The story will fade of course just as they always do. Headline news in the middle of an election campaign, the episode that is ‘The Foodbank Nurse’ will be nothing more than a Google search result in the not too distant future.
Claire Austin has provided ammunition for Unionist politicians and their media minders ever since she appeared in the ‘General Election’ debate that never was.
The red-headed nurse who harangued Nicola Sturgeon had the cream of Scottish journalism punching the air.
The icing on the cake was a bewildering lack of common sense on the part of the SNP ‘Spin Room’ team. Why Joanna Cherry felt the need to highlight social media rumours to BBC representatives will never be known. Even had they been true these career-minded puppets wouldn’t have cared.
There’s more to this story of course. How did Claire Austin come to be in receipt of special invite to a televised debate which usually requires members of the public to fill out an online application? Why was she given preferential treatment despite having attended a Question Time programme days earlier? What is the truth of Claire Austin’s foodbank claim which underpinned her question to Nicola Sturgeon? And why did Reporting Scotland run a four and a half minute one-sided item that painted Claire Austin as a concerned nurse with no agenda who fell victim to a witch-hunt?
The episode has three strands to it – the apology, the foodbank claim and the invite. I have analysed each three in turn, beginning with the apology.
There’s no debate over whether Joanna Cherry highlighted twitter rumours relating to the Foodbank Nurse’s marital status – namely that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. Cherry’s moment of madness – for which she swiftly apologised – gave rise to a clutch of sensational newspaper headlines.
Unionist claims of an orchestrated smear campaign were patently ridiculous. No serious journalist would lend credence to the claim that the SNP or the First Minister planned to make easily discredited claims against a nurse. It would be political suicide.
In Scotland of course we have a dearth of serious journalism. This, coupled with an overtly pro-Union media, means that ridiculous claims against the SNP often find themselves headlined. Newspapers aren’t in the business of believability and thus Kezia Dugdale’s opportunistic press release was seized on.
The smear nonsense really should have begun and ended on the pages of poorly selling rags. Alas it was not to be. No smear has effect these days unless promoted by the state broadcaster.
BBC Scotland decided listeners to its radio news bulletins would benefit from hearing the First Minister accused of running just such a smear campaign. In the interests of balance the broadcaster allowed Willie Rennie and Ruth Davidson to repeat the smear allegations made by Kezia Dugdale. It is after all a general election campaign and parties must be given equal opportunity to attack the SNP.
In a rather unseemly continuation of this politicised drivel, the morning after the Manchester terrorist attack – when political parties had already stood down their respective election campaigning – Good Morning Scotland found time to read out two more ‘SNP Smear’ headlines.
The newspapers weren’t at fault for the headlines had been published prior to the attack. The producer of Good Morning Scotland had no such excuse.
So that was the apology. The SNP’s political opponents made hay with Joanna Cherry’s embarrassment. But what about the central figure in the controversy and her claim to have had to use a foodbank?
The Foodbank Claim
Tuesday evening’s Reporting Scotland covered the nurse controversy. Below is the segment in full.
It begins with Jackie Bird telling viewers that “it was a member of the public who stole the show”. The member of the public in question is Claire Austin. Bird adds that the First Minister was “taken to task” over the “continuing pay gap” which according to Austin has “driven her and her colleagues to use foodbanks”.
Birds’s choice of words was interesting. Unionists and their media supporters like David Clegg also claim that Claire Austin ‘stole the show’. Others though have claimed that Austin didn’t steal the show, but was deliberately presented with her platform by BBC Scotland as part of a premeditated set-up. In short the nurse was an unsuspecting patsy in an orchestrated ambush. More on that later.
The whole item is shockingly one-sided and highly subjective. BBC Scotland’s health correspondent Shelley Jofre says of the exchange between Nicola Sturgeon and Claire Austin that “the First Minister’s discomfort was clear”. Was it? As far as I could see there was no visible evidence that Nicola Sturgeon is in any discomfort on the issue of nurses pay.
The really interesting aspect of the Reporting Scotland item is a piece to camera by Jofre. The segment can be seen in isolation below.
On the piece to camera Jofre tells viewers that Claire Austin has been the target of some pretty awful social media abuse overnight and that when she [Jofre] spoke to her she was in tears. That may have been true, but why was no evidence of the abuse presented? Why also was there no mention of Claire Austin’s own social media abuse towards the First Minister in the days prior to their televised exchange? In the interests of balance it should have been mentioned.
We then get to the aspect of the Claire Austin episode that is surrounded in controversy – and that led to much of the social media ‘abuse’ referred to by the BBC Scotland reporter – her claim that she cannot survive on her current salary and uses foodbanks.
Here is what Shelley Jofre tells viewers: “She [Austin] says she was referred to a foodbank twice in five years in very specific circumstances when she was, as she says, up against the wall.”
Jofre makes no attempt to scrutinise what Claire Austin tells her. There is no evident appetite on the part of the BBC Scotland reporter to verify anything she is told.
Which foodbanks did she obtain food from? Which organisation referred her? When was she referred? What are these so-called ‘very special circumstances’ that required her to seek help from a foodbank to feed herself? Was her nurse’s salary a contributing factor or would it have made no difference to Claire Austin’s predicament?
Some might argue that Claire Austin is under no obligation to prove anything. The counter argument to that is that if you deliberately request to appear on national television in order to confront the First Minister then there is surely a requirement that you provide proof of your claims.
On Monday night’s TV debate Claire Austin clearly stated: “I can’t manage on the salary I have, I have to go to foodbanks.”
Did Shelley Jofre not consider that, having made the foodbank claim on a televised debate in front of millions, Claire Austin was hardly likely to admit to having embellished her story the day after? Given that the claim was central to an ongoing attack on the First Minister, which was being widely reported on BBC Scotland, it was incumbent on the part of the BBC Scotland reporter to scrutinise the veracity of the claim. That she didn’t calls her motives into question.
The item went on to list starting salaries for two types of NHS worker, a fully qualified nurse and a healthcare support worker. The starting salaries are given as £22440 and £16293 respectively. The viewer is told the minimum required income for a single person is £17100.
But why are two starting salaries provided? According to her Linkdin page [which now appears to have disappeared], Claire Austin was a fully qualified nurse at the time she claims to have been referred to a foodbank.
She has been a staff nurse at NHS Lothian since May 2010 and obtained a BSC in Nursing from Edinburgh Napier University in 2012.
She very clearly isn’t a healthcare support worker, but by including the role as a possibility viewers are invited to believe that Claire Austin may have been earning below the £17100 threshold.
Below is an excerpt from a blog which contains some very interesting points in relation to nurses’ salaries. The whole blog entry is worth a read.
She [Claire Austin] works for the NHS as a staff nurse, (although she herself claims to be a charge nurse in a busy A&E), however for the sake of this exercise I’ll place her on the lowest band for staff nurses in Scotland. That’s the whole of Scotland because no matter where you work in the NHS the salary structure is identical. The least a newly qualified staff nurse would earn on a Band 5 is just shy of £22, 000. This rises year on year incrimentally for 6yrs to the Band maximum of £28,180.
She herself states that she has been working for many years so she cannot be stuck on the starting scale, it doesn’t work that way. Anyone working for 6yrs will have reached their Band max. If indeed she is a charge nurse as she claims on her LinkedIn then that would be Band 6 which starts at £26,041 and again incrimentally rises to £34,876. So you see there’s no way for a qualified registered nurse to be stuck at £22,000 as she claims. Furthermore she also works with RMR an agency I myself have done shifts for in the past and the pay is very lucrative compared to NHS payscales, so much so that most hospitals are now forbidden to use this agency.
Claire Austin herself has claimed to be earning an NHS salary of just over £22,345. But if the salary bands detailed above are accurate then she should be earning a great deal more. We do not know Ms Austin’s personal circumstances so cannot form a judgement as to why she would be earning what amounts to a starting salary despite having been a nurse for at least seven years. So why didn’t Shelly Jofre ask her to clarify the apparent contradiction?
But let’s get back to the foodbank claim. The Reporting Scotland item did provide some evidence, albeit circumstantial, that actually appeared to cast doubt on Claire Austin’s story.
Both the Royal College of Nursing and more importantly the Trussell Trust confirmed they had no record of any Scottish nurses having to use foodbanks. This makes Shelley Jofre’s failure to obtain concrete evidence of Claire Austin’s foodbank claim all the more puzzling.
What we are left with is an unverified claim that has featured not once, but twice, in two prime-time BBC Scotland programmes. The claim has been central to a story attacking the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon.
And we come to the thrust of the issue. How did Claire Austin find herself the leading act in a televised general election debate?
Much has been made of the so-called ‘abuse’ and ‘hounding’ Claire Austin was subjected to on social media. But little has been made of the reason for the social media interest in the first place.
Moments after the nurse appeared on the televised leaders’ debate, images of her at another BBC debate appeared on social media. The images were of a recent edition of Question Time when the programme was broadcast eleven days earlier from Edinburgh.
This was the same programme on which a Scottish Tory councillor had been presented as an ordinary member of the public and allowed to pose the first question of the evening.
Eric Holford wasn’t just a Tory councillor, he was also a former Tory candidate for both the Westminster elections and the Holyrood elections.
It’s interesting to look back at one of the points Eric Holford made during his three [yes three] opportunities to speak on the single programme.
Holford refers to the issue of foodbanks, using his 26 year old daughter as an example of someone who presumably doesn’t need to use them..
But take a look at who is sitting alongside Holford. It’s none other than the foodbank nurse. That is quite an amazing coincidence. Is it any wonder then that when Claire Austin turned up days later on another BBC debate raising the same issue as Holford that many viewers smelled a rat?
How then did Claire Austin find herself in the audience for the BBC Scotland leaders’ debate after being on Question Time, especially when most people find it nigh-on impossible to obtain access to any BBC shows? When quizzed on social media, Austin revealed that she had been invited onto the debate. Moreover she gave as the reason the fact that she hadn’t been allowed to ask her question eleven days earlier.
So BBC Scotland invited Claire Austin onto the prime-time televised debate in the full knowledge that she intended to ask the question she did. But was there anything else the BBC Scotland Producers might have noticed about Ms Austin that may have led them to extend a special invite?
Well the clip below suggests that Ms Austin may well sympathise with what would be termed pro-Union arguments. The ‘Foodbank Nurse’ applauds and nods her head in agreement as the gentleman to her right lambasts the SNP and any idea of another independence referendum.
There is little doubt that there are some quite remarkable coincidences involving the BBC and the Foodbank Nurse. It would be remarkable if people didn’t question the motives of the state broadcaster.
In fact questioning the background of guests who appear on BBC leaders’ debates and the ethicacy of the BBC is not restricted to those who support independence or the SNP.
In 2015 the Labour party did just that when Ed Miliband was confronted by a member of the audience during the previous general election campaign. Labour party officials accused Catherine Shuttleworth of being a Tory plant.
Labour activists scoured social media looking for ‘evidence’ to support their suspicions and highlighted other guests they believed were not as they had been presented.
The biggest issue in the case of The Foodbank Nurse is not Claire Austin’s 10 minutes of fame/notoriety, but the behaviour of the BBC. Someone decided to turn a supposed general election debate into one dominated by devolved issues.
Someone then decided to invite a guest onto the programme they knew would ask a very specific question on one of those devolved issues and who had given strong indications that she was not a fan of independence and/or a second referendum. Whether BBC Scotland producers knew of Claire Austin’s social media abuse of Nicola Sturgeon we cannot know.
As the announcer says … “This is the BBC”.
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