The weird, not so wonderful news agenda of Radio Scotland

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Commentary by G.A.Ponsonby

OK, let’s get the puns out of the way.  Out-foxed, Foxy Lady, Shooting the Tory fox, For fox sake … they’ve been done to death, and I used a couple myself.

When the SNP announced its intention to join the Westminster opposition and vote against the Tory Government’s fox hunting proposal I didn’t quite get the tactic.  After all, hadn’t Nicola Sturgeon herself used fox hunting as an example of an ‘English Only’ issue her party would abstain on.

Sturgeon’s explanation that her party had pledged to work co-operatively in the interests of people across the whole of the UK during the general election campaign provided an out for the SNP leader.  But the real reason for the volte-face on this relatively esoteric issue was revealed when I read Angus Robertson’s statement.

It was a political manoeuvre designed to draw attention to the disgraceful blocking of Scotland Bill amendments by non-Scottish MPs.  And boy was it successful.

Nicola Sturgeon: Eyes on the Scotland Bill
Nicola Sturgeon: Eyes on the Scotland Bill

The issue dominated BBC Scotland news on Tuesday and the corporation’s presenters were forced to read out Robertson’s statement.  Nicola Sturgeon herself ensured the Scotland Bill was pushed to the fore when being interviewed by Gary Robertson on Good Morning Scotland.

The foxhunting story was ironic in that it required the SNP to vote on an English and Wales issue in order to highlight the fact that Scottish MPs had been outvoted on a Scottish issue by non-Scottish MPs.  This point was highlighted on social media with people contrasting the coverage afforded the foxhunting issue with the lack of coverage by BBC Scotland when the Scotland Bill was being debated in late June and early July.  Some of the tweets were directed towards Gary Robertson.

The BBC man responded to the criticism by challenging the thrust of the claims.  Robertson insisted the Scotland Bill had been reported on every day.

garyrgaryrgaryr

The Scotland Bill debate was held on the Friday 26th, Monday 29th and Tuesday 30th June. BBC Scotland did ‘report’ on the debate each and every day. But what it didn’t do was highlight the blocking of the amendments by non-Scottish MPs and the lack of support from Labour for SNP led amendments.

Friday 26th was of course the day of the tragic events in Tunisia. The story, as you would expect, dominated news everywhere as was appropriate. By Monday the story was still prominent and was leading bulletins that morning. By Monday afternoon politics began to re-emerge.

On that evening’s Newsdrive on BBC Radio Scotland the news headlines were prioritised as follows:

  1. Eurozone and Greece
  2. Tunisia attack
  3. Disabled people on aeroplanes
  4. Lord Janner sex allegations

News item number five was the Scotland Bill.  Below is a recording of what was broadcast by Radio Scotland.

As you can see it is a very short item and not at all prominent.  The next news headlines contained another report on the Scotland Bill.  This time though it was SNP and Labour statements relating to the Bill that was covered.

Tim Reid is heard giving a summary of SNP and Labour challenges.  The issue is being given very little coverage.

Bizarrely a later item on the Scottish Labour leadership sees BBC Scotland’s Political Editor Brian Taylor spend some time on this contest.  Below is a recording of his item.

Incredibly, the item on Scottish Labour lasts for four minutes, which is more than the two earlier Scotland Bill news bulletins combined [84 seconds].

You now have the general shape of BBC Scotland’s coverage of the Scotland Bill on Monday evening.  It is already abundantly clear that the issue received minimal coverage and was nowhere near being the lead item.  The Scotland Bill is being downplayed.

On Monday afternoon the SNP had issued an embargoed press release.  A short section is reproduced below:

The Scottish National Party has challenged Labour to support more welfare powers for Scotland ahead of the Scotland Bill debates in Westminster today (Tuesday).  SNP Westminster Leader Angus Robertson MP has said Labour had a choice between welfare powers being in “Scottish control or Tory control.”

 The SNP is proposing amendments to the Scotland Bill that would remove Westminster vetoes over using welfare powers; give the Scottish Parliament additional powers including devolving working age benefits and benefits relating to children; the power to legislate for employment support programmes; control over National Insurance, including employers’ National Insurance contributions; employment law; and equal opportunities.

On Tuesday’s Good Morning Scotland the top of the programme news stories were prioritised as follows:

  1. Greece Euro
  2. Tunisia attack
  3. Schoolchildren orchestra
  4. Police terrorist drill in London

As with Newsdrive the previous evening, news item number five was again the Scotland Bill.  The issue was never in the top three news items.  In all eight bulletins, the SNP statement calling for Labour to back the nationalist amendment over welfare was never mentioned.

Below is a recording containing every ‘Scotland Bill’ news bulletin.

Most are banal statements of fact, devoid of any background or critical analysis.  There is no sense of the building anger felt by the SNP at the blocking of amendments.  There is no sense that the Labour Party is either abstaining or voting with the Tories.  The SNP call for Labour backing on welfare is ignored.  Only one MP’s voice is heard; that of Tory MP David Mundell.

The issue of the Scotland Bill is reported but each broadcast is distilled to remove the very real anger and controversy that was prevalent in the chamber as non-Scottish MPs traipsed into the chamber, having sat in the bar during the debates. The issue is nowhere near the top of the news agenda, even a police exercise in London has been given a higher priority.

But there was something else. The Scotland Bill bulletins weren’t even the longest political items broadcast that morning. Below is a recording of the political issue to which Good Morning Scotland gave the longest single coverage.

Incredibly, right in the middle of a significant debate on Scotland’s constitutional future, Radio Scotland felt it appropriate to spend six and a half minutes on the Scottish Labour leadership contest, broadcasting lengthy statements from Kezia Dugdale and Ken Macintosh.

Brian Taylor: Covering Labour leadership contest
Brian Taylor: Covering Labour leadership contest

Why was BBC Scotland’s Political Editor Brian Taylor sent to Dundee to cover a contest of limited importance to the people of Scotland?  Why was Taylor not providing serious and in depth commentary on the challenges facing Scotland’s Westminster representatives as they sought to have their democratic mandate acknowledged?

Tuesday was the last day of debate which, when it ended that evening, had resulted in every single amendment to the Scotland Bill having been blocked.  If the two earlier days hadn’t been deemed significant enough to make the Scotland Bill the top story on BBC Scotland, then the third and final day most certainly was. And this is where BBC Scotland really exceeded itself.

By now almost all of you will have forgotten what the top stories were on BBC Scotland the day after the debate ended. Below is a short edited clip of Good Morning Scotland from Wednesday July 1st.

The number one story on BBC Scotland that day was the temporary closure of part of a ward in a hospital.  The other top Scottish political story was an attack on the SNP’s council tax freeze by COSLA, whose finance spokesman appeared on Good Morning Scotland.

Listeners weren’t told that Kevin Keenan is also Labour Group Leader on Dundee City Council.

The Scotland Bill wasn’t included in the top news stories on Good Morning Scotland.  Peat bogs, Heathrow extension and an old building were included.  If you want to listen to the programme you can do so here.

The SNP had issued a statement at 19:25 the evening before, so the party’s position was known to the BBC.

Commenting on the Scotland Bill in the House of Commons this evening – in which none of the Opposition SNP or Labour amendments were accepted – SNP Westminster Leader Angus Robertson MP said:

“This was typical Tory arrogance – a single Tory MP refusing to listen to the representatives of the people of Scotland.

“We saw cross-party support on the Opposition benches for SNP amendments being voted down by a Tory government with a single MP in Scotland.

“At a time of savage cuts to the welfare state by the Tories – causing real hurt to hard working families and vulnerable people, and driving more and more people to food banks – the choice is between having welfare powers in Scotland’s hands, or leaving them in the hands of Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne.”

SNP MPs had been tweeting on social media as each and every amendment was blocked by non-Scottish MPs. Most of these MPs never attended the debates. There was real fury at what many saw as Unionist MPs snubbing their noses at Scotland’s democratically elected representatives. Yet the sentiment was never aired on BBC Scotland.

The issue of the Scotland Bill amendments was covered on the Thursday by BBC Scotland, but as part of the English Votes for English Laws plans by the Tory Government and not as the stand alone issue of the previous day.

BBC_SCOTLANDBBC Scotland reported the Scotland Bill. However to suggest it gave the issue the priority it deserved is simply not true. The corporation singularly failed to inform the Scottish public of the fury the controversial blocking of their democratically wishes by non-Scottish MPs was causing.

This analysis covered Radio Scotland’s coverage of the Scotland Bill. TV coverage was much the same with the flagship news programme Reporting Scotland prioritising similar stories.

The SNP dragged the issue of the Scotland Bill back into the spotlight last week when it announced its intention to vote against Tory foxhunting plans. It caught the media off-guard. BBC Scotland found itself having to provide high-profile coverage of the blocking of amendments by non-Scottish MPs.

But BBC Scotland is nothing if not resourceful. Just as the issue was gaining traction and the SNP was gaining some constitutional momentum what familiar story should make another appearance … the Scottish NHS.

The day before the BBC Scotland story appeared, I posted the following tweet:

nhs_tweet

On Thursday BBC Scotland’s top story was the Scottish NHS. The corporation had conducted ‘research’ into the Scottish Health Service. The research coincided with an attack by Scottish Labour. The party had also carried out its own research into the Scottish NHS. The theme of the story was ‘NHS Crisis’…

You couldn’t make it up.

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