The Irish European Minister and the response that damns the BBC

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By a Newsnet reporter

Thursday night’s Question Time from Stirling witnessed a moment that probably had independence supporters shouting at their TV sets. 

The panellists were discussing, as expected, the issue of Scottish independence when a man from the audience decided to wade in with his take on the EU membership debate.

By a Newsnet reporter

Thursday night’s Question Time from Stirling witnessed a moment that probably had independence supporters shouting at their TV sets. 

The panellists were discussing, as expected, the issue of Scottish independence when a man from the audience decided to wade in with his take on the EU membership debate.

“Nicola Sturgeon went to Ireland and looked at the Celtic Kitten and the European Minister over there said you won’t get into Europe.” he said.

The claim that Irish European Minister Lucinda Creighton said that a newly independent Scotland would be thrown out of the EU and have to re-apply for membership is now sadly embedded in the minds of most of the electorate.  How could it be otherwise since only half the story has been reported.

Since BBC Scotland reporter Raymond Buchanan told viewers that Ms Creighton’s views “chimed” with those of Scottish Secretary Michael Moore who himself said that Scotland would be outside the EU trying to get back in, the myth has grown like a cancer.

Anyone watching the BBC or listening to BBC Radio, would have heard Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and Labour MP Michael Connarty make the same claim regarding the now infamous interview Ms Creighton gave Raymond Buchanan a little over two weeks ago.

What hasn’t been reported by these same BBC Scotland presenters and reporters is the clarification Ms Creighton sent out two days after the initial interview.  In her clarification, the Irish Minister claimed her words had been taken out of context, “misconstrued” and “spun”.

Agreeing with the SNP’s line that a newly independent Scotland would be able to renegotiate its EU membership from within following a Yes vote, the Irish Minister added:

“I was asked about the future of negotiations with the EU in the event that Scotland votes for independence.  I thought that my reply was largely in line with that of the Scottish Government.  I certainly did not at any stage suggest that Scotland could, should or would be thrown out of the EU.  Scottish people are citizens of Europe.”

The statement was clear cut.  Lucinda Creighton did not say that an independent Scotland would be thrown out of the EU.

There was more:

“My understanding is that the Scottish Government has already committed to a negotiation with the EU between 2014 and 2016, if you vote for independence in 2014.  If my interview suggested something other than that, this was not my intention.  I think my comments have been misconstrued – if so I sincerely regret this.

As SNP Westminster Leader, Angus Robertson said ‘Negotiations on the terms of membership would take place in the period between the referendum and the planned date of independence’, and that ‘The EU would adopt a simplified procedure for the negotiations, not the traditional procedure followed for the accession of non-member countries’.”

I think that sums up the situation quite well.

Now, this isn’t definitive proof of anything, it is merely a foreign minister clarifying a previous statement and giving her own view.  What makes this issue remarkable is the refusal of the BBC to even entertain the notion that these clarification statements are newsworthy.

It is especially worrying given that Ms Creighton’s initial interview was used by opponents of independence in order to attack Scotland’s Deputy First Minister.  Indeed Nicola Sturgeon herself was moved to seek clarification from Lucinda Creighton who replied that her words had been “misconstrued”.

But who was Ms Creighton accusing of misconstruing her remarks?

Well, not the BBC it seems.  That is, not according to the BBC themselves.

In an official reply to a complaint regarding their lack of coverage of Ms Creighton’s clarification and accusations that her words had been “misconstrued”, the BBC wrote:

“In a subsequent message to the Deputy First Minister, Ms Creighton said she was concerned that the interview was being ‘misconstrued’: she does not say by whom, but I can assure you it was not the BBC – we asked a question, she gave an answer, and we broadcast her saying it.”

Of course, Ms Creighton did not deny the comments she gave in the interview; how could she given that they were recorded and broadcast.  What Ms Creighton complained about was that they had been “misconstrued”.

Now, who precisely was it that Ms Creighton was referring to?

In the Reporting Scotland broadcast that evening, an edited clip of the interview was played showing the Irish Minister saying that an independent Scotland would have to “apply” and that negotiations could be “lengthy”.

This in itself is pretty unremarkable, depending on what interpretation you place on the word ‘apply’.  Both sides in the debate could take whatever meaning they wish – the SNP would claim that it was shorthand for the renegotiation that would make place from within the EU following the referendum, the Unionists would claim that it was proof that Scotland would be outside the EU and having to re-apply for admission.

For them to carry any significant newsworthiness worthy of the very high profile they received Ms Creighton’s remarks needed clarification – precisely what Raymond Buchanan failed to seek.

However it doesn’t end there, for when faced with how to interpret the Irish Minister’s words, the BBC Scotland reporter chose to apply a pro-Union spin.  He quite deliberately told viewers that the opinion was “shared by the UK Government”.

Reporting Scotland conveniently played a clip of Scottish Secretary Michael Moore in which he is heard to say that.

“Scotland would be outside the EU having to negotiate its way back in”

In the minds of the viewer it was clear, the Irish Minister and the UK government were at one on this issue – Scotland would be out of the EU after a Yes vote.  Later, on Radio Scotland, Mr Buchanan also claimed that Ms Creighton’s views “chimed” with those of the Secretary of State.

However, at no point in the interview with Mr Buchanan did the Irish Minister say that Scotland would be outside the EU.  It requires a very subjective interpretation of her interview to reach that conclusion.

Indeed it is worth recalling what Lucinda Creighton says two days later:

“I certainly did not at any stage suggest that Scotland could, should or would be thrown out of the EU.”

Of course this clarification came after Mr Buchanan’s report.  However it surely begs the question why the seasoned reporter didn’t just confirm his own belief that Ms Creighton and Michael Moore had “shared” views that “chimed” before broadcasting it to the nation.

On the matter of Mr Buchanan’s reporting of the interview, the BBC said:

“Some believe that Mr Buchanan said that Scotland would be thrown out of the EU on independence.  He did not say that.  The Irish European Affairs Minister said that she had not said that, which does not imply that he did.  It simply means she didn’t say it.

“Finally, a number of people have said that it was wrong to suggest that Ms Creighton and the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, had views which “agreed” or “chimed” with each other.  I understand from what they said on Reporting Scotland that both agree that Scotland would have to go through an application and negotiation process common to all candidate countries.”

Yes, but the key element in the debate, as everyone knows, is whether Scotland would go through such a process from within or whether we would be thrown out.  Mr Buchanan didn’t say it explicitly, but to say Ms Creighton’s view chimed with that of a man who quite clearly DID say it (and was broadcast saying it) pretty much nails that particular argument.

But let’s accept for the purposes of argument that Raymond Buchanan is blameless in this and that Lucinda Creighton was not accusing the BBC of having misconstrued, spun and taken her views out of context.  Who then was she accusing?

Well, there is only one other body that it could be – Unionist politicians.

In fact this makes the failure of the BBC to report Lucinda Creighton’s clarification statement even worse.

The BBC have now openly acknowledged that they are aware of Lucinda Creighton’s emails and that they are genuine.  A foreign minister accusing politicians from another country of wilfully misrepresenting her views is a very serious situation – almost a diplomatic row.

BBC Scotland, in its role as the objective broadcaster of news for the nation is obliged to report these accusations.  Indeed one could argue that they are even more newsworthy than the kind of political Euro-speak originally uttered by Ms Creighton.

The BBC had, the previous week, headlined two identical and nondescript interviews by Glenn Campbell on exactly the same subject with pretty much the same generic response.  Creighton’s follow up remarks and accusations were explosive and a reporter’s dream.

Buchanan’s original interview was described by a Telegraph journalist as a “scoop”.  What then a story by the same foreign minister accusing Unionists of misrepresenting her words?

The answer was silence.  Neither the BBC nor any news outlet North or South of the border were remotely interested in damaging the anti-independence campaign.

In much the same way as Newsnet Scotland’s real scoop when we caught Barroso’s office literally lying in press releases about Catalonia and independence over an interview given by EC Vice President Viviane Reding, and when we exclusively revealed the secret meetings with the Spanish right wing Partido Popular party and the Scottish Tories, the media here turned a blind eye.

Many may wonder why Lucinda Creighton went to such lengths in order to clarify her remarks and ensure they were not misreported.  Ms Creighton knows only too well the problems that can arise when comments you make have unintended consequences, having been forced to apologise after a defamation case was brought against her in Ireland.

That case ended a matter of weeks before BBC Scotland interviewed her.

The BBC and Raymond Buchanan were taken completely by surprise when Lucinda Creighton responded to polite emails seeking clarification of her interview.  Given her court case, which followed another Radio interview in 2010, it is not surprising that she was very eager to ensure she was not misreported.

The BBC, and by extension BBC Scotland, has unparalleled access to top officials both at home and abroad.  Is it really too much to ask that they present the facts having explored all the avenues in an interview, asking questions from both Yes and No perspectives?

As with the equally infamous interview between Alex Salmond and Andrew Neil, it would be in everyone’s best interests that subjectivity and prejudice is left at the door and every answer clarified in order to discern the real meaning.

Further, and equally important, if comments are deemed worthy of high profile news coverage then they ought to be covered in full.  The BBC has reported one half of Irish Minister Lucinda Creighton’s remarks, coincidentally the half that most would deem helpful to the pro-Union campaign.

Such one sided coverage of the independence debate leads to the kind of misinformation that manifests itself in the remarks we heard from the audience member on Question Time.

These remarks aren’t restricted to members of the public.  We have also heard Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and Labour MP Michael Connarty misrepresent Lucinda Creighton in the same manner.

How many other Scots are currently equally misinformed?  How many people believe that a foreign minister did indeed say that an independent Scotland would be thrown out of the European Union.

When the public are presented with a one sided news report, then this is what happens:

The complaint to the BBC was quite specific and asked why Lucinda Creighton’s clarification remarks had not been reported.

Here is their full response, which as you can see, completely ignored the complaint:

“Thank you for being in touch about our reporting of the comments by Ireland’s European Affairs Minister on Scotland’s relationship with the EU if it opts for independence.

Lucinda Creighton gave our political correspondent Raymond Buchanan an interview, in which she said: “If Scotland were to become independent, Scotland would have to apply for membership – and that can be a lengthy process (…) there would be an application and a negotiation process, as there is for any candidate country.”

A number of licence payers have been in touch with us about this interview, expressing concern about various issues. I will deal with them in turn.

In a subsequent message to the Deputy First Minister, Ms Creighton said she was concerned that the interview was being “misconstrued”: she does not say by whom, but I can assure you it was not the BBC – we asked a question, she gave an answer, and we broadcast her saying it.

Some have suggested that her comments had been “distorted” by “selective” editing. Almost every recorded interview has to be edited for technical and journalistic purposes, and this interview was no exception. If you look at the online story – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-21244566 – you will see a longer version of the interview broadcast on Reporting Scotland at 1830 on Friday 25th January (quoted above) and read a comprehensive report on the Deputy First Minister’s visit to Dublin.

You will see that the section which was edited out gave Iceland (which the Minister has just visited) as an example of a “very advanced and well integrated” country with a long history of connections with Europe which nevertheless still had a “task” to prepare the ground for membership of the EU. This merely illustrated the point she had already made and its removal was therefore not a “distortion”.

Some believe that Mr Buchanan said that Scotland would be thrown out of the EU on independence. He did not say that. The Irish European Affairs Minister said that she had not said that, which does not imply that he did. It simply means she didn’t say it.

Finally, a number of people have said that it was wrong to suggest that Ms Creighton and the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, had views which “agreed” or “chimed” with each other. I understand from what they said on Reporting Scotland that both agree that Scotland would have to go through an application and negotiation process common to all candidate countries.

At all points in this story we have reported what was said in interviews on tape accurately and fairly. We stand by the integrity of our journalism and our journalists.

Thank you again for taking the time to be in touch.”

[Newsnet comment – The Lucinda Creighton episode has come at a bad time for the BBC with the corporation facing strike action as a result of compulsory redundancies.  There is also scrutiny of BBC Scotland by Holyrood’s Culture Committee which has this week sent a letter to BBC Scotland Chief Ken MacQuarrie with a list of questions they wish answers to.

There is also the small matter of a rally to be held in Glasgow on Saturday February 23rd which will call for a balanced and all inclusive debate from out broadcasters.  This non-partisan rally, which has now been confirmed, is vitally important for those who wish a balanced and informative debate –  anyone with concerns over the performance of our broadcasters is urged to attend.

The time has been altered from 4pm to 10 am – this due to concerns over traffic – however the rally WILL take place.  Newsnet Scotland will be in attendance and we hope that as many of our readers as possible will make the effort to get to Glasgow on that day.  We will publish the rally start point and end point as soon as the organisers have it confirmed.

It’s time we made our own voices heard.]