On Wednesday I highlighted what appeared to be a deliberate attempt by the main presenter of Good Morning Scotland to mislead listeners by misrepresenting Scottish Government Minister Shona Robison. My article, which can be read here, coincided with a tweet by the MSP herself to that same presenter that challenged his presentation of her views.
When a Scottish government minister has to resort to using social media in order to correct claims being broadcast by senior presenters at the BBC, then we have a problem. But it isn’t a problem I’m unfamiliar with. You really don’t have to look hard for evidence of, shall we say, the ‘questionable’ presentation of political news by BBC Scotland.
David O’Neill is a Labour councillor. He is also the head of the local authority umbrella group COSLA. On Thursday BBC Scotland ran a story based on a forthcoming speech O’Neill was due to make in which he would criticise the Scottish government’s plan to give more autonomy to head teachers.
The key proposal underpinning this new autonomy is a pledge to fund head teachers directly from the proceeds of the council tax increase on expensive-home bands.
The story appeared on BBC Scotland’s main online news section. The article listed criticisms O’Neill intended to make of the Scottish government.
However despite O’Neill being a senior Labour politician, the party affiliation of the councillor was not revealed in the article.
The story was mentioned in bulletins on Good Morning Scotland. As you can hear from the clip below, the bulletin made no mention of David O’Neill’s party affiliation.
The thrust of David O’Neill’s criticism of the Scottish government was that poverty, and not control of schools, was the main barrier to raising attainment. O’Neill claimed the move by the Scottish government to bypass councils was evidence of centralisation by the SNP, an accusation repeatedly levelled at the SNP by O’Neill’s party.
OK, you ask, so the BBC made no mention of O’Neill’s party affiliation – is it really such a big deal? Well yes. Because the plan for autonomy that this senior Labour party politician is criticising was exactly what his own party proposed during the Holyrood election campaign barely five months ago.
In the lead up to the Holyrood election, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale proposed to give head teachers extra cash, and more autonomy to decide what to do with it. Dugdale argued handing the funding “directly to head teachers” would ensure that the “people who know best” would have the freedom to decide what changes they need to make.
“Where you are going in life should not depend on where you start your life. So our manifesto sets an ambition to close the gap in educational attainment between the richest and the rest within a generation.
“We will provide £1,000 extra investment in every child from a poor background, direct to head teachers, funded by bringing back the 50p top rate of tax.”
Dugdale showcased the pledge at a Labour party conference.
So here we have a Labour councillor, appearing across BBC Scotland criticising the Scottish government for doing something his own party pledged to do if it won power last May.
Now, that doesn’t mean O’Neill himself backs Dugdale’s pledge. But it does raise the question as to why neither his party affiliation nor his party’s own similar plans were highlighted by BBC Scotland. Wouldn’t it have been an easy and a journalistically ethical thing to do?
Let’s go back a day to Wednesday and a joint statement issued by Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Caroline Lucas. The respective leaders of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the England and Wales Greens were responding after Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in a speech at the Conservative conference, revealed plans to force firms to disclose how many of their workers are non-British.
The three female leaders denounced what they called the UK Government’s “toxic rhetoric on immigration”. The joint statement was also signed by Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie and Green Party leaders in Wales and Northern Ireland.
“The countries of the United Kingdom face a spiralling political and economic crisis.
“At the top of the Conservative party, the narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU has now been interpreted as the pretext for a drastic cutting of ties with Europe, which would have dire economic results – and as an excuse for the most toxic rhetoric on immigration we have seen from any government in living memory.
“This is a profoundly moral question which gets to the heart of what sort of country we think we live in.
“We will not tolerate the contribution of people from overseas to our NHS being called into question or a new version of the divisive rhetoric of ‘British jobs for British workers’.
“Neither will we allow the people of these islands, no matter how they voted on June 23, to be presented as a reactionary, xenophobic mass whose only concern is somehow taking the UK back to a lost imperial age.
“At a time of increasing violence and tension, we will call out the actions of politicians who threaten to inflame those same things.”
Newsworthy? Well STV certainly thought so as the image alongside shows. However the cross-party statement was ignored by BBC Scotland.
It wasn’t covered by the evening radio programme Newsdrive, nor was it covered on Reporting Scotland, despite the flagship news programme covering the Tory conference.
The following day Good Morning Scotland host Gary Robertson was challenged on twitter over the failure to cover the cross-party statement. Robertson, in typical arrogant fashion, replied that it had indeed been covered on Reporting Scotland the previous evening because he himself had heard Nicola Sturgeon’s response.
Was the joint statement covered? Below is the item in question.
At no point is the cross-party criticism of the UK government mentioned. There is merely the briefest mention of Nicola Sturgeon by the reporter Nick Eardley. To suggest, as Gary Robertson did, that the joint-statement had been covered was disingenuous at best.
The afore-mentioned joint statement included references to a ‘reactionary, xenophobic mass’. There is currently an acceptance amongst many political observers that the recent Conservative party conference has been the most xenophobic ever. Attacks on immigration and signals for lists to be made of non-British workers have pock-marked an unseemly coming together of the UK ultra-right wing.
On Thursday, at First Minister’s Questions, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wasted no time in condemning the xenophobic rhetoric that oozed from the conference. Her first statement called it out and there were continual references to the xenophobia throughout.
By the time the flagship news programme aired that night, all references to xenophobes by the First Minister had disappeared. The Reporting Scotland item made no mention of what was very clearly the most newsworthy aspect of the proceedings.
The previous evening Reporting Scotland had no hesitancy in showing Theresa May attacking what she claimed was ‘Divisive Nationalists’. It was a clear reference to the SNP.
So BBC Scotland was quite happy to portray Scotland’s party of government as non-inclusive, as perhaps isolationist. It wasn’t though prepared to portray the UK government as intolerant, as xenophobic.
Including the misrepresentation of Shona Robison, in the space of two days there have been four examples of what I would diplomatically describe as ‘questionable’ coverage of Scottish politics. Believe me when I say I could have included more examples.
There was talk this week of the setting up of a so-called independence think-tank with a view to updating the vision for independence. Might I suggest that those currently indulging their fantasies on such a flawed idea consider how such a body would be presented by the one organisation capable of promulgating any publications emanating from the think-tank? It would be mostly ignored, sometimes ridiculed and occasionally misrepresented.
The Yes movement can create think-tanks and churn out ‘visions’ until the cows come home. It won’t make a deal of difference if the major media-conduit is controlled by London.
Ask yourself why so many people in Scotland remain hopelessly misinformed. Then ask yourself how best to persuade these same people to question the source of their misinformation.
It’s not a think-tank we need. It’s a means of exposing and challenging media misinformation.
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