The BBC and the media – professionalism and ethics


  By G.A.Ponsonby
If I were to put to you that the vast majority of the journalists reporting on the independence debate were doing so in a professional manner, you might be forgiven for thinking I was commending the behaviour of the assorted scribes and broadcasters who dominate the traditional media landscape.
However, if I were to suggest at the same time that despite clear professionalism that ethics was severely lacking, then you might be confused.

By G.A.Ponsonby
If I were to put to you that the vast majority of the journalists reporting on the independence debate were doing so in a professional manner, you might be forgiven for thinking I was commending the behaviour of the assorted scribes and broadcasters who dominate the traditional media landscape.
However, if I were to suggest at the same time that despite clear professionalism that ethics was severely lacking, then you might be confused.

The explanation is that the two are not the same – one can behave in a totally professional manner whilst behaving completely unethically.

Take football for example.  It is widely accepted that a deliberate foul on an opponent in order to prevent an advantage being gained is good practice – it is ‘professional’ to break the rules.  Players will simulate being fouled and feign serious injury in order to persuade the referee to penalise the opposition.

But there are of course vocations where professionalism and ethics are one and the same.  Medicine for instance has extremely high professional and ethical standards.  The Hippocratic Oath forbids doctors to act in any way other than in the best interests of their patient. 

Doctors routinely act in a professional manner that extends this oath and sees communities and society benefit.  Doctors are, in turn, given respect and status that reflects their commitment to high ethical and professional standards.

Journalism too has a code of ethics.

In the US, journalists are told their duty: “is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.  Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.  Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”

In the UK, the National Union of Journalists lists twelve guidelines for journalists, one of which says: a good journalist: “Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair”

However, since 2007 I would argue we have in Scotland witnessed a deterioration in journalistic ethics.  This is becoming more and more evident in the way that the independence debate is being reported by our press and broadcast media.

One example of the lack of ethics is the way a recent response from EC Vice President Viviane Reding was deliberately mis-reported by Scottish based journalists. 

Ms Reding had replied to a question from a Spanish government official who had suggested that Catalonia could be stripped of EU membership if it declared unilateral independence without consulting the Spanish government.

The EC Vice president issued a diplomatic response essentially agreeing with the, unashamedly, loaded question.  Nevertheless, it was clear – the issue being discussed was one where there was no agreement between the parent state and the region.  It is also a fact that Spain’s constitution expressly forbids any independence referendum without the consent of Madrid.  As such there was no correlation between Catalonia and Scotland – the Edinburgh Agreement rendered the exchange between the EC and Madrid moot.

However, that didn’t stop the communication being used by at least two high profile journalists here in Scotland in order to bolster the anti-independence narrative.  Both the Herald’s Magnus Gardham and the Guardian’s Severin Carrell recently cited Ms Reding in articles supporting Unionist arguments that an independent Scotland would have to leave the EU.

Referring to UK government claims that an independent Scotland would not remain a member of the EU, Mr Carrell wrote that Westminster was:  “Referring to statements by European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, and his deputy, Viviane Reding, that a newly independent country would be seen as a new applicant…”

According to the Herald’s Magnus Gardham, Viviane Reding – in a letter to the Spanish Government – had “backed comments suggesting a newly independent country would have to apply for membership.”

The basis for the argument on which each journalists built his article was not true, Ms Reding has never said that “a newly independent country would be seen as a new applicant”. 

It was invention as anyone who has followed Ms Reding’s statements knows fine well.  Newsnet Scotland published an article to that effect which very clearly explained the context of the communications between the EC Vice President and a Spanish government official.

Indeed it was Newsnet Scotland who exposed as false, previous denials from the EC that Ms Reding had dismissed the idea that international law meant Catalonia would be expelled from the EU in the event of independence.

The articles were presented in a professional manner, but ethically, they left a lot to be desired.

This kind of misrepresentation isn’t isolated.  Last week, another newspaper claimed as “recent” an 18 month old interview with a Belgian politician and President of the EC, Herman Van Rompuy.

The Observer newspaper has since admitted its error.  Stephen Pritchard, the paper’s Readers’ editor called the article “not the Observer’s finest hour”.

The Observer has now amended the article and published a statement beneath making it clear that the original description of the interview as “recent” was wrong.  It has also added a response from First Minister Alex Salmond.

Commendable and something that perhaps Mr Gardham and Mr Carrell might wish to reflect on.

The problem of course is that whether through partisan desire, ignorance or just plain incompetence, these stories are published and then gain a foothold.  Other news vendors then pick them up and promulgate as truth that which is very easily demonstrated to be myth.

The unwitting consumers of these reports are the public who accept what they read and hear as true and, as a result, are misled as to the truth of the matter.

Misreporting and misrepresentation of comments and exchanges is only one aspect where ethics are sadly jettisoned in favour of the editorial line, or personal prejudice.

The other is the blithe acceptance as fact, that which is passed to journalists by some politicians.

Last week we witnessed the latest in an ever growing conveyor belt of dubious claims when the UK Treasury published figures that apparently showed Scots benefited financially from the Union far more than their London counterparts.

The figures underpinned articles and commentary that, yet again, sought to sow seeds of doubt as to the merits of Scottish independence.

The claims though were exposed as bordering on fraudulent when it emerged the Scottish stats were eleven years out of date.

But that’s the print media – what of the BBC, specifically BBC Scotland.

BBC Scotland

It won’t have gone unnoticed that the BBC is not in a good place at the moment.  The UK institution has been beset with allegations of cover-up over the Jimmy Savile revelations.  A botched attempt at explaining the reasons behind the shelving of a Newsnight exposé of Savile ended with an apology and an admission that the initial reasons given for the cancellation were false.

This weekend the BBC’s crisis deepened after Newsnight falsely implicated a Tory peer in the North Wales child abuse scandal.

George Entwistle’s resignation followed after he admitted he knew nothing of the programme prior to broadcast or the critical headlines that appeared last Friday in morning newspapers following its broadcast.

The Entwistle ‘I know nothing’ was shocking and effectively left him nowhere to go but to stand down as DG. 

Entwistle’s admission exposes a culture at the BBC that apparently gives producers carte blanche to broadcast pretty much what they want.

Had the English media not scrutinised the BBC then the UK licence payer would never have known that the state broadcaster had effectively broadcast allegations that were entirely false.

And if the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme can broadcast falsehoods relating to something as serious as paedophilia, then what of the more banal, but equally inaccurate and one-sided stories that regularly pepper BBC news programmes in Scotland?

In Scotland we have a media who are professional, there’s that word again.  The collective term used to describe this professional group is Main Stream Media (MSM).  This includes BBC Scotland, as well as the national daily and Sunday newspapers.

However with the great debate currently raging over Scotland’s constitutional status, and with no member of the Scottish MSM supportive if independence, then there is little appetite for the kind of scrutiny that the BBC south of the border occasionally faces – we have no checks and balances in order to mitigate partisan excess.

In short, at the heart of the BBC in Scotland, there exists a culture that is ripe for abuse, and the lack of scrutiny provides a fertile environment in which to cultivate any partisan excess.  There is nothing to compel BBC Scotland producers to broadcast balanced, informative and objective coverage of the independence debate.

BBC Scotland has done, and will continue to, suppress news stories or interventions harmful to the pro-Union argument [From Iain Gray’s Montenegro slurs, Johann Lamont’s fabricated rape case], embellish and promote stories helpful to the pro-Union case [Megrahi release, Salmond liar],  and even broadcast allegations it knows are baseless [Jackie Baillie’s attack on the NHS infection rates].

We already know that the head of BBC Scotland news and current affairs has links to the Labour party.  Indeed John Boothman once suggested that BBC facilities be used in order to provide media training to members of the Labour party.

There is no doubt that Mr Boothman behaves in a professional manner.  However how can we be sure that his personal political leanings do not colour his approach to political news?

It is surely not ethical to have someone with such close links to Scotland’s major pro-Union party as head of news at the BBC in Scotland.  We know that BBC Scotland has employed, as political reporters, people who were Labour councillors and election candidates for the Labour party.  Again, is this entirely ethical?

At a private conference earlier this year, Mr Boothman made two quite extraordinary statements.  In echoes of George Entwistle’s “I know nothing” defence, Mr Boothman told his audience that one of the things about BBC Scotland was that “you don’t get that many complaints”.

What Mr Boothman perhaps means is that he is not aware of the number of complaints that BBC Scotland actually does receive.

Another worrying comment from Mr Boothman at the presentation, given the dire and at times one sided coverage of the independence debate, was his suggestion about the ‘Great Debate’ which he appeared to imply was too far off to warrant special attention.

What resources there are appear to be being spent on headlining politically motivated claims and attacks usually, but not exclusively, from Unionist politicians.  The relative lack of resources means that many of these attacks are rarely scrutinised to ensure they are based on fact.

One such example, already mentioned briefly, was the airtime handed to Labour MSP Jackie Baillie at the start of this year by BBC Scotland in order to allow Ms Baillie to mount an attack on the Scottish NHS Hospital infection levels.  Ms Baillie’s claims however were completely bogus.

Not in the same league as false paedophile claims, but the principle is exactly the same.  These were demonstrably false claims that a cursory application of journalistic rigour would have established as such, and whilst not directly part of the independence debate, all politics in Scotland is now linked to the constitution.

Currently there is a campaign by the anti-independence parties aimed at attacking the integrity of Alex Salmond.  BBC Scotland is playing its part in this campaign with news bulletins constantly repeating the accusations, the heart of which is centred on a BBC interview conducted by Andrew Neil.

The reputation of the BBC and the professional delivery of the bulletins and reports bestow credibility on the accusations many times greater than had they been restricted to a partisan newspaper.

The ethical question mark is raised when we note that missing from these BBC Scotland reports is evidence that Alex Salmond was entirely honest in his statements, both in the interview and the subsequent statements to Parliament.

The intervention by the Lord Advocate supporting the First Minister is afforded less of a profile than party political attacks from politicians who have made similar claims against Mr Salmond – on at least five separate occasions – all have been found baseless.

Presenters at Pacific Quay exhibit all of the presentational skills one associates with a world class broadcaster.  Radio Scotland’s Gary Robertson and Mhairi Stuart both have that crisp professional delivery and conduct interviews with impressive speed of thought.

On TV, Jackie Bird demonstrates just why she is anchor of Reporting Scotland, viewed by half a million people each evening Ms Bird glides through each programme skilfully navigating each item and moving seamlessly from one to the other.

The ability to communicate effortlessly marks these people out and is one reason that they are in the employ of the BBC, on significantly higher salaries than most other news vendors would pay in Scotland.

However, the ability to speak into a microphone, on or off camera is not in itself enough to be allowed access to the livingrooms of the nation. 

One must demonstrate a high degree of ethical journalism, after all, the consumers of BBC broadcasts, unlike newspaper readers, have no choice but to pay the wages of these people through the TV licence fee.

And that is the rub.

As has been pointed out on these very threads, if the BBC was reliant on advertising or sponsorship for its existence then it would by now, as a result of the Newsnight and Savile scandal, be facing a funding crisis. 

But it doesn’t, and this is entirely down to the tax that people have to pay in order to receive TV signals.

The current mess the BBC finds itself in should see a “radical overhaul” at the corporation according to the Chair of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten.  Jeremy Paxman has already claimed that the problems that caused the Newsnight paedophile disaster extend to other areas of the BBC.

What other areas Paxman didn’t say.

Whether that overhaul, if indeed there is to be one, will extend to the BBC’s Scottish outpost remains to be seen.

It isn’t good enough to pretend BBC Scotland is immune from a damaged culture that is now threatening a reputation built up through decades of journalistic excellence.

If nothing happens at Pacific Quay, then the BBC’s legal right to insist that Scots pay the £145.50 annual licence fee in the lead up to, and beyond, the 2014 referendum may be up for legal challenge.

In the meantime, the BBC is now dancing to an English media tune and good luck to the English pipers. 

Oh but for similar music up here.