The BBC – A licence to kill … free speech


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In November last year Newsnet Scotland published a story in our then monthly newsletter in which we revealed that a private apology that had been issued to SNP Minister Alex Neil.


The apology had come from BBC Scotland and resulted from a broadcast transmitted during the campaign for the Glasgow North East by-election in which views had been attributed to Mr Neil that he had not expressed.


The apology was completely ignored by every Scottish main stream news outlet.  Indeed it wasn’t even publicly acknowledged by the BBC and no correction to the original broadcast was ever transmitted.


What made this particular episode all the more remarkable was that the BBC presenter responsible for the erroneous broadcast was a former Glasgow Labour councillor who had been a Labour candidate in both the 2003 Holyrood elections and the 2004 European elections.


This ex Labour politician had been recruited by BBC Scotland’s parliamentary unit in 2006, where John Boothman, husband of Labour MSP and ex-Health Minister Susan Deacon, was a senior producer.  The identity of the journalist in question isn’t the point of this piece – indeed many people with a basic knowledge of Scottish politics will know who it is – the point is what many believe to be the steady disintegration of the journalistic integrity of the BBC in Scotland.


Cast your mind back to 2007 – the SNP had just pulled off one of the biggest shocks in UK election history when they ended over 50 years of Labour dominance in Scotland.


The win caught everyone by surprise; the public, the opposition and more importantly the media.  The margin, one seat, left the SNP looking vulnerable – indeed one of the first challenges they faced was the vote for the Edinburgh trams, which they had always been against.  The unionists joined together and outvoted the fledgling government; the smart money was on the new government falling sooner rather than later.


Well, almost 3 years have elapsed and this fledgling administration has grown into a robust and formidable government.  In Alex Salmond they have one of the most gifted politicians the UK has ever seen, he heads a team of dedicated conviction politicians with only one goal – to see Scotland flourish as an independent nation.


The Holyrood opposition are weak, Labour are on their third leader since the 2007 election defeat and are now reduced to routinely demanding resignations and inquiries, the Lib Dems jettisoned one inept leader for another one and only Annabelle Goldie seems capable of bringing anything to the chamber. The Tories however are unlikely to mount a serious electoral challenge in Scotland – the Cameron ‘bounce’ never materialised North of the border.


Faced with this confident and capable nationalist government, who provides the real opposition?


Soon after the SNP won the election, BBC Scotland’s political correspondent Glenn Campbell appeared in a TV broadcast on the steps of Holyrood.  Campbell held up a copy of the SNP’s manifesto to camera and proceeded to tear it up in quite flamboyant and melodramatic fashion.


Campbell’s brazenly partisan act was meant to represent the SNP’s broken promises, however for many it symbolised the tearing up of the BBC’s own charter; and things were going to get worse.


The BBC had already begun displaying ‘behavioural problems’ prior to the aforementioned Holyrood election.  An infamous live debate hosted by Jeremy Paxman in January 2007 just months before the election saw Paxman confront Alex Salmond with results from a poll of 50 Scottish businesses that the BBC presenter had claimed demonstrated a lack of support for independence amongst the business fraternity.


It turned out that that only seven of the 50 firms approached for their views on independence had bothered to reply, contrary to Paxman’s claims a majority had declined to express a view ‘one way or the other, two had declared ‘neutrality’ and one leading business said ‘it didn’t care’.


The BBC issued an apology some six months later, this followed a similar move from Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark who had apologised to the now new First Minister for the ‘abrupt’ way she had ended an interview about Tony Blair’s signing of a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Libya that had included Al Megrahi.


The list of questionable broadcasts and objectionable behaviour has continued unabated with former Labour party activists being allowed to appear on TV moments before a live by-election debate in order to make accusations against the SNP.  SNP politicians routinely hectored and interrupted during interviews thus rendering their points almost impossible to comprehend and of course there is always the subtle nuances and suggestion that can often go un-noticed.


The corporation is also ‘guilty’ of wheeling out the same collection of mostly Unionist pundits time after time in order to give their ‘balanced and objective’ views on the Scottish body politic.  Lorraine Davidson, Professor John Curtice, Alan Cochrane, Angus Macleod and Alf Young are regularly provided with a platform by the BBC, look out also for CBI Scotland representatives.


From Trump to Megrahi [surely the low point] we have observed as the BBC’s ‘journalistic defecations’ have soiled the pages of its own charter.  Any complaints, if acknowledged at all, are met with a defiant arrogance that reeks of self importance and disdain.


Its decision to exclude the SNP from any leaders debate is merely a continuation of what appears an institutionalised Caledonian malaise.


But throughout all of this there has been one area reserved for us, the licence-payer, in which we were allowed to express our own views on matters political.  A small online oasis where casual browsers and more vociferous commentators merge, offering insights into subjects that might otherwise remain shrouded in mystery; debating, arguing and educating.


The BBC Scotland ‘Blether with Brian’ blog is probably one of Scotland’s richest sources of information, current affairs and political insight in Scotland.  Comments are passionate and lively, they are also thought provoking and informative – at times revealing and entertaining.


The blog stands in stark contrast to the mind numbingly awful ‘gruel’ that is routinely served up by BBC Scotland – it is the perfect antidote to Shereen, Call Kaye and ‘Brian’s Big Debate’.


The blog is or rather was ‘active’ 24/7 with contributors logging in from around the world.  Scottish current affairs and politics was attracting literally thousands of comments, opinions and views; and what’s more it was almost entirely abuse free.


Then just under a month ago something happened, comments began to be censored – not one or two, but a whole string of comments.  This unannounced and apparent change to moderation policy coincided with the resignation of Steven Purcell.


BBC Scotland, like every other news outlet in Scotland, had shown a marked reluctance to give prominence to this story in its early days.  Indeed the BBC have continued to treat the story as though it were a small insignificant ‘local issue’ and not the very serious political scandal it clearly is.


The ‘Blether with Brian’ blog was swamped with comments and messages when the Purcell story first broke, many ridiculing the state broadcaster and the rest of the Scottish Main Stream Media who were shying away from covering it.  Sadly it also saw message after message disappear as those controlling the blog became ever more censorial and resistant to free speech.


Reasons given for removing messages included being ‘off topic’, that they contained links to ‘unacceptable sites’ and that the messages were ‘spam’.  One such comment that was considered spam contained a link to the very site you are reading now.


Other ‘unacceptable’ links included links to well respected newspapers – there was even claims that one comment was removed that contained a link to a site run by the BBC itself!!


The comment below is an example of one that was considered unacceptable by the blog controllers:

“Remember when the BBC close this blog to comments that Newsnet Scotland is always open.”


The reason given was that it was ‘off topic’ – however a quick glance at the blog and we can see that a majority of comments are routinely ‘off topic’.


In a standard reply to another complainant who was concerned about changes to moderation policy, the BBC stated:

“Because Brian blogs on a range of issues, this approach intends to provide more of a focus for comments in relation to the specific subject or subjects covered in each individual blog.”


In other words, the blog team no longer wished to allow free discussion of Scottish politics, but rather wished to confine discussions strictly to the topic introduced by Brian Taylor – to that topic and only  that topic.  There is a word for that sort of behaviour, the word is censorship.


In fact the only way that some important issues can be discussed at all is by going off topic.


A case in point is the Purcell story that was briefly mentioned by the blog host Brian Taylor on the day the story broke and then completely ignored for fully two weeks.  This was in contrast to Mr Taylor’s enthusiasm for the lunchgate/lettergate stories that preceded this very real scandal.


On 4th February Mr Taylor felt that the proposed lunch in the Holyrood restaurant was sufficiently serious to merit a rather lengthy blog on the subject.  On 8th February Mr Taylor again produced a lengthy blog on the same lunch story.  On 11th February Taylor blogged again on yet another relatively benign story, that of a letter written by Nicola Sturgeon on behalf of a constituent about to be sentenced.


Three blogs in one week focussing on two stories of debatable seriousness.


A brief perusal of the comments since the introduction of this new and more “focussed” policy shows that certain ‘off-topic’ issues are still permitted, but comments addressing other ‘off-topic’ issues are not.  It thus appears that not only are BBC Scotland practising a form of censorship, but are doing so in a remarkably capricious and ad hoc manner.  


As if that wasn’t bad enough the BBC then decided on an even more sinister course of action when they quite unexpectedly and without warning closed down the blogs completely.  The ‘Blether with Brian’ blog was locked down from last Friday afternoon throughout the weekend and all of Monday, commenting was not possible – the blog re-opened on Tuesday for a few hours but was soon closed down again.


A general election has been called and the situation now is that the most popular publicly funded mainstream media forum in Scotland is now opening and closing intermittently and routinely censoring comments.


By closing down the commenting facility within a few hours BBC Scotland prevent both reaction to, and comment on, a changing news story.  By the time one has drafted a considered response, and taken into account newly breaking news regarding the topic, the commenting facility has been closed down.  It is difficult to see how this improves the quality of comments.  Rather it could lead to a situation where only the most facile and superficial responses have the best chance of appearing on the blog.


A quick glance at the BBC’s UK blogs and we see only one other blog was closed to comments.  So why close Scotland’s most important blog, the one frequented by most Scots both at home and abroad?


It should be remembered that the BBC is a public service, funded by public money.  The very best that can be said for this action is that it is high-handed and arrogant.  It displays a disregard for the needs and expectations of service users which borders on contempt.  It is utterly unthinkable that any other public sector organisation would introduce a change to a long standing policy with a direct impact upon service users without announcing the change beforehand.


The introduction of this new moderation policy precisely at a time when the exact nature of the relationships between certain Scottish media figures and certain Scottish politicians has come into question might be a coincidence, in the same way that the recent resignations of a long list of political figures on the grounds of ill-health have merely coincided with concerns about abuse of expenses.


Far from promoting focus and clarity, the recent change to moderation policy has created uncertainty, confusion and obfuscation.  There are those who would suggest that this was the BBC’s intention all along.


The timing, so close to an election campaign will simply serve to reinforce suspicions that the BBC cannot cope with the dramatic changes that are happening within Scotland’s political landscape and that it is still working to an old out of date set of ‘rules’.