During the independence referendum campaign one of the tactics employed by the Unionist media was to headline the ‘analysis’ or ‘report’ by a so-called ‘independent think tank’. The most notorious of these bodies, if you were a Yes supporter, was the CPPR.
The CPPR had links to the Labour party through its key member Professor John McLaren.
These links were never highlighted when McLaren provided statements to a newspaper or an interview to BBC Scotland.
The CPPR wasn’t of course the only think-tank to publish independent analysis during the referendum.
Other bodies also featured regularly. We had the right-wing Institute of Fiscal Studies, the Scotland Institute headed by Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, the Fraser of Allander Institute and the Pensions Policy Institute. More often than not, these institutes issued ‘reports’ that were less than helpful to the Yes campaign.
Think tanks are basically people with a common interest publishing ‘research’ which is essentially little more than glorified opinion. If that opinion chimes with the political agenda of news outlets then the think tank can find itself regularly headlined by those outlets.
On Friday another think-tank made the headlines in Scotland. The Resolution Foundation had, we were told by BBC Scotland, carried out ‘independent analysis’ of Scottish Labour’s income tax rise of one pence for every taxpayer in Scotland. The results of the analysis were favourable to Scottish Labour.
Here’s a snippet of the kind of news bulletins BBC Scotland ran on Friday morning on Good Morning 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. What wasn't to like?
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'. Fraser appeared on Good Morning Scotland explaining the findings of the 'analysis' to listeners.
In his radio item, the BBC Scotland reporter described the report as having been written by more than one author. 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.
The most recent publication from the Think Tank was a report by Paul Gregg and David Finch on the changing distribution of work across British households.
On the Resolution Foundation’s twitter feed there was a link to a blog from someone called Torsten Bell. Mr Bell had published his own partial analysis of the Scottish Labour proposal.
Was this the so-called report BBC Scotland was referring to? My thoughts appeared to be confirmed when Torsten Bell appeared on Good Morning Scotland.
Torsten Bell is the current Director of the Resolution Foundation. Below is his interview with Good Morning Scotland presenter Gary Robertson.
As you can hear, the interview was relaxed with Mr Bell allowed to expand on the claims he had published on his blog. He gave his opinions on the effects of the tax increase on low paid and high-earners, but there was no analysis of the most controversial component of Scottish Labour’s tax-hike pledge - the rebate. It was all too neat and tidy. I became suspicious.
I had a look at Mr Bell’s background and found out his much vaunted ‘independent’ analysis mightn’t have been as independent as we were being led to believe.
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. The former advisor to senior Labour party figures was appointed Director of the Resolution Foundation in September 2015.
Two months after his appointment, he appeared on the Daily Politics show where he was playfully quizzed on his role in creating Ed Miliband’s infamous ‘Tablet of Stone’ which was a general election stunt which misfired.
How could a former head of policy for Ed Miliband be presented as independent by BBC Scotland? His links to the Labour party were as clear as day for anyone doing even a basic background check. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, BBC Scotland had omitted to highlight Mr Bell’s connections to the Labour party.
And there was more. Torsten Bell’s predecessor at the Resolution Foundation was one Gavin Kelly. Kelly joined the Resolution Foundation from No 10 Downing Street, where he worked as Deputy Chief of Staff to Gordon Brown. Kelly had also been a member of Tony Blair’s policy unit.
Kelly himself had replaced Sue Regan who was the Resolution Foundation Director from 2005 to 2010. Regan had been a Special Adviser to Labour MP David Blunkett at the Department for Work and Pensions.
The Resolution Foundation was very closely associated with the UK Labour party, there was little doubt. But the Torsten Bell ‘report’ wasn’t the first time the BBC had been criticised for presenting publications from the Resolution Foundation as politically neutral when the truth was far from the case.
In January 2013 the BBC ran a news item based on what the broadcaster said was an ‘independent’ report published by the Resolution Foundation. The report highlighted the plight of the low paid if council tax bills were to go up. The report’s author was Matthew Pennycook.
The report was seized on by the UK Labour party who used it to attack the ten per cent cut to council tax support which was being proposed by the Conservative led government. The report coincided with the deadline for local authorities in England to submit their plans for changing council tax benefit.
However what the BBC failed to reveal was that, at the time of the report, Matthew Pennycook was a fully paid up member of the Labour Party. Mr Pennycook was also the Vice Chairman of Greenwich & Woolwich Labour Party, as well as a local councillor. Pennycook is now the Labour MP for Greenwich & Woolwich.
There have also been claims that researchers and analysts from the Resolution Foundation worked in Number 10 under the previous Labour administration.
Last Friday’s news bulletins on Radio Scotland made it onto the tea-time flagship news programme Reporting Scotland. Viewers weren’t told of the links to the Labour party of Torsten Bell.
The portrayal of a blog by a former advisor to Ed Miliband as an ‘independent report’ was misleading by BBC Scotland. The choreographed charade fuelled a full day of pro-Labour news bulletins on BBC Scotland TV, Radio and online.
Douglas Fraser’s online article was eventually amended to include a reference to Torsten Bell’s links to the Labour party. The edit, nearly two hours after the original article had been published, can be seen by clicking this link. Also removed from the article was a description of the Resolution Foundation as ‘independent’.
The Resolution Foundation was set up specifically to improve the living standards of those in Britain on low to middle incomes. How increasing the income tax these people pay in Scotland helps achieve this goal is a question nobody asked Torsten Bell.
What we witnessed on Friday, February 5th was political propaganda dressed up as impartial news. BBC Scotland chiefs owe the public an apology. But don't hold your breath.