Scottish News from the BBC and a Question of Diplomacy

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This is Scottish election year and the starting pistol was fired with the so called New Year messages from the party leaders. From now until May 5th every announcement, comment and policy statement will be pored over and headlined by the Scottish media.

In this sensitive atmosphere a slip of the tongue or a perceived policy ‘U’ turn could spell disaster – no one is immune from the media microscope – or rather no one SHOULD be immune from this early campaign scrutiny. However the year is but days old and already there are serious questions being asked of BBC Scotland’s handling of the political news in Scotland.

The end of 2010 saw BBC Scotland play a very active role in the resignation of Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson. An interview on Newsnight Scotland saw Mr Stevenson asked repeatedly if he would apologise for his handling of ‘White Monday’. The interview resulted in Mr Stevenson’s now notorious claim where he stated that the appalling weather had been met by a “first class response”.

Such is the feral atmosphere that politicians operate in in today’s media that these three words were the catalyst for first an apology, then a resignation from the Transport Minister. Political opponents and media commentators pounced on Mr Stevenson’s ‘gaffe’ and BBC Scotland reporters were prominent amongst the ravenous pack.

The state broadcaster of course denied allegations of partisan behaviour or bias. After all, Mr Stevenson had brought much of it upon himself with his ill considered “first class response” comment and the BBC would have covered such verbal gaffes with the same zeal regardless of political leanings.

So what are we to make of the silence from BBC Scotland after Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray’s verbal slap in the face to Montenegro?

Granted, nobody spent hours in a snowbound car and the M8 wasn’t closed for 48 hours. However a diplomatic row has resulted from ill considered remarks made by the Scottish Labour leader who implied that Montenegro’s road to independence had only been possible after ethnic cleansing, bloody wars and war crimes tribunals. It doesn’t matter that Iain Gray might not have meant to imply exactly what has been inferred, but that’s not the issue, the issue is that Montenegrins have now reacted angrily and official diplomatic letters of complaint have been fired off – one to the First Minister.

The diplomatic repercussions of the slur were deemed so serious that the Sunday Herald felt it appropriate to place the story on its front page. Both Scotland on Sunday and The Scotsman gave the story a prominent position as did STV. The Press and Journal also covered it and the story has even featured in some English newspapers.

So why then has BBC Scotland failed to mention this very serious gaffe, a gaffe that threatens to embarrass Scotland itself?

Just to rub salt into the wound BBC Scotland instead decided to focus on two quite banal press releases from the Labour party. One a claim that Flu funds have been diverted to pay for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (I thought the SNP were anti-Glasgow?) and another non story regarding the leasing of NHS cars.

The Labour inspired Flu item appeared on Reporting Scotland where Labour Health Spokesperson Jackie Baillie was given the last word and accused the Scottish government of complacency, a word Labour have used often.

Labour’s penchant for using public resources in the form of Freedom of Information requests in order to gather statistics that they then manipulate into an attack on the SNP is well known. Labour MSP George Foulke’s is famous for using taxpayer’s cash in this manner. But anyone can see that there is a great deal of difference between a politically motivated and routine Labour party press release and a very real emerging news story.

Everyone that is, except apparently BBC Scotland.

Those who are familiar with BBC Scotland’s political output will not be surprised at their reluctance to cover this story. Reluctance though is one thing; an outright refusal to even acknowledge the gaffe is quite another and the blackout surprised even hardened members of the Newsnet Scotland team.

And it isn’t the first time that diplomatic responses to Labour party attacks have been suppressed or even manipulated by the BBC. In 2008 Scottish Labour MP Jim Murphy’s repeated attacks on Ireland, Iceland and Norway brought similar official rebukes and letters from Irish economists and Icelandic and Norwegian Ministers.

Norwegian Ambassador Bjarne Lindstrom wrote an angry letter after Murphy misrepresented comments made by Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store. Days later Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde is said to have been “incensed” by what he called the “objectionable” comments from the same Labour MP.

Mr Haarde’s attack on Scottish Labour was presented by the BBC on their online news site as an attack on “Scotland” by the Icelandic Prime Minister. After complaints the BBC altered the site headline replacing “Scotland” with the equally inappropriate and inaccurate “UK” – the word Labour or Murphy never appeared.

BBC Scotland continually refutes allegations that they are in any way biased against the SNP and that they operate a pro-Labour agenda. However the state broadcaster appears to be less reticent about covering ‘gaffes’ when they are made by SNP leader Alex Salmond as the following clip demonstrates:

Perhaps it was because the Iain Gray ‘slur’ story had appeared on the front page of The Sunday Herald that caused BBC Scotland not to run with it, after all BBC Scotland don’t take their lead from newspapers do they?  But again, as the clip below shows, BBC Scotland is only too capable of giving newspaper headlines a high profile in their political coverage – this time mischievously linking the SNP to the Tory party.

Whether bias, lazy journalism or simply a case of the London template not being appropriate for Scotland, evidence that something is not right at Pacific Quay mounts with every passing week.

Mostly of course this circumstantial evidence is not as blatant as the complete news blackout we have just witnessed, the ‘bias’ usually takes on a far more subtle form.

One of the recent news stories covered by BBC Scotland was John Swinney’s apology to the Scottish parliament over the tartan tax lapse. The debate in the chamber that day was less cut and dried as media reports suggested, but Mr Swinney conceded his failings on the matter and duly apologised.

BBC Scotland covered the apology that evening on Reporting Scotland with an item that contained a clip of Alex Salmond apparently reacting in a mocking fashion to something John Swinney had said.

However, in reviewing last year’s news for our recent ‘look back’ article, Newsnet Scotland came across a quite blatant example of video manipulation that we had not noticed at the time.  The Reporting Scotland clip can be seen below:

Now take a look at the clip below which is an unedited recording of the moments leading up to Alex Salmond’s mocking face and shaking of the head:

Salmond wasn’t mocking John Swinney at all, he was in fact mocking Tavish Scott. If you look back at the BBC clip you can just about hear Tavish Scott speaking at the moment Salmond shakes his head, it is drowned out by the BBC voice-over.

BBC Scotland had presented a wholly different interpretation of events to the one that had actually occurred. Now, this edit would not have had a major impact on those watching the news which was essentially a piece on Mr Swinney apologising, however it fed a subliminal subconscious and altogether false message to the viewer.

Other examples of ‘subtle’ manipulation include bizarre omissions whereby critical aspects of a debate or issue will be omitted entirely for reasons that are not at all clear.

Take the case of cost increases in the NHS that are generally accepted to be down to three main areas: salaries, PFI and increases in drugs costs.

PFI is of course Labour’s favoured funding mechanism for capital projects and one that the SNP refuse to pursue. Here we see Scottish NHS funding being covered on Reporting Scotland – but one of the cost areas is omitted:

Even when SNP politicians should have the opportunity to put forward their own case they are routinely hectored and interrupted to the extent that their message, if not lost altogether, is severely compromised.

These two clips are examples of what we mean:

Newsnet Scotland has a catalogue of examples of questionable behaviour when it comes to BBC Scotland reporters and presenters. Misleading reports about Megrahi, misrepresenting what an interviewee has said, allowing Labour spokespeople the last word in debates, camera shots to Labour opponents when SNP spokespeople are talking, news items inspired by ‘independent’ organisations (see Iain McMillan), stuffing shows with Unionist and Labour supporting pundits and even, with the clip below, describing a rare SNP leaning pundit’s input as being a “party political broadcast”.

It doesn’t end with broadcasts though, recruitment at BBC Scotland has raised eyebrows on more than one occasion.  Seasoned followers of Scottish politics will be well aware of the apology (never made public) that the BBC had to issue to the SNP’s Alex Neil after a BBC Scotland reporter attributed views to Mr Neil that he hadn’t expressed.

The reporter, Catriona Renton, is a former Glasgow Labour Councillor who represented Kelvindale before being ousted by the LibDems in 2003.  She went on to represent Labour in both the 2003 Holyrood elections and the 2004 European elections.  Her background is steeped in politics having worked for an MEP in Brussels as part of her Oxford University course. Her first job after graduating was working for ex Labour MP Dennis Canavan.  She was recruited by BBC Scotland’s parliamentary unit in 2006, where former Labour party activist John Boothman, husband of Labour MSP and ex-Health Minister Susan Deacon, was a senior producer.

Journalist Joan McAlpine recently highlighted yet another uncomfortable recruitment announcement by BBC Scotland involving the same people:

“Tom Connor, who currently runs the sports show, is to take up a position in charge of online news for BBC Scotland. BBC online news is a crucially important source of information. A number of years ago Connor, along with John Boothman who runs political coverage, was censured for offering media training to Labour candidates. I do not know either man, though I respect Boothman’s partner, the former Labour minister Susan Deacon.

But how much public confidence can we really have in the BBC when so many of its senior decision makers come from this background? If there were an equivalent number of former SNP members in its ranks then fair enough, but that is simply not the case. Catriona Renton, a former Labour councillor, presents politics shows, and Tavish Scott’s wife played a big part in last week’s snow story. Yet when Elizabeth Quigley married the SNP’s John Swinney she announced that she would no longer be involved in political stories and stuck to softer features instead.”

Ms McAlpine also quotes an unnamed journalist who when asked if the perception that BBC Scotland was anti-SNP was, in his view, justified, said: “It probably comes more naturally to them to attack the nationalists than to attack the union.”

It is inconceivable that the newsrooms in England would have so many people with connections to Labour in positions of authority, yet it seems to be acceptable in Scotland.

We appreciate that, as a news site that openly supports major constitutional change and openly endorses the SNP as a political entity, that we may well face the same charges of political partisanship that we accuse BBC Scotland of.

Our response is simple – we do not compel the public to pay us £145.50 per year in the form of a licence, we rely on donations from site visitors. We also openly solicit views from across the political spectrum and unlike Brian Taylor’s blog; we do not bar mention of sites that take opposing political views.

Indeed every private news outlet from The Daily Record (Labour) to this site (SNP) has some sort of political leaning. We however are the only news source that endorses the SNP and, coincidentally, to have been banned from being mentioned by the BBC whilst the others have their headlines, some inspired by their political leanings, read out daily on BBC Radio Scotland and held up to camera on BBC Scotland political programmes.

BBC Scotland is supposed to uphold all that is decent in Scottish journalism and act as a barrier against those who would seek to corrupt the democratic process. It is not handed public cash in order to create what appears to be a televised, radio and online equivalent of The Daily Record.

You do not have to be an independence supporting Scottish nationalist to see that there is something very wrong at Pacific Quay.

Footnote:
It’s certainly the case that there are very many good professional people employed at Pacific Quay Glasgow, the vast majority no doubt. It really is not their fault that the London controlled institution seems to be struggling to come to terms with the rise in popularity of the SNP and the increasing demands for more powers for Scotland from the Scottish people.

However we have to be pragmatic and accept that the BBC is a product of the Union and as such is simply unable to act in any other way in Scotland. For this reason it is absolutely vital that we continue to monitor and highlight what we believe to be questionable editorial and reporting practices at Pacific Quay.

With the sad announcement that the excellent Bella Caledonia blog is to end then alternative sources of opinion and news becomes ever more crucial. Bella’s editor Mike Small has also sadly decided that he cannot commit to Newsnet Scotland either and with that, one of the most talented contributors to the Scottish political scene appears to have hung up his cyber-pen – hopefully not for long.

Newsnet Scotland is gearing up for the Holyrood election in May and we have no hesitation in stressing just how critical the support of our readers is to our continued success. We are currently engaged in several projects that are using significant resources in terms of manpower and would like to issue a plea to anyone who has, or knows someone who has, journalistic training or the ability to contribute regular news articles to please contact the team using the links beneath the Speakers Corner menu or alternatively contact alexporter69 @ gmail.com. We have some funds and can pay expenses plus a little more.

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