The Echo Chamber – Lies and the lying liars


  By a Newsnet reporter

Last week we witnessed a political storm.  A blizzard of headlines, interviews, comments, broadcasts and debates – all revolving around a hitherto unremarked and unremarkable interview.

When Alex Salmond replied to a question from BBC journalist Andrew Neil last March, little did he know that his answer was the primer for a political time-bomb.

  By a Newsnet reporter

Last week we witnessed a political storm.  A blizzard of headlines, interviews, comments, broadcasts and debates – all revolving around a hitherto unremarked and unremarkable interview.

When Alex Salmond replied to a question from BBC journalist Andrew Neil last March, little did he know that his answer was the primer for a political time-bomb.

It exploded last week … and some.  When Paul Martin called Mr Salmond a bare faced liar it was a signal for one of the most concerted media campaigns ever witnessed in the UK.  Not since the Megrahi issue when so many political opponents, commentators and journalists lined up to attack Alex Salmond have we seen such a co-ordinated campaign.

With the smoke clearing and the verbal shrapnel having settled, we can now see clearly the damage that has been inflicted.  Mr Salmond’s reputation has taken a hit, no question.

Nobody, not even Gandhi, could emerge unscathed from such an assault on his character.  However there is another victim in this kaleidoscope of half-truths, verbal contortions and semantic mis-interpretations – the BBC.

Newsnet Scotland has spent this weekend recording and analysing the output from the state broadcaster and this article reveals a shocking, one-sided view of the issue with Unionist commentators dominating the airwaves.

Politicians, journalists, broadcasters and commentators who appeared or were quoted were so overwhelmingly pro-Union that BBC Scotland’s coverage of the affair ended up little more than a one sided festival of propaganda.

There was little if any serious objective analysis and, even on the occasions when analysis was provided, it appeared to confuse separate issues and misinterpret events.

“It has now emerged no such advice has been obtained” said one BBC presenter on Good Morning Scotland in a clear misrepresentation of the fact that Scottish government documents were underpinned by advice from the law officers.

The ‘liar’ claims are now reported as though absolute fact and Alex Salmond is portrayed as a conman whose word cannot be trusted.  The Unionist dominated media are now citing their own accusations as evidence that they are valid.

Those same anti-Salmond headlines were even used by one presenter as justification for the BBC’s relentless, almost obsessive need to repeat every and all attacks made on Salmond by his Unionist opponents.

Unionist Politicians Michael Moore (Lib Dem), David Cameron (Tory), Alistair Darling (Labour), Paul Martin (Labour), Ruth Davidson (Tory), Johann Lamont (Labour), Michael Crockart (Lib Dem), Jackson Carlaw (Tory), Jackie Baillie (Labour) were joined by Unionist reporters Andrew Neil, Torcuil Crichton, Hamish McDonnell, Iain Macwhirter as Unionists dominated broadcasts.

How was it possible?  An interview was so vague and open to misinterpretation that it allowed those with an agenda to use it for their own ends.  Newspapers alone are no longer capable of mounting such a campaign, their circulation figures makes it impossible for anything other than an increasingly shrinking section of the population to be influenced by their reports.

As with previous campaigns against Mr Salmond and the SNP, whether commissioning polls during an election campaign or setting a narrative on the Megrahi issue, it needed the help of the BBC.

We begin our look back with a series of news clips from BBC Radio Scotland’s Newsdrive which were broadcast on the evening of the 24th – over 24 hours after Mr Salmond’s response to Paul Martin’s accusation that he was a “bare faced liar”.  The series of clips includes all references to the issue, with the exception of a report from BBC reporter Sarah Paterson.

This is but one programme, and what you will hear is an all-out attack on Mr Salmond by his political opponents.  Pay close attention to Raymond Buchanan’s analysis.

Newsdrive clips from 24th October

This whole programme was almost exclusively anti-Salmond and even allowed accusations that are clearly false to be broadcast.  The cost of defending the Freedom of Information request was not £100,000 but closer to £4000.

David Cameron’s deliberate conflation of advice that underpinned published documents with the specific advice now being sought prior to the Edinburgh Agreement is a recurring theme – it is also false to say that there was no advice.  Salmond made it perfectly clear that he had indeed sought advice from law officers on the legality of the published documents.

Keen listeners will have noticed BBC presenter Mhairi Stuart describing Nicola Sturgeon’s confirmation that the Scottish government was only now seeking legal advice on the specific issue of an independent Scotland’s EU status as “an admission”.  The word admission is of course usually associated with guilt or wrongdoing.

But it is Raymond Buchanan’s analysis that sticks out.

If you missed it here it is in isolation:

Buchanan’s analysis is false on one key area.  The BBC reporter claims that the documents referred to by Mr Salmond were underpinned, not on advice or opinion of law officers, but on “general legal opinions”.  This is untrue, as an official Scottish government statement has made clear, the law officers were indeed consulted over these documents prior to their publication.

However, to confirm this in the analysis is to significantly weaken Unionist claims that Salmond lied.

There is no doubt that the BBC poured significant resources into this story.  However the resources weren’t aimed at objectivity, just on relentless repeating of the allegations.

It seemed that this ‘did/didn’t’ row encroached into every avenue of BBC Scotland’s reporting and the message was essentially the same.  When one caller tried to make the point to Kaye Adams on her morning phone-in show that by repeating these claims relentlessly, the BBC were effectively promoting the Unionist message, the BBC presenter made a quite astonishing remark in defence of her employer.

According to Ms Adams, the BBC would have been in dereliction of its duty had it not reflected the headlines that were appearing in the newspapers.  It beggars belief that someone in such a high profile role that often calls for a basic understanding of Scottish politics believes that BBC Scotland should be steered by newspaper headlines.

Scotland is in a unique position in that there are no newspapers which support the main aim of the party of Government.  Headlines will, on matters of constitution, be overwhelmingly opposed to the SNP.

To make her point, Kaye Adams read out headlines from a raft of newspapers published that day, none of which supports independence.  Only one, the Scottish Sun, can be said to have any pro-SNP leanings having endorsed the party at the last election.  However the newspaper remains firmly in the undecided group when it comes to independence.

Hear the exchange here

Of course, BBC Scotland isn’t steered by newspapers, it doesn’t have to be.  BBC Scotland will adopt precisely the same stance as anti-SNP newspapers due to its own inherent pro-Union culture.   It is a culture that saw the broadcaster invite two pro-Union journalists onto Good Morning Scotland to give their ‘objective’ analysis on the ‘liar’ issue.

Both Hamish McDonnell and Torcuil Crichton, as expected, gave views that chimed with the Unionist attacks.  Both agreed that Alex Salmond had lost ‘trust’ and that independence had been damaged.

Mr Crichton and Mr McDonnell can be heard after an introduction by Brian Taylor

It was partisan from both men and with no dissenting voices to disrupt the anti-Salmond narrative, they were given a platform with no challenges to their assertions.  The loading of discussions and debates with pro-union commentators is one of the areas the Edinburgh Agreement, which contained a section on balanced broadcasting, needs to address.

The coverage also saw a quite remarkable interview where one BBC presenter interviewed another.  When Gary Robertson interviewed Andrew Neil, it was bizarre and quite surreal.  Robertson didn’t so much interview Neil, than allow him to make a series of comments that – not surprisingly – backed the view that Salmond lied.

Neil also made another claim that his reserachers had informed him that Alex Salmond had confirmed he had sought specific legal advice several times already.  This claim was new but was left hanging by Robertson who appeared in awe of his guest.

Hear Andrew Neil being ‘interviewed’ here

Such was the relentless coverage by BBC Scotland, it just isn’t possible to draw attention to every programme.  Andrew Neil’s feeding of Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander on Sunday, a question designed to invite another attack on Salmond, was yet another example of the one sided nature of the corporation’s coverage.

The lie claim was eventually muddied amid attacks on the FoI appeal and questions over whether clearance could have been sought from the Lord Advocate in order to address an apparent perception that advice on the specific issue on an independent Scotland in the EU had indeed already been sought.

Of course, these people who went around blithely believing advice had been sought, despite no clear definitive statement confirming it, are their own fools.  If the public have been led to believe that advice had been sought, then that can be laid squarely at the feet of journalists and presenters, like Andrew Neil, who reported it.

Andrew Neil, days after the interview in March, stated in front of an internal BBC seminar audience that Salmond had confirmed the legal advice had been sought.  Mr Neil allowed himself to believe this for months yet not one BBC Scotland reporter pressed the First Minister on something that may have breached Ministerial Code.

It also should be remembered that a central plank of Labour MEP, Catherine Stihler’s Freedom of Information appeal was to have the Scottish government confirm whether they already had, in their possession, the legal advice that Andrew Neil claimed had already been sought months earlier.

The whole reason for this concerted campaign was to attack the integrity of Alex Salmond – weaken him and they weaken the independence movement.  Whether the allegations and attacks are justified was not important.

The relentless coverage afforded Unionist attacks by the one organisation capable of promoting the ‘message’ right across the nation meant that it entered the psyche of many listeners and viewers.  The attacks were echoed and amplified by the BBC.

In that sense, it is job done.

We will end this article with a number of interview clips, featuring Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw, Labour MSP Jackie Baillie and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.  There also follows clips of the issue as it was reported on Reporting Scotland.

Jackson Carlaw – interviewed on Good Morning Scotland on 24th Oct

Jackie Baillie – interviewed on Good Morning Scotland on 24th Oct

Nicola Sturgeon – interviewed on Good Morning Scotland on 25th Oct

Reporting Scotland coverage over two days – Note the opening remark about independence and the use of the word “admission” when referring to Nicola Sturgeon’s statement


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