One of the legacies of the independence referendum was the desire to search for a specific flaw in the Yes campaign. Was there a weakness, without which, Yes may have triumphed?
The issue that has embedded itself in the minds of the commentariat is that of currency.
Of all the issues raised during the referendum campaign, the SNP’s stance on currency is the one most regularly cited by media commentators as the ‘weak link’ in the Yes campaign chain. So regularly is currency cited as a contributory factor in Yes losing the referendum, that some prominent Yes campaigners have accepted it as true.
But is this conclusion prompted by very real concerns raised by ordinary voters during the independence referendum, or is it more a recollection of media coverage of the issue at the time?
Media coverage, especially in Scotland, is steered by the BBC. In this second article in my series of ‘Indyref Reminders’ I’m going to highlight how the BBC promoted the idea that the pound was not a shared asset and that using Sterling could not be guaranteed. I’ll also show how the corporation presented ever ridiculous claims from Unionist politicians, as though credible.
Currency emerged as an issue in the referendum in early 2013. In April of that year George Osborne said merely that a currency union between the rest of the UK and a newly independent Scotland would be “unlikely”. This tied in with the Unionist strategy of sowing the ‘uncertainty’ seeds of doubt in the minds of the electorate.
Note in the clip above how Douglas Fraser deliberately introduced the adoption of the Euro as an option for a newly independent Scotland, despite no one actually proposing it in the event of a Yes vote. The European single currency was of course toxic at the time.
The issue didn’t really take off until late 2013 when Unionists decided uncertainty on currency wasn’t playing out well. They went for certainty – or to be more accurate, the Unionist definition of certainty … blackmail.
The Labour party was the first to really begin to push the idea that the rest of the UK would try to sabotage any agreement between it and a newly independent Scotland. On November 21st 2013, prompted by the pending publication of the Scottish government White Paper on Independence, the Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones ‘visited’ Scotland to deliver a ‘warning’ on currency.
It was headlined across the Scottish media, and was the top political news item on BBC Scotland.
Jones’ visit to Scotland coincided with the arrival of a London based BBC presenter called James Naughtie. Scots born Naughtie, whose impartiality on matters pertaining to the constitution had been called into question, had been parachuted in to take control of BBC Scotland’s flagship morning radio programme Good Morning Scotland. He ousted programme frontman Gary Robertson for the duration of the referendum campaign.
Below are clips from Naughtie’s Good Morning Scotland programme on the day the Welsh Labour politician arrived in Scotland.
The Newspaper Reviews
Hayley Millar interviews BBC colleague
James Naughtie interviews Jim Gallagher and Jo Armstrong
The thing to note about the coverage of the currency issue is the ease with which statements from Unionist politicians became uncritical headline news. Unionists needed only to issue a statement, make a ‘visit’ or give a speech and the ‘intervention’ became the top story on the BBC.
Very few people will recall that on the day Carwyn Jones visited Scotland to make his referendum ‘intervention’ the Labour party was being linked to a huge sex and drugs scandal south of the border. An unimaginable story involving the Co-operative bank, class-A drugs, a bank bailout, lewd sexual allegations and donations to the Labour party was all over the newspapers in the rest of the UK.
Jones’ currency claim, as you can hear from the recordings above, received almost no scrutiny from the Good Morning Scotland presenters that morning. They merely parroted it, or in James Naughtie’s case rejoiced in it. It was fully two days before anyone on the show questioned Carwyn Jones ‘intervention’.
Odd one out
Below is an interview conducted by Isabel Fraser on the morning of Saturday 23rd November. Incredibly, Fraser has to press her own BBC colleague before he gives even the most basic critique of the Welsh Labour politician’s claims.
In a bizarre interview, Isabel Fraser had to force her stumbling Welsh colleague to admit that Carwyn Jones’ ‘veto’ threat was hot air. The Welsh First Minister had no power whatsoever to veto any currency union. Isabel Fraser would later disappear from BBC Scotland referendum coverage.
Carwyn Jones of course was laying the ground for a Better Together tactical assault on the Yes campaign using the issue of currency. The assault was timed to coincide with the publication of the Scottish government’s White Paper on Independence.
On November 26th 2013 the Scottish government published its White Paper. The document was the Nationalist response to Unionist claims that the Yes campaign was faltering under the weight of ‘unanswered questions’. One of the questions Unionists had posed was of course that of currency.
The White Paper offered several possible options that would be available to an independent Scotland. Amongst those was the option to keep using the Pound Sterling and to enter a formal currency agreement with the rest of the UK. This was chosen by the Scottish government as the most favourable.
On the day the White paper was launched, Labour MP and Better Together leader Alistair Darling appeared on the BBC where he was allowed to attack Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign. Watch as Darling homes in on the issue introduced by his party colleague Carwyn Jones five days earlier.
The narrative was being created by Unionists and their media allies that Scotland had no claim on the pound or the Bank of England. The pound was not an ‘asset’, no deal could be guaranteed … Salmond needed a Plan B.
Forgotten now [and ignored by the BBC at the time] was that a currency Union had already been implicitly backed by Alistair Darling in January 2013. The Labour MP had been asked about a currency union and had replied “there may well be one” adding that it would be “logical” and “desirable”.
But it wasn’t the job of the BBC to knock holes in whatever claims the pro-Union campaign was making. This was the start of what would be a full scale propaganda attack on the Yes campaign using the pound, the UK Treasury and the Bank of England as a weapon. Each currency-shell was delivered with precision by the BBC.
The ‘What is Plan B’ slogan was relentlessly pushed by the BBC. Presenters north and south of the border became de-facto activists for the Better Together campaign. Below is an interview conducted by BBC presenter Andrew Neil on February 13th 2014.
If you watched the full interview you’ll note how Andrew Neil steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the practicalities of the issue. The highly probable situation following a Yes vote is rejected out of hand by the BBC presenter in favour of several highly improbable scenarios.
It was a blatantly partisan interview which was geared, not to elicit information, but to push a pro-Union agenda. Neil’s description of the rest of the UK as “us” was perhaps a telling moment as was his final remark “You better prepare for some very hard negotiations if you want that pound”.
The Unionist Troika
What prompted the interview was of course the news that same day that the three Unionist parties had issued joint statements threatening to block any currency union with a newly independent Scotland. Labour Shadow chancellor Ed Balls and Lib Dem Treasury Minister Danny Alexander [himself a Scot] had joined with Tory Chancellor George Osborne in issuing a joint currency threat to Scotland. All three parties had united as one in insisting there would be no currency deal with a newly independent Scotland.
Such a threat would of course have hit English businesses had it been followed through. But as I have already explained, the BBC wasn’t interested in looking at reality. The role of the BBC was to present the ridiculous blackmail attempt as very real and very genuine.
The threat was based on apparent ‘impartial’ advice from UK Treasury Mandarin Sir Nicholas MacPherson. The BBC broadcast the threats unchallenged.
The agenda had been set, and so Gordon Brewer on that evening’s Newsnight Scotland set about grilling head of Yes Scotland Blair Jenkins. The following morning Gary Robertson tried to break Nicola Sturgeon on Good Morning Scotland. The mantra was repeated – Osborne’s speech was a blow, it was a challenge to the SNP … What was Plan B? … Will you default on the debt?
BBC Scotland refused to attempt the most basic questioning of George Osborne when he came to Scotland to issue his threat. BBC Scotland’s role wasn’t to question Unionist politicians, it was to convey their messages. Osborne’s visit was used to apply pressure on the Yes campaign and the SNP.
The only broadcast journalist to attempt to quiz Osborne when the Tory Chancellor came to Scotland was STV’s Bernard Ponsonby. Here is his news report for STV that evening.
What prompted all three Unionist parties to come together in what was a clear attempt to blackmail Scots into voting ‘No’ was never properly investigated? One newspaper would later reveal that the currency veto was the result of clandestine moves by Labour MP Alistair Darling and Andrew Dunlop who was David Cameron’s special advisor. The Guardian newspaper also revealed that a coalition minister had admitted that threats of no currency agreement were merely a campaign tactic and that Westminster’s stance would change dramatically following a Yes vote.
It also later emerged that Alistair Darling had privately met with UK Treasury chief Sir Nicholas MacPherson [who Darling had worked with during Labour’s 13 years in government] prior to the ‘veto’ being announced. An official response to a Freedom of Information request revealed that the head of the anti-independence Better Together campaign had held several unofficial meetings with the UK Treasury’s top Civil Servant.
The threat to block a currency deal with a newly independent Scotland had the look of an orchestrated scam involving the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and the UK Treasury. Of course the ordinary punter, who relied on the BBC for his or her political news during the referendum, would never know how the coverage was being manipulated and orchestrated.
Not content with punting Better Together propaganda uncritically, some BBC presenters actually presented Better Together claims as uncontested fact. This was very clearly demonstrated in an episode of Newsnight Scotland broadcast in March 2014. Listen as Douglas Fraser tells Gordon Brewer that the pound is not an asset and both then go on to parrot Better Together claims over debt.
The currency issue peppered BBC Scotland’s coverage of the independence referendum. Along with membership of the EU, it was probably the most widely reported issue. It was never reported in any other manner than to undermine the Yes campaign.
On June 16th 2014 a special news report appeared on Good Morning Scotland. Below is a recording of the item as it was broadcast.
The whole item was a propaganda piece designed to suggest a newly independent Scotland would remain reliant on the fiscal ‘strength’ of the rest of the UK. That it would never be truly independent.
The item had been put together for BBC Scotland by Colletta Smith, who had been seconded from Northern Ireland for the duration of the referendum. But there was one glaring error in the report from Ms Smith. In her haste to use the issue of currency to attack independence, the BBC presenter had said Ireland had pegged its currency to the pound when it became independent. In fact Ireland had continued to use the pound for fully seven years after independence. BBC Scotland published an online article in which the falsehood was repeated.
I’ll end this rather lengthy article with a clip from a broadcast of Reporting Scotland from one week before the referendum. In the clip Jackie Bird tells viewers that Bank of England chief Mark Carney has said a currency union would be “incompatible with an independent Scotland”.
Did Mark Carney say that? The answer is no, as you can see from actual footage of his statement below.
What Mark Carney had said was that a currency union was incompatible with sovereignty. He made no mention of Scottish independence. Aren’t the two the same thing you might ask? Well no. Sovereignty is not the same as independence. The UK already cedes some sovereignty as a condition of being in the European Union – but it is still independent. Other EU members such as France and Germany cede a bit more as a condition of joining the single currency, but both are still independent.
Carney made a statement that was technically correct but was open to interpretation by a corrupt media. As expected, the media reported the statement as though a blow for the pro-independence campaign. Perhaps fearful that viewers of Reporting Scotland would miss the interpretation being placed on Carney’s words by the media, someone at BBC Scotland went further and completely misrepresented what Carney had actually said, replacing ‘sovereignty’ with ‘Scottish independence’.
It is a myth that the SNP’s stance on currency hampered the Yes campaign. In fact polls suggested that the joint threat issued by the three Unionist parties backfired and pushed more people towards the Yes campaign.
That notwithstanding, what cannot be disputed is that the BBC, both at UK level and Scottish level, embraced the currency strategy adopted by the No campaign. It was promoted relentlessly. There is also circumstantial evidence that some BBC reporters didn’t just report Unionist claims on the pound, but were eager to promote them as absolute fact.
Unionists, with the help of the BBC, persuaded many Scots that they had no right to the pound or to the Bank of England. That they enjoyed these institutions only because they were part of the UK.
The truth is that the Bank of England is partly owned by Scotland. It, along with the Pound Sterling is an asset. Ownership of UK institutions is not determined through size.
Four months after the referendum, the UK Treasury finally admitted that it had taken a partisan stance over the issue of currency. In a lecture at the Treasury in January 2015, Sir Nicholas Macpherson said his team had reached a “strong recurring conclusion” that independence would be against the interest of the Scottish people. He concluded therefore that the normal rules of civil service impartiality did not apply.Views: 9125
NOTICE: This week saw the launch of a ‘final push’ appeal to help complete the documentary based on my book ‘How the BBC stole the Referendum’. Donations to the appeal can be made by clicking here.
Below is a short trailer for the appeal that gives a flavour of what the finished documentary will look like.