A BBC Scotland complaint – P1 assessments and bias by omission

The following complaint relates to coverage on Reporting Scotland of the Primary One assessment issue and the vote that took place in the Scottish Parliament on 19th Sept 2018.


Complaint submitted to the BBC on Sept 27th

On 18th Sept, Reporting Scotland broadcast an item on P1 assessments. The item was prompted by plans by the Scottish Tories to lodge a motion against the policy.

On 19th Sept, Reporting Scotland covered the issue again. This followed the vote in the Scottish Parliament where most MSPs backed the Scottish Tory motion.

Both items focussed heavily on the outcome of the vote. However, missing from both reports was any mention of the 2016 Scottish Tory manifesto and the party’s previous demands for P1 assessments.  The only reference to the previous Tory stance was Brian Taylor saying that “the Tories previously backed this approach”. Viewers were not told what form this ‘backing’ took.

The Scottish Tories did more than just back P1 assessments. They demanded the policy. In 2015 Ruth Davidson boasted of having forced the Scottish Govt to introduce it.

Her 2016 manifesto demanded P1 assessments adhere to international methodoligies.

Yet this information was missing from the 18th/19th Sept editions of Reporting Scotland. Viewers were not told about the 2016 Scottish Tory manifesto or shown Ruth Davidson’s previous comments.

The decision not to show clips of Davidson’s P1 assessments comments was in contrast to a report on the same programme the previous week. On 13th Sept, a month’s old clip of former health minister Shona Robison was shown on a news report and the current health minister questioned on camera.

Claims of Tory opportunism were central to the Scottish Govt defence of its P1 assessments and its response to the Tory motion. On Sept 13th, the First Minister highlighted the 2016 manifesto during FMQ’s, yet the revelation never featured on that evening’s Reporting Scotland. Nor was it shown on the 18th & 19th editions either.

The 13th Sept edition did though find time to cover an attack on independence by Vince Cable and mention an appearance that day in the House of Commons by Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson with her baby.

The refusal of Reporting Scotland to mention the 2016 manifesto and highlight Ruth Davidson’s previous comments constitutes bias by omission. There is no justifiable reason for this highly relevant information to be ommited from the flagship evening news programme.


Response from Reporting Scotland editor received Sept 14th

“Thank you for being in touch about three of our teatime editions.

You refer to those on 18th and 19th September and say they both “focussed heavily on the outcome of the vote” at Holyrood on P1 assessments.

You say the reports omitted to mention the Conservative manifesto for the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2016 “and the party’s previous demands for P1As”. You then say our programme on 13th September had a clip from the previous Cabinet Secretary for Health and clips from the current one, which you contrast with our not showing historic clips of the leader of the Scottish Conservatives on 18th and 19th September.

You further say that in that edition we “(found) time to cover an attack on independence by Vince Cable” when we did not find time to report “the First Minister (highlighting) the Scottish Conservative manifesto of 2016”.

It might perhaps be helpful to set out the context of all the points you make.

As to “focussing heavily on the vote”, we certainly reported it: as the vote was a defeat for the Scottish Government on its own programme, it was perhaps to be expected that that fact would receive some prominence.

The 2016 Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto says “The Scottish Government should commit to re-entering Scotland into all the main international comparison tests: PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS and design the new standardised tests at P1, P4 and P7 to fit into these international methodologies.”

The principal difference between then and now is that they no longer support tests in P1: as their education spokesman Liz Smith put it in the Scottish Parliament on 19th September “I know that some parties disagree with standardised assessments generally, but we support the SNP’s arguments about why they are important in terms of education and accountability. (…) It was right to introduce standardisation that provides better accountability. (…) We said in our manifesto in 2016 that primary 1 testing was part of that and we should not have argued otherwise.

“However, it is also a matter of public record that, during the intervening two years, we have on several occasions said in Parliament and in the media that we have misgivings about primary 1 tests in a way that we do not have about P4, P7 and S3 tests.” [Official Report]

All that and more will have been taken into consideration by our political staff in reporting these events. Our political editor in his report made clear that, as he put it, “The Tories previously backed this approach, but changed their minds for P1”.

He also said that the vote was not a binding vote, only advisory to ministers. He finished by saying “I do not see him [the Education Secretary] scrapping it [the P1 assessment] – which will be a big question in educational provision; perhaps also a question about parliamentary democracy”.

He was referring to the important constitutional issue which is raised when a government looks as though it may ignore a majority view in a legislature and instead continue to pursue its executive actions – in popular parlance, ignore the will of the people expressed through their parliament.

You refer to what Ruth Davidson said in 2015, arguing that we should have included it, given that we had a clip from the previous Health Secretary, Shona Robison, from earlier this year (see third paragraph above). Again, context is important.

As I said earlier, our political editor explained to our audience that the Conservatives had changed their minds about P1 assessments or tests; the inclusion of the clip you wanted would have been tautological.

The inclusion of the clip of Ms Robison was part of the story, which was that more than seventeen hundred women across Scotland aged over 71 were to be invited for breast screening after a review showed they had not been offered their final appointment. NHS screening centres were reported to be making arrangements to check the women as quickly as possible.

The review of routine appointments was carried out after problems emerged in England in May. We showed Ms Robison’s reaction to that news on 2nd May, when she told MSPs in the chamber “This issue does not affect the NHS in Scotland and patients should be reassured that there are no problems with our breast screening programme records or IT systems” – except that there were problems, as our story on 13th September explained.

The current health secretary gave us an interview in which she expressed her sorrow and regret but praised her predecessor for “very wisely” seeking to establish that there was nothing “going awry” in our system.

The use of a historic clip of the former health secretary and current clips of the present health secretary were integral to the reporting of the story. To suggest, as you appear to, equivalence between these and the Ruth Davidson clip you wanted used is, to my mind, wrong.

A further example of erroneous equivalence is your comparison of our use on 13th September of the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, with our not reporting what the First Minister was saying to MSPs about the Scottish Conservative manifesto of 2016.

We “found time” to include Mr Cable in an interview ahead of his national conference and we have carried extended interviews of leading members of all the parties, including the SNP, in the run up to their respective conferences.

If we had not “found time” for him then we could not have interviewed any of the other party chiefs ahead of their conferences because of the need for balance. The exchanges between Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson on P1 assessments were clearly not regarded on the day as having enough substance to be reported in the main edition of our programme, a view with which I happen to agree.

I should add for your future guidance that we do not rely on links to external websites with editable content – our source for all the information in this response is taken from our own reports, the Official Report of the Scottish Parliament, and other sources which command the confidence of the viewing public as to their integrity.


Follow on complaint submitted Oct 15th

This response isn’t good enough.  Viewers should have been told specifically about the 2016 Scottish Conservative manifesto demand.  Clips of Ruth Davidson making her comments from 2015 should have also have been shown.  Both the manifesto and the historic comments from Davidson were central to the story.  Viewers were denied the opportunity to see the extent of the Scottish Conservative U-turn which may have persuaded some of them to see the ‘will of parliament’ vote somewhat differently.


Response from the BBC received Oct 19th

We raised your further concerns with the Editor of Reporting Scotland who has nothing to add to the response you’ve already received.


Complaint moved on to the ECU on Oct 26th

I wish to move the following complaint onto the next stage. It relates to coverage on Reporting Scotland of the Primary One assessment issue and the vote that took place in the Scottish Parliament on 19th Sept 2018.

The thrust of the complaint is simple. The Scottish Conservatives submitted a motion which called for a policy, they themselves pledged during the 2016 Holyrood election, to be halted. In doing so they voted against their own manifesto commitment. Moreover, the party leader, Ruth Davidson, had previously publicly boasted the policy was her party’s idea. Davidson took the credit for the policy having been introduced by the Scottish government.

The motion calling for P1 assessments to be halted was a significant story and received considerable coverage on Reporting Scotland. Despite running the story over two consecutive evenings, the programme failed to make any mention of the Scottish Tory 2016 manifesto. There was also no mention of the comments made by Ruth Davidson in 2015.

A party manifesto is a contract with those who vote for the party. To literally submit a motion and request other parties vote against one of your key manifesto pledges is, in and of itself, a significant story. It should have featured on Reporting Scotland.

Both the 2016 manifesto and Ruth Davidson’s comments in 2015 were significant elements of the P1 assessment issue. The public deserved to know just how big a U-turn the motion was. Indeed it may have given some viewers cause to consider alternative motives on the part of the Scottish conservatives in submitting a motion against their own manifesto pledge.
You may of course come to the conclusion that a party submitting a motion against its own manifesto pledge is not that big a deal, and that the result of the motion vote is the only newsworthy aspect of the story.

If you are minded to reach that conclusion then ask yourself the following question … How would the BBC react if Jeremy Corbyn submitted a motion asking Theresa May and her Tory MPs to vote against one of Labour’s key manifesto pledges? Especially if Corbyn had previously demanded the policy be introduced and then boasted it had been his party’s idea? Would the manifesto pledge and comments be considered relevant to the story?


Response from the ECU received Nov 13th

I note your separate complaint about Reporting Scotland that no reference was made on 18 or 19 September to a change in Conservative party policy.

In fact in a report on 19 September in the programme, Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland Political Editor, said: “The Tories previously backed this approach but have changed their minds for Primary One”.

Although he did not refer to the 2016 party manifesto the change in policy was, in my view, indicated in a way which was sufficient to inform viewers.  I am therefore not upholding your complaint.

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5 thoughts on “A BBC Scotland complaint – P1 assessments and bias by omission

  1. Muiris

    Good journalism is ‘holding the truth to power’, keeping vested interests honest, if you like. (Hacks just repeat the press release).

    The BBC, as a ‘power’ in it’s own right, obviously needs the same treatment. Well done you.

  2. Ken J

    Strange that Ruth’s 2016 manifesto was calling for P1, P4 and P7 standardised tests to fit into the methodology of PISA.

    PISA tests are for 15 year-olds – I wonder what she expected from our children?

  3. gregor

    The omission of key context is totally unacceptable and corrupt, as well as the politically motivated intent behind it.

    Publicly unaccountable Fake News state broadcaster BBC deviant (enemy of society & journalism) is rotten to the core.

  4. Col

    I’m wondering if the Scottish parliament chamber should be enlarged to accommodate the many BBC Scotland politicians who work tirelessly opposing the Scottish government.

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