Trust clips wings of BBC Scotland over referendum language bias


By G.A.Ponsonby
BBC Scotland reporters who use pejorative terms to describe independence face being carpeted after the corporation was forced to introduce guidelines on referendum coverage.
The decision followed a meeting between First Minister Alex Salmond and Chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten in February that led to a dossier compiled by the Scottish Government being handed to the former Tory Minister.

The decision to issue new guidelines followed concerns expressed by the Scottish Government, unhappy at the continued usage of terms like “separation”, “break-up” and “divorce” to describe independence.

Presenters who used similar negative terms, which were not direct quotes from the SNP’s opponents, included Radio Scotland’s Gary Robertson and colleague Sarah Paterson.  Similar terms have also appeared in online articles on the BBC Scotland website.

Lord Patten had already expressed concern that the reputation of the BBC risked being harmed by perceptions of bias.

Speaking in February, he signalled that changes were necessary: “It would be hugely damaging to our reputation and to our continuing viability as a great broadcaster if we did anything which chipped away at the reputation that we have.

“So yes, we want to handle the issue of the referendum and its coverage as sensitively as possible.” he said.

February’s meeting between the First Minister coincided with a public row after the BBC’s political advisor blocked Mr Salmond from appearing as a guest on a live rugby programme.

The BBC had claimed the decision was due to May’s local elections and “heightened tensions” in Scotland over the 2014 referendum.

However critics pointed out that only days after Mr Salmond was prevented from speaking about a high profile sporting fixture, UK PM David Cameron was allowed free reign by the BBC to give his views on the resignation of England football manager Fabio Capello.

It also emerged that in a BBC Radio programme that same week, former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell was allowed to promote Labour and attack the SNP despite being invited onto the programme in order to talk about his new book and his love of bagpipes.

The admission that presenters have been using Unionist favoured terms and phrases will be embarrassing to BBC Scotland management who are currently under pressure over decisions to block online comment on Scottish political blogs. 

A recent appearance in front of a Holyrood committee saw BBC Scotland’s head Ken MacQuarrie clash with MSPs over planned job cuts and the axing of programmes.

A recent demonstration at the BBC’s Glasgow HQ also sought to highlight what many believe is evidence of a lack of balance in Scottish political reporting.

Yesterday, respected broadcaster and journalist Lesley Riddoch joined the chorus of concerned voices unhappy at the quality of BBC Scotland’s news and current affairs programmes.

Ms Riddoch highlighted what she described as “a small number of conveniently located commentators who hop nightly between the Pacific Quay studios of the BBC and STV.”

The former BBC presenter questioned the reluctance of the BBC to allow more voices to be heard and added: “Inverness, Aberdeen or Dundee all have studios and yet Scots living in these cities are vastly under-represented on BBC Scotland TV current affairs.”

Unionists responded angrily to the announcement by the BBC of ‘language guidelines’ and have insisted that the corporation stop referring to the Government in London as the “Westminster Government”.