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  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
The BBC trades on its reputation like no other organisation.  It's this reputation for fairness and accuracy that ensures its news broadcasts carry weight, not just here in the UK, but internationally.
 
People trust the BBC like no other broadcast news outlet.  Indeed so deep runs that trust that in the UK the public allows itself to be coerced into funding the corporation through the TV licence, a tax costing each household £145.50 each year.

What though if that trust is misplaced and the privilege given to the BBC is being abused?  How many people would continue to fund a broadcaster if they suspected they were being manipulated?

In this two part series, I am going to present evidence that suggests the BBC's coverage of Scottish politics and the referendum is being manipulated in order to present the Scottish Government and SNP in the worst possible light.  I challenge those who read the complete series - 'The Dirty Dozen: The case against BBC Scotland' - to explain the handling of political news by BBC Scotland and to deny that there is something very wrong at the Glasgow HQ at Pacific Quay.

The list is in no particular order, but I have left the worst example to the end.  I start off with numbers twelve through to seven.


Number Twelve - Any Questions
Any Questions is a radio show broadcast on Radio 4.  Its format is similar to the TV show Question Time in that panellists are asked to comment on issues of the day.

In this particular example, broadcast on August 2010, the issue under discussion is the release on compassionate grounds of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.  Mr Megrahi, now dead, had been diagnosed with incurable cancer and, as is the protocol under Scots Law, had been allowed to leave prison to die after satisfying the conditions for such a release.

The release had divided public opinion and many Unionist politicians had attempted to politicise it in order to attack the SNP minority government.  The comments you are about to hear were made by Baroness Ruth Deech who is a former Governor of the BBC and Douglas Murray who is the Director of The Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC).

The show, broadcast on Friday 20th August, heard Baroness Deech claim that Scots lived off of benefits paid for by English subsidies and that the release of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi had embarrassed the rest of the UK.

The comments, from both guests, were met with enthusiastic loud applause and howls of laughter from the audience in Harvest Fields Centre in Sutton Coldfield.

Here is an edited recording of Ruth Deech and Douglas Murray's comments:

The BBC refused to issue an apology after the broadcast.  Not only did the BBC refuse to admit any wrongdoing, the broadcaster also refused to consider a complaint from a listener because the listener had contacted Ofcom.

A fuller report covering the episode can still be read from the Newsnet Scotland archive by clicking the following link: Fury at BBC’s 'anti-Scottish' broadcast

It should also be noted that few people actually still believe that Megrahi was in fact guilty of the Lockerbie bombing with most of the opinion that it was not Libya but in fact Iran that sought the atrocity in retaliation for the accidental shooting down of a civilian airliner by a US warship.

 

Number Eleven - The Salmond/Swinney manipulated video
On November 24th 2010, a debate took place in the Holyrood chamber.  BBC Scotland's Reporting Scotland ran a news item that evening in which they showed the First Minister apparently shaking his head in mocking fashion following a parliamentary statement by John Swinney. 

The item, as can be seen, gave the impression that Swinney's words were being made fun of by Mr Salmond.

Here is the clip as it appeared on Reporting Scotland:

However, when Newsnet Scotland viewed the actual footage supplied by official Holyrood cameras we were shocked to find the footage aired by the BBC had been manipulated and was not in fact what had taken place.

The clip below shows an unedited recording of the actual moments leading up to Alex Salmond's shaking of the head:

As can be seen, Salmond wasn't mocking John Swinney at all, he was in fact mocking the then Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott.  If you look back at the BBC clip you can just about hear Tavish Scott speaking at the moment Salmond shakes his head, Scott's voice is drowned out by the BBC Scotland voice-over provided by BBC Political Editor Brian Taylor.

BBC Scotland had presented a wholly different interpretation of events to the one that had actually occurred.  Despite being confronted with clear evidence that they had manipulated the video footage, BBC Scotland never apologised.


Number Ten – The Pre-election Poll
Prior to the 2011 Scottish elections BBC Scotland conducted a survey to find out what policy area the Scottish public deemed the most important.  A Labour policy on health waiting times 'won'.

The broadcaster had initially claimed that it would survey the public on the manifesto commitments fom each party.  However it later emerged that the survey had been carried out after the Labour party manifesto launch and before the SNP manifesto launch.

Challenged on this, BBC Scotland acknowledged the SNP had indeed not yet launched their own manifesto, but wrote: "However, all the main parties, plus the Scottish Greens, have made their general pledges known in BBC Scotland's issues grid guide.

"In terms of parties, the top-ranked policy was in the Labour manifesto; to cut the waiting time for suspected cancer cases to see a specialist from four weeks to two."

The poll result was not surprising really given that Labour had just launched its manifesto which received widespread media coverage - not least on the BBC.  That this policy pledge had become embedded in the minds of the electorate is also not surprising.

The decision by the BBC to conduct a poll coincided with poll results that suggested Scottish Labour's huge pre-campaign lead had been eroded and the SNP was beginning to inch ahead.  Both are discussed here in studio discussion in the week prior to the survey being published.

During an election period the BBC is not allowed to commission voting intention polls.  The poll was commissioned from pollsters ICM and included 25 questions the broadcaster had compiled for the 1004 respondents.

There was concern that some of the questions appeared heavily qualified and may in fact have influenced the responses.

A question on nuclear power listed only wind and wave as a possible alternative instead of the more inclusive term 'renewable energy'.  The BBC also listed the council tax replacement Local Income Tax in a question despite no party offering it in the last election.

The BBC poll came close to breaking the corporation's own guidelines on conducting polls in the midst of election campaigns.  The reason for this guideline was reinforced when almost as soon as the BBC headlined the poll, Scottish Labour altered their campaign thrust and began highlighting their waiting time pledge, the one the BBC had said 'won' the popularity poll.

BBC Scotland had influenced an election campaign and the beneficiary was the Scottish Labour party.  There was no apology or even an acknowledgement from BBC Scotland that it had crossed the line.


Number Nine - Montenegro and ethnic cleansing
In January 2011 a diplomatic row erupted after the then Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray attempted to link the independence of Montenegro with ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

Mr Gray launched his attack during the last session of First Minister's Questions of 2010.

To raucous laughter from the Labour benches Mr Gray claimed that Montenegro had needed "two world wars, the Balkan conflict, ethnic cleansing, a war crimes tribunal and a UN peacekeeping mission” in order to achieve independence."

Montenegro reacted to the slur with fury, firing off official letters of complaint to Labour leader Ed Miliband and Iain Gray - ironically a letter was also sent to First Minister Alex Salmond.

Marijana Zivkovic, chargé d’affaires at Montenegro’s British embassy, expressed her "deep regret" at the Scottish Labour leader's comments.  Ms Zivkovic pointed out that their nation was the only former Yugoslav republic to stay out of the Balkan conflict and actually provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the bloodshed.

Writing to the Scottish Labour leader, she said: "Your statement that Montenegro was involved in 'ethnic cleansing', including references to 'a war crimes tribunal and a UN peacekeeping mission', is simply incorrect."

The diplomatic row made front page headlines and was carried by newspapers in Scotland and England.

However, in a move that provoked controversy, BBC Scotland adopted a news blackout and refused to report the story.  The 'news blackout' led to accusations that the state broadcaster was failing in its public duty to scrutinise fairly and there were allegations that the story had been suppressed in order to minimise damage to Labour in Scotland.

When finally one BBC presenter, Isabel Fraser, confronted the Scottish Labour leader over two weeks later in a late night interview, Gray repeated the slurs.

The BBC has never reported the diplomatic row in any news bulletin, despite Gray repeating the slur on one of its own late night current affairs programmes. 

At the time of the row, Scottish Labour were still enjoying a relatively comfortable lead in Scottish election opinion polls.  Suspicions persist to this day that BBC Scotland bosses suppressed the story in order to minimise damage to the Scottish Labour campaign.

Readers may find an article published by us in 2011 particularly relevant, given the subject matter of this article: Scottish News from the BBC and a Question of Diplomacy


Number Eight – The Fabricated Survey
The 2011 Scottish election campaign wasn't the first to witness questionable coverage on the part of the BBC.  The 2007 election, the first won by the SNP, saw a quite blatant attempt by the BBC to mislead the Scottish electorate in the run-up to the vote.

In 2007 during the campaign for the Scottish election the BBC hosted a live TV debate, a Newsnight special 'Act of Disunion,' which was shown on January 16.  Quizzing Alex Salmond on the prospects for businesses in an independent Scotland, host Jeremy Paxman confronted the SNP leader with what he claimed were results from a survey carried out by the BBC.

According to the BBC presenter not one of fifty companies the corporation had questioned supported the SNP's independence plans.  Viewers watched a seated Alex Salmond calmly deal with the thrust of the question as Paxman continued to highlight the findings of the poll.

Paxman told Salmond: "We spoke to the 25 largest companies in Britain and the 25 largest companies in Scotland and not one of them favoured independence."

However an alert viewer became suspicious of the claims broadcast by the BBC and endeavoured to try to find out if they were indeed accurate.  It subsequently emerged that the BBC had manufactured the poll result and only seven firms had replied to the BBC questionaire.  Contrary to Paxman's claims, a majority had declined to express a view 'one way or the other', two had declared 'neutrality' and one leading business said 'it didn't care.'

After an official complaint the corporation was forced to issue an apology. 

Fraser Steel, the head of the BBC's complaints unit wrote: "The Newsnight team, having now reviewed the material gathered concede that they got this wrong, and that the inference drawn from the results in the question - that the biggest companies were unanimously ranged against independence - was not a valid one.

"I hope you will accept my apologies, on behalf of the BBC, for the mistake."

The willingness of the BBC to issue public apologies when it is found guilty of misleading the public and breaking editorial guidelines on the issue of Scottish independence has since reduced significantly, as readers will learn when we publish part two of 'The Dirty Dozen - The case against BBC Scotland'.


Number Seven - Banks and the misleading headline
On Saturday March 10th the SNP held its Spring conference in Glasgow.  That morning BBC Scotland broadcast, online, an interview with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The independence debate was still in its infancy and both sides had yet to mobilise their respective campaigns.  However one of the early issues being promoted by those who opposed independence was an idea that an independent Scotland could not have withstood the financial crisis.

The Saturday morning interview was a typical format with viewer's questions being read out by BBC Scotland’s political editor Brian Taylor and Ms Sturgeon answering them.

Mr Taylor asked a question on the banking crisis and how an independent Scotland would have coped.  Nicola Sturgeon replied that an independent Scotland would have worked with the rest of the UK in order to ensure the difficulties experienced by RBS and HBOS were addressed.

Here, for those unfamiliar with the exchange is what was said:

The answer, whether you agree with it or not, was clear, Scotland could have coped with the banking crisis and would have worked with the rest of the UK to avert catastrophe, the same way as other countries had cooperated with one another when banks that crossed their jurisdictions.

There was another point contained in Ms Sturgeon’s answer, the fact that America, Australia and Europe all contributed to the saving of RBS.  Indeed as revealed by Newsnet Scotland as far back as July 2011, the US Federal Reserve contributed a total of $600 billion to the bailout of both RBS and HBOS.

However, here is how BBC Scotland reported Nicola Sturgeon’s answer.

Relied on? - It was a blatant example of misrepresentation at the hands of BBC Scotland.  Within hours of the story taking its spot at the top of the corporation’s Scottish online news, staff were fielding complaints.  Newsnet Scotland were alerted by several readers and we watched to see if the article would be corrected.

For two full days nothing was done, until Monday when by then the story had disappeared from the main news page.  BBC Scotland quietly removed the offending headline and edited the article beneath to more accurately reflect the words of Scotland’s Deputy First Minister.

But it didn’t stop there, for eagle eyed observers will notice a peculiarity on the amended version of the article – the date/time stamp.  Look closely at the bottom image and you will see that BBC Scotland have given as the latest update to the article the afternoon of the interview - 11:49 on 10th March.

The BBC use the 24 hour clock, so anyone looking at this item will be forgiven for thinking that BBC Scotland corrected their online news story within hours of the 09:30 interview.  In fact the actual date/time of correction was two days later on Monday 12th March at around 21:00.  News media monitoring site NewsSniffer showed clearly the change was made fully two days later than the BBC suggested.

So, not content with passing off misrepresentation as factual news, BBC Scotland tried to cover their tracks by showing a wholly inaccurate date/time for the last update.  

At the time of the furore, Newsnet Scotland invited three senior figures at BBC Scotland to explain how the article came to be published and why the corrections were carried out surreptitiously.  Our emails were sent to Nicola Sturgeon’s interviewer Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland online editor Tom Connor and their boss John Boothman.

We requested a read receipt and one duly arrived from Mr Connor, so he clearly received and almost certainly read our email.  Neither Mr Taylor nor Mr Boothman responded.

We asked four questions of the online article:

  • Was the interviewer, Mr Taylor, aware of the wording in the original article prior to it being published and did he agree with it?
  • Did BBC Scotland online editor Mr Tom Connor sanction publication of the original article?
  • Who decided that the original headline and wording needed to be corrected and why did it take two days to correct it?
  • Why has no apology or correction been published by the BBC?

Nobody responded to our questions.


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