Mystery surrounds the whereabouts of a huge sum of money after it suddenly vanished into thin air.
The sum, thought to be in the region of £1.3 billion, was highlighted by the Scottish government’s finance secretary John Swinney on the afternoon of Wed 23rd June. However by six o’clock that evening there was virtually no trace of the money and instead a loan of £180,000 had appeared in its place.
Concerned members of the public have reacted with fury with some alleging that the notorious Glasgow outfit ‘The Pacific Quay Mob’, headed by godfather Brian ‘Toodle-oo’ Taylor, are behind the money’s disappearance. The organisation is thought to be heavily involved in ‘organised news’ in and around Scotland .......
OK, enough of the joking; just what are we on about here?
Well, last Wednesday the annual Government Expenditure for Scotland Report (GERS) revealed that for the fourth successive year Scotland ran a budgetary surplus, or to put it into simple terms Scotland generated more money than she spent - £1.3 billion more to be precise. This meant that a Scotland with full control over its own finances would have had £1.3 billion MORE to spend this year than it has. Indeed, if we go back four years then the nation would have had a tidy £3.5 billion more.
And here’s the rub, the £1.3 billion INCLUDES Scotland’s share of the cash cost of bailing out the banks - Northern Rock, HBOS and RBS.
So what was the point of the jokey intro?
Well, this staggering news was virtually ignored by BBC Scotland in its main news bulletins that day and beyond. The state broadcaster decided that the biggest political story that day was an eleventh hour loan of £180,000 made last year to the company organising ‘The Gathering’ which was the centrepiece event of ‘The Homecoming’ celebrations.
The news of the surplus is staggering for two reasons:
The first of course is that for the last few weeks the political landscape has been dominated by the huge debt left behind by Labour. Scotland faces unprecedented cuts to her block grant from London and there are very real concerns over the impact to public services and jobs.
The second is that for as long as anyone can remember, the main thrust of Labour’s attacks on the SNP and/or independence is that Scotland could not support herself, that we rely on subsidies from Westminster in order to survive.
The revelation that Scotland has been consistently generating more money than she spent was therefore very significant.
So, how did the BBC actually report the news that day?
Newsnet Scotland decided to have a look and we began with BBC Scotland’s main radio programme ‘Newsdrive’. The programme is broadcast weekdays between 4 o’clock and 6 o’clock in the afternoon and will be the first port of call for many Scots travelling home from work.
Incredibly the Newsnet Scotland team were unable to find any reference whatsoever to the £1.3 Scottish surplus within the two hour period (1). However there was extensive coverage of the £180,000 ‘Gathering’ loan within minutes of the programme starting.
For the next two hours other references to the 'Gathering' loan were made and the language adopted is similar in tone to that heard in the clip.
The next stop was BBC Scotland’s prime time news programme ‘Reporting Scotland’. This time the programme covered both items but prominence went to the loan story, it was first on the bill, with the £1.3 billion surplus relegated to a poor second place.
Here is how they reported the loan:
Here is how they reported the surplus:
So, quite a difference in coverage with three times as much air time given over to a £180,000 loan than to Scotland’s £1,300,000,000 surplus. Even the 43 seconds allotted to the surplus contained no clips of John Swinney’s actual words whereas Labour’s Andy Kerr’s direct response to the figures was broadcast.
So, if you were one of the vast majority of Scots who rely on the prime time radio or TV broadcasts from the BBC for your news and current affairs information then you would have been lucky to notice the £1.3 billion story; certainly the few moments it received on Reporting Scotland would have given the impression that it was not particularly significant.
If the prime time TV coverage was questionable then the discussions on that evening’s Newsnight Scotland were even more bizarre. The programme began with a clip of John Swinney’s response to the UK emergency budget, this time the clip actually included the finance secretary’s remarks about the £1.3 billion surplus, albeit truncated.
However, any hopes that we might actually have some decent analysis of this surplus and a debate on the merits or otherwise of full fiscal autonomy were to be dashed. The programme contented itself with an interview with John Swinney followed by another with COSLA’s Pat Watters where both guests were basically asked how Scotland could best administer the soon to be reduced block grant.
If ever there was a time for mature debate on Scotland’s fiscal position then this was surely it, the £1.3 billion surplus should have been the catalyst for such a discussion.
Even the BBC Scotland website marginalised the massive national surplus story and gave over the lead story position to the 'Gathering' loan; by the following day the surplus story had disappeared from the website. The ‘Gathering’ loan still featured at the top, having been the subject of questions to the First Minister on Thursday by all three opposition leaders. How fortuitous of BBC Scotland to have led with that very story the previous day.
Marginalised, suppressed and all but ignored, this uncomfortable surplus revelation was a political hot potato that the news vendors in Scotland could not get rid of quickly enough. What coverage there had been was limited by the BBC and manipulated by our newspapers.
Here are the headlines from the three main titles:
Scotland would be £1.3bn in black with North Sea oil money, says SNP
Independent Scotland would face £4bn deficit.. even allowing for North Sea oil, say Labour
Swinney accused of skewing figures to show gain
That The Herald headline is arguably worse than the Daily Record's is an indication of the direction the once great newspaper is taking.
However back to the BBC:
Newsdrive, Reporting Scotland and Newsnight all disappointed with their refusal to provide any worthwhile coverage of the surplus story. The first two compounded this decision by over hyping a relatively insignificant matter of an eleventh hour £180,000 loan to a company charged with staging an event of national importance that ended up generating £10 million for the Scottish economy.
The loan story highlighted the impact that the companies ultimate collapse had on small businesses and needed to be covered. However to suggest that this was even close to the impact that 'losing' £1.3 billion would have is stretching credulity. How many jobs and services could an extra £1.3 billion have saved? Surely it was incumbent on the state broadcaster to at least acknowledge that there are options available to the nation other than simply administering a block grant year after year?
However we did find one oasis of information and balanced analysis of the £1.3 billion surplus and it came from one Brian Taylor. On the evening of the 23rd, the BBC Scotland’s political editor made the following radio broadcast at around 10:10 PM.
Question is why such an important piece of balanced and informative journalism was tucked away on a late night radio programme? Surely this was deserving of a more widespread audience?
Before we all start to applaud Mr Taylor’s evident journalistic integrity and his excellent analytical skills it is worth mentioning that his Friday afternoon live debate (also on radio) carried not one mention of the £1.3 billion surplus. It did though contain a question on the 'Gathering' loan - now there's a surprise.
So there you have it, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday had a loan of £180,000 dominate the Scottish national news whilst a £1.3 billion loss to Scotland vanished faster than Stephen Purcell.
We leave you with this clip from another Radio Scotland broadcast ‘Call Kaye’. The caller speaking is one Richard Murphy.
1. Newsnet Scotland listened to a recording of the Newsdrive programme, if the live programme contained any mention of the surplus we will be happy to add a reference to it in this article. The news that followed the Newsdrive programme did contain a small item that mentioned the £1.3 billion surplus.
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