Will the BBC Trust consultation look into referendum reporting with a sense of balance?


  By Lynn Malone
The governing body of the BBC has launched a 12 week consultation – looking for views on the BBC’s reporting of the independence referendum.
In a press release they said they were: “seeking views on the proposed additional guidelines for the BBC’s reporting on the referendum for Scottish independence.”

On their website, the BBC Trust claim to: “make decisions in the best interests of licence fee payers and protect the independence of the BBC…and are accountable to licence fee payers and the UK Parliament.”

“The referendum takes place in 2014, and these guidelines cover all reporting during the formal referendum period, from 30th May 2014 to polling day on the18th September 2014,” according to their press release.

“Similar to previous referendum and election campaigns, the additional guidelines have been drafted to supplement the BBC’s editorial guidelines. They are intended to offer a framework within which BBC journalists and content producers can deliver impartial and independent reporting, providing audiences with fair coverage and rigorous scrutiny of the policies and campaigns of all relevant parties and campaign groups.” They claim.

The Trust is inviting views from campaigning bodies, political parties and relevant organisations to the referendum debate, as well as members of the public on three areas.

They are:

1. Are the proposed guidelines relevant and appropriate for this referendum? If not, explain why?
2. Do you feel there are any omissions from the guidelines?
3. Do you have any other comments on the proposed guidelines?”

The consultation follows concern over the BBC’s handling of the independence referendum.  The Scottish government handed a dossier to Trust Chair Lord Patten last year.  The BBC confirmed their final guidelines along with the consultation responses will be published in March next year.

And Newsnet Scotland can confirm an investigation into the Lucinda Creighton affair is expected to take place early next month.  The complaint against BBC Scotland will be heard by the Editorial Standards Committee at a meeting on the seventh of November 2013 and their decision is expected to be ratified in December.

Newsnet Scotland reported last month that BBC Scotland chiefs were to be investigated by the corporation’s Trust following complaints that the broadcaster imposed a news blackout of comments from Irish Minister, Lucinda Creighton.

The complaints challenged widely reported news reports relating to her views on the EU status of an independent Scotland.

Newsnet Scotland had learned that the BBC Trust was to consider an appeal after the broadcaster dismissed claims that it failed to report, fully, the views of the Irish Minister.

The decision by the Trust followed a refusal by the BBC’s own Editorial Complaints Unit to investigate complaints surrounding a BBC Scotland interview given by Ms Creighton, and subsequent statements the Irish Minister released in which she complained her views had been “misconstrued” and her words may have been “manipulated”.

In the January interview, the Irish politician told BBC Scotland reporter Raymond Buchanan that she believed a newly independent Scotland would have to apply for EU membership and that the process could well be lengthy.

The interview, which was broadcast on Reporting Scotland also contained comments from the then Scottish Secretary Michael Moore who was heard to say that a newly independent Scotland would find itself out of the EU having to negotiate its way back in.

What followed led to what many viewed as misreporting of Ms Creighton’s remarks by the BBC reporter who said that both Ms Creighton and Mr Moore “shared” the same view and that these views “chimed”.

The broadcast, which featured on BBC Radio and TV, led to attacks on the SNP and Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon by Unionist politicians who claimed the Irish politician’s comments undermined SNP claims on the EU membership of an independent Scotland.

However in a surprise move, responding to calls for clarification, the Irish European Minister issued a number of statements in which she made it clear her views on the EU membership of a newly independent Scotland were not as claimed, in agreement with Mr Moore, but were in fact in line with those of the Scottish government.

Dismissing claims that she shared the views of Michael Moore, she said: “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 Irish Minister said that she believed that the SNP’s position, that EU negotiations would take place and be concluded whilst Scotland remained a continuing member, “summed up the situation quite well”.

“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.”

She added: “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.” She added.

More controversially, Ms Creighton complained that her original comments had been “taken out of context” and “perhaps manipulated”.

In an official statement to Newsnet Scotland, she said: “I think my comments have been misconstrued or perhaps manipulated by some quarters.  I sincerely regret this.”

She added: “I regret that my words seem to have been spun or taken out of context.”

In agreeing with the Scottish government’s official timetable for post-referendum EU negotiations, Ms Creighton became the first foreign European Minister to publicly back the SNP’s EU stance.  Despite this, and her claims that her views had been misrepresented, the BBC refused to report them.

Responding to complaints that they had employed a news blackout which breached their own standards of impartiality, the BBC refused to accept any wrongdoing.  Bizarrely, the corporation insisted the statements from the Irish Minister were not newsworthy, and that there were “no good journalistic reasons” to report them.

The broadcaster also refused to accept that anyone had been broadcast saying an independent Scotland would be thrown out of the EU, despite the then Scottish Secretary Michael Moore clearly being heard to say that a newly independent “would be outside the EU having to negotiate its way back in”

The Trust will also consider whether Raymond Buchanan misled viewers by claiming that both Ms Creighton and Mr Moore shared the same view on the EU status of an independent Scotland.  Mr Buchanan has since left the BBC to join the Weir Group.

If upheld, the decision could seriously harm the BBC franchise and will call into question the ability of BBC Scotland to present referendum issues in an objective and impartial manner.