How BBC Scotland politicised the pandemic and put the Union before lives

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BBC Public Services Broadcaster - for the Union

By The Media Monitor

On Sunday, BBC Scotland news bulletins were filled with an attack on the SNP by Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham. The senior Labour party figure was angry at the First Minister’s decision to place a travel ban on people going to and from the city. Covid numbers in Manchester have been worryingly high.

Days earlier the broadcaster had made much of an Audit Scotland report that claimed Scotland’s supplies of PPE came close to running out in the early days of the pandemic. BBC Scotland headlines that day implied Scotland, alone in the UK, experienced a shortage of vital PPE at the start of the pandemic.

The truth of course is that every part of the UK, indeed the globe, experienced a similar shortage when the pandemic was in its infancy. In England they actually ran out of gowns, with some doctors having to use bin bags instead.

The Burnham attack and the PPE shortage story are typical of BBC Scotland’s coverage of the pandemic since early 2020. The broadcaster took a decision, quite early on, to politicise Covid for fear trust in Nicola Sturgeon would lead to an increase in support for independence. This decision has meant coverage of Covid by the BBC’s Scottish branch has been heavily politicised, some would say colonialised.

In March 2020, when Covid was in its infancy, the broadcaster initially adopted a genuine public service stance. Daily briefings were broadcast and factual information circulated. The prime minister and first minister jostled for attention.

The prevailing view at the time was that people would lean on the broad shoulders of the Union. That’s what normally happened in times of crisis wasn’t it? What actually happened was that folk contrasted the bombast and confusion of the UK PM with the clear matter-of-fact messaging of Scotland’s FM.

Public trust in Nicola Sturgeon started growing, as did support for independence. The more she appeared in front of the camera the more her qualities as a leader shone. Meanwhile Boris bumbled and stammered his way through the early days. No plan, no idea and no leadership. ‘Let the virus spread’ and ‘Take it on the chin’ was his key message in March 2020.

He later boasted that he had shaken hands with everyone in a hospital ward which contained patients who had Covid.

The Union was sinking along with his credibility. Something had to be done. Protecting the Union, and not public health, thus became the priority for BBC Scotland. Its brief role as a genuine public service broadcaster screeched to a sudden halt. The pandemic was about to be politicised.

Evidence of this appeared on April 8th 2020. The broadcaster had ‘obtained’ a letter apparently signed by hundreds of doctors that accused the Scottish government of failing to supply PPE equipment. The letter had been coordinated by a GP named Dr Shahzad Hanif.

Dr Hanif appeared on Good Morning Scotland where he was invited to expand on the criticisms contained in the letter.

He appeared later that evening on Reporting Scotland and repeated the same criticisms. It painted the Scottish Government in a very bad light. PPE was the first line of defence for front line workers yet here was an unimpeachable source claiming Scottish front line workers were being put at risk.

However all was not as it appeared. The story was undermined when it emerged that Hanif was the brother-in-law of Scottish Labour MSP Anas Sarwar. It further emerged that in Sept 2015 Dr Hanif had taken part in a Scottish Labour NHS campaign [http://archive.is/kOIxm] that had attacked “the nationalist government”.

The ‘letter’ had all the hallmarks of a stunt. BBC Scotland, by refusing to reveal the GP’s connections to Scottish Labour and Scottish Labour MSP Anas Sarwar, ensured it had maximum impact.

The letter was only the beginning. More followed. BBC Scotland began comparing Scotland’s Covid response unfavourably with England. The first sign of this emerged on April 9th 2020 when Reporting Scotland covered the impact of the pandemic on the vulnerable.

The ‘England better’ comparison became a recurring theme of BBC Scotland coverage.

Any proposals emanating from Boris Johnson’s government were picked up and promoted with a positive spin in Scotland. The Scottish government was presented as either lagging behind or just plain wrong and causing ‘confusion’.

It didn’t help of course that BBC Scotland routinely headlined measures intended for England. On one occasion the broadcaster actually cut away from the First Minister’s Daily Briefing to broadcast an announcement on English Covid restrictions from Boris Johnson. The English Covid guidelines were then repeated by the BBC Scotland presenter as though intended for Scotland.

BBC Scotland went one better some months later when it cut away from the First Minister’s live briefing to go to Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross. The episode followed threats from the BBC that it intended to cease broadcasting the Scottish daily briefings completely. Following a public outcry the BBC was forced into a U-turn. The cut-away was a compromise to Unionists unhappy that public trust in Nicola Sturgeon’s pandemic messaging was strong. They wanted to undermine it and BBC Scotland obliged.

Arguably the most reprehensible politicising of an issue by BBC Scotland was care homes, or to be more precise, care home deaths.

Early on in the pandemic it became clear that society’s most vulnerable were succumbing to Covid in worryingly high numbers. Initially the tragedies were reported as just that, blameless tragedies. Covid was still a relatively unknown virus and governments around the globe were struggling to contain its spread. However it wasn’t long before BBC Scotland politicised the issue.

On April 13th Good Morning Scotland covered the care home tragedy. Invited onto the programme to discuss the situation was the chairman of Renaissance Care, Robert Kilgour. Kilgour laid the blame firmly at the feet of Nicola Sturgeon’s administration.

However, as with the letter stunt, all was not as it seemed. It emerged that this care home owner wasn’t the impartial commentator BBC Scotland would have us believe.

Kilgour had strong links to the Scottish Conservative party. He was a party donor and had also stood as a Conservative candidate in the UK general election in 1997 and was a a pro-Union activist. None of this had been mentioned on Good Morning Scotland.

Care homes became a political football. Unionist politicians began appearing on BBC Scotland attacking the Scottish Government’s handling of care homes. One issue dominated their attacks – the decision to discharge patients into care homes from hospital.

What BBC Scotland refused to reveal was that Unionists themselves had demanded these patients be discharged faster to free up hospital beds.

In the early days of the pandemic there was a fear the NHS could be overwhelmed by the virus. Delayed discharges, also known as bed blockers, had long been a problem across the UK. In late March and Early April, Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservatives repeatedly demanded these elderly patients be discharged from hospital faster.

And there was good reason for their demands. In the early days of the pandemic the UK Government had published advice that said discharging hospital patients into care homes carried no risk, even if they had Covid.
The Scottish Tories went as far as demanding Scotland’s health secretary resign for making an honest mistake during a briefing when she gave an incorrect number for hospital discharges, mixing up discharges into private homes with discharges into care homes.

The care home attacks soon morphed into a more ghoulish political weapon. The BBC began circulating a lie that Scotland had the highest death rates of care home residents in the UK. The lie ran for months and was repeated by a string of senior BBC presenters.

But the BBC already knew they were promoting a lie. As early as April 21st former BBC Scotland reporter Ken Macdonald had already revealed England’s care home death rate was artificially low.

Official figures published by the Office of National Statistics would eventually show Scotland’s death rate for care home residents was indeed lower than England’s. The lie that it is higher is still being circulated to this day.

BBC Scotland was not beyond promoting lies about comments Nicola Sturgeon had made in a bid at bolstering an anti-SNP narrative. On April 27th Good Morning Scotland presenter Laura Maxwell did just that a day after the First Minister gave an interview with Andrew Marr. So bad were the twisting of her words by the media that Nicola Sturgeon was forced to confront it in her briefing the next day.

May 18th 2020 witnessed an audacious attempt by BBC Scotland to claim that the UK’s Covid pandemic started in Scotland and that the Scottish Govt had instigated a coverup of the initial outbreak. It was nonsense, but such was the desperation to undermine Nicola Sturgeon that the smear featured on Reporting Scotland over multiple days.

The ‘Nike Coverup’ smear was an appalling piece of corrupt journalism. It actually ran for days with reporters and presenters lending credence to something they must have known was literally unbelievable. There were actually attempts by opponents of the SNP to claim that the Nike conference was the source of the UK pandemic.

BBC Scotland wasn’t so keen on running a story that broke in May 2020 after some care homes revealed they were not receiving PPE equipment from suppliers south of the border. It emerged the UK Government had effectively sequestered the PPE for NHS England. Later that month Scottish Health Secretary Jeanne Freeman revealed that the UK Foreign Office had also told foreign companies not to supply PPE to the devolved administrations.

BBC Scotland’s desperation to arrest the growing popularity of Nicola Sturgeon, who was continuing to impress, continued apace. On June 11th 2020, former Scottish Labour leader Jack McConnell suddenly appeared on the broadcaster attacking the Scottish government over schools. The target of unelected McConnell’s political ire was the ‘Blended Learning’ model. His attack dominated BBC Scotland’s online and broadcast news coverage.

Something rather odd then happened. So-called grass-roots organisations suddenly emerged. Parents appeared on BBC Scotland TV and Radio attacking the Scottish government plans to maintain education.

But something didn’t feel right. Who were these ‘worried parents’ whose views just happened to chime with the attack lines coming from McConnell and other Unionists? A quick check revealed all was not as it appeared. Many of these ‘worried parents’ had very strong links to Unionist parties.

‘Worried parent’ Michael Marra appeared on Good Morning Scotland. It later emerged Marra had links to Scottish Labour. He’s now a Scottish Labour MSP. ‘Worried parent’ Jenny Stanning also appeared on Radio Scotland. We discovered Stanning was the former PR for the Scottish Lib Dems. ‘Worried parent’ Sarah Chisnal had links to Scottish Labour.

The most outrageous example involved the ‘worried parent’ who appeared on Reporting Scotland on June 16th. Alison Payne had already appeared on the flagship morning news programme Good Morning Scotland the day before and was allowed to attack the Scottish government. When she appeared on Reporting Scotland the very next day we did a bit of digging.

What BBC Scotland hadn’t revealed was that Payne was once a Political Adviser to former Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie. And there was more. Payne, then Alison Miller, had stood for the Scottish Conservatives in the 2007 council elections.

Passing off former party candidates and activists as ordinary ‘worried parents’ continued right into 2021. On February 16th 2021 Sarah Chisnall appeared on Reporting Scotland attacking the Scottish Govt’s post-Lockdown preparation for schools. She was presented as the spokesperson for a little known group called ’50/50 in school’. She had already appeared on BBC Scotland in June 2020.

Again we smelled a rat. We quickly established that there was a bit more to this ‘mother of two’ than the BBC was mentioning.
We discovered Chisnall was a member of the Labour party who only months earlier had tweeted her delight at Keir Starmer becoming the new Labour leader.

We also discovered that Sarah Chisnall had good reason to dislike the SNP. Her husband had been unseated by the SNP in the 2015 general election.

Another spokesperson for the group was Janis McCulloch. Ms McCulloch also had strong links to the Scottish Labour party having been Head of the Parliamentary Office for former Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson.

’50-50 in schools’ may well have been a genuine parents group set up with the sole intention of helping children obtain quality home learning during a pandemic. However BBC Scotland had concealed facts about two key figures.

It was clear that BBC Scotland was running to an agenda. The agenda was to use every means possible to undermine confidence in Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic. Her daily briefings had been compromised and Unionist politicians were regularly attacking whatever new announcement was made.

Everything became a political weapon. The enemy wasn’t the virus but the SNP. Unionist politicians were allowed to attack Scottish Government measures despite their own parties implementing the same measures south of the border.

The 2020 exam episode was a case in point when both the Scottish Tories and Scottish Labour attacked the system used by the Scottish Government in absence of exam results. It didn’t matter to BBC Scotland that the moderation system was identical to the one being used by the Tories in England and by Labour in Wales. The agenda, as with care home deaths, was to present Scotland as being uniquely chaotic.

So widespread was the anti-SNP agenda that reporters began passing off their own jaundiced views as news. The BBC’s Scotland editor, Sarah Smith, has had to issue apologies on twitter more than once after being caught reporting falsehoods about Nicola Sturgeon. Unlike Smith’s fake allegations, which were broadcast to millions on prime time TV, her apologies were never broadcast.

And so its been for the last twelve months as BBC Scotland has continued to present Scotland in as negative light as it can with respect to Covid. You’ll never hear a BBC Scotland reporter acknowledging Scotland has the lowest Covid death rate in Britain throughout the period of the pandemic.

You will though hear them imply Scotland has a higher death rate than in England by selectively comparing a period that allows them to.

The emergence of the Delta variant, known to have originated in India, didn’t result in any headline criticism of Boris Johnson by BBC Scotland for refusing to put India on the travel ‘Red List’. BBC Scotland instead platformed figures from the travel industry who accused the Scottish Government of campaigning against the travel industry when it urged people not to travel.

BBC Scotland has gone full colonial with respect to the pandemic. It’s almost certainly caused confusion by mixing UK Government announcements with Scottish Government announcements. Scotland is always presented as slower to implement Covid measures, such as vaccinations. The Scottish Government is either too reckless, as in the case of the Glasgow Euro 2020 fan zone, or too cautious as in the case of easing restrictions for hospitality. That England and Wales have fan zones and virtually identical restrictions on hospitality counts for nothing. Unionists are allowed to attack the Scottish Government.

BBC Scotland, or ‘Colonial Quay’ as its been dubbed by some, has been responsible for applying pressure on the Scottish Government to ease restrictions faster than was safe to do so and then platforming political attacks on the Government when cases rose as a result. It platforms attacks on whatever Covid measure is announced by the First Minister. It has destroyed Scotland’s early ‘society first’ community spirit.

This article contains a mere snapshot of the overwhelming body of evidence that shows BBC Scotland has been using Covid to attack and undermine Nicola Sturgeon. To have covered all of the examples would require to write a book.

BBC Scotland isn’t Scottish in the same way as Amazon or Ikea aren’t Scottish. It is, and always will be, a branch of a London controlled broadcaster. It’s job is to promote and defend the Union. Nothing, not even a pandemic, will change that. It placed the Union before lives.