They’re ramping it up again. It’s election time and all the old tricks are on display over at Pacific Quay.
I’ve literally lost count of the news bulletins, online articles and special reports that have given me cause for concern this week. No sooner had I planned to draft an article on one than there would appear another belter.
It all started on Tuesday on Good Morning Scotland. The newspaper review transported me back to 2014 and the days leading up to the independence referendum vote.
The Good Morning Scotland crew continue to do this, despite knowing full well what they are reading out is almost always going to be politically partisan and, at times, complete hogwash. It’s also, more often than not, going to be anti-SNP and/or anti-independence.
The mythical beast of the SNP/Tory alliance is the ‘Bigfoot’ of Scottish journalism. Apparent sightings are a regular feature of Scottish elections.
On the same programme on Tuesday Douglas Fraser claimed to have seen one. Fraser’s official title at BBC Scotland is that of business and economy editor. In truth he is a hybrid business/political reporter.
It isn’t the worst example of what I’ve often termed ‘questionable’ output, but I can’t let this wee snippet from Douglas Fraser pass without comment. Listen to the short clip below.
What you hear above is from a much lengthier item Fraser gave on APD. The clip is an example of what would normally pass unnoticed by listeners. It’s not uncommon from some reporters to shoehorn little loaded comments into their reports.
In the case of Douglas Fraser he managed to imply some kind of deal between the SNP and the Tories with respect to APD [There is no deal]. This was followed by a quite blatant attempt to paint the halving of APD as a tax cut for the well off at the expense of welfare for the poor.
That was Tuesday. Wednesday was when it got really interesting. Let’s set the scene…
Tuesday afternoon witnessed one of the most incredible debates Holyrood has ever seen. The SNP, Labour, Greens and Lib Dems united as one as they condemned the despised ‘Rape Clause’. The Scottish Conservatives were eviscerated as speaker after speaker targeted Ruth Davidson’s party.
So uncomfortable were Tory MSPs, that those scheduled to speak did so but refused to take interventions. The move served only to exacerbate their discomfort. Social media burned with fury. It was an afternoon when constitutional differences were put to one side. One of the best contributions came from Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale.
I tuned into Good Morning Scotland the following morning in expectation of news bulletins and analysis of the previous day’s extraordinary proceedings. I was to be disappointed. The debate was ignored. Good Morning Scotland didn’t mention it. It was as though it hadn’t happened.
Responding to online criticism, GMS host Gary Robertson pointed to BBC Scotland coverage the previous day.
But that didn’t explain why the flagship morning news programme was ignoring the debate the following day. That Good Morning Scotland has routinely provided significant coverage of key Holyrood debates the day after they are held was not acknowledged.
Listening to the news bulletins that same Wednesday morning I caught what appeared to be a nondescript story regarding the renovation of a cycle path in Aberdeen. I knew the local authority, Aberdeen City Council, was Labour run. But the bulletin suggested nothing more than an administrative blunder.
Not long after, I happened across a tweet from Wings Over Scotland which was of a newspaper front page..
The Press and Journal carried a headline that made mention of £200,000 and a boundary wall. Inset was an image of Labour councillor Willie Young.
Was this the story I had heard on Good Morning Scotland?
It didn’t take long to confirm it was indeed the same story. Yet I had heard no mention of Willie Young on the BBC news bulletin. There was also no mention of the Labour party.
It was the same on later bulletins. The 11:00 bulletin not only didn’t mention Young or Labour, it also claimed there was doubt over who owned the land.
The Press and Journal didn’t have any doubts over ownership. The newspaper reported Young and his wife were the owners. It published the title deeds as proof.
A huge story was brewing and it wasn’t looking good for Scottish Labour. With local authority elections around the corner, any suggestion of financial impropriety would damage the party’s already flagging hopes.
Yet BBC Scotland was refusing to report that the council was a Labour run local authority and Willie Young was a Labour councillor in the same authority. Moreover, Young was its finance convenor.
Lunchtime Reporting Scotland was equally reticent to report the involvement of the Labour party or Willie Young in the story.
It was clear that, despite considerably more information already having been in the public domain for hours, BBC Scotland was doing its level best to avoid highlighting Labour party involvement in the story.
The corporation eventually relented that afternoon when Willie Young’s name appeared in a bulletin along with his role as a Labour councillor. That Aberdeen City Council is Labour led was still not reported though.
An online article briefly sat on the main BBC Scotland website. Initially there was no mention of Young or Labour. Some time later it was edited and Willie Young’s name added, however with no mention that he was a Labour councillor.
It was around three hours later that the article eventually mentioned Young was in fact a Labour councillor. By that time the article had long gone from the BBC Scotland main news section. The council was never identified as being a Labour run local authority.
When the item aired on the evening Reporting Scotland there was a brief mention of Willie Young and the fact he was a Labour councillor. It was a welcome climb-down by BBC Scotland. But why did the corporation spend the entire day trying to hide Labour’s involvement?
Reporting Scotland covered the story again on Friday with footage of Willie Young being pursued by the BBC Scotland reporter. Both Reporting Scotland evening edition items can be viewed below.
In each of the items Willie Young is described as a Labour councillor once only. Aberdeen Council is never identified as being under the control of the Labour party.
Later on Wednesday I came across a quite incredible headline on a BBC article. The headline read ‘Election 2017: Was that Angus Robertson’s last PMQs?’
The article contained the following paragraph:
But the Conservatives are hoping he could be one of the biggest scalps on 8 June. Senior Tories tell me Moray – the constituency Mr Robertson has held since 2001 and his party since 1987 – is one of their top targets in Scotland.
I took issue with the piece and let its author know. Nick Eardley responded defending the article citing “sources”.
I consider Nick Eardley to be a pretty decent and fair reporter. He has never given me cause for concern. On this occasion though I felt the article was inappropriate, and here’s why.
The general election in Scotland will not be fought in the same way as the rest of the UK. Both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives have already signalled support for tactical voting. They are trying to create a de-facto Unionist alliance.
The Unionist vote is more susceptible to splitting than the Independence vote. The SNP will not have the same challenge from the Greens as the Tories have from Labour or vice-versa. The Lib Dems confuse the Unionist tactical voting hope further.
By highlighting a Tory target seat Nick Eardley risks helping hard-line Unionist voters identify their party of tactical choice in a seat they may well not have realised was a target at all. It will be the same for every other seat being targeted by Unionists.
Indy voters intent on employing a tactical strategy need only vote SNP regardless of where they live. They need no help from the BBC.
Two days after the Eardley article appeared, The Herald was headlining a ‘warning’ that the SNP deputy leader’s seat was being targeted by the Tories. The Herald, and other newspapers, can ‘advertise’ such target seats as they wish.
The BBC is supposed to be neutral and should not be seen to be assisting any one side of the constitutional divide by drawing attention to target seats.
The highlighting of the Tory target of Robertson’s seat contrasted with the reluctance to mention the same SNP MP on Radio Scotland news that same day. During Prime Minister’s Questions, Robertson had unsettled Theresa May on the issue of pensions. The Prime Minister was put on the backfoot after being asked if she would guarantee the triple-lock. She refused to give a commitment.
The SNP MP was receiving praise from all quarters for his PMQ’s performance. It was bizarre then when the first BBC Scotland news bulletin immediately after the exchanges contrived to completely ignore him.
That was the 1pm news bulletin. Hmm I thought, Radio Scotland is sure to include Robertson in the next bulletin. Below is what was broadcast at 2pm.
So BBC Scotland had broadcast input from Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May and … Tim Farron. Why had Farron been chosen for the 2pm bulletin over Robertson despite the latter heading a far bigger group of MPs? This was Radio Scotland, not Radio UK. Yet Scotland’s party of opposition at Westminster was ignored.
It wouldn’t be an election campaign without a story claiming a split at the top of the SNP. On Thursday morning the Good Morning Scotland newspaper review read out a couple of front pages that did just that.
The claims were nonsense. The clip below is what Nicola Sturgeon said the day after Theresa May called her snap election.
The clip below is what Alex Salmond said on the phone-in programme on which the ‘split’ claims were based. It’s clear to anyone who compares both clips that both senior SNP figures are saying the same thing.
First Minister’s Questions
This brings me to First Minister’s Questions. Below is how the exchanges were reported by BBC Scotland’s afternoon radio programme Newsdrive. The clip below includes every FMQ’s related bulletin from 4pm up until 6pm.
If you managed to listen to the full clip you may have noticed it’s pretty one sided. There are four attacks on the First Minister who is allowed to be heard only once.
Of the four attacks, two are from Ruth Davidson. Moreover, both are of the same clip. For some unfathomable reason, Newsdrive played a clip of Ruth Davidson attacking the First Minister at 4pm and again at 5:30pm. The Scottish Greens aren’t heard at all.
Three of the four attacks on the First Minister relate to independence. The BBC play Ruth Davidson’s attack twice for good measure. Davidson’s attack is based on the LBC phone-in programme with Alex Salmond – an attack line that I’ve already shown is nonsense.
These bulletins are being broadcast during a general election campaign. Yet there’s no attempt at ensuring balance. The bulletins are packaged in a manner that very clearly places the SNP at a disadvantage. The bulletins also focus more on Unionist opposition attacks on independence.
It’s worth noting the new Ofcom guidelines in relation to ‘undue prominence’.
Undue prominence is a significant imbalance of views aired within coverage of matters of political or industrial controversy or matters relating to current public policy.
On the same day as First Minister’s Questions, it emerged that suspect packages had been sent to an SNP MP and to SNP HQ. At least one of the packages contained a pro-Tory/anti-SNP message. One of the packages was said to contain chemical crystals, although they were not deemed harmful.
On that evening’s Reporting Scotland the packages were not the top item. They were not even the second top item. The story was actually placed third, behind a story about a sexual relationship between an athlete and her coach and … wait for it … a report on that day’s First Minister’s Questions. Yes, BBC Scotland deemed set piece attacks on the First Minister more newsworthy than what amounted to a terror campaign that targeted the SNP during an election.
When it finally, aired the item rather bizarrely didn’t lead with the targeting of the party of government in Scotland. For some inexplicable reason the BBC decided to start the item with a reference to a package sent to the offices of the Police Federation.
There’s little doubt that the story was played down by BBC Scotland. Which was in contrast to August 2014, when Labour MP Jim Murphy was hit by a raw egg.
Murphy had been touring Scottish towns making rabble-rousing speeches and basically getting himself involved in shouting matches with less than diplomatic Yes supporters. The incident was reported across the Scottish media as though a maniac had made a threat on the Labour MP’s life. It topped BBC Scotland news for days, prompting headlines and phone-ins.
If you enjoyed reading this article please feel free to make a small donation.