Will the real No campaign please stand up

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  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
Jose Manuel Barroso, Bob Dudley and David Nish – three men who have dominated recent media coverage of the independence referendum.  They are the heads of the European Commission, BP and Standard Life respectively.
 
Vaclav Klaus, Joelle Garriaud-Maylam, Michael O’Leary and Willie Walsh – four people who haven’t featured quite as much, indeed if at all in some cases.

  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
Jose Manuel Barroso, Bob Dudley and David Nish – three men who have dominated recent media coverage of the independence referendum.  They are the heads of the European Commission, BP and Standard Life respectively.
 
Vaclav Klaus, Joelle Garriaud-Maylam, Michael O’Leary and Willie Walsh – four people who haven’t featured quite as much, indeed if at all in some cases.

Mr Klaus is a former Czech president and Mme Garriaud-Maylam, a senior French senator specialising in foreign policy.  O’Leary is the head of Ryanair and Walsh the top man at British Airways.

The first three have expressed views on independence that have been less than helpful to the Yes campaign, or at least been portrayed as such.  The latter four have made comments that are less than helpful to the No campaign.

Speaking at an event in Edinburgh University this week, Mr Klaus – referring to comments made by Jose Manuel Barroso in a BBC interview – said: “It is arrogant of the EU to say Scotland and Catalonia will not be members.”

Speaking in the French Senate, Mme Garriaud-Maylam said: “The threats formulated by Mr Barroso are inappropriate and the result of Spanish and English pressure.  London is increasingly worried. They (EU threats) are not credible.  If Scotland votes for independence, it will stay in the European Union.  It would be in England’s interest.”

Neither of these comments each critical of Barroso featured on the BBC, thus to the general public who rely on the broadcaster for their referendum information, they may as well not have been said.

Not so with Barroso, Dudley and Nish who owe their increased public profile to this same BBC.  The broadcaster has, for some time, employed an editorial policy that amplifies and pushes anti-independence stories and opinion.

On areas like the EU, which is by its very nature clouded in political and legal fog due to the unique scenario presented by Scotland, it has embraced the apparent uncertainty in order to push the anti-independence line.  Probability and common sense have been ditched, replaced by partisan melodrama.

At times the BBC goes a little too far as the recent guilty ruling from its own Trust demonstrated when it was found to have misled viewers over comments made by the then Irish European Minister Lucinda Creighton, when she was asked about the EU membership of a newly independent Scotland.

That same desire to present EU membership as an insurmountable obstacle led it to make a bit of a fool of itself when it headlined comments from Barroso that were, frankly, nonsensical as most serious observers of EU politics will tell you.

His use of Kosovo as an illustrative example of the difficulties a newly independent Scotland would face as it negotiated a continuation of its EU membership were a sitting duck for any competent interviewer, as was his equally bizarre claim that it would be impossible for Scotland to remain in the EU after a Yes vote.

Barroso went too far, which was probably down to his failure to appreciate how the BBC operates on referendum issues where it will helpfully fill in the blanks when provided with anodyne statements.

It was the same on Thursday when Standard Life dominated the news agenda.

When Standard Life chose to enter the debate, there was almost no analysis of the practical business costs of what was being inferred from the company’s official statement.  It was making contingency plans, fair enough, but what did it think was the probability that they might be employed?

Did Standard Life buy George Osborne’s threat to block a currency union?  What, in its view, would be the impact on the rest of the UK if he did?  What about UK debt if Osborne found himself landed with the £1.4 trillion?  Would Standard Life consider moving parts of its business to a newly independent Scotland if the rest of the UK began acting out of spite instead of basing decisions on economic concerns?

And why was it making the contingency plans public?  Would not these statements, coming in the middle of a constitutional debate, balanced so precariously, not potentially harm the company if people viewed it as blackmail?

Last month, analysts Winterflood Securities said: “Of course it is possible that an independent Scotland may prove a more welcoming regime for investment trusts, particularly in terms of tax treatment. This could see a growth in the sector there akin to that seen in the Channel Islands over recent years.

“However, while uncertainty exists, it is reasonable that boards and managers consider the potential downside as well.”

So, we have the BBC presenting sensible planning by Standard Life as though a sensational development in the independence debate, but with absolutely no consideration given to the possibility that a Yes vote could in fact benefit the industry.

The BBC hasn’t just acted as a benign conduit for the Standard Life announcement; it has actively sought to place as strong an anti-independence interpretation on the statement as it possibly can.  Derek Bateman has already commented on the manner in which the BBC initially broke the Standard Life story with presenters over keen to stress not WHETHER it was damaging to the Yes campaign, but asking by HOW MUCH.

Indeed the headline on the BBC online news site stated the company had announced a ‘quit plan’, not you’ll notice a mere contingency.

Alongside the article were several links that added to the sense of drama and significance.  “Is Standard Life alone?”, “View boosts currency case”, and just in case readers mistook the stance from the company as an anti-Scottish threat, we had “Standard Life ‘very Scottish'”. 

Less than 24 hours after it gave massive coverage to the Standard Live statement there arrived three unexpected flies in the anti-independence ointment.

First up was Willie Walsh who was asked by an expectant BBC reporter if independence would harm the company.  Walsh skilfully turned the tables on the hapless reporter by backing a Yes vote.

The BA chief was of course using the indy debate in order to push his own agenda for the scrapping of Air Passenger Duty.  But the damage was done and Walsh slowed down the BBC’s anti-independence juggernaut.  Comments from Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, who also backed the Scottish Government’s post-indy plans, were equally unhelpful to the BBC.

Both men effectively blew the narrative apart, but neither was afforded anywhere like the coverage enjoyed by Standard Life.

Indeed when a third blow to the No campaign arrived in the shape of a report by credit agency Standard and Poor’s, the BBC decided this particular boost to the Yes campaign would be reworked in order to remove conclusions that were very damaging to the No campaign.

Here is the key part of Standard & Poor’s analysis into Scottish independence that the BBC were less than keen to report:

“Scottish wealth levels are comparable to that of the U.K. (‘AAA’), Germany (‘AAA’), Ireland (‘BBB+’), and New Zealand (‘AA-‘).

“Even excluding North Sea output and calculating per capita GDP only by looking at onshore income, Scotland would qualify for our highest economic assessment. Higher GDP per capita, in our view, gives a country a broader potential tax and funding base to draw from, which supports creditworthiness.”

This brings me to BBC Scotland’s Business and Economy Editor Douglas Fraser.  Followers of Scottish politics will know that Mr Fraser was once the political editor at the Herald newspaper.  He was widely believed to adopt a stance more sympathetic to those in favour of the Union than to those advocating independence.

Below is a clip of how Mr Fraser chose to report the Standard Life statement on Reporting Scotland.  The clip has poor quality audio but everything can be heard.  Note how the BBC reporter handles the Standard & Poor’s issue by simply ignoring its conclusion on the credit rating of a newly independent Scotland.

The entire item lasts five and a half minutes.  A considerable amount of resource has clearly been mobilised in order to promote this story, which is devoid of any pro-Yes input.  Radio had broadcast bulletins throughout the day saying much the same thing.

There are several things jump out when viewing Douglas Fraser’s piece to camera.  His use of the word “clout” for example, a favourite amongst Unionists who often suggest Scotland will lack it.  In this case of course the BBC Scotland reporter is implying the clout will damage the Yes campaign.

Another is the highlighting of access to European markets as a challenge for Yes.  Yet at no point are we told whether Standard Life views independence as the bigger threat or David Cameron’s In/Out EU referendum.

But it’s the area of credit ratings that really highlight the agenda at work.  Telling viewers of the ‘risks’ RBS has cited, Fraser lists credit ratings before going on to reference the Standard & Poor’s analysis.  However rather than detail the paragraph reproduced above which deals specifically with credit rating, Douglas Fraser quotes one phrase “…the challenges facing an independent Scotland would be significant but not unsurpassable.”

What Fraser wants viewers to remember is two words – “challenges” and “significant”.  Allied to his use of the word “risks” we can see how this reporter is able to craft an item through selective quotation and well chosen words.  Standard & Poor’s goes from being beneficial to the Yes campaign to harmful.

Then follows one of BBC Scotland’s favourite tools when it wants to influence viewers – the vox pop.  A reporter stands in the street asking passers-by to comment on the loaded news item.  Most people of course, faced with questions that suggest businesses will leave Scotland in the event of a Yes vote, respond accordingly.  Some will go further and allow either their own ignorance or prejudice to amplify the message sought by the BBC.

The clip above demonstrates just how effective this kind of ‘reporting’ can be with one poor soul duped into believing there will be no jobs left in an independent Scotland. “If all the jobs are going to go down south…” she says.

The contrast between the way the BBC handled the Standard Life statement and the following evening’s Reporting Scotland which reported on the backing for independence by BA boss Willie Walsh, could not have been more stark.

Walsh had surprised the broadcaster in an earlier interview, and BBC Scotland, caught with its pants down put together what appeared to be a rush item.  Gone was Douglas Fraser and also missing was the vox-pop that had been broadcast the previous evening.  Instead we had an item that focussed more on Air Passenger Duty than on the damage to the No campaign.

The item even gave the last word to Labour MSP and Better Together member Richard Baker.  The item lasted a little over two minutes, less than half the time allotted to the Standard Life story and nowhere near the resource.

It’s just this kind of broadcast that was highlighted in the study carried out by Dr (now Professor) John Robertson that found the BBC’c evening news coverage of the referendum, favoured the No campaign.

The handling of the independence debate by BBC Scotland is now treated as a bad joke by those in the independence movement and by a growing number of people who hitherto would not have entertained the notion that the broadcaster was anything but fair and impartial.

Douglas Fraser reproduced a similar one sided analysis of the independence issue in relation to business in his weekend Radio Show, Business Scotland, a section of which we have recorded and reproduced below.

The BBC is not impartial and as long as there are people like Douglas Fraser, Glenn Campbell and Gary Robertson fronting its independence coverage in Scotland, supported by Head of News John Boothman, then that’s the way it will stay. 

I have said many times that the BBC is the logistical supply line, without which the anti-independence campaign falls apart.  They know we know, but until there is a Yes vote, they are beyond our reach.

Footnote:
The way the BBC handled the Standard Life issue is revealing.  If we take everything at face value then what the state broadcaster is effectively telling licence payers is that it is now in the interests of the Westminster Government to wreck post-independence negotiations.

George Osborne says he will block a currency union and we now have a business saying it may move part of its Edinburgh operation to England if such a threat is followed through.  In other words, the subliminal message being delivered by the BBC to voters is not that Osborne is bluffing, but that it is actually in his interests to carry out the threat.

[This item took two days to prepare before it was ready to be published.  The author takes no payment.  Newsnet Scotland will allow its publication – unedited – on any website or blog, there is no need to cite Newsnet Scotland as the source.]