’ts” as far as the corporation’s coverage of the independence referendum is concerned.
Ric Bailey has said that new guidelines issued by the BBC Trust offered a framework for programme-makers who he said would be left to make their own editorial judgements with respect to ensuring impartiality.

Bailey was responding to questions posed by a Newsnet Scotland reporter who was seeking clarification on guidelines issued by the trust which said reporting of the referendum had to take into account the “partisan editorial stance” of newspapers.

In the new guidelines, the Trust said of the BBC:

“In reporting, for instance, on newspaper coverage, they should also take account of any relevant partisan editorial stance.”

However, Mr Bailey said of the guidelines: “… they are what they say they are, that is ‘guidelines’, which means they are setting out a framework within which programme-makers are making editorial judgements with due impartiality.

“Those judgements can be held to account through the complaints process, up to and including the BBC Trust.”

He added: “It is in the context of the point that there may be others, such as academics, journalists and others, who may hold a particular view and we should be careful about the way we present such contributions, for instance, not implying they are impartial when they may not be or ensuring that such views are “flagged up” to the audience where relevant.

“These are deliberately not hard and fast ‘rules’ of do’s and don’ts – the onus is on the programme-makers to make good judgements within these parameters – that is ‘due’ impartiality, which means taking account of the particular circumstances.”

There is mounting concern that management at the BBC in Scotland are deliberately ignoring the pro-Union nature of the newspaper industry in Scotland in their coverage of political content.  This week, Newsnet Scotland highlighted several examples of radio, TV and online promotion of anti-independence headlines from several newspapers.

The BBC’s chief political adviser was asked to respond after having been contacted by the BBC Trust.  The watchdog itself had been contacted after repeated attempts at eliciting information from BBC Scotland chiefs failed.

Representatives from Newsnet Scotland had sought clarification on the Scottish broadcaster’s policy of reviewing newspaper headlines.  However despite repeated questions relating to the new guidelines and, in one case, waiting over a year for a response relating to newspaper coverage, management at Pacific Quay have repeatedly refused to address the questions.

There is also bound to be concern at the admission from the BBC’s most senior political advisor that new referendum guidelines can only be ‘enforced’ through the BBC’s own complaints process.  As Newsnet Scotland reported recently, it took the BBC Trust almost a full year to reach a ruling which found BBC Scotland had broken editorial guidelines on accuracy following a news broadcast relating to the referendum.

The guilty verdict related to a Reporting Scotland item on one of the key issues of the referendum debate, when former reporter Raymond Buchanan told viewers that a senior European Politician from Ireland believed that a newly independent Scotland would find itself outside the EU, something the Irish politician later denied.

Buchanan resigned from the corporation days before the Trust confirmed its intention to investigate complaints into the broadcast.

On Friday, one of Mr Buchanan’s former colleagues, Glenn Campbell, called the SNP conference in Inverness, a “YeSNP rally”.  The term ‘YeSNP’ is widely used by opponents of independence to suggest the official Yes Scotland campaign, which includes representatives from the Scottish Greens, the SSP as well as non-politically aligned groups, is controlled by the nationalists.

[Newsnet comment – The reply from Ric Bailey is welcome but has to be set alongside the failure of BBC Scotland management to even acknowledge there is a very clear issue that needs to be addressed.

The newspaper industry in Scotland is pro-Union, nobody argues this fact.  As private organisations it is perfectly legitimate for these newspapers to adopt whichever political and constitutional stance they wish, just as Newsnet Scotland does.

However, as the BBC compels each and every one of us, whether pro-independence, pro-Union or undecided, to pay a licence fee of £145.50, then it is only right and proper that the broadcaster accepts there are now news outlets that reflects the pro-independence viewpoint.

Newsnet Scotland includes amongst its regular columnists Lesley Riddoch, David Torrance, Peter Geoghegan and George Kerevan.  We have published, in full, speeches from Better Together head Alistair Darling and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont.  We have an open invitation to the leaders of each of Scotland’s pro-Union parties to draft an article on the subject of their choice whch we will publish, unedited.

We recently invited the pro-Union Better Together campaign to take part in an online Q/A with their Yes Scotland rivals which we would publish in full.  The invitation remains.

The sheer number of indy scares, warnings and threats issued by Lords, CEOs and Think Tanks that make it onto the pages of newspapers is incredible.  BBC Scotland serves as an amplifier for these partisan statements by repeating the newspaper headlines.

We seek not advantage.  We seek balance.  BBC Scotland ought to serve all parts of the political news community, not just the one that opposes independence.]