A BBC Scotland complaint – Scots Govt “under renewed pressure” over Power Grab

Below is a complaint submitted to the BBC on Thursday April 26th.  The complaint relates to the characterisation by BBC Scotland of a failure of the UK and Scottish governments to reach an agreement on the so-called Power Grab.

 

Complaint in full

On April 24th BBC Scotland reported on the outcome of negotiations between the Scottish and UK governments with respect to the so-called Power Grab issue which saw both sides fail to reach an agreement.

That evening on the flagship TV news programme Reporting Scotland viewers heard presenter Jackie Bird introduce the item with the following words: “The Scottish government is tonight under renewed pressure to strike a deal over the return of devolved powers post Brexit after Welsh ministers reached agreement with the UK government.”

The claim from BBC Scotland that the Scottish government “was under renewed pressure” also appeared in multiple news bulletins on Radio Scotland.

 

There may be some people who feel the Scottish government is indeed under pressure and may also feel that pressure is ‘renewed’.  There will also be some who feel the UK government is under pressure and may also feel that pressure is ‘renewed’.  The BBC however ought to adopt a neutral stance.

The claim that the Scottish government is “under renewed pressure” is a subjective and partisan viewpoint and something that the BBC, as a supposedly impartial public service broadcaster, should not be doing.

BBC Scotland may argue that the decision by Welsh Labour to accept the UK government’s proposal justifies its claim that the Scottish government is ‘under renewed pressure’.  The counter argument could be made that it has always been the UK government which has been ‘under pressure’ to reach agreement with both devolved administrations and that having managed to reach agreement with only one, means that it, and not the Scottish government, is under ‘renewed pressure’.

It can thus be seen that there is more than one interpretation, in terms of pressure, of the outcome of the talks between the UK and Scottish governments.

An acknowledgement that on this occasion BBC Scotland failed in its duty to remain impartial is required.  Given this issue is very much live and current then a timely response would be in order.

 

Response from the editor of Reporting Scotland received May 4th, 2018.

There are examples across all platforms of our referring to the “Scottish Government” being “under pressure”. There are also numerous examples of our describing the “UK Government” as being “under pressure”. In other words, if one or other government is under pressure, we may say so. I do not regard that as being exceptionable.

I think it is clear to all those of our viewers, listeners and online readers who have been following this story that previously the Welsh and Scottish governments, acting in tandem in their opposition to what they both called a “power grab”, were putting effective pressure on the UK government to come up with compromises suitable for both devolved administrations. The dynamic changed when the government in Wales decided to accept terms offered by the UK government, leaving the government in Scotland isolated from their previous “tandem” position.

To suggest that in these circumstances, and on that day, the use of the phrase “the Scottish Government under pressure” is “subjective and partisan” is, I believe, unsustainable.

 

Follow up complaint submitted on May 10th

I argued that singling out the Scottish government as being “under renewed pressure” on the issue of the Westminster ‘Power Grab’ was partisan. The response from the Reporting Scotland Editor actually strengthens my argument.

She writes: “I think it is clear to all those of our viewers, listeners and online readers who have been following this story that previously the Welsh and Scottish governments, acting in tandem in their opposition to what they both called a “power grab”, were putting effective pressure on the UK government to come up with compromises suitable for both devolved administrations.”

Given that the UK Govt was able to come up with a compromise that was suitable to only one administration then it could be argued that it is the UK Govt that continues to be under pressure. It could also be argued, as I have conceded, that the Scottish Govt could be under pressure. Thus there are two valid standpoints, not one.

The Reporting Scotland Editor adds: “The dynamic changed when the government in Wales decided to accept terms offered by the UK government, leaving the government in Scotland isolated from their previous “tandem” position.”

Again, it could be argued that the Welsh Govt capitulated and the Scottish Govt ‘stood firm’. Indeed it has been argued that this is the case. It should also be noted that the Scottish Govt stance is backed by Scottish Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens as well as Plaid Cymru.  This cross party support undermines BBC Scotland’s claim that *only* the Scottish Govt can be seen as being ‘under pressure’.

Whether deliberate or not, BBC Scotland has adopted a partisan stance.  It should not have reported as unarguable fact that only the Scottish Govt was “under renewed pressure” on this issue when both parties can reasonably be portrayed as being “under renewed pressure”.

BBC Scotland really needs to accept a mistake was made and it inadvertently adopted a partisan stance on an issue of considerable constitutional importance.

 

Response from Editorial Complaints Unit received June 18th

Thank you for getting in touch with the Executive Complaints Unit and for raising your complaint about an edition of Reporting Scotland. I understand you believe that the use of the phrase ‘under renewed pressure’ to describe the position of the Scottish Government in its negotiations over the return of devolved powers, breached the BBC obligations on impartiality. In considering your complaint I have read the correspondence and watched a recording of the programme.

My starting point is that whilst the Editorial Guidelines on impartiality are clear in this area – namely that

Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area.

they also contain an important caveat

They (BBC journalists) may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence….

It seems to me that the example you cite is a good case in point. As the Programme Editor has already explained, the story on Reporting Scotland reflected the aftermath of a deal struck agreement between the UK and Welsh Governments and examined the likely implications for negotiations with Scotland.

In your email you suggest the Welsh result was likely to increase pressure on the UK. That is your opinion, but the fact that there are alternative interpretations of the facts does not mean it was wrong of journalists working on Reporting Scotland to make their own assessment. What matters is that it was a professional judgement, rooted in evidence and clearly in this case it was.

The evidence was laid out in the piece which followed and included, by way of an example, the fact that the two devolved administrations had, up to that point, worked in tandem on this issue.

For this reason I do not believe you have identified a significant breach in BBC Editorial Standards and cannot uphold your complaint.

 

Response to ECU sent June 21st

You write of my complaint: “I understand you believe that the use of the phrase ‘under renewed pressure’ to describe the position of the Scottish Government in its negotiations over the return of devolved powers, breached the BBC obligations on impartiality.”

This is a misrepresentation of my complaint. Nowhere do I claim this. Indeed throughout both my complaints I stress that it is legitimate to argue that the Scottish government may be under renewed pressure. My complaint is that it is also legitimate to argue that the UK government is under renewed pressure. BBC Scotland, by stating as absolute fact that only the Scottish government was “under renewed pressure” adopted a partisan stance.

You have thus responded to your own misinterpretation of my complaint instead of the complaint I actually made.

You also cite BBC guidelines on impartiality – specifically section 4.4.13

This section is very clearly intended for individual journalists who are engaged in providing analysis based on facts, events, comments and other variables that may lead them to a conclusion. They provide a summary for the audience.

The relevant section is actually 4.4.12 which is reproduced below.

News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument. The approach and tone of news stories must always reflect our editorial values, including our commitment to impartiality.

This complaint is very clearly not about an individual journalist or analysis. It relates to a series of news bulletins on TV and Radio where various newsreaders read out the same one-sided introductory headline [Scottish government under renewed pressure]. This was presented as indisputable fact. It wasn’t. There were ample events, opinion and arguments to suggest the alternative may in fact be the case … or that both government’s were under equal pressure.

I would therefore kindly request that you reconsider your initial response. Please confirm by close of business on Monday 25th June that you will indeed reconsider my complaint. If no such confirmation is received then I shall submit a complaint to Ofcom.

 

Second response from the ECU received June 25th

Thank you for your further email in relation to your complaint about an edition of Reporting Scotland and a script which spoke of the Scottish Government being under renewed pressure. I am afraid you have not persuaded me to change my finding but I would like to take this opportunity to respond very briefly to the points you raise.

Impartiality is at the core of your complaint and was therefore central to my response. The absence of due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument would be a breach of the impartiality Guidelines but I do not agree that is the case here. As previously explained, the BBC was entitled to make an assessment of the story, based on the available evidence, and write the introduction accordingly.

It is also misleading to take a single line in isolation. The report which followed gave due regard to all the main strands of the argument, including the view of the Scottish Government.

Overall the piece therefore met the requirements of due impartiality.

 

Complaint passed to Ofcom on June 28th

This is a two part complaint. One part is the initial complaint submitted to the BBC. The other complaint relates to the response from an official at the Editorial Complaints Unit [ECU].

First let me deal with the ECU complaint. On June 18th I received a response from the ECU after being unhappy with the response from BBC Scotland. The ECU official characterised my complaint to the BBC thus: “I understand you believe that the use of the phrase ‘under renewed pressure’ to describe the position of the Scottish Government in its negotiations over the return of devolved powers, breached the BBC obligations on impartiality.”

The ECU official went on to address this characterisation of my complaint. The problem is that this was not my complaint. As you will see from the document listing my correspondence with BBC Scotland, my complaint accepted that it was legitimate to say the Scottish government was “under renewed pressure”. My complaint was that by reporting this in isolation, BBC Scotland had unwittingly breached guidelines on impartiality. My argument was that the UK government was also viewed as being under pressure and that BBC Scotland had an obligation to report this view as well.

The ECU official misrepresented my complaint and responded to his misrepresentation of my complaint. I absolutely did not, and do not, consider the use of the phrase ‘under renewed pressure’ to describe the position of the Scottish Government as a breach of BBC guidelines on impartiality.

I would like Ofcom to acknowledge that my initial complaint was not as the ECU official characterised it, and that I have made it abundantly clear that the use of the phrase ‘under renewed pressure’ to describe the position of the Scottish Government is legitimate. My complaint is that the phrase ‘under renewed pressure’ also applies to the UK government and that this should have been reported.

If Ofcom accepts that I do not believe that the use of the phrase ‘under renewed pressure’ to describe the position of the Scottish Government in its negotiations over the return of devolved powers, breached the BBC obligations on impartiality, then it must also accept that the ECU official misrepresented my complaint. Given I asked the ECU official to reconsider his response in light of his misrepresentation, and he refused, then the misrepresentation must be considered deliberate and a rebuke issued.

If however Ofcom sides with the ECU official then we are in a situation where complaints, by any logical definition, are being deliberately misrepresented by both the ECU and Ofcom in order to avoid acknowledging a breach of guidelines with respect to impartiality.

I now come to my original complaint which applies to TV and Radio news bulletins. The section in the BBC guidelines that deals with news is reproduced below.

4.4.12
News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument. The approach and tone of news stories must always reflect our editorial values, including our commitment to impartiality.

The complaint and all responses can be viewed above. Please note when considering the complaint that prior to and subsequent to the deal with the Welsh Assembly, every political party at Holyrood, with the exception of the Conservatives, backed the Scottish government’s stance. Moreover, Jeremy Corbyn also backed the Scottish government before and after the Welsh deal. Ofcom has a choice to make. Disregard the support for the Scottish government and side with BBC Scotland’s claim that *only* the Scottish government was under renewed pressure … or acknowledge that both sides could have been said to have been under renewed pressure and that this should have been made clear in the bulletins.

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5 thoughts on “A BBC Scotland complaint – Scots Govt “under renewed pressure” over Power Grab

  1. grizebard

    The complaint is self-evidently justified. The BBC’s editorial line is demonstrably partisan here.

    As is the BBC’s usual lop-sided terminology, frequently referring to the FM by name as “Nicola Sturgeon”, unlike the PM, who gets her proper title, and the Scottish Government as “the SNP”, but never UKGov as “the Tories”.

    The likely response, though, is all too predictable.

    1. Alexandra Campbell

      I completely agree. The situation in Scotland is different from Wales as the Scottish Parliament has wider-reaching powers than the Welsh Assembly and therefore will be more concerned about legislation remaining with Westminster after Brexit.

  2. Bibbit

    Wales voted to leave the EU and is governed by a neo-con labour party which opposes more powers for the Welsh Assembly as voted for by Welsh voters.

    Indeed the Telegraph, in 2014, stated that in our lifetime, the Welsh were on course to be outnumbered by migrants from the rest of the UK which will make the Welsh a minority in Wales.

    It is therefore comparing apples with oranges to even suggest that Holyrood & Cardiff were ever on the same ‘side’ or ‘shared the same outlook’.

    It would have been electorally suicidal for the Labour in Wales to hinder Brexit, which their electorate voted for. The opposite is the case in Scotland, where the vast majority of the electorate voted to remain. It can be argued that it would be suicidal for the Scots Govt NOT to oppose Brexit (as voted for by Scotland in 2016) and the Power Grab on Devolved Powers; said powers voted for by Scotland in 1979 (but thwarted by British Labour’s criminal 40% clause).

    THis is the biggest broken vow from 2014’s Indyref1 by Westminster, to date. Scotland was told then that a vote NO would allow Holyrood to be given near fedearl powers, devo-max to become and I quote, ‘The most powerful devolved parliament in the world’.

    Instead the opposite is being attempted by Westminster. Defang the few teeth Holyrood had to protect Scotland and give us less powers. Holyrood would then become a joke talking shop with a First Minister and Scots Government completely powerless. A sham government but doubtless still blamed by the BBC and the MSM for all Scotland’s ills, until Scotland too loses its Parliament altogether and we revert back to 1999 when there was no parliament in Edinburgh. If Scotland chooses to go quietly into that long night, then hell fucking mend us.

  3. Ianmc

    Good luck with that. The BBC, being jidge and jury will merely fob you off with pish and move on to their next smear or mistruth. You can and will never win but I salute your hard work and determination in trying.

  4. Robert Graham

    Cast your mind back to the negotiations over the last budget round with Westminster ,Exactly the same mob screaming take it , its a good deal , Aye a grand Theft attempt of 3 Billion Quid that’s how good it was ,

    So please shut the Puck up thanks you were wrong then and time hasn’t improved your thought process one bit .

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