A Newsnet Scotland editorial
The constitutional debate is off and running in earnest.
London and Edinburgh are currently locking horns as the fight for control of Scotland heats up – this is a no holds barred contest and it’s winner takes all.
It’s already turned into a bitter war of words as claim and counter claim vie for supremacy.
The Scotsman and Daily Record have nailed their colours firmly to the Unionist mast, the Herald appears less sure, but one thing can be stated with confidence and that is that no media outlet in Scotland will support independence.
We can all vote with our wallet as far as the newspapers are concerned, however there is no such right when it comes to the BBC. Own a device capable of receiving a TV signal and London will demand £145.50 from you … with a threat of conviction if you refuse.
Given this ‘TV tax’, it is incumbent on our national broadcaster to provide us with fair, balanced and informative news free of bias and devoid of manipulation.
With Scotland gearing up for what is undoubtedly the most important debate in the nation’s history, the role of the BBC has never been more important – the responsibilities on the state broadcaster have never been more apparent.
This week saw former BBC Head Jeremy Peat call for more Scottish focussed content on BBC national news programmes. Peat’s call for more Scottish tailored news follows the decision by BBC Scotland to axe two news and current affairs programmes.
The decision to get rid of Derek Bateman’s Newsweek is one of the most incredulous decisions ever taken by those currently running BBC Scotland.
However it isn’t the dumbing down of news and current affairs, or the ever increasing tabloidisation of BBC Scotland that causes most concern. The real issue as far as Pacific Quay is concerned is the growing manipulation of news – political news.
Newsnet Scotland has been monitoring recent output from BBC Scotland and the results do not give cause for optimism – BBC Scotland is in trouble, and if it continues unabated then the broadcaster may well turn the constitutional debate into a one-sided travesty.
A London designed template forged in the nineties amid expectations of a continuous line of Labour/Lib Dem administrations is slowly buckling under the unexpected rise in support for the SNP.
Unable to deal with this unforeseen change in the Scottish body politic, BBC Scotland in some areas at least, appears to be succumbing to the worst excesses of its once well camouflaged Unionist leanings.
Below are three examples of this corrosion and the news manipulation that is being repackaged and presented to an unwitting electorate starved of information, facts and objective debate for literally decades.
The first example relates to a story that Newsnet Scotland broke on the 24th January.
The story involved a Conservative peer who added three extraordinary amendments to the Scotland Bill as it passed through the House of Lords.
The amendments sought to deny the Scottish people any say in their constitutional future by insisting that any Yes vote in the referendum would only be binding if the rest of the UK agreed in another UK wide poll.
The unelected Tory peer also called for legislation to be brought forward that could have resulted in a Northern Ireland style partition of Scotland.
If Scotland voted Yes to independence then, unless the islands of Orkney and Shetland agreed with the national vote then they were to be brought under London control along with the rocky outcrop known as Rockall – once claimed for Westminster, the vast oil, gas and renewable reserves surrounding the regions would no longer belong to Scotland.
A big story? Definitely; Controversial? Absolutely; Deserving of coverage? We thought so, and so surprisingly did BBC Scotland.
Here’s how BBC Scotland reported the Conservative politicians plan to grab Scotland’s natural resources and neuter the Scottish electorate:
Seventeen seconds is all it warranted. No mention of Rockall and no mention of the second UK wide referendum. Almost as bad as the glaring omissions was the way that the partitioning of Scotland was carefully presented as though the islanders were being offered a right.
Also conspicuous by its absence was any mention of the oil, gas and renewable resources that would be lost to Scotland.
The only possible explanation for this clear manipulation of the story is that the BBC knew that it would not play well with a Scottish electorate – thus, the parts of the story that could not be repackaged were simply ignored and the Orkney – Shetland aspect was sanitised and reworked.
The second example is the suppression of the Samsung renewables investment.
The announcement by Samsung Heavy Industries that they would be investing £100 million in the Scottish renewables sector was a huge story by any standards.
The Scottish government is promoting Scotland’s vast green energy resources heavily against a backdrop of Unionist claims that companies are wary about investing in Scotland due to the referendum.
The size of the investment, £100 million, makes it one of the biggest commitments in Scotland to date with the possibility of 500 jobs being created.
However BBC Scotland managed to contrive to create a renewables news item on Reporting Scotland that gave the impression that it had been a bad day for Scotland’s green energy ambitions.
Published that very day was a report from a body called the UK Committee on Climate Change.
The report contained the following:
"Our assessment of progress to date against milestones for 2020 suggests that good progress has been made on investment in renewable electricity, with capacity being added at a rate in recent years that is consistent with meeting the likely capacity required to meet targets by 2020. Preparations for CCS are progressing, and delivery against renewable heat is currently ahead of the indicative trajectory towards 2020."
The report was constructive and included a view from the report authors that the Scottish government would have to implement some new policies if the ambitious climate change targets were to be achieved. It was a fair enough assessment, positive in tone and containing honest qualified opinions - nothing more.
However, here is how BBC Scotland used the report in order to turn excellent news on Scotland's renewables industry and the ambitious carbon reduction targets - into bad news. Look out for Raymond Buchanan’s unnecessary snide remark at the end of his presentation.
The investment and jobs boost is squeezed inside an item that is wholly negative about Scotland's carbon emissions goals, the positive aspects of the report are simply ignored.
The impact of the Samsung investment is lost as negativity and doom pervades the item.
The equivalent investment in England would have been £1.2 billion – it is unthinkable that the national broadcaster would have treated such an announcement of inward investment in the same appalling lopsided manner.
The press release that accompanied the report can be viewed here: http://downloads.theccc.org.uk.s3.amazonaws.com/Scottish%20report/Scottish%20...
The full report can be viewed here: http://www.theccc.org.uk/reports/scottish-report
Read the press release and the full report, and then compare it to what appeared on Reporting Scotland.
Finally, Fred Goodwin and the BBC Scotland agenda
When the Fred Goodwin broke at the start of the week it was apparent to anyone with an ounce of common sense that this was a populist manoeuvre by a UK coalition under pressure, it was designed to deflect attention from Cameron’s EU U-turn, the faltering economy and anger over public sector cuts.
The story was seized upon by a news media who knew that the former high-flying banker was an easy target, they knew what the outcome was likely to be and Cameron didn’t disappoint.
In London, Miliband and Cameron traded verbal blows over Fred’s knighthood and all was dutifully reported by the press and broadcast media.
In Scotland though, something strange happened when First Minister Alex Salmond attempted to put forward his own views on the matter.
An interview with BBC Scotland heard the First Minister suggest the stripping of the knighthood was an attempt to divert attention from bad news. Mr Salmond also suggested that there were people currently sitting in the House of Lords at least as deserving as Mr Goodwin of having their titles stripped.
Goodwin and Alex Salmond
This was the main thrust of Mr Salmond’s recorded statement, and in keeping with their overall coverage with regards the other leaders, one would have expected BBC Scotland to report the First Minister’s concerns.
However that’s not what happened. Instead the BBC chose to ignore Mr Salmond’s comments regarding the knighthood loss and focussed entirely on an answer to a question posed by the BBC interviewer.
Mr Salmond was asked about a letter he sent to Mr Goodwin in May 2007. In the short letter Mr Salmond wished Mr Goodwin, then the RBS Chief, good luck in his bid to acquire Dutch bank ABN Amro and said that it was in Scotland’s interest for RBS to be successful.
It was before the banking crash and few people were predicting the cataclysm that was about to unfold – the letter was not controversial.
In the end, the consortium that included RBS, Santander and Dutch-Belgian group Fortis outbid Barclay’s Bank for ABN and the rest is history.
The first suggestion that BBC Scotland were up to something came in an online article headlined: ‘Alex Salmond regrets past support for banker Fred Goodwin’.
A read through the article though and one finds nowhere that Mr Salmond says this. Indeed a video alongside the piece shows Mr Salmond suggesting that people with criminal convictions ought to be looked at with regards to removing honours.
The First Minister also suggests that the decision is more about diverting from bad economic news than about preserving the integrity of the honours system. It’s only an edited section at the end that hears Mr Salmond say that with the benefit of hindsight that they would have done things differently – a reference to the period before the banking collapse.
Here is what Mr Salmond actually says:
“If we all had our time again we'd look at things differently. I think there are very few people who can justifiably say that they anticipated the full extent of the financial collapse - the financial crisis.
I mean I know some people claim they did but I think if you examine the record you'll find there's very few people on the planet - and I am certainly not one of them - who anticipated it.
So, yeah, of course, if we had the benefit of hindsight we'd do things differently and I am sure that is true of lots and lots of people.”
But BBC Scotland, rather than focus on the thrust of Mr Salmond’s remarks, which were pertinent, instead chose to adopt a very subjective headline using a word that Mr Salmond does not use ‘regret’.
So brazen is BBC Scotland’s manipulation of the interview that even arch-Unionist Alan Cochrane questions the BBC’s interpretation of Mr Salmond’s remarks, pointing out that he never used the word.
As ever, by the time the interview made Reporting Scotland, it had been edited to such a degree that the First Minister’s criticisms of the UK coalition and the honours system were missing. Jackie Bird tells the viewer that Mr Salmond has "told BBC Scotland he regretted his previous support ...".
So, a story that started with Fred Goodwin losing a knighthood was turned into an attack on Alex Salmond by BBC Scotland.
The issue was relevant of course, and no-one would deny that Mr Salmond’s letter was a pertinent part of the story, but surely not to the exclusion of his other remarks that were, if anything, more relevant and equally significant.
The First Minister had made some justifiable comments relating to some Lords who might be deemed not fit to hold honours – Labour and Tory peers with criminal convictions spring to mind.
However, BBC Scotland felt that these comments ought to be airbrushed out of the flagship teatime news, and so it was that most Scots who rely on reporting Scotland for their daily roundup of the day’s events ended up with a deliberately one sided and damaging image of Salmond.
Here’s the deal, it isn’t the BBC’s role to cherry pick parts of an interview in order to set the political agenda. Their job is to report what is said, and if needs be, hold all politicians to account on our behalf.
If the SNP is to have past ‘weaknesses’ over the Fred Goodwin affair paraded on national TV then we need to see objectivity and balance and parade Labour’s weaknesses on the same show and submit their leaders to the same scrutiny.
Jack (now lord) McConnell pushed for Goodwin to receive a knighthood and Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling held several meetings with the banker and also sought his advice. Mr Goodwin was held in high esteem by very many people.
Finally, and still on the subject of Mr Goodwin and the knighthood we come to First Minister’s Questions and Radio Scotland’s Sarah Paterson.
Below is a recording of Ms Paterson as she introduced her item on FMQs on Thursday evening at teatime. Note her opening remark in which she claims that Mr Salmond’s letter to Mr Goodwin was sent “at the height” of the banking crisis.
Now, it could be that Sarah Paterson doesn’t know when the banking crisis was at its height, but even a BBC Scotland presenter ought to know that it happened after the acquisition of ABN Amro and not before.
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