What’s the laziest way to create a political news story? Asking a politician a controversial question and headlining the answer would be near the top. Check out my last article on the ‘Brexit Veto’ scam to see how that one works.
Another would be the headlining of a statement issued on behalf of a political party. The press release requires little effort on the part of the journalist. The party in question either accuses, pledges or hits back.
My own favourite is the Freedom of Information [FoI] request. Fire off a few of these each week and you might get lucky with a response. Even banal and matter of fact answers to FoI requests can be manipulated and repackaged as controversial revelations. Just such a story emerged on Thursday courtesy of our old friends at BBC Scotland.
I came across the ‘Trams Inquiry’ story early on Thursday when I tuned into Good Morning Scotland. The item featured prominently in the opening bulletins and was repeated throughout the programme. The thrust of what was being reported was that the inquiry into the Edinburgh Trams fiasco had thus far cost £3.7m.
My immediate thought was so what? Everything costs money and an inquiry that had already taken two years was bound to have cost something. The trams eventually cost the taxpayer over £3/4 billion – over £375m over budget – and produced less than promised. When you’re investigating one of the biggest infrastructure scandals Scotland has ever known then you want to make sure you do a thorough job.
BBC Scotland however wasn’t just informing the public of the cost of the inquiry. The broadcaster was presenting the report as though the inquiry itself was out of control and grossly over budget.
One phrase in particular was repeated in bulletins when referring to the cost of the inquiry. The phrase “has already cost £3.7m” cropped up again and again. The phrase gave the impression that the inquiry was somehow already over budget, that costs were running out of control.
A reference was also made to former First Minister Alex Salmond, who listeners were told had said the inquiry would be “swift and thorough” when he announced it two years earlier. Hmm, a ‘swift’ inquiry, still going after two years? That’s a broken pledge!
On Reporting Scotland that evening, presenter Sally Magnusson introduced the lead item thus:
“Concerns about the cost of the inquiry into the Edinburgh trams fiasco, it stands at £3.7 million pounds.”
So, BBC Scotland had taken an answer to a Freedom of Information request and turned it into the dramatic lead story in Scotland with three key elements.
1. The cost of the inquiry was apparently over budget and rocketing fast
2. Alex Salmond had pledged the inquiry would be ‘swift and thorough’
3. Concerns were being raised over the cost
Let’s look at them in turn.
The inquiry into the Edinburgh trams has never had a fixed budget. The Scottish government pledged to fund it until its completion. The cost will increase as the inquiry continues.
The BBC repeatedly used the phrase “has already cost £3.7m” when describing the cost. The word ‘already’ is pejorative. Such a word invites the news consumer to assume an overly speedy escalation of costs.
The BBC has produced no evidence to suggest costs incurred thus far have been excessive or unaccounted for. On the contrary, the information supplied to the broadcaster was extensive and detailed.
According to several BBC Scotland reporters, former First Minister Alex Salmond said the inquiry would be ‘swift and thorough’ … when he announced it ‘two years ago’. There is only one reason to point out that Salmond said the inquiry would be swift. The BBC wants to paint the already two year long duration as a broken pledge.
If Salmond did indeed say the inquiry would be swift then there’s no complaint. But did he say what he is reported to have said? Below is a clip of Alex Salmond making the actual announcement back in June 2014.
Here is the key sentence: “Lord Hardie will establish the inquiry immediately and we look forward to a swift and thorough inquiry.”
Alex Salmond certainly said he ‘looked forward’ to a swift inquiry, but at no point did he say it would be a swift inquiry. That is a BBC Scotland invention.
Salmond’s announcement was banal, polite political speak and nothing more. The First Minister, by saying “we look forward” was publicly stating his government’s confidence in Lord Hardie. Indeed it would be a rather inept politician who attempted to set or suggest a timescale for an inquiry over which he had no control.
It may seem a minor issue, but BBC Scotland reporters are not allowed to gently manipulate what a senior politician said in the past in order to create an impression.
However, regardless of what Alex Salmond looked forward to, the inquiry hasn’t been swift. It’s taken two years thus far. Might there be a reason for the relatively lengthy duration? Well yes.
In October last year Lord Hardie revealed significant legal complications that had the potential to impact on the inquiry. The legal concerns were reported by BBC Scotland.
Hardie told the BBC: “I want to be satisfied that [the issues] have been addressed to avoid any risk of challenge to the inquiry,”
The inquiry has met with significant hurdles including key witnesses refusing to appear. In December 2014 Lord Hardie said: “Our preliminary investigations, contacting people who we thought might be of assistance, threw up the problem.
“Some people refused point blank to co-operate, others just didn’t answer letters.
“It became clear to me that if that persisted then the whole process could be frustrated and certainly take a period of time that was unacceptable to me.”
The scope of the inquiry had to be extended in order to compel witnesses to give evidence.
Here’s the Reporting Scotland item in full.
Sally Magnusson introduces the item by saying: “On Reporting Scotland tonight. Concerns about the cost of the inquiry into the Edinburgh trams fiasco. It stands at £3.7 million pounds.”
The only people shown raising concerns in the whole item are members of the public who have very clearly been asked to comment on a £3.7m cost. But ordinary members of the public will express concern whatever the cost, be it £1m, £2m or £3m. Ask anyone in Edinburgh about a cost to the public purse of anything to do with the Edinburgh Trams and they will express what BBC Scotland euphemistically calls ‘concern’.
The only person qualified to give an opinion on the cost – Professor Tom Rye – is reduced to a bit part near the end. He effectively rubbishes the so-called ‘concerns’.
BBC Scotland targeted considerable resource at this non-story. Three reporters [TV, radio and online] and a film crew were assigned to what was essentially a breakdown of cost for an inquiry that is still ongoing. The story was carefully crafted in order to present as melodramatic an impact as possible.
Contrast the treatment of this piece of nonsense with two very genuine news events the previous day that resulted in no coverage on Scotland’s flagship news programme. The day before the Trams story dominated BBC Scotland news, Scottish Labour leader Alex Rowley’s revealed that he would not oppose a second independence referendum. That same day MoD officials confirmed that there was an indefinite delay to the Type 26 frigate orders.
Asked on social media why the two stories had been ignored by Reporting Scotland, the programme’s editor tweeted the response you see below.
I suppose SNP MSPs will be happy to learn that they need only refuse to speak to the BBC if they wish to avoid damaging news reports appearing on Reporting Scotland.
For anyone interested, below is a clip of the MoD officials appearing in front of the House of Commons Defence Committee. Judge for yourself if the answer relating to the Type 26 build date is worthy of coverage on Scotland’s flagship news programme.
I’d argue that Alex Rowley’s indyref2 comments and the refusal of the MoD to confirm build dates for the Type 26 frigates were both significantly more newsworthy than the cost breakdown of the Trams Inquiry.
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