On April 2nd a story hit the headlines. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis confirmed that Spain would not oppose a newly independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union.
Dastis had been giving an interview to Spanish newspaper El Pais. He was asked about the Brexit process and then specifically about Scotland.
“It will leave the European Union with the United Kingdom: everything else will have to wait. Spain doesn’t like the idea of EU member states fragmenting.
“That said, if in the application of its laws, the result of the process was to divide the United Kingdom, any part of the United Kingdom that became a state and wanted to join the EU would have to request membership and follow the steps that are already stipulated.”
Asked if Spain would block a newly independent Scotland’s EU access, Dastis replied “In principle, I don’t see us blocking it.” Alfonso Dastis made no further comment about Scotland with respect to the European Union.
Below is one of several BBC Scotland news bulletins that were broadcast that day.
In the clip above the newsreader says: “Spain has confirmed it would not initially block any attempt from Scotland to join the EU after Brexit.”
The newsreader adds that Dastis remains opposed to independence and: “… warns an application for membership could take several years to be processed.”
A near word-for-word copy of the news bulletin was published in an online article.
So what’s the problem? The bulletin is, to put it diplomatically, inaccurate. It contains what is almost certainly a mistranslation of Dastis’ words. Worse than that though is that it contains a quite blatant falsehood.
Let’s deal with the mistranslation first. In his interview, when asked if Spain would oppose an EU membership bid from Scotland, Dastis replies: “De entrada no veo que vayamos a bloquear.”
The phrase ‘De entrada’ if translated in isolation can mean ‘from the outset’, ‘straightaway’, ‘to start with’ etc. However in the context of the Dastis’ interview it means ‘In principle’.
I was informed of this from a contact in Spain on the day Dastis gave his interview.
This was confirmed when El Pais published its own English translation of the interview. The definitive translation one would think.
BBC Scotland’s interpretation of Dastis’ words goes beyond a literal dictionary translation. The corporation buttered it up a bit by paraphrasing the foreign minister’s comments in a manner that implied Spain’s ‘no veto’ pledge was merely temporary.
Let’s leave that to one side though and look at the second part of the BBC Scotland bulletin. According to the broadcaster Dastis also warned that “an application for membership could take several years to be processed.”
Did he? I checked the interview given to El Pais and can confirm the Spanish Foreign Minister made no reference whatsoever to how long any membership bid could take. In the El Pais interview, Dastis says only that any application would “follow the steps that are already stipulated.”
So where did BBC Scotland get this ‘warning’ from if not from the El Pais interview? Read on.
A complaint was submitted to the BBC on April 4th. The complaint alleged that the BBC had mistranslated Dastis’ words by claiming the minister had said that Spain would “not initially block” a Scottish EU application instead of the accurate ‘In principle, would not block’. The complaint provided a link to the El Pais English translation.
The complaint also accused the BBC of inventing the so-called warning relating to the length of time an application could take to process.
First let’s see the response to the mistranslation part of the complaint from the Deputy Head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland:
The phrase “de entrada” has more than one meaning in Spanish. Collins Spanish Dictionary, sixth edition, displays two examples. De entrada ya nos dijo que no is cited as meaning ‘He said no from the outset’; and de entrada no se lo quiso creer is cited as meaning ‘At first he refused to believe it’.
Reuters’ report from a Spanish-speaking staffer in Madrid translated that part of the interview in El Pais as “Initially, I don’t think we would block it”. Many languages have words which can mean one thing or the other, and Spanish is clearly no exception. There is no supportable evidence that the BBC was a party to “mistranslation” or “falsehood”.
The BBC has simply repeated a translation read on Reuters. That El Pais, which conducted the interview, gives a significantly different meaning, seems not to have bothered the BBC official. As far as he or she is concerned, there is no error.
Now let’s take a look at the arguably more serious allegation that BBC Scotland fabricated a warning Dastis did not give. Below is the response to this part of the complaint.
There were two Alfonso Dastis interviews published that morning (2nd April) – one with El Pais and one with other European newspapers, including The Guardian.
In the second interview, the Foreign Minister was reported as saying that Edinburgh would have to apply for membership, a process fraught with uncertainty that is likely to take several years. Our reports drew on the two interviews, and the duration comments came from the latter.
BBC Scotland’s Deputy Editor is claiming there were two interviews given by Dastis. He or she lists The Guardian newspaper as one of the newspapers that published details of this mystery second interview.
There is indeed an article published by The Guardian newspaper that suggests Dastis answered questions from other newspapers. The Guardian article contains the text cited by the BBC Deputy editor as having been spoken or signalled by, Dastis – “He also said Edinburgh would have to apply for membership, a process fraught with uncertainty that is likely to take several years.”
However the words weren’t spoken by Alfonso Dastis at all. They are very clearly the words of the journalist who wrote the Guardian article. The article attributes no quote to Dastis that would justify the news report by the BBC.
Guardian journalist Jennifer Rankin correctly paraphrased Dastis when she reported, “He also said Edinburgh would have to apply for membership,”. However the part after the comma which reads “a process fraught with uncertainty that is likely to take several years” [which the BBC claims was a warning by Dastis] does not relate to anything Dastis said.
The Guardian journalist was providing what she believed was highly relevant background information for the reader. Rankin was describing the EU application process as it has historically been reported by her own newspaper. Indeed she actually links to an article her newspaper published almost three weeks earlier on March 14th as ‘evidence’ to justify her ‘several years’ claim.
That March 14th article contained the following paragraph:
Asked about the Scottish first minister’s latest announcement , in which she said she would seek a second independence vote between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, an EU spokesman referred back to the 2012 statement . “The Barroso doctrine, would that apply? Yes that would apply, obviously ,” he said.
The so-called Dastis warning was actually a statement issued by Jose Manuel Barroso back in 2012.
Had Dastis said a newly independent Scotland would have to go through a process ‘fraught with uncertainty’ that was likely to ‘take several years’ then it would have generated the kind of news coverage we saw during the first independence referendum. It would have allowed the pro-Union media to counter the ‘no veto’ line with this ‘uncertainty/several years’ line. But they didn’t.
I challenge anyone to look for this so called quote from Dastis. The closest I could find was this from The Independent “They would have to join the line of candidates at some point and would have to start negotiations,”. STV news reported a shorter version of the same quote.
The Herald reported the same quote as The Independent. Interestingly though The Herald did mention that the application process “could take many years” but correctly attributed it to the so-called ‘Barroso Doctrine’ and not, as the BBC had done, to Dastis.
Indeed someone at BBC Scotland may have realised the mistake by the time Reporting Scotland aired. For there was no mention of any such warning in the item, despite The Guardian newspaper article featuring prominently.
By adding the ‘warning’ to the story that broke on April 2nd, BBC Scotland managed to spike a news story that was beneficial to the campaign for independence. The corporation injected its own little bit of pro-Union spin. Why it was subsequently dropped from that evening’s Reporting Scotland we’ll never know.
In summary, BBC Scotland based a significant part of its news coverage of a crucial intervention partly on a dubious translation in a Reuters press release and partly on the misreading of a sentence published in The Guardian newspaper. How very thorough.
The result was a news bulletin that implied Spanish backing for a Scottish EU membership bid was only temporary and that Spain had in fact also issued a warning in relation to the application process itself.
If I didn’t know better I’d say someone at BBC Scotland went looking for anything they could use that would lessen the pro-independence value of Dastis’ ‘No Veto’ comments.
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