Why Scotland needs a strong independent online news media

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  By G.A.Ponsonby

Last week was quite a week on the political scene.  The referendum was finally set in stone and BAE’s Scottish workers learned the timetable within which 835 of them will lose their jobs.

The new Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael made his first keynote speech in which he attacked – surprise, surprise – independence and we learned of the effects of the Bedroom Tax on Scotland’s most vulnerable.

  By G.A.Ponsonby

Last week was quite a week on the political scene.  The referendum was finally set in stone and BAE’s Scottish workers learned the timetable within which 835 of them will lose their jobs.

The new Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael made his first keynote speech in which he attacked – surprise, surprise – independence and we learned of the effects of the Bedroom Tax on Scotland’s most vulnerable.

These stories, and others, were reported in a professional manner by BBC Scotland and also appeared in Scotland’s national press.  All then would appear to be good in Scotland’s traditional media world.

But, as is ever the case with Scotland’s media machine it isn’t necessarily what is reported but rather what isn’t.

Readers of this, and other well-known online news and current affairs sites will be aware of two other stories that didn’t quite grab the attention of Scotland’s media machine.  The stories involved two of the most high profile issues of the day – the Bedroom Tax and Shipbuilding.

Arguable, the most controversial political story in Scotland last week was the Bedroom Tax no-show by forty seven Labour MPs in the House of Commons.  Of the forty seven, no less than ten were Scottish Labour MPs.  This list of shame included Glasgow MP Anas Sarwar.

Before we continue, it is worth noting what BBC Scotland’s Sunday Politics Show felt were the weeks most important current affairs news stories.

In a sixty second item broadcast on yesterday’s show, the programme quickly listed in order:

1. Unemployment in Scotland
2. Deer culling
3. Alistair Carmichael’s anti-independence speech
4. Holyrood rubber stamping the referendum
5. Salmond voted Scottish politician of the year
6. Something about a traffic cone on a Glasgow statue

Apparently the last story was highlighted due to a backlash on social media after Glasgow Council tried to ban the practice of placing a traffic cone on the head of a statue of the Duke of Wellington.

The last story is interesting in that the BBC has now admitted that their news agenda can, at times, be led by public reaction on social media to events.

Which brings me back to the Labour Bedroom tax no-show and the ‘Treacherous Ten’ as they have now been dubbed by angry anti-Bedroom Tax activists.  The ten included within their ranks, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Deputy leader of Labour in Scotland Anas Sarwar.

What made the non-appearance worse was that the debate was instigated by Labour themselves.

The vote, calling for the Bedroom Tax to be scrapped, was eventually lost by a mere 26 votes.  The justification for the no-show from Labour was that their MPs had been ‘paired’ with an opposite number from the coalition and therefore their absence made no difference to the outcome.

But the fly in the ointment was a rule forbidding such a ‘pairing’ in matters deemed to be politically important.  Did Labour not consider the Bedroom Tax to be important asked critics?

Social media erupted in fury at the news.  Anti-Bedroom campaigners slammed the no-show and the names of the ten Scottish Labour MPs were circulated, with Anas Sarwar the stand out.

It was a monumental blunder by the Labour party, particularly for Scottish Labour.  Anas Sarwar himself has used the issue of the Bedroom Tax in an attempt to divert attention from the Tories onto the SNP.  In a recent TV debate on independence, the Glasgow MP theatrically waved a pen at Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asking her to sign a ‘document’ calling for legislation to prevent evictions.

Yet here was the self-same MP who, when given the opportunity to vote against the legislation, failed to turn up.

It transpired that the day after the vote, Mr Sarwar was in Pakistan giving a speech to students of Hajvery University on “the challenges of being an entrepreneur”.

Quite why someone who isn’t a member of Government was travelling the globe at a time when his own party was holding a debate into the single most controversial piece of legislation since the poll-tax, isn’t clear.  Sarwar also missed his own weekly surgery in Glasgow that Friday.

Initially all of Scotland’s media ignored the no-show story which was originally broken by online site Wings over Scotland.  However it soon spread through social media and the outcry, like the blast from Joshua’s horns at Jericho, eventually breached the media wall of silence.

Within days the story appeared in the Herald, then the Scotsman and finally the Daily Record.

Sarwar’s BedroomTax non-appearance then resulted in a protest outside the offices of MP.

When it emerged on Thursday that a woman had been evicted from her home due to arrears caused in part by the Bedroom Tax, twitter and facebook exploded and much of the anger was again directed at Sarwar.

However despite the very clear outrage over the behaviour of the 47 Labour MPs in general and 10 Scottish Labour MPs in particular, our state broadcaster failed to report the episode.  Nothing at all has appeared on the BBC since the story broke – nothing, not a peep.

So, according to BBC Scotland a flippant spat over a traffic cone sitting atop a statue was deemed more newsworthy than the Labour Bedroom Tax blunder.  So newsworthy was ‘the cone’ that crews were despatched to film a hastily convened protest.  The protestors featured on that evening’s Reporting Scotland.

However a protest outside the offices of the Deputy Leader of the Labour party in Scotland on the issue of the Bedroom Tax was not news.

But it wasn’t just the Labour Bedroom tax no-show that was side-lined by BBC Scotland.

Shipbuilding and Currency

One of the relentless sources of anti-independence headlines is the so-called Scottish Affairs Committee.  This Westminster based committee, made up solely of pro-Union MPs and chaired by a Glasgow Labour MP, is a stitch up job whose aim is to generate anti-independence headlines.

It does this effectively with the help of the BBC which parrots pretty much everything its chairman Ian Davidson says and publishes.  The latest was an attack on the forthcoming Independence White Paper.

On Friday Davidson’s committee issued a report attacking the SNP currency plans in an independent Scotland.  The BBC, with its radio, TV and online mediums ran with the attacks as did the usual suspects in the Herald and Scotsman.  It was obviously pre-planned and clearly coordinated.

It also featured in another grimly ignorant episode of ‘Call Kaye’, a murderously brutal Radio Scotland show that takes political ignorance to new levels.  Its show host Kaye Adams, introducing the ‘debate’, told listeners that an independent Scotland might not be allowed to use the pound.

Scotland can of course, like any country, adopt the pound if it so wishes.  It can print its own notes and peg their value to Sterling.  What it cannot do is to force the UK Government to agree a currency agreement.  And that’s precisely what the coordinated media attack used as ammunition against independence.

The line of attack was comprehensively destroyed in an article by George Kerevan who detailed precisely why the Westminster Government would be compelled to enter a currency union.  But Kerevan’s well argued point was swamped by the politically motivated rubbish that originated from Davidson’s kangaroo committee.

The currency attack from the committee was a bit bizarre in that it came on the day that BAE systems outlined their plans for job losses in Davidson’s own constituency in Govan.  Indeed the media attention on currency seemed awkward given that BAE had dominated the news agenda for days.

Had it run out of steam?  Well not according to Davidson’s committee itself which took evidence from UK defence minister Dr Andrew Murrison only days earlier.  Sat alongside Murrison as he appeared in front of the committee was Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael.

For days up to Dr Murrison’s appearance, both Ian Davidson and Alistair Carmichael had swamped the media in Scotland with claims that shipbuilding would suffer in the event of independence.

Central to these claims was that a newly independent Scotland would be unable to benefit from a little known EU procurement rule – Article 346 – that permits governments to award naval contracts without having to put them out to tender.

According to Carmichael and Davidson, the two Clyde yards at Govan and Scotstoun would not be able to benefit from Article 346 if Scotland were to become independent.  It would be a mere formality they implied, to move the contracts down to England in the event of a Yes vote.

However the evidence from Dr Murrison blew the claim from Carmichael and Davidson out of the water.  Questioned by the committee, Dr Murrison confirmed that not only could the Clydeside yards be awarded contracts just as they are now, but he also gave reasons a Westminster government would wish to do so.

If Scotland voted Yes, could the naval contracts be moved to English yards?  Yes, said the minister but it would require “significant investment” at Portsmouth and the UK Government would need to “invest fairly heavily” if Barrow was to be used.

In short, if the rest of the UK wanted to move the contracts for Type 26 Frigates out of Scotland then there would be a considerable cost involved.

But there was more from Dr Murrison.  Asked if an independent Scotland would still be able to benefit from Article 346, he replied: “I think the answer is technically yes, if it was in our national interests to do so”.

Thus, in less than fifteen minutes the claims that had circulated within the Scottish media for almost a week were shot down in flames.  Davidson and Carmichael were effectively left stranded by the minister’s candid evidence.

But what was the BBC’s reaction to Murrison’s evidence to the Committee?  Were they there to record this session?

Indeed they were and not surprisingly they focused on one aspect – Trident.

Here is the headline from the BBC online report from that day: ‘Scottish independence: Minister raises Trident removal cost’

There’s no doubt that Dr Murrison did indeed say this.  But relocating Trident is something that most, if not all people already know will be costly, and it’s hardly news to find a Conservative MP trying to imply that Scotland will have to foot the bill, or a significant part of it, in the event of independence

But where was the admission on Article 346?  Where was the confirmation that significant investment would be needed if Portsmouth or Barrow are to be upgraded so that they can take over naval builds destined for the Clyde?

Here is how BBC reporter David Porter reported Dr Murrison’s appearance.

So, according to the BBC, Andrew Murrison had said it was “quite conceivable” that ships could be built at Portsmouth in the event of a Yes vote.  No mention of the qualification in Dr Murrison’s answer that yards south of the border would require “significant” and “heavy” investment to make this possible.  And no mention whatsoever of Article 346.

Of course if the BBC itself hadn’t previously focused on Article 346 then it might be an excusable omission.  But not only had the BBC focused on the EU procurement rule, a BBC presenter had very specifically confronted an SNP MSP on that very issue.

Note that in the clip below, Gary Robertson himself appears to believe that the Article 346 claim being promoted by Unionists is in fact true.

The Labour no-show story went unreported and the Murrison session was cherry picked for those elements that would bolster the anti-independence claims regarding shipbuilding.  Anyone wanting to know precisely what Dr Murrison had said would have to have tracked down the difficult to find recording of the session.

Newsnet Scotland, as you can see, did track it down.

The two examples are indicative of the way the BBC is operating and most probably will continue to operate as we enter 2014.  It’s news management and the strategy seems to be to cause as little harm to the pro-union campaign as possible.