The Referen-dumb … deaf and blind

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  By G.A.Ponsonby

Newsnet Scotland ran a story this week that should have been on the front page of every newspaper in Scotland.

The exclusive, although it wasn’t billed as such, revealed that the National Union of Journalists in Scotland were locked in a battle with the BBC over the broadcaster’s membership of the CBI.

  By G.A.Ponsonby

Newsnet Scotland ran a story this week that should have been on the front page of every newspaper in Scotland.

The exclusive, although it wasn’t billed as such, revealed that the National Union of Journalists in Scotland were locked in a battle with the BBC over the broadcaster’s membership of the CBI.

According to official communications seen by Newsnet Scotland, the Scottish NUJ said the refusal of the broadcaster to end its relationship with an organisation which was “taking a strong position for the union, and against independence”, was damaging the reputation of its journalists and undermining the BBC’s reputation for being impartial.

Some of the language used by officials was revealing.

The BBC was accused of having “fobbed off” the union after the NUJ demanded the broadcaster end its links to the CBI.  “It is time to step up big pressure on them now.” said one.

The most interesting comments related to the refusal of the Scottish media to cover the dispute.  “the papers have – once again – ignored us. And largely ignored the story…” …. “Well, let’s get the word out. Public opinion is what we’ll be relying on now I think.”

In what was an ironic coincidence, the very morning our article appeared, BBC Scotland were running news bulletins containing attacks on independence.  The organisation launching the attack was … the CBI.

It’s necessary to condense what’s happening here to really appreciate what is, in effect, a news blackout of this internal dispute within the BBC – or to be more accurate, its Scottish branch.

In its letter to BBC Director General Tony Hall, the NUJ writes: “The BBC, through licence-payers’ money, is helping to fund an organisation which is taking a strong position for the union, and against independence. That makes doing our job very difficult.”

The NUJ – not the SNP, not Yes Scotland and not some unnamed ‘cybernats’ – but the body which represents journalists throughout Scotland is essentially saying that the BBC, by dint of its refusal to resign from the CBI, is implicitly taking sides in the referendum.

The story of course started several weeks ago when the CBI announced it had registered with the Electoral Commission as a supporter of the anti-independence campaign Better Together.  The move was not surprising, and followed years of unwavering criticism of the SNP’s independence plans.

For a week the CBI’s Chairman John Cridland defended the move saying it was necessary if his organisation was to be allowed to carry out its regular duties.  These included an annual dinner to be held later this year where it is expected guests will make speeches in support of the Union.

However when it became apparent that the move had compromised the neutrality of some of its Scottish based members, several of which resigned, Cridland suddenly announced that the whole thing had been a dreadful mistake and his organisation had not meant to register at all.  Up until this sudden backtrack, the BBC had remained a member.  The corporation, unlike STV, had refused to give up its £20,000 per year membership.

Belatedly the BBC announced it would suspend its membership, but not until May 30th, the official period of ‘purdah’ during which time strict rules must be adhered to when reporting on matters relating to the referendum.

This was a membership that had been kept secret. It subsequently emerged that the BBC had been handing public cash to a right, wing pro-Union lobbying group for at least twenty years.  When the CBI had been publicly opposing and campaigning against our Scottish Parliament in the nineties, the BBC had been partially funding its exploits using licence payer’s cash.

When the Electoral Commission announced it had nullified the CBI’s registration, the BBC duly backtracked on its pledge to suspend membership and instead transferred it to its commercial arm.

This is where we are and yet not one word of this ensuing and growing dispute is being reported by the traditional media.

I said earlier that there were some very interesting statements in the internal NUJ communications seen by Newsnet Scotland.  Included in this communication chain are some very senior officials at Scottish and UK level.

For me the standout was the comment suggesting the union should rely on the public to get the word out.

“Well, let’s get the word out. Public opinion is what we’ll be relying on now I think.”

What does this mean in practice?

Whilst Newsnet Scotland placed the NUJ/BBC story on the front page, it won’t receive anything like the coverage it deserves.  Public opinion will not be swayed by our reporting, we just don’t have the profile.

It’s rather ironic that the body tasked with defending the rights of journalists finds itself ignored by many of those same journalists.

Almost exactly one year ago, hundreds of ordinary Scots marched in Glasgow.  They were calling for a balanced referendum debate from the BBC.  The BARD2014 (Balanced All-inclusive Referendum Debate) also called for more women to be included in independence discussions on TV and more participation from ordinary people, including the third sector.

The campaign was completely ignored by the traditional media and most of the professional pundits who make their living from it.  The campaign is no longer.

On May 30th the official referendum campaign begins.  Broadcasters must adhere to strict guidelines and rules.  OFCOM has this week issued a statement warning broadcasters not to transgress.

But what if they do?

If Scotland’s traditional media refuses to report accusations levelled against the BBC by the NUJ then there is effectively no policing of the corporation in the four months up to referendum day.  Remember, not one newspaper reported the BBC Trust’s guilty verdict when it found Reporting Scotland had misled viewers by suggesting a foreign minister had said an independent Scotland would be thrown out of the EU.

What is required is for Scotland’s most high profile journalists to form their own group highlighting the issues with BBC Scotland’s referendum coverage.  It also needs principled, and brave, insiders at BBC Scotland to stand up and reveal the conditions under which some staff are being forced to work.

“Not everyone at BBC Scotland is wicked, but many are scared and bullied.” said an unnamed insider who last week handed Newsnet Scotland results of an internal survey showing little trust in managent at pacific Quay.

Last night on Newsnight Scotland (the last) the BBC ran with another line that was initially cooked up by a pro-Union newspaper, namely the suggestion that a Yes vote would result in higher taxes.

Journalists aren’t deaf or blind.  They can hear and see clearly what is going on at BBC Scotland.  They aren’t dumb either.  It’s time for the good guys to speak out.  Time is running out.

[Newsnet Comment – This morning it emerged that the registration form was not as claimed signed by “a junior official” but by two senior officials at the CBI.  The story was covered by BBC Radio Scotland, however the reporter (Glenn Campbell) made no mention of the BBC’s membership of the organisation, nor of the demands by the NUJ for it to resign.

Newsnet Scotland has also requested an explanation from the Electoral Commission as to why, despite the BBC being passed this new information, that our own questions relating to this matter, some submitted under freedom of information legislation, remain unanswered.]