The Untouchables

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  A Newsnet Scotland special report 
 
Since this site was created back in March 2010 one aspect of our coverage of news and current affairs in Scotland has stood out – our refusal to accept that the BBC in Scotland is an unimpeachable pillar of virtue, an institution bereft of fallibility, an organisation that can be trusted unquestionably.
 
Most regular readers of Newsnet Scotland will be all too aware of the many examples highlighting what we euphemistically call ‘questionable broadcasts’.  However what isn’t widely known is the almost total impunity with which the BBC operates in Scotland.

A Newsnet Scotland special report 
 
Since this site was created back in March 2010 one aspect of our coverage of news and current affairs in Scotland has stood out – our refusal to accept that the BBC in Scotland is an unimpeachable pillar of virtue, an institution bereft of fallibility, an organisation that can be trusted unquestionably.
 
Most regular readers of Newsnet Scotland will be all too aware of the many examples highlighting what we euphemistically call ‘questionable broadcasts’.  However what isn’t widely known is the almost total impunity with which the BBC operates in Scotland.

BBC Scotland is fully funded by the Scottish licence payer.  In 2002-03 BBC Scotland received a paltry 3.7% of the total licence fee raised throughout the UK – this despite Scotland having 8.6% of the UK’s population.

Today, the BBC raises £325million of its £3,500million revenue from Scottish licence fee payers, but spends only £102million on programming in Scotland – the figure rises to around £176million when infrastructure costs are added, a modest increase on the 2002-03 figure.

Around £150million of Scottish licence fee goes south and is our contribution to the network programming many Scots enjoy, such as Strictly Come Dancing and Eastenders.

Despite this, the corporation’s Scottish arm is about to lose £16million from its budget which will lead to around 120 job losses over five years.  The job losses include 30 journalists from the BBC Scotland news department.

Given Scots pay for all of BBC Scotland’s output and some, one might reasonably expect that these same Scots, or at least an organisation acting on their behalf, would be able to hold BBC Scotland to account.

But the actuality is somewhat different.

BBC Scotland you see is not recognised as a Scottish public body.  The entity as it is presented to Scots does not actually exist – it is a mirage.  There is no such thing as BBC Scotland, there is only the BBC in Scotland.

To find out the extent to which the BBC is isolated from scrutiny in Scotland, Newsnet Scotland sought advice from a lawyer and from Scotland’s Freedom of Information Commissioner.  The information and advice we received convinced us that the setup at BBC Scotland is unsuitable for the kind of mature, balanced and informative debate Scots will need as we head towards the 2014 referendum.

Before going any further, it is worth explaining why such accountability is necessary. 

BBC Scotland is the dominant media outlet north of the border, it has unparalleled access to the Scottish electorate.  It both entertains and informs – it also persuades.

The licence fee we are compelled to pay ensures that this organisation is protected from the normal rigours of business – the corporation need not satisfy its customer base in order to facilitate a continuation of its income.  We are all forced to pay for the service whether we like it or not.

One of the most important aspects of the BBC’s service is its news output.  In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, this includes radio, TV and increasingly web based content.  However, in Scotland we lack a plurality of national newspapers in that there are no newspapers advocating independence.  Against this Unionist dominated landscape the BBC and to a lesser extent STV, have an added responsibility which is to ensure a platform for non-Unionist voices and views.

However, in the case of BBC Scotland it is the opposite that seems to be the case, with Unionist inspired stories and commentators dominating headlines and bulletins.

A look back at the last two weeks demonstrates this lack of balance with stories one would describe as ‘harmful’ to independence given higher profile and coverage than those one might argue favoured the independence campaign.

In the last fortnight comments from EC President José Manuel Barroso have been extensively reported by BBC Scotland – the comments were interpreted by Unionists as ‘proof’ that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for membership of the EU and that Scotland would be forced to adopt the euro.

However, comments from a former EU Judge casting considerable doubt on Mr Barroso’s claims received nothing like the attention the EC President’s intervention enjoyed.  Indeed on the very day Sir David Edward gave a detailed and considered response to Barroso’s claims, Radio Scotland’s flagship evening news programme ‘Newsdrive’ failed to give a single mention to the story.

A similar lack of interest was shown by BBC Scotland to comments from former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Sir John Grieve, who confirmed that an independent Scotland would be able to retain sterling as its currency.  It should have merited widespread coverage given claims from Unionists that Scotland could be prevented from continuing to use the pound.

Last week witnessed a ramping up of anti-SNP rhetoric from BBC Scotland, with programmes claiming a rise in anti-English sentiment in Scotland – despite official figures showing attacks on English people having dropped this year.

Good news has also been presented as bad with an increase in Scotland’s population described by the BBC as a “timebomb” due to people living longer.

A CPPR report that claimed falling north-sea oil receipts would leave an independent Scotland worse off than if remaining in the Union dominated the BBC news on Thursday.  However viewers and listeners would have been unaware of the links to Scottish Labour Party of the report’s authors.

John MacLaren has been an adviser to two Labour First Ministers and was also part of disgraced former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander’s team.  Jo Armstrong, McLaren’s co-author of the report, was an adviser to another Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell.

Both MacLaren and Armstrong produce regular so called ‘independent reports’ that more often than not find their way onto BBC Scotland TV and radio news bulletins.  Again, more often than not, these reports will do little for the SNP or cause of independence.

Jo Armstrong, has also worked for the Fraser of Allander Institute, another academic organisation favoured by BBC Scotland that appears to employ a disproportionate number of folk of a Scottish Labour persuasion.  It counts amongst its members one Brian Ashcroft, former Labour party member and husband of aforementioned former Scottish Labour Leader, Wendy Alexander.

These links to Labour are never reported by BBC Scotland.  This isn’t to say that the reports themselves have no merit, but it is surely appropriate that party political links are made clear so that people can form a judgement.

We have also seen recent attacks on the Scottish NHS given a very high profile, with BBC Scotland’s Eleanor Bradford claiming last week that the Scottish NHS has suffered a series of “scandals”.  It was prompted by another Labour allegation against Scottish NHS staff who they claimed had fiddled NHS waiting time statistics.

In an ironic twist the year has ended as it began, with Labour MSP Jackie Baillie’s voice prominent in the BBC broadcasts.

At the beginning of the year, BBC Scotland allowed this same MSP to make false allegations against the Scottish NHS.  Ms Baillie has yet to face a single question from any BBC reporter after she claimed infection rates in Scottish hospitals put them at the top of the European infection league table.  In fact Scottish hospitals were the cleanest they had ever been, and were nowhere near the top of such a league.

Added to this apparent favouring of pro-Union stories by the BBC is an ever increasing tendency for its Business and Economy Editor Douglas Fraser to draft what more resemble politically motivated opinion pieces than business oriented pieces.

Mr Fraser was the Political Editor at the Herald newspaper before jumping ship just prior to redundancies hitting the Glasgow based organ.  Whilst at the paper, he was frequently taken to task for authoring articles than were deemed pro-Union by the paper’s readers – criticisms that led Mr Fraser to describe his detractors as “vermin”.

His last two blogs, on which reaction from the public is strictly forbidden by BBC Scotland, cover currency and energy.  His piece on currency is as one sided as his writings in the Herald used to be with a critical focus almost exclusively reserved for the SNP.

His offering on the currency debate ends:

“In summary, the logic coming from different quarters suggests that if independence is to be for real in Scotland, it will have to have its own currency.

So what’s stopping Alex Salmond from embracing the idea?

Well, answer this one for yourself: what would it do for his poll ratings if he said that everyone’s pay, savings, assets and pensions were to be denominated in a Scottish currency, as yet unknown and untested?”

Mr Fraser’s article on energy relies heavily on the latest report from the CPPR that Newsnet Scotland dealt with on Friday.  It is safe to say that Unionists would be comfortable with the way Mr Fraser presented both issues.

It’s against this backdrop that Newsnet Scotland sought to determine what, if anything, Scots unhappy with this service could do in order to seek redress when the BBC gets things wrong or is a tad less than impartial when presenting issues.

We first sought to determine what legal avenues might be open to Scottish licence fee payers. 

Human Right’s legislation is often used by aggrieved parties angry at perceived abuses.  The Aberdeen bypass was only allowed to go ahead after an exhaustive series of court rulings culminating in the UK Supreme Court rejecting a bid to have the project halted.

Newsnet Scotland consulted a legal expert on Human Right’s legislation to see if the BBC could be compelled to address claims of a lack of balance in its reporting of Scottish politics.

We were told that any case based on Human Rights would be unlikely to succeed.

“Assuming the BBC would be considered a public authority, the issue you have does not appear to fall within one of the convention Articles.  The most relevant convention right upon which you may be able to rely would be Article 10 – Freedom of Expression. 

“However upon reading the Article wording it is difficult to see how your grievance sits within this. 

“If anything, raising action under Article 10 against the BBC’s editorial decisions could be met with the counter-argument that the BBC’s right to Freedom of Expression has been breached. As you will be aware, Article 10 is frequently employed by the BBC to justify their broadcasting choices and editorial discretion.”

There was more. 

We learned that the Ofcom broadcasting code does not apply to the BBC in respect of areas concerning impartiality, accuracy, elections and wait for it … referendums.

Also, regarding editorial discretion and duties concerning impartiality, the BBC’s Framework Agreement states that it must do “all that it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality”. 

This suitably vague duty is qualified in the Editorial Guidelines, which state that “news… must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument”. 

Due weight is explained further as not necessarily requiring coverage in equal proportions.  Thus the BBC is not compelled to provide both sides in the independence debate with equal coverage.

We were advised that the only redress would be through the BBC’s own channels, but warned that the corporation is effectively a self-regulating body.  In short it polices itself.

For the record, and to help those who would wish to pursue the BBC the steps to take are:

  • Stage 1: Within 30 days of the transmission of a programme, a complaint can be submitted to the BBC Executive online, by phone or in writing.  A response should be received within 10 working days depending on the nature of the complaint.  If the BBC is wrong, it will apologise and take action to prevent reoccurrence. 
  • Stage 2:  If unsatisfied with this response, you can request a response from the relevant BBC department, which will respond within a further 20 working days.  If complaint issues are still not addressed then issues of a possible breach of editorial standards can be referred to the Editorial Complaints Unit who will investigate. Referrals to this stage should be made within 20 working days of completion of stage 1.
  • Stage 3:  If you remain dissatisfied, you can take your complaint to the BBC Trust.  The Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust then examines the complaint against the BBC Editorial Guidelines.  Such appeals should be made within 20 working days of receiving a response at stage 2.  If the Trust upholds an appeal it expects the BBC management to take account of its findings.

But it isn’t just the area of balance and complaints that concerned us, we also inquired as to the responsibilities of BBC Scotland under Scottish Freedom of Information legislation.

Here we contacted the FoI Commissioners office seeking advice on how to compel BBC Scotland to release information it had stored.

More bad news resulted.

The Scottish FoI Commissioner’s office explained that the BBC is a non-devolved authority for the purposes of freedom of information, meaning that they are covered by the Westminster FoI legislation, as opposed to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, which we enforce.

FoI doesn’t apply to the BBC in the same way it does to most other public bodies, in that it only covers information “held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”.  This means that the Act does not apply to material held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output.

So, BBC Scotland is not covered by Scottish legislation on Freedom of Information, and is under no obligation to answer questions or release information relating to its output.  Newsnet Scotland tested this out by sending an official FoI request last week to BBC Scotland’s press team and to Political Editor Daniel Maxwell.

The reply we received was to send our request to the corporation’s FoI department based in London – which we duly did.  The information we requested, if it exists, will be held by the organisation’s Scottish HQ, so the London based department will have to forward our request onto the people we initially contacted.

A picture was emerging of a body with significant influence over the Scottish people in terms of what the news agenda is and which can dictate the amount of airtime or coverage afforded political parties and commentators with no obligation to be fair and balanced.

The BBC is answerable not to Ofcom, not to the Scottish FoI Commissioner and the chance of anyone using Human Right’s laws to challenge the broadcaster is remote.

The final insult of course came barely a month ago, with the news that BBC Scotland managers had refused to appear in front of a Holyrood Committee to discuss cutbacks to the Scottish broadcaster’s budget and concerns over the quality of its referendum coverage.

That they have now announced a U-turn and will make an appearance early in the new year does not alter the uncomfortable truth that Scotland’s Parliament has no authority over this broadcaster.

If the democratically elected government of Scotland have no power over the BBC then we have reached a situation whereby we have a virtual colonial broadcaster able to push whatever message it wants to in the near two years until the independence referendum.

If one wished to design a broadcasting machine ripe for corruption, that could be used by a government situated out-with the borders of the country in which it broadcasted and free from scrutiny, then BBC Scotland is the perfect template.

That there are Unionist reporters and presenters working at BBC Scotland is not in doubt, there will also be independence supporting staff as well as those occupying the middle ground.  However, with no scrutiny other than that of bodies based in London – with a vested interest in maintaining the Union – then it is naive to believe that people will put their own prejudices to one side in the face of an unprecedented vote that will determine the shape of our nation for hundreds of years.

It matters not if the BBC in Scotland is indeed acting in a manner that is beneficial to the anti-independence campaign, all that matters is that the system as it stands will facilitate such corrupt reporting if those in charge of BBC Scotland wish it.

People may or may not be left with a sense of injustice following general elections over the coverage they receive at the hands of the media.  However, unlike elections which are cyclic and allow for a ‘rematch’, the independence referendum is a one off – many of us will die well before such an event ever happens again.

Those in charge at BBC Scotland must ask themselves how they will cope should one side feel aggrieved in the aftermath of the vote. 

A sensible approach would be the setting up of a committee charged with monitoring BBC Scotland output.  A committee of respected people guided by a broadcasting constitution drafted in a way that will ensure balance and accountability.

It need not have the power to sanction, but monthly reports would be circulated and falling standards would be highlighted.  Any suggestion that the ‘great debate’ was being handled in anything other than an even handed manner would see a diminution of trust and almost certainly result in a loss of revenue as citizens decided to withhold their licence fee.

Alternatively, BBC Scotland may consider that there are no shortcomings that need to be addressed and carry on regardless.

If it does, then it may not survive for long post 2014 – no matter the referendum result.