A pilot project is currently underway with the aim of monitoring BBC Scotland political output. A key part of this project will be analysing political items broadcast by the flagship news programme Reporting Scotland.
Below is an example of how this analysis might look. This is the second such analysis covering August and has been provided by a freelance journalist who has been commissioned by the project team. The journalist has analysed one full week’s political output between Sunday August 6th and Saturday August 12th.
The analysis is accompanied by the political items broadcast that evening on Reporting Scotland. This analysis is just one strand of the monitoring project. It is a ‘work in progress’ and thus your comments would be greatly appreciated by the monitoring team. Please see also a message at the bottom of this article which relates to this particular strand of the project.
Sunday, 6 August 2017 | Michelle Thomson
Again the focus of Reporting Scotland is on former SNP MP Michelle Thomson. Sunday evening’s bulletin, featuring a partial interview between her and BBC political correspondent Nick Eardley, was headlined with the assertion that Ms Thomson has “called on Nicola Sturgeon to apologise” for the way the SNP leadership dealt with allegations against her and for the manner in which she was “forced to leave the party.”
While framing this interview in the context of the Crown Office’s decision not to pursue criminal charges, and leaving the question of her complicity vague, the report fails to mention that Ms Thomson had previously asked for an apology from the BBC for its “misreporting” of the case. In a linking segment edited onto the interview we are informed by Eardley that Michelle Thomson wants an apology from Nicola Sturgeon. When the film of the interview is resumed it is to Ms Thomson saying she would be “delighted” if she got one, giving the impression she was responding to a question rather than making a statement.
In the parts of the interview we are shown there is no explicit call from Thomson for an apology. What she does have to say is entirely unforceful and conciliatory. Where we get to hear Thomson in her own words she indicates clearly that in lieu of an apology – if one is not forthcoming – a personal conversation with Ms Sturgeon would be “very helpful.” She acknowledges that the First Minister has a difficult job and does it well. There is no overt sense of grievance or personal animosity in what she says.
When the report turns to the wider political discussion of this episode – relating to the possibility a solicitor Ms Thomson had employed was involved in mortgage fraud – only the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is referenced, saying in the Scottish parliament that “profiteering from vulnerable families is just plain wrong.” A statement from the SNP follows this, but its content is limited to a comment on how Ms Thomson conducted herself during the investigation. It says nothing of the substance or veracity of the allegations.
Ms Thomson does say that she regrets her involvement with the now struck-off solicitor, and that what she is looking for is a conversation and the opportunity to contribute to the party. In a statement released on social media the following day Ms Thomson did not repeat a call for an apology from Ms Sturgeon, but repeated her hope the media, and “particularly the BBC will recognise their role in [the] misreporting” of the case.
Monday, 7 August 2017 | Curriculum for Excellence | Michelle Thomson
Curriculum for Excellence
On the eve of exam results day it was only to be expected that the attention of the BBC Reporting Scotland evening bulletin would be on the health of the country’s education system. Introducing the segment Jackie Bird set the tone of what would be an overwhelmingly negative appraisal of the Scottish government’s education reforms. She said recent changes to the Curriculum for Excellent had resulted in workloads being too great for teachers and the assessments too many for students.
Rebecca Curran’s report, setting the agenda ahead of the in-studio interview with the Education Secretary John Swinney, opened with visuals of the old Royal High School in Edinburgh which appeared to suggest Scottish education standards – like this decaying old building – were in decline. Running in tandem with close-up footage of the school building’s degeneration was Curran’s questions of Scottish education. Over this was superimposed a montage of BBC reports featuring out-of-context statements such as “Curriculum for Excellence so vague…,” and “Big changes to be made… barely three years after reforms.”
In terms of framing, the message from the news desk and the editing of the report’s introduction is quite unambiguous. “Scotland’s worldwide reputation for excellence in education,” represented by the neo-classical façade of the Royal High School, is in an advanced state of decay.
The substance of this report is built on soundbites from three persons of interest; Olivia Drennan, a teacher and education reform campaigner, Keir Bloomer, an “educationalist” and one of the architects of the new system, and Eileen Prior, the executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. Despite Ms Drennan having a positive opinion of John Swinney’s intentions, the presentation of her interview on the programme focuses exclusively on the perceived negatives of recent changes. The scrapping of some assessments, we are told, has led to longer exams – leading to, in the opinion of the interviewee, children being put off and a lowering of attainment; particularly affecting students from deprived catchments.
At this point the emphasis of the report is on the need to lessen the attainment gap. This is picked up on by Keir Bloomer who said that the reforms were “the right thing to do.” Without any discussion of the teething problems expected during such adjustments, the report moves directly to the “absolutely enormous” workload teachers have been burdened with as a consequence, adversely impacting on teachers’ moral and their ability to focus on “more important things.” Scant attention is given to the point raised by Olivia Drennan that many of these issues are the result of “unforeseen consequences.”
The hammer comes down in the interview with the director of the SPTC. There are “way, way too many assessments,” says Eileen Prior; creating a situation where we have a “cohort of young people who’ve really been under the cosh.” Exams have always been stressful for students, but this goes unsaid. Instead, and without any research other than what amounts to hearsay, we are informed that the “mental health of our young people has been suffering” and that parent groups have been enlisting the help of counsellors. No doubt the changes to the system in Scotland have been a contributing factor to the stress of students, but it is far from unheard of that students elsewhere in the UK have required professional assistance with exam-related stress.
Back in the studio Jackie Bird puts this to the Education Secretary, and her use of language continues the themes of Curran’s report. The changes are “flawed,” as opposed to it being the case, more realistically, that the implementation of policy – as is frequently the case – takes time and encounters “unforeseen” problems. Jackie Bird then calls the ten year-long tenure of the SNP in government into question. These changes to the format the Curriculum for Excellent are too recent to warrant a questioning of a decade’s worth of the Scottish government’s education policy.
In closing, John Swinney strenuously defends the ongoing work of the Scottish government on education reform, stating that his purpose is to “strengthen the foundations of Scottish education.” This follows on from his insistence that the object was to have exams that were strong, valid, and full of integrity. It is, as he says, a matter of striking the right balance. As he was putting this forward Jackie Bird repeatedly interjected, stating that Scotland was “slipping down the international league tables.”
Returning to Michelle Thomson, in what has become something of a saga on Reporting Scotland, and following the interview between her and Nick Eardley the day before, the programme features a short bulletin announcing that Nicola Sturgeon has “admitted” that the circumstances surrounding the case have not been easy for the SNP. Here the emphasis is placed squarely on the tensions between Thomson and the First Minister.
Reiterating again the decision of the Crown Office not to pursue charges, and again without making it clear Ms Thomson had never herself been under investigation, the report focuses on her call for an apology and the fact Ms Sturgeon did not listen to her side of the story – referring to the situation as a “row.”
Nicola Sturgeon accepts these allegations must have been difficult for the former MP, but also underlines that the situation where one of its newly elected MPs was facing serious allegations was difficult for the party as well. Here the stress of the report, owing to its repetition, is on the difficulty for the SNP. This focus on the difficulties for those involved is immediately linked to Ms Thomson’s attempt to explain the First Minister’s actions, suggesting Ms Sturgeon may have “panicked.”
The report mentions that Michelle Thomson released a statement repeating “criticism of media coverage of the investigation,” but this is brief. It neglects to inform viewers of the nature of this criticism and omits the fact that it was directed particularly towards the BBC.
The following ‘Brexit Warning’ story appeared on the early morning Reporting Scotland on Monday August 7th. It was missing from the evening news programme.
Tuesday, 8 August 2017 | Exam Results | Halo Trust | Michelle Thomson
Jackie Bird introduces the item leading with good news in terms of the number of pupils gaining a place at university and applicants from deprived communities, but rains on the Scottish government parade by adding that “critics said students did well despite SNP policy”. Viewers are not told who these ‘critics’ are or whether the attack might be politically motivated.
Jamie McIvor’s report opens in upbeat fashion with young students talking about their achievements. Contributions from a headmaster and the head of the Scottish Qualifications Authority are separated by some dry statistics relating to highers. Jamie McIvor repeats the “critics say” attack on the SNP, but again fails to identify these critics. Education minister John Swinney provides comment on behalf of the Scottish government. Jamie McIvor describes overall results as good, but says questions over the longer term remain.
The pre-recorded item ends and a live discussion takes place between Jackie Bird and Jamie McIvor. The issue of the reduction in the National 4 candidates is brought up. McIvor explains what the National 4 actually is – pretty accurately as it happens. However the reporter implies that the qualification lacks credibility which is quite an accusation, and says the drop in candidates taking this exam merits further investigation.
In fact the drop in the number of candidates was not unexpected as comments from the largest teaching Union, the EIS would later make clear. The new qualification, like all new qualification, took time to bed in and teachers now understand what it is designed for. It most certainly does not lack credibility.
Jackie Bird then appears to dig for negatives, bringing up a recent controversial study into Scottish education. It’s worth noting that not everyone accepts the BBC’s presentation of the PISA study. Bird effectively asks McIvor an impossible question, which to his credit McIvor bats back. The overall impression of the item is of a very positive news story that Reporting Scotland desperately tried to apply negatives to. Jamie McIvor though was thorough and did a decent enough job.
The council is considering extending the Edinburgh tram line. The Reporting Scotland item is devoid of the political baggage that has dogged the project since its inception. There is though a reference to the council not making the same mistake again. There is though no reference to the fact that the trams project was foisted on the fledgling SNP government in 2007 by the combined Unionist vote of Labour, Tory and Lib Dem.
The Dumfrieshire company, Halo Trust, has received £8m funding from the Uk government. Nothing wrong with the item although it is very vague on exactly how much money will be spent in Scotland. Most will be spent abroad and reporter says only that some will “trickle down” to Scottish suppliers. It’s worth noting that David Mundell was in attendance at this media call. Nicola Sturgeon was doorstepped at a scheduled event on Monday and asked about Michelle Thomson. Why wasn’t Mundell doorstepped and asked about Ruth Davidson’s immigration comments … see next item.
A bizarre item from start to finish. Ruth Davidson has been in hiding for weeks and has avoided being questioned on a series of controversial issues from Brexit chaos to the DUP deal. Yet she writes an opinion piece in The Telegraph newspaper and it becomes a major item on Reporting Scotland.
Davidson is portrayed as challenging Theresa May’s Govt over immigration by asking if the 100,000 target is correct. Reporter Andrew Kerr says it is clear Davidson is trying to “spark a debate”. Kerr repeats the claim that Davidson is questioning the 100,000 target. Kerr also refers to international students being included in the 100,000 total.
Tory MSP Miles Briggs then appears and makes a thinly veiled attack on “those who want to divide us” … i.e. the SNP. A Labour MP is allowed to respond.
There is no SNP or Green representation.
Andrew Kerr then adds: “But we might be seeing more of this from Ruth Davidson. She is very much an invigorated leader of course after her success at the general election. The Tories are saying she’s very much her own woman.”
Kerr’s final comment is what you’d expect from a Tory spin doctor looking to burnish the image of Ruth Davidson and not from a so-called impartial reporter.
Not mentioned in the item is Ruth Davidson’s comments during the general election campaign where she had the chance to challenge her party’s immigration plans and failed to do so, arguing “for me it’s never been about numbers”.
This was also a widely reported interview carried out by BBC Radio 5 Live.
Andrew Kerr appears unaware of Ruth’s previous comments on immigration and her support for her party’s general election policy.
On Wednesday, the Recruitment and Employment Federation reported positive news about Scottish recruitment. The organisation also pointed out that EU nationals are leaving the country and warned employers were now struggling to fill some roles. This Brexit related item appeared on the early morning Reporting Scotland.
The story was dropped from the evening Reporting Scotland. It is the third Brexit related story to be binned by the main evening news programme in little over a week. [Last week Fishing access was dropped and on Monday a Housing Sector warning was dropped]
Wednesday, 9 August 2017 | Post-Brexit Powers Talks
Post-Brexit Powers Talks
In its coverage of the breakdown of negotiations between the Scottish and UK governments over the issue of power repatriation post-Brexit Reporting Scotland, in this report by the BBC’s political editor Brian Taylor, presents the two governments in entirely different lights. These talks, following the Scottish and Welsh governments’ description of the UK government’s intention to bring these powers to Westminster as a “power grab,” are essential to the British government if it is to convince the public that any resultant deal was the result of an amicable, consensual, and negotiated settlement.
Stressing the fact that it is UK government ministers who have the responsibility for negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU; leaving out any mention that the Prime Minister rejected Nicola Sturgeon’s request for a seat at the table, the report sets out the power inequality from the start. So it is from its positon as the power-holder that the British government asserts that repatriating powers first to Westminster – before giving yet “more powers” to the devolved administrations – is “common sense.”
Damien Green, the First Secretary of State – rather than the Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell, presents himself in his interview as entirely reasonable when he describes the UK government’s plans as “absolutely the opposite” of a power grab. He affirms the UK’s desire to discuss these issues and assures the public of the Westminster government’s good faith and of its intention to resume talks at a later date.
The Scottish and Welsh governments, in contrast to the presentation of the UK government as a mature dialogue partner, “dissent.” Echoing Carwyn Jones’ dismissal of the British government’s proposals as a “naked power grab,” the Scottish Brexit Minister Mike Russell is put on record as saying it is “unacceptable” that the final decision should be made by London. What emerges here in the balance of the report is a portrayal of a British government making the effort while the devolved governments are refusing to play ball.
No great effort is made to convey the Scottish and Welsh government’s position; that within the EU much of what Westminster now hopes to arrogate to itself – in such areas as fishing, farming, the environment, and key justice provisions – are already devolved. On the accepted principle that those powers which have not been reserved are devolved, the Scottish and Welsh governments must view London’s proposals as a rolling back of devolution. It is perfectly reasonable, but unsaid in the report, for the Scottish government to insist these powers return directly to Scotland.
In saying that after Brexit, following the return powers to Westminster, “some” powers could be returned to Scotland and others fall within a shared UK framework, this BBC report draws no attention to the threat this poses to the spirit of devolution. It merely says that Holyrood’s consent to a final deal on Brexit is “accepted,” but this is not a veto.
Brian Taylor, in his closing analysis on the breakdown of the talks, simply reinforces this sense of an adult-child relationship between the British and the devolved governments. It is the UK government, he remarks, that is in the driving seat with the ability to impose a settlement but benevolently opts to seek compromise. London wants consent for what is described as a common sense and “pragmatic” deal. It is the London government that does not want a falling out, and so the slant of the piece puts the onus on the devolved government in Scotland to make an “effort” at compromise.
Thursday, 10 August 2017 | Land and Buildings Transaction Tax | National 4 Qualifications
Land and Buildings Transaction Tax
As part of a brief report on the assessment of the Royal Institution for Chartered Surveyors that the housing market stalled last month, for the most part due to a shortfall in the number of properties being put up for sale, attention was drawn to a minor addendum to the RICS’ comments; that the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT) was creating a bottleneck in parts of the market. What wasn’t so minor, however, was the storm that arose in reaction to the LBTT at its introduction in April 2015.
In May of this year an article in the Scottish Daily Mail announced that the Scottish property market had been “hit by [this] controversial SNP tax.” As part of the Scottish government’s plan to assist first time buyers and those at the lower end of the housing market, the LBTT has ignited some controversy. Scottish Conservative finance spokesperson Murdo Fraser has said that the fall in home mover lending – affecting those already on the property ladder – was a “genuine cause for concern.”
As it is structured the LBTT makes it significantly more expensive to buy residential properties costing in excess of £325,000, but reduces tax to zero for those costing less than £145,000. In stressing the part played by the LBTT in stifling activity – “in parts of the market” – the BBC is effectively speaking to one constituency’s concerns; those able to afford homes costing £325,000 and more.
National 4 Qualifications
Later on we are given another report critical of the Scottish government on education. This time the education correspondent Jamie McIvor shines a light on issues, raised by the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, surrounding the National 4 qualification.
Sally McNair introduced the story as a call from the union for a re-think of the course, citing “claims” it had become a “second class qualification.” According to McIvor’s report fewer people are taking up the National 4, with parents, teachers, and students not wishing to do it on the grounds that it is perceived to be an exit course typically taken by those who would have done general level at Standard Grade. In McIvor’s own assessment this avoidance of the qualification may harm students who opt to take up other qualifications they might not yet be ready for. He offers no data to back this up.
Yet this begins to smack of a bad news story for its own sake when the opinion of the Educational Institute of Scotland – the EIS being the largest teachers union in Scotland – that the drop in uptake is “no bad thing;” a change indicating only that the new system is settling down. McIvor moderates this by appealing to what the EIS did not say, namely that this does not mean the EIS does not imagine some improvements can be made.
Friday, 11 August 2017 | School Clothing Grants
As back-to-school season gets underway the attention of the BBC, in one of its own investigations, has turned to the disparity in local council school clothing grants. While the grant is a matter for the councils and not the Scottish government, Sally Magnusson introduces Andrew Kerr’s report by implying the Education Secretary John Swinney had broken his promise to speak with COSLA, the representative body of the majority of Scotland’s councils, regarding tackling this disparity.
Sending children to school is costly. It is estimated that on average it costs about £130 to suit and boot one child for school. With, as the report acknowledges, a huge surge in demand for food and clothes banks, many parents have legitimate concerns. No one wants to send their children to school in rags, but council grants vary – with councils providing means tested grants of between £40 and £110.
In the interview with John Swinney the report again reminds the viewer of the earlier implication he broke his promise to address this problem, further implying – presumably on account of this BBC investigation – he was now “keen” to have that meeting. Mr Swinney’s approach, insofar as he does not want to impose policy agreements on local government, is to reach a voluntary agreement with the councils through the agency of COSLA. Notwithstanding the salience of this strategy of compromise between the Scottish government and the local councils, the report all but refuses to confirm that this is the responsibility of local and not national government.
Saturday, 12 August 2017 | Soldiers’ Housing | Michelle Thomson
We have an example here, in a short report on the five-fold increase in complaints to the MoD over the poor condition of soldiers’ houses, of what is essentially a good news story. Amid fears the Ministry of Defence is running soldiers’ family accommodation down before offloading it, the SNP, through a freedom of information request, obtained details on the steep rise in complaints about the shocking condition of many of these houses.
Yet entirely ignoring the Armed Forces Covenant – mentioned in the segment by SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Maree Todd – and the commitments of the Scottish government – investing millions in veterans’ housing and mental health services – this BBC report gives the impression of being an exercise in damage limitation on behalf of the MoD. The only investment it mentions is that made by the MoD in the improvement of its housing stock.
This must be one of the only times, perhaps the first, when Reporting Scotland openly acknowledges that fraud allegations were made against an associate of Michelle Thomson and not against her. But in this revisit the focus has shifted to Alex Salmond’s criticism of the SNP over its handing of Ms Thomson. Each BBC report on this case is, in one way or another, a variation on the same theme – the creation of an impression that there is a row going on within the party.
Mr Salmond, speaking ahead of his Fringe Festival debut in Edinburgh, was merely repeating what had already in effect been said by Nicola Sturgeon on the difficulty these allegations have caused for everyone involved – a difficulty neither of the SNP’s nor Ms Thomson’s making. Once again, despite Mr Salmond’s criticism of the media’s handling of the affair, the Reporting Scotland bulletin omitted any reference to the fact that the thrust of this criticism has been against the BBC itself. The BBC, which Ms Thomson has singled out for its particular misreporting of the case, has not as yet issued an apology.
The above analysis forms part of a pilot project that will cover the month of September. The other strand of this project is a short documentary style video which will take isolated examples of BBC Scotland political output and examine them. The team would like to continue the above written analysis beyond September [for which funding is already secure]. In order to do so requires funding of £150 per week to capture/edit each programme and to commission the freelance journalist. If you would like to see this written analysis continue beyond September then feel free to make a donation using the button below.