It’s smear time again at BBC Scotland. The corporation has stepped in to prevent Kezia Dugdale from inflicting further punishment on herself.
We entered the second week of the Holyrood campaign with Scottish Labour in near meltdown. Dugdale followed an income tax U-turn by revealing she’d consider backing independence if Scotland found itself dragged out of the European Union. Her constitutional admission did not go down well with party colleagues.
If there’s one thing guaranteed to provoke the Pacific Quay mob into action it’s the sight of a distressed Scottish Labour party during an election campaign. A diversion was needed, and quick if Labour’s descent was to be arrested. But there was slim pickings.
The first mention on BBC Scotland of what was to become the Chinese Smear came last Sunday [April 3rd] during the newspaper review on Good Morning Scotland. Journalist Kevin McKenna dug out an obscure story tucked inside the Sunday Mail and the Sunday Times.
According to McKenna the story involved an agreement between the Scottish Government and the Chinese that could lead to “ten billion pounds worth of deals” and “new markets for UK steel workers”. There were of course no projects because, as we now know, what was signed was a simple memorandum of understanding that hopefully might lead to such deals.
McKenna supposed the reason the story hadn’t been given more prominence by both newspapers was that it had only came to light late Saturday. He was wrong. In actual fact, the reason the story hadn’t been given much prominence was because it had already been reported the day before by a rival newspaper.
The Scotsman initially reported the memorandum story as a good news one for Scotland. It gave details of the kind of investment that the memorandum could lead to. There were quotes from both parties. It was a no-nonsense matter of fact piece of reporting.
The newspaper altered its headline some time later after obtaining critical quotes from the Scottish Labour party. The Scotsman also published another separate article on receipt of the Labour comments. This was to become the essence of the smear. Both headlines can be seen below.
So a good news story for Scotland became an anti-SNP smear in the space of a few hours on Saturday. The smear was picked up by the Sunday Mail and the Sunday Times, both of which buried re-hashed versions in their editions the following day.
Despite the Scotsman running two versions of its own original story, and an additional article later on, nothing appeared on BBC Scotland throughout Saturday and into Sunday.
It’s inconceivable that BBC Scotland didn’t know about the story throughout the whole of Saturday given the reliance its news gatherers have on Scotland’s newspapers to gauge the news narrative. So it’s safe to say the smear wasn’t deemed that important by BBC Scotland. But that was to change, and how.
So far we had three newspapers each having published the story. All three are known to be anti-independence and each have an editorial policy most would agree was anti-SNP. Yet neither had thought the smear strong enough for their front pages.
The Sunday Mail and Sunday Times had tucked it away deep inside the papers. The Scotsman’s Sunday sister, as far as I can tell, hadn’t even picked its Saturday sibling’s story up.
However, within a few hours of the newspaper review on Sunday’s Good Morning Scotland, BBC Scotland suddenly decided that the story was significant after all. An article appeared on the BBC Scotland website. It was given top billing.
The article headline didn’t take the ‘good news’ line, but rather predictably ran with Scottish Labour’s smear angle. The smear was about to receive a massive injection of publicity oxygen from the state broadcaster.
I have often said that no smear carries any durable traction unless the state broadcaster agrees to run with it. BBC Scotland was about to throw the kitchen sink at Nicola Sturgeon … and some.
Let’s stop there for a moment and consider why BBC Scotland would seek to do this. We are entering the second week of the Holyrood election campaign and Scottish Labour is in complete disarray. Dugdale’s key campaign weapon of income tax has backfired spectacularly with her rebate U-turn. Her naivety in an interview in which she signalled possible future support for independence is a massive gaffe.
The independence gaffe has been seized on by Ruth Davidson whose campaign strategy of targeting hard-line Unionists threatens Scottish Labour’s last remaining position of influence – that of official Holyrood opposition. A news agenda set by a dominant SNP and officially challenged by a Margaret Thatcher mini-me is a nightmare scenario for the Unionists at BBC Scotland.
On Sunday evening, the smear made it onto Reporting Scotland as the clip below shows.
The item was introduced with a generic attack on Sturgeon’s “so-called secret agreement”. Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie was allowed air-time in order to launch an innuendo-laced attack on Nicola Sturgeon suggesting impropriety of some kind and implying the Chinese had been promised “something in return”. Sturgeon was shown on the defensive.
The coverage of the smear by Sunday night’s Reporting Scotland ensured it entered the public consciousness. In doing so the broadcaster provided an incentive for newspapers to push the smear onto their front pages, which two duly did on Monday. The headlines were reviewed on Monday morning by the Good Morning Scotland team.
The Chinese smear didn’t receive any more coverage on Monday’s Good Morning Scotland. The story couldn’t compete with the ‘Panama Papers’ leak. BBC Scotland had also scheduled the release of its own polling on tax especially commissioned for the Holyrood election. What political coverage there was on Good Morning Scotland was taken up by the poll. The smear looked to have run its course.
Coverage of the smear by BBC Scotland really ought to have ended there. The story held very little in terms of being genuinely newsworthy. The only news value appeared to be that the Scottish Government hadn’t issued any press releases after the memorandum of understanding was signed. Sturgeon’s opponents had fired off their volleys on Saturday and Sunday.
But BBC Scotland wasn’t finished. As expected, Monday night’s Reporting Scotland contained coverage of the Holyrood campaign. But the coverage wasn’t led by BBC Scotland’s exclusive poll. Incredibly the report began with the Chinese Smear. The clip below shows the whole item.
Listen closely to Jackie Bird’s introduction. It is a classic smear technique.
“Labour has sought to regain the initiative in the election campaign by pressing the SNP Ministers for full details of their investment talks with Chinese firms. The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insists she has nothing to hide.”
Firstly, Scottish Labour launched their initial attack on Saturday in a national newspaper. The party did so again on Sunday via the BBC online news. Now on Monday, Labour was making similar claims, again via the BBC. This wasn’t ‘seizing the initiative’, this was repeating baseless smears.
Secondly, full details of the memorandum had already been released on Sunday. There was no reason to ‘press’ ministers.
Thirdly, it’s one of the oldest propaganda tricks in the book to report that someone has said they have ‘nothing to hide’ or that they ‘deny’ an accusation. It can be played against anyone by simply asking them to respond to false claims. In fact when Nicola Sturgeon finally appeared on Monday’s Reporting Scotland she didn’t utter the defensive phrase attributed to her by Jackie Bird. Sturgeon instead launched a very precise attack on her Unionist opponents.
Another point I’d like to draw your attention to is that the First Minister was shown on the defensive when Reporting Scotland covered the story on Sunday. When the broadcaster decided to cover the issue again on Monday, it ought to have balanced its coverage by showing it from Sturgeon’s perspective with her opponents on the defensive. But that’s not what happened. The First Minister was again shown on the defensive.
On Monday’s broadcast, Glenn Campbell also appeared to slightly mislead viewers by reporting that the contents of the memorandum were only published “after photographs appeared in the Chinese media”. This of course wasn’t entirely true. The Chinese media reported the story on March 22nd. The memorandum was released after the Scottish media started to run the same story as a smear.
BBC Scotland was really pushing the smear. It wasn’t surprising when the story turned up on Monday’s edition of the late night current affairs show Scotland 2016. You can watch the segment below.
It was essentially a rehash of the same smears and innuendo broadcast on Reporting Scotland hours earlier. The claim by reporter Andrew Black that the story had emerged in the Scottish press on Sunday was false. As I have already shown, the story initially appeared in a Scottish newspaper on Saturday afternoon. It was initially a good news story about investment, before being transformed into the smear that was now dominating BBC Scotland TV news.
When I started drafting this article on Monday evening I expected that would be it as far as Reporting Scotland was concerned. It had managed to squeeze two days’ worth of ‘news’ out of a relatively timid story.
Even when the Herald newspaper ran the following front page on Tuesday morning, I never expected Reporting Scotland to push the smear for a third consecutive day.
How wrong I was. I was genuinely stunned when the story appeared as the lead political item on Reporting Scotland for the third successive evening.
The item was a smear built upon a smear. There was more innuendo from Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie. Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale was heard making similar remarks. Glenn Campbell informed viewers that Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was “suspicious”. The item was styled in a manner that invited the viewer to link the SNP with corruption. It was quite blatant propaganda.
If you look back at Reporting Scotland’s coverage of the smear, the items have received considerable resource in terms of graphics and overall production. They have been designed as stand-alone news pieces. This isn’t simply a talking-head speaking to camera, there are also dramatic looking graphics and archive footage woven into the items. Newspaper articles have been researched in order to spice up the reports. Considerable effort has gone into making the items look as slick as possible.
The Chinese smear led the Reporting Scotland’s political news on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. It eclipsed BBC Scotland’s own poll and the Holyrood campaign set-pieces.
Contrast the effort in promoting the anti-SNP smear with the meagre resource allocated to Kezia Dugdale’s tax-rebate U-turn the previous week which received all of 82 seconds on Reporting Scotland. It was a make-do studio discussion where the word ‘rebate’ didn’t even appear. A ‘meanwhile’ addendum bolted on to the main campaign news.
The Chinese smear enjoyed a final curtain-call on BBC Scotland courtesy of Wednesday’s newspaper review on Good Morning Scotland – a practice that should cease during election campaigns.
If you missed the review then BBC Scotland online helpfully reproduced the ‘informative’ front pages in its main Scottish news section. The top three newspapers featured by BBC Scotland on Wednesday contained the headlines seen below. Why BBC Scotland is helping to promote politically motivated headlines during an election campaign is anyone’s guess.
Wednesday morning looks to have been the final flourish for the Chinese smear. Notwithstanding the innate corruption within BBC Scotland political news, I really can’t see this story appearing again.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be other attempts by Unionists to smear the SNP. As I write this I see Unionists marshelling their forces. It looks like Dugdale is in trouble again.
If you enjoyed reading this article then you can make a small donation by clicking the ‘donate’ button below.