The following complaint relates to a broadcast on Good Morning Scotland which followed publication of the GERS report.
Complaint submitted on August 26th
On August 23rd Good Morning Scotland broadcast an item following the publication of the GERS report. The item featured two questions posed by BBC Scotland’s business & economy editor Douglas Fraser.
In his first question to Nicola Sturgeon, Douglas Fraser says of the notional Scottish deficit contained in GERS, “… a colosally larger deficit a small country, or any country, could sustain.”
The ‘notional’ deficit referred to is 7.9%. The claim that no country could sustain such a deficit was both misleading and inaccurate. Many countries, large and small, have indeed sustained deficits similar to or greater than 7.9%. One country was the UK, which sustained a deficit of 10.1%, 9.4%, 7.5% and 8.2% in 2009,10,11 and 12 respectively.
From 1990 to 2000, Singapore sustained a deficit which was considerably greater than 7.9% in every year. From 1980 to 1992, Belgium’s deficit was less than 7.9% in only four out of the thirteen years. Japan’s deficit was greater than 7.9% from 2009 through to 2013.
There are literally scores of examples of countries, large and small, sustaining deficits of around 7.9% for years. Those deficits, like a Scottish deficit, will rise and fall over time.
BBC Scotland will of course point out that Nicola Sturgeon was given the opportunity to respond. If this is indeed the BBC’s defence, then I would point out that this does not negate the fact that Mr Fraser stated as fact something that very clearly wasn’t. Indeed, as the BBC Scotland business & economy editor, it is his job to know such facts when putting economic questions to politicians – given that the person being questioned [and indeed listeners] will have assumed the points being made by the BBC reporter are well researched and accurate.
Response from the editor of Radio News received on Sept 14th
Thank you for your correspondence. Your comments were passed to the Editor of Radio News, who has asked that I forward his response as follows:
Thank you for being in touch about Good Morning Scotland on 23rd August, and our Business and Economy Editor’s questions to the First Minister just after the 0600 hrs bulletin within the programme.
One of Douglas Fraser’s questions was as you said. His reference to Scotland’s notional deficit not being sustainable was not challenged by the First Minister, perhaps because she agrees with it.
For example, she gave an interview published in the Guardian exactly a year before where she said (my emphasis):
“I accept that Scotland’s economy has challenges and [I] always have done,” Sturgeon said. “Yes, Scotland has a deficit and it’s a deficit we want to see reduced to sustainable levels.
“This reflects Scotland’s position under current constitutional arrangements. Of course, if Scotland is independent, getting that deficit down to sustainable levels would be the responsibility of an independent Scottish government with the challenges which are inherent in that.”
It is worth noting in the context of your complaint that she said, not “more sustainable” but “sustainable”; and that she did not demur from Douglas’s question suggests that that situation still obtains.
You point to the UK having had a larger deficit between 2009 and 2012, and that was a matter of public and political controversy. Indeed in 2010 the policy of the three then largest UK parties (Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems) at the general election was to reduce the deficit.
You also mention three foreign countries: Singapore’s economy went into recession in the mid-1980s with the government there introducing large scale government cost-cutting measures; Japan’s deficit levels between 2009 and 2013 led to snap elections and tax rises; and in the early 1980s, Belgium’s inflation rate was over 7%, long term interest rates over 13% and there was flat economic growth, job losses, and a current account deficit.
Given the above, I cannot agree with your assertion that Douglas’s question was “both misleading and inaccurate”. It was, in my view, neither.
Further complaint submitted Sept 15th
The Radio News editor says: “One of Douglas Fraser’s questions was as you said. His reference to Scotland’s notional deficit not being sustainable was not challenged by the First Minister, perhaps because she agrees with it.”
The FM may indeed agree with it. She may not agree with it. That is not the point. The point is that the reporter ought not be stating what is clearly his own opinion as fact. Fraser could have presented it as a claim by a third party, but he didn’t.
Imagine Douglas Fraser had stated that Scotland would be better off independent. The FM would no doubt agree. But that does not mean it would be appropriate for him to state it as fact.
Fraser called the notional GERS deficit “… a colosally larger deficit a small country, or any country, could sustain.”
Who says the GERS notional deficit is a “colosally large” deficit? This was clearly subjective opinion stated as fact. It was also inaccurate. Countries can indeed sustain deficits larger than this, and have done. Sustaining such deficits indefinitely is a different matter. But Fraser did not say this.
A boxer may sustain heavy blows but still emerge the winner. A car crash victim may sustain serious injuries, but return to full fitness. Large deficits, like blows or injuries, can indeed be sustained. Nations have, as the BBC Radio News Editor makes clear, taken action after sustaining such deficits.
This is important in the context of the constitutional debate. Listeners may be misled into believing an independent Scotland is not viable because we may start day one with a 7.9% deficit. Many people believe an independent Scotland could indeed sustain such a deficit. Douglas Fraser is clearly not one of them. But Douglas Fraser, as a BBC reporter, has obligations and responsibilities.