Reporting Scotland: Not much news reported, just plenty of “reaction”?


By G.A.Ponsonby

The editor of the BBC’s “flagship” news programme Reporting Scotland took issue last week with critical comments made in a article by media analyst and academic Professor John Robertson.

Prof Robertson, who has become a bit of a thorn in the side of the BBC, criticised the way the corporation had reported on the visit to China by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the TV news programme Reporting Scotland and related bulletins last Monday.  He felt that the visit had been downplayed and too much made of comments by former First Minister Alex Salmond in an interview he had given to the BBC the day before.

Big chief empty chair: Reporting Scotland editor thinks "reaction" equals "news"
Big chief empty chair: Reporting Scotland editor thinks “reaction” equals “news”

For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a brief recap: The First Minister had flown to China for an official visit last weekend.  Last Sunday her predecessor gave an interview to the BBC presenter Andrew Marr. Alex Salmond was asked if he believed a second independence referendum was inevitable. Not surprisingly Mr Salmond replied that he believed it was.  He then spelt out three reasons for believing as he did.

On Monday, Reporting Scotland presented Salmond’s comments as though they were a problem for Sturgeon.  Viewers were told the comments had “overshadowed” the China visit. The report on that trip was interlaced with commentary relating to the Salmond interview. Secretary of State David Mundell was interviewed criticising the First Minister.

The episode resulted in a “Twitter spat” between Reporting Scotland editor Andrew Browne and Professor Robertson.

The reaction from Browne was peculiar to say the least.  BBC Scotland is an organisation that steadfastly refuses to engage with the people who finance it, the licence payers [us].  Indeed in 2014 its management even had to be forced by the BBC Trust to appear before our elected MSPs.  Yet here was someone in a position of authority posting defiant messages on social media.

I read Professor Robertson’s article with interest and also viewed his online “debate” with the programme editor. I myself had been following BBC Scotland’s reporting of the Salmond interview and the editor’s  reaction gave it another dimension.

One of the issues “debated” by “The Prof” and “The Ed” was a claim by BBC Scotland news that the Salmond interview had “dominated” that Monday’s Scottish news.  The claim was used to support the idea that Nicola Sturgeon’s trip to China had been “overshadowed” by her predecessor.

In fact, the claim by BBC Scotland that the Salmond interview had dominated the news was entirely false.  The biggest news story that day concerned the sex and drugs allegations levelled against the Labour Peer Lord Sewel, as the clip below demonstrates.

The clip is from BBC Scotland’s flagship morning radio programme Good Morning Scotland.  The Salmond interview story was of course carried by newspapers, it’s just that it wasn’t the biggest news story.

So, if the story wasn’t dominating newspapers, where was it dominating?  The answer of course is that it dominated BBC Scotland’s news output.

But were Salmond’s views on a second independence referendum actually news?

Alex Salmond’s views on Scottish independence are a matter of public record.  Despite Yes losing the 2014 referendum he has maintained his belief that Scotland is destined to become independent.  Salmond, like the current First Minister, has also stated his belief that the only route to independence is through a referendum.

Thus, when asked by Andrew Marr on Sunday July 26 if he believed a second referendum was inevitable, the former SNP leader gave the same view he has expressed since September 19 2014.  It wasn’t news.

So why did BBC Scotland give the interview such a high profile?  It’s worth viewing the relevant part of the interview in its entirety.

BBC Scotland news was headlining Salmond’s interview within hours of it being broadcast.  Below is a recording of Sunday’s Reporting Scotland.


Note how Reporting Scotland has truncated the exchange in order to remove Marr’s question.  The programme also edits out the three reasons listed by Alex Salmond in order to justify why he believes a second referendum will take place.

The other thing to note is how the item is framed.

Reporting Scotland does two things. First it slightly misrepresents Salmond’s interview by claiming he said there will be another referendum. At no point does Alex Salmond state categorically there will be another referendum on independence. What he does say is that he believes there will be one – a very subtle but important difference.

Second, the programme tries to portray Salmond as having caused some difficulty for Nicola Sturgeon. There is a suggestion that his views clash with those of his successor.

Reporter Andrew Black says:

“SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon says she’s not currently planning another referendum, but could comments made today by her predecessor suggest otherwise?”

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have been as one on the issue of independence since the 2014 referendum defeat. Both insist that they believe Scotland will eventually become independent and both believe that only through a second referendum will this be possible.

On September 24 last year, six days after the referendum, Nicola Sturgeon gave a press conference during which she was asked about independence and a second referendum.  Below is what BBC Scotland Political editor Brian Taylor reported:

“Finally, independence. She backs it. She believes it remains the best option for Scotland. She believes it will happen.

How? Through a referendum – not any other electoral route. Repeat not: she was asked twice and gave the same answer, twice – which displays comforting consistency.

When? Not for her to say or indeed any democrat. That would be determined by popular wish and electoral mandate.

No precision, in short – not even ‘a generation’ or ‘a lifetime’.”

Nicola Sturgeon has repeated these sentiments since.  Thus, there is absolutely no evidence of any difference in view on the issue between Alex Salmond and the First Minister.

But let’s return to the Twitter posts by the editor of Reporting Scotland.  It wasn’t just Professor John Robertson who engaged with Andrew Browne.  Also posing questions was Newsnet.

Browne was asked by the editor of this very site why Salmond’s comments on another independence referendum were deemed newsworthy, given he had made similar remarks several times since September’s referendum.  The Reporting Scotland editor responded: “is reaction to the former First Minister’s views not news?”

So, if the Reporting Scotland editor is to be believed, it wasn’t Salmond’s comments that were newsworthy it was the reaction to the comments by opponents.   One of those opponents was Labour MP Ian Murray.

In the clip above Murray can be seen asking an accusatory loaded question: “Who is the real leader of the SNP.  Is it Alex Salmond who is demanding the timetable and proposals for a new referendum come forward or is it Nicola Sturgeon who he’s now putting pressure on to come forward with these particular proposals?”.

It is indeed a reaction.  But a reaction to what?  As far as I can tell from Salmond’s interview with Andrew Marr, the former First Minister made no such demands. Alex Salmond clearly stated that the timing of a second referendum was in Nicola Sturgeon’s hands. If Nicola Sturgeon decides not to add a second referendum to the SNP manifesto in 2016, then there won’t be one.

Murray of course wasn’t reacting to Salmond’s interview. What he was reacting to was BBC Scotland’s portrayal of the interview. This is a portrayal that has been manipulated by BBC Scotland. The manipulation has provided a platform for Unionists to launch an attack, and Murray does so.

Last Sunday’s Reporting Scotland also showed a clip of Nicola Sturgeon speaking before last year’s referendum opining that the SNP believed it was a once in a generation or even once in a lifetime event.  This of course gave the impression that Nicola Sturgeon, by including a second referendum in the party’s 2016 Holyrood manifesto, would be breaking her word.

But pledges are only good if both sides hold to them. By showing only Sturgeon’s pre-referendum comments BBC Scotland had manipulated the viewer into believing only the SNP were considering going back on a pre-referendum pledge.

The Daily Record won Newspaper of the Year for this front age. Reporting Scotland seems to have forgotten all about "The Vow"
The Daily Record won Newspaper of the Year for this front age. Reporting Scotland seems to have forgotten all about “The Vow”

But pledges are only good if both sides hold to them.  Why were there no clips of Unionist politicians making their own pre-referendum pledges?  Why for example was there no clips of Gordon Brown making his much vaunted ‘Home Rule’ speech?  Where was the infamous Vow?  Where was Alistair Darling’s ‘Devo Max’ interview with Jackie Bird?

Here, in summary, is what Alex Salmond told Andrew Marr in the interview: The former First Minister, when asked specifically whether he believed a second referendum was inevitable, said yes he did believe that was the case. Salmond told Marr that the timing was in the hands of Nicola Sturgeon and that the broken vow, EU referendum or austerity could trigger a second referendum.

Sunday’s Reporting Scotland told viewers that Alex Salmond has said there will be a second referendum. The programme described his interview as “an intervention” which is a rather pejorative term that suggests Salmond’s comments were sudden and unexpected. The programme implied that Salmond’s comments were at odds with those of his successor. Reporting Scotland also ensured viewers were reminded of comments made by Nicola Sturgeon before last year’s referendum.

You can see how the programme constructed a narrative that attempted to place the SNP very firmly on the back foot. Historical footage was used from only one perspective. The news item was shorn of any references to issues that may have caused Unionist parties difficulty.

That was Sunday. The programme that prompted Professor Robertson to write his article was broadcast on Monday. The news item in question can be seen below.

Viewers are again told that Alex Salmond has said there will be another independence referendum, not that he believes there will be. How difficult is it for a newsreader to accurately report what Salmond said?

This time Reporting Scotland shows video from the Marr interview but the short clip contains no audio, just a voiceover. There is no reference whatsoever to Salmond’s three reasons for his belief that a second independence referendum is inevitable.

Reporting Scotland shows a clip of the First Minister. In her statement to camera Nicola Sturgeon says quite clearly: “I believe Scotland will become an independent country and that will only happen if people vote for it in a referendum.  So I believe one day there will be another independence referendum.”

This is exactly what Salmond said. The key word is “believe”.

Nicola Sturgeon also confirmed what Salmond had said with respect to when such a referendum might take place: “It will be up to me or any future leader of the SNP to decide whether or not that goes in a manifesto for a Scottish election.”

In the studio is BBC Scotland reporter Andrew Kerr.  In his analysis of the Salmond interview Kerr refers to a “media storm”, although it is unclear what evidence he has for making the claim.  Kerr also claims Salmond has “perhaps put Nicola Sturgeon in a slightly awkward position by saying the timing is up to her, when she’s always said it’s up to the Scottish people”.

This is inept. Anyone who has followed this issue knows that both Salmond and Sturgeon have always accepted that a referendum will only take place if the people of Scotland give their approval through the ballot box.

The question of timing has always related to a referendum pledge being included in the SNP manifesto. Is Andrew Kerr really asking viewers to believe that Alex Salmond has called for a referendum to be held regardless of whether the SNP receives a mandate through the ballot box?

The Monday broadcast also included calls from David Mundell for the First Minister to clarify whether she wants another referendum. This was perfectly legitimate, and it was right for Reporting Scotland to broadcast Mundell’s comments. But Mundell was also heard attacking Nicola Sturgeon over her “once in a lifetime” comment before last year’s referendum.

But as I have already pointed out, and you can see clearly from the clips above, Reporting Scotland made absolutely no mention of the pre-referendum pledges made by Unionists. Alex Salmond had highlighted the broken vow in his interview with Marr so it was a highly relevant component of the entire issue.

Reporting Scotland in its Sunday broadcast and again on Monday had filtered out any references to the reasons for a second referendum. In doing so the news reports became one-sided. Salmond and Sturgeon were presented as being at odds over the issue of a second referendum. Unionists were portrayed making attacks and demanding clarity. In at least one example, that of Ian Murray, the Labour MP essentially makes entirely false claims relating to the Salmond interview.

I have already dealt with the claim by Reporting Scotland that the issue dominated the news that Monday.  Newspaper headlines that day showed it very clearly didn’t. The Salmond interview, or at least BBC Scotland’s interpretation of it, did though dominate BBC Scotland news.

On Monday’s Good Morning Scotland the issue of Salmond’s interview peppered the news bulletins. Unlike Reporting Scotland, the radio programme did include clips of Salmond giving his reasons why he believed a second referendum was inevitable. We also heard three interviews of key figures. One was David Mundell.

In his interview with Gary Robertson, which I thought was well handled by the GMS presenter, Mundell said something which should have led to more headlines. When asked about The Vow and the pledge of Home Rule or near federalism, Mundell denied such a promise had been made. Pressed by Robertson on the promise of ‘near federalism’, Mundell replies: “That’s absolute nonsense… that wasn’t being proposed”.

Good Morning Scotland clip below:

This isn’t the first time David Mundell has denied Scotland was promised as near to federalism as possible.  He made a similar claim when speaking in the House of Commons earlier this year.

Here is a clip of Gordon Brown making the pledge that David Mundell says was never made.

Inconsistencies such as these never seem to make headlines on the BBC or indeed any news media.

Mundell also has great difficulty in answering Gary Robertson when pressed on whether the UK Government would accept an SNP mandate to hold a second referendum if it was included in the party’s manifesto and the party won an overall majority.

Later that same day David Cameron appeared to confirm that the UK would block any attempt to hold another referendum, regardless of whether the SNP won a mandate or not. His comments were reported by the BBC.

But let’s go back to the comment from the editor of the programme.  Andrew Browne defended the coverage of the Salmond interview by explaining it was the reaction to Salmond as opposed to what the former First Minister had actually said, that was newsworthy.

On Friday Nicola Sturgeon reacted to David Cameron’s signal he would block a second referendum regardless of the result of the 2016 Holyrood election.

She said: “No politician can impose a referendum on Scotland, no matter how much some of us would like Scotland to be independent.

“And it’s worth pointing out that the reverse is also true. If the Scottish people do vote in future to have another referendum, no politician has the right to stand in their way.”

So, how did Reporting Scotland cover this reaction?  It gave it a full eight seconds of coverage on Reporting Scotland.  Below is the coverage in its entirety.

The clip lasts 15 seconds, of which eight is spent on Sturgeon’s reaction to Cameron. The other seven seconds sees business and economy editor Douglas Fraser make a rather confusing comment relating to a mandate for a second referendum. I’ve watched the clip several times and I cannot fathom what point Fraser is trying to make. The SNP will insist it has a mandate for a second referendum if it is included in the party manifesto and the party wins an outright majority at Holyrood.

The important point though in this instance is the difference in time and profile afforded the First Minister’s reaction to David Cameron compared to the reaction of David Mundell and Ian Murray to the Salmond interview [or more accurately, BBC Scotland’s presentation of Salmond’s interview].

The issue of a second referendum was raised last week. It was raised by Alex Salmond with what appeared to be an attempt at framing austerity as a possible “material change” that might bring about a second referendum.

There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that resources at Reporting Scotland were deployed, not to report the factual elements of the story and allow the public to decide on the merits or otherwise of what Salmond said, but to suppress elements of the Salmond interview and instead promote a narrative that damaged the SNP leadership.

london_callingGA Ponsonby is author of the book

London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum