On Friday February 5th this year a story appeared across the news platforms of BBC Scotland. A ‘think tank’ had, we were told, carried out ‘independent analysis’ of Scottish Labour’s election proposal of an income tax rise of one pence for every taxpayer in Scotland.
The news reports were a godsend to the Scottish Labour party. According to BBC Scotland, Kezia Dugdale’s proposals could variously “reduce the impact of spending cuts”, “weigh most heavily on higher earners” and “boost the income” of the poorest.
The bulletins and headlines mirrored the campaign rhetoric of the Labour party itself. Below is a snippet of the kind of news bulletins that appeared on Good Morning Scotland.
The so-called ‘independent analysis’ was also covered online by Douglas Fraser in an article headlined Tax rise plan ‘could reduce cuts impact by a third‘ [see image above]. The original headline of the online article was ‘Think tank supports income tax rise in Scotland‘.
Fraser appeared on Good Morning Scotland explaining the findings of the ‘independent analysis’ to listeners.
It was already clear that BBC Scotland had decided to invest significant resource in order to promote the findings of this report. But where was the report?
I searched the website of the Resolution Foundation and found nothing had been published for that day. Indeed there were no published reports which analysed Scottish Labour’s income tax proposal. I could find no evidence of an actual report anywhere.
In desperation I turned to the think tank’s twitter feed. I discovered a link to a blog from someone called Torsten Bell. Torsten Bell is the current Director of the Resolution Foundation. Mr Bell had published a personal blog which contained his own anallysis of the Scottish Labour proposal.
Was this the so-called independent report BBC Scotland was referring to? My thoughts were confirmed when Torsten Bell appeared on Good Morning Scotland. Below is his interview with Good Morning Scotland presenter Gary Robertson.
BBC Scotland was passing off a personal blog as an ‘independent report’. As if that wasn’t bad enough what I then discovered was even worse. Torsten Bell had been, until very recently, a senior figure in the Labour party.
Until the 2010 General Election Torsten Bell worked for Alistair Darling as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers in HM Treasury. He later became Ed Miliband’s policy director and played a significant role on Labour’s 2015 general election campaign. The former advisor to senior Labour party figures was appointed Director of the Resolution Foundation in September 2015.
It was incredible. A blog written by the former head of policy for Ed Miliband was being presented as ‘independent analysis’ by BBC Scotland. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, BBC Scotland had omitted to mention Mr Bell’s connections to the Labour party.
BBC Scotland persisted with the coverage throughout the day and into the evening. The so-called ‘independent report’ was dominating the news output. The choreographed charade fuelled a full day of pro-Labour news bulletins on BBC Scotland TV, Radio and online.
By the end of the day hundreds of thousands of ordinary people had been duped by BBC Scotland into believing a blog written by a former Labour party advisor was an independent report published by the think tank he headed. The conclusions of the mythical report supported claims being made by the Scottish Labour party.
Within days of the bulletins airing, a complaint was submitted to the BBC Trust. Given complaints submitted to the Trust can only relate to a single programme the complaint centred on Reporting Scotland. The original complaint is reproduced below.
The programme contained an item about an “independent report” which had been published by a think tank called the Resolution Foundation. There was never any report published by the think tank. What Reporting Scotland described as a ‘report’ was actually a personal blog written by the Director of the Resolution Foundation.
The independence of the blog writer is also in doubt. Viewers were not told that the author – Torsten Bell – was the former policy advisor to Ed Miliband when the latter was leader of the Labour party. Given that the blog was supportive of claims made by the Labour party in Scotland, this was a quite outrageous omission.
In summary, describing a personal blog written by a former Labour party policy chief [and which is supportive of Labour party claims] as an “independent report” whilst omitting mention of his links to the Labour party, is both misleading and highly inaccurate.
The response from the editor of Reporting Scotland is seen below in full.
You refer to the item about a report from the Resolution Foundation. We were not alone in calling it a report – a quick check establishes that the Edinburgh Evening News, the Daily Record, The Herald and the Press Association (a major news agency) referred to “report”. Many reports are now published in a different fashion from the standard methods of the past; and a ‘blog’ can be just as comprehensive and authoritative as a traditional, multi-copy collection of paper pages within a glossy wrapper. Our decision to publish is not dictated by the format of publication but is influenced by, amongst other factors, the quality of the argument deployed.
The four top staff of the Resolution Foundation are ‘Executive Chair’, a former Conservative government minister; ‘Director’, a former Treasury civil servant, special adviser and policy director for Labour; ‘Director of Communications’, formerly of the Trades Union Congress; and ‘Chief Economist’, a former statistical and economic specialist in the House of Commons, providing advice to individual MPs and to a number of select committees.
Both the headline and the intro made clear that there was more than one interpretation of what the Resolution Foundation said; and the report included clips of David Finch of the Resolution Foundation; Kezia Dugdale MSP (Lab); and Kenneth Gibson MSP (SNP), Convenor, Finance Committee, in which they all set out their respective stalls. This format helps to ensure that, in a welter of arguments and counter-arguments, the viewer is aware that there may be different views expressed about any one document or proposal.
I therefore cannot accept your suggestion that the report was “both misleading and highly inaccurate”.
I’m not going to list in full all of the BBC replies, for to do so would make this article unreadable. But this first reply from the editor of Reporting Scotland is key for it allows me to demonstrate just how flawed the defensive logic is at BBC Scotland.
The reply begins by listing several media sources that also described Torsten Bell’s blog as a ‘report’. Listed are the Edinburgh Evening News, the Daily Record, The Herald and the Press Association (The latter is described as a major news agency).
And it’s true. All of the media outlets listed did indeed describe the blog as a ‘report’. But newspapers and independent radio stations didn’t ape the BBC in its entirety. The following sentence was how the Press Association introduced the ‘report’ in its news release.
‘A new report by the Resolution Foundation, written by former Labour policy director and Treasury adviser Torsten Bell, said the overall impact of the 1% rise is progressive.’
All of the news outlets cited by the editor of Reporting Scotland informed their readers of the political background of the blog author. In citing these outlets in defence of his programme’s description of the blog as a ‘report’, the editor of Reporting Scotland had inadvertently conceded that part of the complaint against the BBC which was its refusal to highlight Torsten Bell’s links to the Labour party.
The editor of Reporting Scotland also sought to argue that there is in fact little difference between the blog in question and traditional, well-researched and academically rigorous reports which he rather glibly described as a “multi-copy collection of paper pages within a glossy wrapper”. In this moment we see the depths to which senior editors at BBC Scotland will stoop in order to defend their own misleading journalism. To even attempt to equate a blog by a former Labour party advisor with serious academic research is an insult to academics and an indication of the scale of the erosion of standards that plagues BBC Scotland.
Unhappy with the initial response, the complaint was pursued with the complainant pointing out that erroneous reporting from other news agencies was no justification for the BBC’s own erroneous coverage. On March 30th a second response was received, this time from the Depute Editor of News and Current Affairs in Scotland, part of which is reproduced below.
In citing other references to a ‘report’, the Editor of Reporting Scotland was not making an excuse for sharing an inaccuracy with other media outlets; he was making the point that his reference was also made by others, including a leading news agency. Your view that this is an “inaccuracy” is clearly not shared by them.
The Editor then explained why the boundaries between reports and blogs have been blurred as methods of delivering information change. You and we will have to agree to disagree on definitions in this field.
You argue that Mr Bell’s comments are “supportive of similar income tax policies proposed by the Labour party in Scotland”. They certainly outline them – but he also outlines other points of view, including that of supporters of the Scottish government.
We now see a new argument being introduced by BBC Scotland management. The claim that Torsten Bell’s blog contained arguments put forward by supporters of the Scottish government is though a red herring. The blog may or may not have included such arguments. These arguments though did not form the basis of headlines on BBC Scotland. The conclusions BBC Scotland promoted that day were exclusively those that backed Scottish Labour’s tax proposal.
Let’s stop there for a moment and try to make sense of what is going on. BBC Scotland has been caught passing off, as an ‘independent report published by a respected think tank’, a blog written by a former advisor to Ed Miliband. BBC Scotland has deliberately omitted to mention the party political affiliations of the blog author. The party in question [Labour] benefited enormously from the selective promotion by BBC Scotland of the blog’s conclusions. This happens during an election campaign.
The corporation, confronted with these indisputable facts, refuses to admit it did anything wrong or that it misled the public in any way.
Faced with a defiant intransigence from BBC Scotland management, the complainant moved the complaint on to the next level which was the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit [ECU].
I’m not going to dwell much on the exchanges between the ECU and the complainant, save to say that the arguments essentially remained the same. The blog, it was argued by the BBC, was a de-facto well-researched piece of analysis. Torsten Bell’s links to the Labour party were not relevant, and thus there was no requirement to inform the public that he was a former Labour party senior advisor.
An additional defence was introduced by the ECU. Because the blog appeared on the Resolution Foundation’s website, the BBC now argued that this meant it had the official endorsement of the think-tank. Below is a short segment from the ECU.
I would also suggest that anything published on the Foundation’s website can reasonably be taken as something which the organisation is prepared to endorse or with which it is prepared to be associated, regardless of the particular author or their previous employment background.
The fact the Reporting Scotland report included a contribution from David Finch, the Foundation’s Senior Economic Analyst, would appear to support my understanding the Resolution Foundation was prepared to endorse Mr Bell’s “blog” and it should be considered as rather more than a personal opinion.
I have explained why I believe the Resolution Foundation can reasonably be described as politically independent and why I think the content of the article can reasonably be regarded as the published view of the organisation. In that context, the use of the word “report” as opposed to “blog”, “article” or “view” (or some other similar description) was unlikely to have any significant effect on the audience’s understanding of its status or the weight that should be afforded to it.
Having conveniently redefined the meaning of ‘blog’, ‘report’ and ‘independent’ in order to suit a preconceived agenda, the ECU official concluded that the blog could be described as an independent report published by the Resolution Foundation.
Complaining to the BBC, as can be seen, is a torturous affair. The complaints process is designed not to hold the BBC to account but to thwart the holding of the BBC to account. The responses and excuses are at times even more misleading and contrived than the broadcasts which initially prompted the complaint.
Editorial Standards Committee
The ECU eventually decided not to pass the complaint on to the BBC Trust. The decision not to progress the complaint was appealed by the complainant on July 20th.
It is worthwhile noting that only those complaints that are deemed to have a reasonable prospect of succeeding are passed on to the Trust. The very act of passing them on is often seen as an acknowledgement of their seriousness.
In September the complainant finally won the right to have the complaint heard by the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee. The case was heard on November 3rd 2016, almost nine months to the day since the broadcasts which prompted the complaint.
On receipt of the news that the complaint would be heard by the Editorial Standards Committee, a question was posed by the complainant to the Resolution Foundation. The think tank was asked how blogs, such as the one written by Torsten Bell, should be described in news reports and articles. The question posed and the official reply from the Resolution Foundation are shown below.
Your website contains separate sections for ‘Blogs’ and ‘Publications’. Are ‘Blogs’ simply the personal views of the individual under whose name they appear or are they considered equally representative of the organisation as that which appears within the ‘Publications’ section?
For example, if I were writing an article which referenced a Blog Post, would it be accurate to describe the Blog Post as being ‘a report published by the Resolution Foundation’?
An accurate citation would be ‘a blog by x of the Resolution Foundation’ you could also add ‘published on their website’ and provide a link to the blog for clarity.
The reply destroyed a key argument by the BBC that its description of the blog as being an ‘independent report published by the Resolution Foundation’ was accurate. That the think tank itself had insisted the blog be described as ‘a blog by x of the Resolution Foundation’ effectively meant the Editorial Standards Committee had to uphold that part of the complaint which argued that the blog had been wrongly described as an ‘independent report’.
On December 14th the Editorial Standards Committee relayed its final ruling to the complainant. The complaint had failed in its entirety.
BBC Scotland was found not to have contravened any guidelines by presenting a blog as an independent report.
Trustees observed that the manner in which people and organisations communicated online was evolving and that there were no clearly defined boundaries over what would appear in a blog or report.
In this case, Trustees agreed that the post was a statistically based examination of the issue rather than one based on personal opinion.
As a result, while acknowledging that it might have been better if the programme had described the Resolution Foundation item as a blog rather than a report, the Committee agreed that describing it as a report was duly accurate and that the audience would not have been materially misled.
BBC Scotland was found not to have contravened any guidelines by hiding the political affiliations of the blog author.
The Committee noted that the Resolution Foundation describes itself as “non-partisan” and that its senior staff included a former Conservative minister as Executive Chair as well as Mr Bell. It further noted that the Foundation is primarily funded by the Resolution Trust and that there is no evidence on its part of any particular political allegiance.
The Committee observed that the post was analytical in tone and had been linked to other Resolution Foundation material on its website. It did not advocate the policy and the article took steps to avoid partisanship.
The Committee concluded that as the blog was on the Resolution Foundation website and was linked to other material by the Foundation and as an interviewee from the Foundation had appeared on the programme, the post was endorsed by the organisation. Given that the Foundation was established as non-partisan, the Committee agreed that the programme had been duly accurate to describe the post as independent.
As a result, the Committee considered that there had not been a breach of the accuracy guidelines.
The ruling added:
Trustees had concluded that it was duly accurate to describe it as independent. Trustees also noted that the blog had not advocated a particular party’s policy and had pointed out possible shortcomings with the policy.
Trustees agreed that in these circumstances there was no requirement to set out Mr Bell’s previous posts at the Treasury and with the Labour Party in order to achieve due impartiality.
Corruption and conspiracy
The complaints process, in this instance, has not served the licence payer. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant attempt to influence an election campaign than the shoehorning of a blog written by a former senior Labour official into BBC Scotland news output.
That this is deemed acceptable by the body [soon to be dissolved] specifically tasked with ensuring the BBC’s charter is honoured, is very worrying.
Few people will be aware, but Torsten Bell was a member of the official Better Together campaign during the independence referendum. This was pointed out to the BBC Trust. It was also brought to the Trust’s attention that a key issue of the Holyrood election campaign, which was underway when Bell published his blog, was the prospect of a second independence referendum.
The prevention of another SNP majority at Holyrood was the number one target of Unionist parties. Anything that could undermine the SNP campaign and/or strengthen that of the main Unionist rival party [then Labour] was likely to help in that endeavour.
BBC Scotland actually conceded the main points of the complaint. That there never was any independent report published by the Resolution Foundation was never denied. That the BBC instead had passed of a blog as an ‘independent report’ was admitted. That they knew the links to the Labour party of the blog author was also never denied. That the BBC deliberately omitted to mention these links was acknowledged.
The ruling by the Editorial Standards Committee defies logic. It is so topsy-turvy that the only conclusion to be reached is that the decision, like the original news coverage of the blog, was politically motivated. To have found Reporting Scotland guilty of breaking Charter guidelines during an election campaign would have piled significant pressure onto an already beleaguered organisation.
That the whole thing stinks is pretty obvious. But it begs a question. Just how did the original blog come to be presented in the manner it was by a host of BBC Scotland presenters and reporters?
Douglas Fraser, Gary Robertson, Hayley Millar, Sally Magnusson and David Henderson all covered the blog that day. It featured online, on radio and on television. They all apparently failed to notice the serious flaws in the story they were reporting.
How did this obscure blog come to the attention of BBC Scotland? Alerted to the blog, who then decided to misleadingly describe it as an independently published report, thus bestowing it with a gravitas that wasn’t deserved? Who decided to remove any mention of the blog author’s political background? Why did reporters and presenters go along with the scam when they would surely have known the facts of the story?
I have never claimed conspiracy in my criticisms of BBC Scotland’s political reporting. To do so would divert from the evidence that clearly demonstrates a corruption has taken hold of the organisation and is eating at it.
However this episode is so rotten that it’s hard not to conclude that several people must have deliberately conspired in the promotion of what was effectively election propaganda. Someone somewhere took a decision to run this story as BBC Scotland did. Others went along with this decision. We’ll never find out who was ultimately responsible for this because BBC Scotland answers to nobody in Scotland.
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