The following is an excerpt from my book – London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum.
Few people will forget Monday December 6th 2010 when snow hit the Scottish Central Belt and motorists were stuck in their cars, some overnight. The weather front that hit just before the morning rush hour was unprecedented. It caused chaos as lorries jack-knifed and commuter traffic ground to a halt.
The forecasts had predicted two to five centimetres of snow. When the blizzard had passed it had deposited up to eight times the expected amount in places. By the time authorities realised the severity of the blizzard it was too late, the M8 was packed with rush hour traffic. Motorists were angry. The public were looking for answers. Why had this been allowed to happen?
Twenty four hours after the freak event and with emergency services still struggling to bring any kind of normality back to the Central Belt, one person questioned whether the Scottish Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson should consider his position. The question didn’t come from any of Mr Stevenson’s political opponents. It didn’t come from Labour, the Conservatives or the Lib Dems. It came from BBC Scotland presenter Gary Robertson who in an interview with the Transport Minister on the morning of December 7th said:
“Minister, we heard from some people saying that they believed that heads should role as a result of this. Given your admission that your department was caught off guard here have you considered your position?”
I still have the full interview. Below is the clip in question.
A freak event. A perfect storm, the severity of which caught everyone by surprise, had hit Scotland’s central belt at the worst possible time. Stewart Stevenson eventually resigned as Transport minister following a media witch-hunt in which the BBC acted as chief rabble-rouser.
On Thursday, six years later, a similar freak event occurred. A train broke down at the worst possible time in the worst possible location with the worst possible failure.
The issue was raised in the Scottish Parliament by Kezia Dugdale. In keeping with Scottish Labour’s penchant for opportunistic politics, Dugdale demanded the First minister apologise for the train breaking down.
Nicola Sturgeon, faced with the prospect of a media screaming how she refused to apologise for the inconvenience endured by thousands of commuters, Nicola Sturgeon duly obliged.
Scotland’s media is nothing if not predictable. The train breakdown and apology was covered as though it was the Apocalypse. It was headline news on BBC Scotland. It topped the BBC Scotland web page and was the lead item on Reporting Scotland. A Broken down train was the biggest story in Scotland bar none.
As is usual these days, STV followed the lead of its big brother. Scottish newspapers also piled in. A mini-frenzy ensued. In the middle of it was a call for Transport Minister Humza Yousaf to be sacked.
The call came from the General Secretary of Trade union ASLEF. In a statement Mike Whelan said:
“The Scottish government response to the rail crisis has been pathetic. Transport Minister Humza Yousaf has stood by while Abellio Scotrail takes Scotland’s passengers and taxpayers for a ride.
“Nicola Sturgeon must take personal responsibility for this situation as her government awarded this contract. She should sack her incompetent Transport Minister.”
Mike Whelan is a member of the Labour party. The Labour party of course has form in calling for SNP ministers to resign. Former First minister Alex Salmond once joked that every member of the Scottish Government ministerial team had faced resignation calls from the Labour benches.
The call for Humza Yousaf to be sacked was entirely predictable. Indeed the ground work was already being laid in order to target the MSP. The vehicle was to be the company currently running Scotland’s trains – Abellio.
Cast your mind back exactly one month. On October 18th the ‘Thirty Eight Degrees’ train petition appeared across every BBC platform. It was on radio, online, the morning phone-in and the evening news.
The petition had in fact been covered nine days earlier as you can see here. But that didn’t matter to BBC Scotland. The broadcaster ran the story as though it was new.
At the time I wrote: “Look out for trains becoming a media issue over the coming weeks.”
The petition hadn’t been that successful and to have it dominate that day’s news was odd. I sensed an agenda was at work and suspected that the difficulties being experienced by Abellio were going to be used in order to target the SNP. The Dutch company had already warned of delays in the coming months due to upgrade work.
On October 12th, BBC Scotland reported the following:
Scottish rail passengers are being warned to expect disruption as upgrade work begins across the network.
ScotRail said a revised timetable would come into place on 22 October, lasting until December.
Some services are being cancelled and many journey times will be longer during the works.
Abellio is a political sitting duck … and Scottish Labour knows it. The company has virtually guaranteed that there will be delays and cancellations all the way into Christmas. It hasn’t helped that it’s also currently struggling to meet its timetable targets. This means that Humza Yousaf is vulnerable to the type of coordinated attack that took out Stewart Stevenson.
Indeed Scottish Labour have already sensed weakness. Last Saturday the party accused Yousaf of having misled the Scottish Parliament.
Just as in 2010 when Stewart Stevenson was targeted in opportunistic fashion, the BBC played a key role. Now, six years later, I suspect it may be about to play a similar role in pursuit of Humza Yousaf.
Below is how the Good Morning Scotland team introduced their programme at six o’clock this morning.
If you enjoyed reading this article please feel free to make a small donation.