Should their Rangers coverage be BBC Scotland’s ‘Lord McAlpine’ moment?


  By G.A.Ponsonby
Last week it emerged that the Conservative peer ‘outed’ by the BBC in a now notorious broadcast of Newsnight was seeking legal redress.
The Lord McAlpine saga sadly overshadowed the allegations of sex abuse at a North Wales care home and the BBC’s reputation as a trusted news source took a hammering.

By G.A.Ponsonby
Last week it emerged that the Conservative peer ‘outed’ by the BBC in a now notorious broadcast of Newsnight was seeking legal redress.
The Lord McAlpine saga sadly overshadowed the allegations of sex abuse at a North Wales care home and the BBC’s reputation as a trusted news source took a hammering.

The week also brought a verdict on oldco Glasgow Rangers use of controversial EBTs in order to pay players and staff.  Over a ten year period the Ibrox club saved millions in tax liabilities by adopting the controversial payment system that saw loans administered through a trust.

A specially convened tribunal comprising three judges ruled by two to one that the EBT system as implemented by the old Rangers management whilst under the stewardship of Sir David Murray, did not contravene tax rules.  The ruling caused shock and surprise, nowhere more than BBC Scotland where announcers reported the verdict in a series of bulletins that ensured it occupied the top of the news agenda.

Everyone it seems had believed that the club was guilty and a high profile documentary by BBC Scotland had helped fuel an atmosphere that saw speculation take over as journalistic patience gave way to unethical second guessing of the worst order.

Ironically, the BBC Scotland documentary ‘Rangers – The Men Who Sold The Jerseys’, with its melodramatic and suggestive presentation style, won an award just days before the tribunal verdict was announced that brought sobriety back to the proceedings.

If the tribunal is to believed, and as yet we have to acknowledge that an appeal is not out of the question, then the men singled out by the documentary appear not to have sold the jerseys at all; indeed there are now calls for an investigation into how personal and confidential information came to be broadcast by BBC Scotland.

Following Oldco Rangers’ vindication over the HMRC ‘big tax case’, there has been a resurgence of anger among Rangers supporters at the role BBC Scotland played in the downfall of the Scottish club.

During the period when the club was bought by Craig Whyte for £1, until the formation of the Newco, and throughout the subsequent negotiations which led to Newco Rangers starting the season in Division 3, BBC Scotland has had something of a fixation on the club, way beyond the financial difficulties it was experiencing.

BBC Scotland’s head of News and Current Affairs, John Boothman speaking in May this year described the exposing by BBC Scotland of former Rangers owner Craig Whyte as having been banned for seven years as a director, as: “one of the journalistic triumphs of the year in Scotland”.

Now interesting as Mr Whyte’s past was, describing this as one of the journalistic triumphs of the year is surely stretching its importance.  However it might just serve to explain the tabloidesque approach by BBC Scotland to the Rangers situation.

Barely a day went by without a news story focussing on the club’s problems, and documentaries were commissioned which were highly critical of the club.

So bad was coverage that in October 2011, Rangers FC withdrew “all co-operation” with the BBC over what it said were “repeated difficulties” with the broadcaster that season.

The Ibrox club said several instances of reporting on Rangers from the BBC had been “neither accurate or fair”. It also claimed that the BBC Scotland documentary, Rangers, the Inside Story, was a “prejudiced muckraking exercise”.

In a statement, Rangers management wrote: “The club believes that the BBC has on a number of occasions now demonstrated a pre-determined negative attitude towards Rangers and its fans and its journalism has fallen well short of acceptable standards.

“The decision to end co-operation with the BBC has been taken very reluctantly but the club feels it has been left with no other option.”

In response, a BBC Scotland statement said: “Rangers FC has made a number of assertions in relation to our journalistic standards, including a claim of underlying bias against the club. We completely refute this allegation in the strongest terms”.

There are now claims from fans groups that the BBC ignored calls from organisations for fairness in reporting of the issue and there are now calls from fans for the broadcaster to apologise.

Also in the firing line is BBC Scotland’s flagship news programme Reporting Scotland which claimed last week that the old Rangers had been cleared of “tax evasion”.  In fact Rangers had never been charged with evading tax, which is a criminal offence, but rather tax avoidance which is legal.

Rangers former owner, Sir David Murray is seeking a correction and an apology from BBC Scotland over the news item.

In July 2011 BBC Scotland were forced to issue an apology to Rangers manager Ally McCoist after video footage broadcast by Reporting Scotland was manipulated in a manner that appeared to show McCoist smiling flippantly when questioned about bigotry.

Other demands for an apology followed an episode of Sportscene that appeared to show McCoist falling to his death in a scene reminiscent of the Mad Men TV series.

But it is the BBC Scotland documentary that is now the focus of attention.  There can be little doubt that ‘Rangers – The Men Who Sold The Jerseys’ spawned a considerable amount of copy that followed the ‘cheat’ line implied by the programme.

No one questions that Rangers were in potential big trouble had the tax case gone against them.  But it has to be remembered that, at the time of the broadcast, the tribunal had yet to give a judgement. 

The BBC is a broadcasting giant in Scotland, and as such has the power to set the narrative and tone of coverage on any issue from sport to current affairs and politics.  The documentary,  ‘Rangers – The Men Who Sold The Jerseys’ was very heavily trailed prior to broadcast – with the tone clearly suggestive of guilt.

Speaking this weekend, presenter Mark Daly defended the documentary insisting that there was never any apportioning of guilt on Rangers officials who were in control at the time of the EBTs.  However that is disingenuous, as there would have been no reason to ‘expose’ payments from the EBT scheme to officials and players otherwise.  Besides, the title of the documentary leaves little to the imagination.

BBC Scotland appears to have produced the programme on the assumption of guilt, indeed why commission a special documentary unless you are already certain that the payments or the system used in order to make them, were wrong in some way. 

The coverage may not have directly caused the club’s subsequent demise, but there can be little doubt that it created an image of ‘cheats’ that has persisted and grown.

More worryingly though for BBC Scotland, there are now suggestions that information contained in the programme may have been leaked illegally from sources close to HMRC.  If true, then a criminal offence may have been committed.

In a statement, Sir David Murray’s Murray International Holdings has asked for an investigation into the leaks and how personal information came to be in the possession of the BBC.

The issue has parallels with another episode that saw confidential material fall into the hands of BBC Scotland.

In 2011, it obtained and broadcast police interview tapes of Gail Sheridan, after she had been cleared of all charges when she stood trial along with her husband Tommy Sheridan.  To date, BBC Scotland has refused to disclose how it obtained the video footage.

Release and broadcast of police interview tapes is uncommon, if not unheard of, when no conviction has been brought against the interviewee.

BBC Scotland’s coverage of Mr Sheridan’s trial was criticised for its one sided portrayal, which many people believed was relentlessly anti-Sheridan.

Tommy Sheridan’s solicitor complained to the BBC Trust over its coverage of his trial, alleging selective editing, impartiality and inaccuracy, and the broadcast of the police interview with Gail Sheridan.  The trust rejected the complaint.

Writing in the Scottish Review recently, Tommy Sheridan referred to the incident and said of BBC Scotland and it’s Chief Ken MacQuarrie:

One wonders how the director of the BBC in Scotland has the authority or credibility to conduct an inquiry into journalistic professionalism and ethics at a UK level when his own ship in Scotland was given the green light to broadcast the ‘Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’ with illegally obtained police interview tapes and an outrageous level of editing.

The BBC Scotland journalists involved in that programme and the news bulletins on the day it was broadcast misled the public but when these indisputable facts were presented to the BBC Scotland management, including of course Mr MacQuarrie, the whole episode was swept under the carpet and no apology or admission of guilt has been forthcoming.

That was a shocking abuse of the BBC and any independent examination of the programme and associated news bulletins would force any rational person to question the BBC’s ‘independence’, honesty and professionalism. It was an unethical documentary but they seem to have got away with it. Sadly.

Sheridan and Rangers have much to be angry about when it comes to coverage of their respective cases by BBC Scotland.

Given the BBC’s current problems caused by the Jimmy Saville affair, as well as the fact that the two year referendum debate is now underway, this may be seen by many as an opportune moment for BBC Scotland to examine its own editorial judgement.