Have you ever wondered who or what sets the news agenda? The answer is of course several things. A natural disaster will, by its very nature, become a major news story. Think of the 2004 tsunami that hit the Pacific Ocean in 2004 or the Japan tsunami that occurred in 2011.
Terrorist atrocities too will dominate news headlines, especially if they result in the deaths of westerners. Think Lockerbie, 7-7 or 9-11.
Unexpected events which have catastrophic consequences are guaranteed to command the front pages of newspapers and top billing in broadcast bulletins. They are indisputably news stories of considerable interest and significance.
But sometimes news is manufactured. Sometimes a story dominates news for reasons other than genuine newsworthiness. The story is manipulated and given a priority far greater than it deserves by dint of its political significance.
On Friday just such a story appeared when the Sutton Trust published a report that looked into access to higher education for people from less advantaged backgrounds in Scotland. The report contained criticisms of free tuition as well as conclusions that were tailor-made for a pro-Union media outlet. Scotland was in a ‘shocking’ state and far worse than England.
BBC Scotland cleared the decks for the story. Thursday was an ‘Agenda Day’.
Let’s for a moment ignore the debate over whether the study’s conclusions were flawed, and instead concentrate on the profile it was afforded by BBC Scotland. The report completely dominated that day’s news. It peppered every single news bulletin.
The presentation of the report was overwhelmingly negative in terms of its relevance to the Scottish government and Scottish education. It was reported in a highly politically partisan manner. The result of the reporting was that the SNP was placed on the defensive on an issue that has witnessed very clear improvement since the party came to power.
There’s little doubt that BBC Scotland had already decided the report would feature prominently in that day’s news coverage. The clips above from the flagship morning radio programme Good Morning Scotland contain pre-recorded comments.
It was also clear reporters and presenters had been well-prepared to push the story in the manner they did. All of them focused on the negative aspects of the report. Whoever decided the news agenda for BBC Scotland that day was determined to maximise the political impact of the study.
The thrust of the whole news coverage was that the SNP had failed to improve the situation with regards the access to university of those from poorer backgrounds and that free university tuition hadn’t had any positive impact. One academic brought on to comment on the report was presented as though neutral, but was in fact a long standing sceptic of free tuition.
But did the report merit such saturation coverage? Why should a report from an organisation based in England enjoy such an uncritical embrace?
The answer lies at the heart of BBC Scotland itself. I’ve said before and I’ll repeat it. The BBC in Scotland is a de-facto colonial broadcaster. It isn’t there to question the integrity or credentials of organisations which publish reports that are critical of Scotland or its institutions. It’s the duty of BBC Scotland to manipulate these reports in order to fit the pro-Union requirement of its political output.
Pacific Quay thrives on so-called impartial reports from organisations which are ostensibly independent of government. These reports slot into the day’s news output effortlessly and are then presented as absolute fact rather than the opinions of people who may have their own agenda.
Thursday became an ‘agenda day’ at Pacific Quay. The agenda was to use the report in order to attack the SNP and its flagship policy of free tuition. Interviews were conducted with people who were presented as impartial academics but whose own opinions chimed with the agenda being pushed.
Agenda Days are pretty common at BBC Scotland. The independence referendum was choc-full of them. During the referendum campaign it didn’t need an academic study to turn the political head of the BBC Scotland news department, a vague business-like statement from a company would suffice.
Indeed an overwhelming amount of political news output from BBC Scotland during the referendum was prompted by solitary statements of opinion from individuals.
The recent Scottish election witnessed similar ‘agenda days’. Remember the ‘report’ from the Resolution Foundation that turned out to be a blog from a former policy advisor to Ed Miliband?
There was also the highly suspicious profile given to Moray Council at the start of the year when Scottish Labour and BBC Scotland hooked up to attack the SNP’s council tax freeze.
More recently we saw the ridiculous attempt by BBC Scotland to promote the lie that the infidelity of Stewart Hosie was in fact a possible expenses scandal.
Publication of The Sutton Trust ‘university’ report came just days after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon put closing the education attainment gap at the top of her government’s list of priorities for the term of this next parliament. That BBC Scotland poured everything it had into highlighting negative aspects of the report was no coincidence.
The question for both The Sutton trust and BBC Scotland is why they were desperate to compare Scotland with England, and not Scotland with itself as it was back in 2007? Since the SNP came to power back in 2007, access to universities amongst those from poorer backgrounds has improved by 29%. When colleges are included, Scotland’s participation in higher education is significantly higher than in England.
BBC Scotland ensured that Scotland took another bashing courtesy of a report from an organisation based in England and which recently received £125 million from the UK government.
The Sutton Trust was set up by Sir Peter Lampl who was the founder and chairman of the Sutton Company, a Private Equity firm with offices in New York, London and Munich. Lampl is one of the 200 wealthiest people in the UK.
In 2004 Lampl backed the increases in tuition fees to £3,000 in England because he said it was necessary to fund universities. Lampl himself appeared on BBC Scotland last week where he was allowed to attack the SNP’s policy of no university tuition fees. The word ‘shocking’ that peppered BBC Scotland bulletins last Friday was from a direct quote from Lampl.
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