A BBC Scotland complaint: The anti-Sturgeon interview and a conflict of interest

The following complaint relates to an interview and subsequent news bulletins broadcast on Radio Scotland on July 15th.

 

Complaint submitted on July 22nd

On Sunday July 15th Good Morning Scotland broadcast an interview between journalist Pennie Taylor and Professor David Kerr.  The lengthy interview fuelled news bulletins that criticised First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.  An example of one of the bulletins can be heard here.

 

The first part of this complaint relates to the interview itself or more precisely the interviewer.  Although Ms Taylor’s links to Prof. Kerr’s 2005 report were mentioned, they were not explored in depth or scrutinised – nor where her own views on the thirteen year old report.

Ms Taylor assisted the National Framework Advisory Group chaired by Prof. Kerr, facilitating local meetings and helping with newsletters as part of its communications team.  There was thus a very clear conflict of interest in allowing Ms Taylor to interview Prof. Kerr on a report and process both were involved in.

Having listened to Ms Taylor’s interview, it was clear she sympathised with much of what Prof. Kerr had to say.  Indeed some of her questions were clearly loaded, inviting the academic to agree with his interviewer.

In allowing Ms Taylor to interview Prof. Kerr, and including her own views on Nicola Sturgeon in subsequent news bulletins, BBC guidelines on conflict of interest appear to have been breached.

The second part of the complaint relates to Prof. Kerr’s past political allegiances and views.  Touched on in the interview were his informal friendships with senior Labour figures.  Not mentioned was his formal activities which included campaigning for Labour in 2001.  In 2010 he backed David cameron’s Tory party, telling The Times newspaper: “[The Tories] are more committed to the NHS that we love and understand as free at the point of access and offering universal care. Only that degree of certainty would convince me to go and work for them.”

In 2007, months after the SNP took office for the first time, he attacked the saving of A&E departments, describing the decision as “emotional and irrational”.  He is thus not someone who should be presented as politically neutral.

BBC Scotland made an error in allowing Prof. Kerr to be presented as neutral and then broadcasting his views within news bulletins that made no mention of his political past.  The public were thus misled.

Finally, news bulletin claims that the interview can be heard on BBC iPlayer were false.

 

The programme has never appeared on BBC iPlayer.  Again, listeners have been misled.

 

Response from the Editor of Radio News, received August 02

In the intro to her interview with Ms Taylor, Laura Maxwell said that “health journalist Pennie Taylor followed the process and took part in the consultations”. In the interview she asked “What part did you play?” to which Ms Taylor responded “I was asked to lead or facilitate the public meetings that were held in communities up and down Scotland”.

And in her own interview with Professor Kerr Ms Taylor said “You and I worked together on a series of public meetings that were held to discuss your thinking. What did those meetings bring to the process?” So we made very clear that Ms Taylor had been involved. That was the whole point – that she had facilitated a large number of meetings where she witnessed the interchange of ideas, criticisms, suggestions and so on which were aired as part of the discussion with the people of Scotland, and therefore brought to her contribution to the programme a unique perspective.

Broadcast journalists are often asked by public and private bodies to chair and manage large discussions, question-and-answer sessions and so on because they have the rare quality of considerable experience in so doing. There is an added bonus, that broadcast journalists may have a private view (most people do of most things) but they do not express it.

Having listened again to the interview, I can say that that was the case here. It follows that there can be no ‘conflict of interest’ when any association with proceedings leading to a report published thirteen years before are declared and when there is no suggestion that the person in question contributed to what the report said.

You say “it was clear she sympathised with much of what Professor Kerr had to say, indeed some of her questions were loaded”. That is your opinion and I do not agree with it. You refer to Pennie Taylor’s “own views on Nicola Sturgeon in subsequent news bulletins”. You do not name them so I have taken the 1000 hrs radio bulletin that day as an example, in which she says that when the SNP got into power, “Nicola Sturgeon was the first Health Secretary under that administration, the plans were changed and key parts of the Kerr Report were not implemented”. That is a statement of fact, not her “own views of Nicola Sturgeon”.

The second part of your complaint refers to “Professor Kerr’s past political allegiances and views”. Insofar as he may have had any, they are irrelevant to his appearance on the programme on 15th July this year. As the author of a report which recommended a course of action with certain Accident & Emergency clinics which was rejected by the incoming SNP government (replacing the outgoing Labour/Lib Dem government) it is hardly news that he was critical of their action – or, in this case, inaction. I can therefore set no store on your argument that the public were misled about anything to do with this interview. We said on the programme “You can download our new weekend podcast which included the long interview from the BBC iPlayer page.” You can access both the interview with Pennie Taylor and hers with Professor Kerr at this link https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06fp44r.

 

Follow up complaint submitted on August 12th.

Having listened to the interview again, it is obvious that Pennie Taylor should not have been allowed to interview Professor Kerr. There was a very clear conflict of interest. Her questions at times were not just loaded, but expressed a point of view. Professor Kerr’s poliical past *should* have been made clear. The Good Morning Scotland team should acknowledge these criticisms and apologise.

 

Response received from the BBC on August 17th

We have discussed your comments with the Editor, Radio News who has nothing further to add.
For this reason I’m afraid we cannot correspond with you further at this first stage of the complaints process.

 

Complaint submitted to the Editorial Complaints Unit on Sept 02.

Pennie Taylor assisted the National Framework Advisory Group chaired by Prof. Kerr. She should never have been allowed to interview the academic. There is an obvious conflict of interest here. Some of her questions were very clearly leading. Below is an edited clip of Ms Taylor’s introductory comments and the questions she asked.

 

Response received on Sept 27th

Thank you for your email of 2 September about an item in Good Morning Scotland.

You had complained about an interview by Pennie Taylor with Professor David Kerr.

You considered that the BBC should have recognised a conflict of interest on her part in interviewing Professor Kerr about the health plan he drew up  for a  previous Labour controlled Scottish government.

You alleged that her questions expressed a point of view, although you did not give examples in your complaint.

You state also that Ms Taylor expressed her “views on Nicola Sturgeon in subsequent news bulletins”, although you have not identified these reports or examples of the “views” you object to.

In addition you stated that Professor Kerr’s political affiliations were not set out before or during the interview.

Finally you stated that the interview could not be heard via BBC iPlayer contrary to a statement by the BBC.

I am assessing your complaints against the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, in the first instance as regards Conflicts of Interest and also in respect of all of your complaints, Accuracy and Impartiality. The guidelines refer to “due” accuracy and impartiality – that which is “adequate and appropriate” in the context of the output.

In the first place, as regards the allegation of a conflict of interest the Editor of Radio News, BBC Scotland responded to you as follows:

“In the intro to her interview with Ms Taylor, Laura Maxwell said that “health journalist Pennie Taylor followed the process and took part in the consultations”. In the interview she asked “What part did you play?” to which Ms Taylor responded “I was asked to lead or facilitate the public meetings that were held in communities up and down Scotland”. And in her own interview with Professor Kerr Ms Taylor said “You and I worked together on a series of public meetings that were held to discuss your thinking. What did those meetings bring to the process?” So we made very clear that Ms Taylor had been involved.”

Pennie Taylor is a freelance journalist, who was previously Health Correspondent for BBC Scotland. The matter in question was Ms Taylor’s involvement in 2004 in chairing public meetings as part of consultation for the Advisory Group on Service Change in NHS Scotland, headed by Professor Kerr. She was not a member of the National Advisory Group which he chaired and played no part in drawing up its recommendations. I think it was clear from the broadcast, as explained in the reply you received, that her professional association with the group was as a facilitator and I do not agree that of itself this would have posed a conflict of interest as regards this broadcast.

In addition I note that her professional relationship with the Advisory Group was clearly set out on air and I think therefore that a listener could not reasonably be said to be likely to have been misled about it.

Accordingly I am not upholding your complaint on this point as to a conflict of interest or a breach of due impartiality.

Turning to the next points you raise regarding the expression of “views”, you have not identified the questions in the interview which you consider displayed bias or why these might have been breach of the BBC’s editorial standards, or the elements of the bulletin reports which included the expression of views about Nicola Sturgeon. I cannot therefore assess these claims against the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines as a possible breach of due impartiality.

You suggest that Professor Kerr’s stated political allegiances should have been made clear to listeners. You cite examples of comments which he made some time ago. I note that he expressed approval for Conservative Party policies for the health service in 2010. Although this could have been understood as commendation for the policies of the Conservative Party at that time I do not think that can be said to indicate a continuing allegiance to the party. Again his disapproval of the SNP government’s decision not to proceed with his plan for Accident and Emergency services in 2007 is perhaps best understood as a negative reaction to the decision not to follow a plan which he advocated. That would not suggest a position of opposition to the SNP of an established or longstanding basis.

Finally I have checked the link to the iPlayer for the interview with Professor Kerr on Good Morning Scotland and it appears to work.  I therefore do not believe there are grounds for me to uphold your complaint.

 

Passed to Ofcom on Oct 21st

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5 thoughts on “A BBC Scotland complaint: The anti-Sturgeon interview and a conflict of interest

  1. John

    Indeed , once again the listener was misled , but how many times is BBC SCOTLAND going to keep mileading listerers in the future without being given a proper and meaningful repremand . Put them on notice that they will be removed from the airwaves if they can’t abide by the ‘inform , educate ‘ , rules of the BBC charter , there is nothing in there that says the BBC can be biased and prejudiced to one section on the nation !

  2. Ian McCubbin

    This is typical of BBC. I made a complaint over a year ago about one of their journalists.
    They reply was a whitewash saying I had not made a case and it would not be like a national broadcasting organisation to be biased.
    Answer dont pay the tv licence and they will go bankrupt.

    1. stewartb

      “Answer dont pay the tv licence and they will go bankrupt.”

      Regrettably, they wouldn’t. My understanding is that the BBC is paid by the UK government out of general taxation NOT by the licence fee. Every pound NOT paid for what is a broadcast receiving licence is an extra pound that needs to be found from other forms of tax revenue, assuming that the UK government wishes to continue support for the BBC financially at the same level.

      However, its is likely that evidence of mass non-payment of the license fee as a protest would send a political message even if it had no direct, consequential impact on BBC finances.

  3. Robert Graham

    Brick wall- sore head, repeat with nauseating repetition ,

    After many complaints to this government department operating under the guise of the BBC in Scotland it soon becomes obvious the dice are loaded .

    The whole complaint procedure is designed to frustrate, even after all the hurdles are successfully negotiated the end result makes it in the end a pointless exercise .

  4. Roy Wilson

    Again more bias this goes on constantly with the BBC i do not pay the licence and watch tv through the internet

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