Commentary by G.A.Ponsonby
Tonight will see First Minister Nicola Sturgeon give a speech to TV bosses at the Edinburgh international television festival. High on the list of issues will be the BBC and the devolution of broadcasting to Scotland.
The SNP has a mandate to seek the devolution of broadcasting, given its near clean sweep in May’s general election. The speech will have added spice following the recent spat between the BBC’s former political editor Nick Robinson and Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Salmond.
The row followed comments made by Robinson at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival. The BBC man made a series of extraordinary remarks in relation to an episode that occurred during the independence referendum. Robinson claimed his reporting of an exchange between himself and the then First Minister had resulted in the SNP organising a protest outside the BBC Scotland HQ days later.
Here is what he said:
“Alex Salmond was using me to change the subject. Alex Salmond was using me as a symbol. A symbol of the wicked, metropolitan, Westminster classes sent from England, sent from London, in order to tell the Scots what they ought to do.
“As it happens I fell for it. I shouldn’t have had the row with him which I did, and I chose a particular phrase [“He didn’t answer, but he did attack the reporting.”] we might explore badly in terms of my reporting and that is genuinely a sense of regret.”
Robinson then attacked the protestors who had gathered outside the BBC Scotland HQ:
“But as a serious thought I don’t think my offence was sufficient to justify 4,000 people marching on the BBC’s headquarters, so that young men and women who are new to journalism have, like they do in Putin’s Russia, to fight their way through crowds of protesters, frightened as to how they do their jobs.”
“We should not live with journalists who are intimidated, or bullied, or fearful in any way.”
Days later Alex Salmond responded to Robinson’s extraordinary outburst. In a newspaper article published by the Courier he said:
“The BBC’s coverage of the Scottish referendum was a disgrace.
“It can be shown to be so, as was Nick’s own reporting of which he should be both embarrassed and ashamed.”
“To compare, as Nick did last week, 4000 Scots peacefully protesting outside BBC Scotland as something akin to Putin’s Russia is as ludicrous as it is insulting.
“It is also heavily ironic given that the most commonly used comparison with the BBC London treatment of the Scottish referendum story was with Pravda, the propaganda news agency in the old Soviet Union.”
Salmond’s response resulted in two more BBC journalists wading into the row. First up was BBC Scotland business and economy editor Douglas Fraser who posted the following defiant tweet.
There’s plenty of evidence that the BBC’s coverage was a disgrace, I detail much of it in my own book – ‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum’. I provided a link to the book in response to Fraser’s call for evidence.
Douglas Fraser himself was involved in a few questionable broadcasts during the referendum. I recall the episode where he omitted to report a significant statement [favourable to Yes] from Standard & Poor on a day a Standard Life “job loss” claim [favourable to No] was being headlined by the corporation. BBC Scotland Chiefs were asked to explain the omission from all of its news output when they later appeared before a Holyrood Committee.
I also posted a clip of Fraser championing a Better Together claim that Sterling was not an asset that could be shared. In the clip below the BBC Scotland business and economy editor also chooses some quite pejorative phrases when presenting the Yes argument.
A day after Fraser waded into the Robinson row, his BBC colleague James Naughtie attacked Alex Salmond accusing the former First Minister of having an obsession with Robinson. Naughtie appeared not to realise, or simply ignored, that fact that it was Robinson himself who had re-ignited the row with his incendiary claims of an SNP organised Putin style demo.
Royal Bank of Scotland
But it’s worth looking again at the series of events that led to Nick Robinson and Alex Salmond’s now infamous exchange that sparked the row. The episode didn’t begin with a press conference and Nick Robinson’s woefully inaccurate TV report. The seeds of controversy were sown the evening before when the BBC broke a news story relating to the Royal Bank of Scotland.
On September 10th 2014, just seven days before the referendum, the BBC broke a story in which it was claimed that the Royal Bank of Scotland was preparing to move operations and jobs out of Scotland in the event of a Yes vote and that such a move would have a significant impact on the Scottish economy.
Within minutes of the story breaking, it began to dominate news across the entire media. Newspapers and other broadcast media picked up the BBC ‘scoop’. It ran as the main news item on BBC Scotland the following morning. The Yes campaign suffered significant damage as a result.
But the story wasn’t all it appeared.
It emerged that the story had been supplied to the BBC by the UK Treasury. The broadcaster had been given the information in an email at 10:15pm that Wednesday. This was 25 minutes before the RBS board meeting at which the decision was supposedly taken, had finished.
It also later emerged that the person who briefed the BBC on the decision was the son of Alistair Darling’s former special adviser Catherine MacLeod. Darling of course was the campaign head of Better Together.
But the story caused collateral damage. The Royal Bank’s share price fell as a result of the BBC reports which had broken market rules by being released before 07:00 am on Thursday. Workers based in Scotland were also waking to news that their jobs could be at risk if Scotland voted Yes.
In order to assuage fears and concerns, RBS CEO Ross McEwan was forced to circulate a memo to staff in which he confirmed that, contrary to media reports, the bank had no intention of moving operations or jobs from Scotland following a Yes vote. The only thing that would move would be the brass plate on the registered HQ.
“It is my view as Chief Executive that any decision to move our registered headquarters should have no impact on everyday banking services used by our customers in Scotland and the rest of the British Isles. This is a technical procedure regarding the location of our registered head office. It is not an intention to move operations or jobs.
“Our current business in Scotland, including the personal and business bank, IT and operations, human resources and many other functions, are here because of the skills and knowledge of our people, and the sound business environment. So far, I see no reason why this would change should we implement our contingency plans.”
The RBS CEO also apologised to staff who had learned of the contingency through the media, and added:
“It is always my aim to ensure we inform our staff about such issues at the earliest opportunity. I know many of you will have already heard about this first in the media. My apologies for that, on this occasion this was unavoidable.”
The memo was highlighted by an incensed Alex Salmond in a radio interview on Good Morning Scotland the following day. He did not disguise his anger at the role played by the BBC in promoting what was by then known to be anti-independence propaganda.
That, then, was the background story to an international press conference Salmond held later that afternoon. One of those selected by the First Minister to ask a question was Nick Robinson. The video below shows the full exchange.
Robinson’s subsequent news report on that evening’s Ten O’clock news is the basis for the row that has once again again hit the headlines.
It’s clear that Robinson was humiliated at the press conference. It’s also clear that Salmond revelled in putting down the BBC man. But Robinson deserved the slap-down by pushing a story that had already been debunked. The additional general question was so clearly loaded that it didn’t deserve an answer – but Salmond gave one anyway. Robinson abused his position as a reporter by editing his news report in order to paint a factually inaccurate picture of events.
Of course, the BBC’s reputation in Scotland was already in tatters before Nick Robinson decided to misrepresent Alex Salmond. The protest Robinson claims was prompted by his exchange with Salmond was already weeks in the planning when his News at Ten item was broadcast. The people who paraded posters calling for his dismissal were merely joining thousands of people who had already planned to attend the peaceful protest.
That’s where I come back to Douglas Fraser. Fraser didn’t just post one tweet following the re-igniting of the Robinson/Salmond row. He posted a whole series of tweets, one of which is shown below.
Having asked for evidence Fraser complains that people have posted single incidents and ignored wider coverage. Twitter accommodates little more than single incidents such as article links and video clips, so what was he expecting? He has, as far as I can tell, refused to acknowledge the existence of my book. But Fraser’s tweet wasn’t looking for evidence, it was a defiant political attack.
You don’t have to look hard to find evidence of the BBC’s mishandling of the independence referendum. There are literally scores of examples on the old Newsnet youtube site. I still have access to hundreds of audio recordings such as the infamous one below which was broadcast one week before the referendum.
My book lists scores of examples that have yet to be challenged. One of the worst led to BBC Scotland being found guilty by the BBC Trust of having broken editorial guidelines on accuracy. You can read about the Lucinda Creighton episode by clicking here.
The final two weeks of coverage was almost a full-on promotion of Better Together with live speeches by Gordon Brown. It forms the basis for chapter one of my book – read it here.
There are some who are trying to claim that Alex Salmond’s response to what amounts to trolling by Nick Robinson may cause Nicola Sturgeon problems. I suppose it might if you are someone who sets out to wilfully ignore evidence and instead rely on a corrupt media to inform your opinion.
Nicola Sturgeon is the First Minister and as such she will use diplomatic language when referring to BBC Scotland. She may decline to comment on the Salmond/Robinson spat. But that does not mean she does not share her predecessors view on the BBC’s handling of the referendum.
The BBC was already damaged goods in Scotland before Nick Robinson went on a petulant trolling spree in an attempt at drumming up interest in his book. It has backfired on him spectacularly. He is still at it as he goads Herald journalist Iain Macwhirter and posts childish jokes aimed at Alex Salmond.
His behaviour and that of Naughtie and Fraser are what I have come to expect from some high profile individuals at the BBC. It is evidence of a ‘can’t touch us’ arrogance that has infested the BBC in Scotland. This is a corporation that refuses to answer basic questions such as viewing figures for current affairs shows and the names of guests who have appeared on these shows. That isn’t a sign of openness and transparency. It’s a sign of an organisation with something to hide.
The only way to save the BBC in Scotland is to devolve it. If that doesn’t happen then there will be no reputation left for the likes of Robinson to trash.
G.A.Ponsonby is the author of ‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the referendum’.
You can order a copy from him here.