How the Scottish media selectively promotes its business partners

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The best of pals 1

by Kenneth Roy

 

If you were looking for a small example of what is wrong with the Scottish media and why we are so ill-served by it (I have decided to capitulate and refer to the media in the singular from now on: it is not very pluralistic anyway), you would have needed to look no further than BBC Scotland’s Ceefax ‘news’ pages on Thursday morning.

 

There was very little in the 19 items selected for publication which would have indicated to anyone that Scotland had been a partly self-governing nation for the last 11 years. Public affairs were scarcely represented. Perhaps it was just a very quiet day. But, as a keen student of BBC Scotland’s Ceefax pages, I have to report that there are a lot of very quiet days in Scotland.

The impression you would have formed from reading the items listed on the first page was of a country dominated by violence. An ‘OAP stabbing’ was juxtaposed with a ‘staged’ death crash, we were assured that a ‘plug death toddler died quickly’, and that a ‘pair’ had been jailed ‘over indecent assault’. It is like this most days. If our elected representatives or our public bodies have much of interest to communicate about the way they govern us, it is not very likely that you will find it reported prominently on BBC Scotland’s Ceefax pages.

This morning, for example, the unexpected fall in Scottish unemployment, an interesting story given the opposite trend south of the border, was considered the 10th most important piece of news – well behind the indecent pair and the ‘staged’ death crash.

But wait – the view from Pacific Quay is not all doom and gloom.

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The explanation for the shameless plug became immediately apparent on a visit to the festival’s website, where BBC Radio Scotland was listed as its chief ‘media partner’.
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The third most important news of the morning, seven places ahead of the unexpected fall in unemployment, was headed: ‘Singer Tunstall to play festival’. What? I assumed that Ms Tunstall, who has not been widely heard of for some time, had been booked for no less than the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival. Even then it would not have been a terribly gripping piece of intelligence; even then it should not have rated a mention on anything resembling a national news bulletin.

On closer examination of the non-story, it emerged that Ms Tunstall was to be among the ‘headline acts’ at this year’s Hebridean Celtic Festival on Lewis (‘in the Western Isles’, the BBC added helpfully, for anyone who isn’t aware where Lewis has been for the last three million years). The item then listed the names of five other ‘headline acts’ and gave the dates of the festival before rounding off with an anodyne quote from the event organiser who declared herself ‘excited’ by the ‘range of music on offer this year’.

If the event organiser had declared herself ‘less than excited’ or ‘extremely unexcited’ or ‘quite frankly, seriously disappointed’ by the range of music on offer this year, that might just have qualified as news – in the sense that it would have been surprising. But it would still not have been worthy of mention by BBC Scotland, and certainly not in the top five of a bulletin.

It is obvious that the item is not there on merit. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of events – cultural, political, scientific, religious, miscellaneous – about to take place in Scotland over the next few months, many of them more vital to our lives than the Hebridean Celtic Festival, and very few of them will ever be promoted in advance by BBC Scotland. So why this one? The BBC wasn’t saying. But the explanation for the shameless plug became immediately apparent on a visit to the festival’s website, where BBC Radio Scotland was listed as its chief ‘media partner’.

Is this sort of cosy-tie up, the undisclosed nature of the relationship by the BBC, the cynical skewing of news priorities to promote its friends and associates – is any of this really worthy of a public service broadcaster?

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Sadly, the support we might have expected from the Evening Times and its sister paper, the Herald, as we inquired into the affairs of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde did not prove to be forthcoming.
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Talking about cosy tie-ups, we have just had the results of the year-long Glas-goals health campaign organised by the American-owned Glasgow Evening Times ‘in partnership with’ NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. According to a supplement in the paper – paid for by whom? your guess is as good as mine – the campaign set out ‘to make a difference and to have a few laughs along the way. What a year we had’. These are the words of the editor, Tony Carlin.

What a year, indeed. ‘It is estimated’ – always beware these words; they lack precision – that readers of the Evening Times stubbed out 15 million cigarettes. Oh, really? How was this impressive ‘estimate’ arrived at? Did a team of health workers trawl the streets of Glasgow for a year picking up every one of the 15 million stubbed-out fags and bring them dutifully to Mr Carlin’s editorial office for his inspection?

It is worth noting – it is always worth noting such things – that Newsquest, the paper’s owners, have a close business relationship with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. Newsquest reported last year that it had signed a contract, presumably a lucrative one, to print the health board’s ‘newspaper’, distributed free to unsuspecting households. The nature of the arrangement over the Glas-goals campaign has not been disclosed. But, of course, it would be churlish not to celebrate the results. Fifteen million stubbed-out cigarettes is certainly worth a few laughs along the way.

As it happens, I was in at the start of Glas-goals; I was an unwelcome intruder. In the week it was launched in the Evening Times, I wrote to every board member of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde giving notice of the Scottish Review’s investigation into the redevelopment of Blawarthill hospital, in the west of Glasgow, for a private nursing home and putting seven questions about the deal. Our investigation continued for several months and provoked a debate in the Scottish Parliament. Sadly, the support we might have expected from the Evening Times and its sister paper, the Herald, as we inquired into the affairs of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde did not prove to be forthcoming. Perhaps the two jolly partners – the NHS board and the Evening Times – were too busy having a few laughs along the way to notice our concerns about Blawarthill.

In the end, these concerns proved to be wholly justified. The Blawarthill redevelopment collapsed in acrimony and chaos. It was a fiasco.

At the time, however, it all looked rather different. I still have a copy of the email sent by the head of PR at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to his board members dismissing the Scottish Review as an online publication of no significance, assuring them that our concerns were ‘sensational’ and unfounded, and comparing our negativity unfavourably with the many pages of health promotion about to be facilitated by the Glasgow Evening Times.

 

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.