BROADCAST NEWS: View from the armchair Part 2

Broadcast News: always impartial. Isn't it?

Scottish TV News and the General Election 2015: January 16th-18th

Prof John Robertson
Prof John Robertson

It continues. In a less than subtle manner, in the early approaches to the General Election, Reporting Scotland constructed from little substance a report designed to cast the SNP in a poor light.

On Sunday 18th January, we hear from the presenter, that ‘opposition parties’ are criticising a ‘U-turn’ by the Scottish Government, on stamp duty for house purchases.

Labour MSP, Jackie Baillie describes the situation as: ‘extraordinary and deeply embarrassing for John Swinney’ and suggests dramatically, that: ‘he (Swinney) is aligning himself increasingly with the Conservatives.’

The reporter then repeats, or constructs, the ‘opposition’ charge of ‘a humiliating U-turn’. This apparent scoop is missed by STV who make no reference to the ‘story’ whatsoever.

What had actually happened? In 2014, the Scottish government increased the threshold for stamp duty on house purchases in Scotland, to reflect the lower prices here and to ease the situation for first-time buyers. Chancellor Osborne then copied the initiative to similarly ease the situation in England and, without warning, to undercut the Scottish system.

What Swinney said in response, but not reported, was: ‘The Chancellor’s decision to introduce a new stamp duty system overnight, without warning and consultation, means that while 80% of homeowners continue to pay less tax or no tax at all under LBTT (The Scottish system), we now have the opportunity to review the rates and ensure they are right for Scotland.’

In what ways is the criticism wrong? First, it’s clearly not a U-turn but rather an adjustment or enhancement in the same direction, with the same purpose, to ease access to the housing market. To refer to this as U-turn is just wrong. To adopt it as a political strategy to weaken your opponent is frankly stupid unless you are convinced your audience is the same. Second, it cannot be rationally described as ‘aligning increasingly with the Conservatives’ when it preceded the Conservative response and was clearly designed then for the Scottish context.

In what ways is the reporting wrong? This will take some time. First, Reporting Scotland allowed a petty and ill-informed Labour Party ruse to determine public service information. STV and most of the press seem to have seen through this and ignored it on the same day. Second, what was evidently a Labour Party ploy was reported twice as representing the opposition more widely yet with no evidence of this. It seems unlikely the Coalition members in Scotland would have wanted to criticise the initiative. Third and perhaps more important, the wider context to the story, described above, was not given, contrary to the BBC’s obligation to inform and not to play along with partisan campaigns.

Think about what could have been reported to make this a real and meaningful story? The information we have could easily have generated these (accurate) headlines:

‘Osborne has to copy Scottish Government’s Stamp Duty Changes’

‘Osborne fails to consult with Scottish Government on stamp duty changes’

‘Adjustments to Scottish Stamp Duty after Osborne’s Surprise’

‘Scottish Labour deeply embarrassed and humiliated by misunderstanding’

‘Scottish Labour desperation in attacking Scottish Government’

‘Scottish Labour thanks Reporting Scotland for being a pal’

And it’s only January!

Professor John Robertson, 18th January 2015