On March 11th 2014, just six months before the independence referendum, three men appeared before Holyrood’s Culture Committee. The three were head of BBC Scotland - Ken MacQuarrie, his head of news and current affairs - John Boothman and the head of BBC Scotland’s Referendum Unit - John Mullin.
The three were there to answer questions on issues including coverage of the Commonwealth Games and the independence referendum. Right at the end of proceedings a question was posed by the Committee’s chair, Stewart Maxwell.
Below is a recording of the exchange:
The response from the BBC Scotland representatives was first dumbstruck silence, followed by confused explanations. Head of BBC Scotland Ken MacQuarrie said it was an on-going news judgement what news was covered. In a bizarre double-negative comment, MacQuarrie said he couldn't confirm BBC Scotland hadn’t covered it.
The broadcaster's head of referendum coverage, John Mullin, at first tried to claim that the statement had been covered in the same day as another Standard Life story, but then appeared to concede he didn’t know either, saying “my recollection is that we did but I'm very happy to go back and look again.”
Maxwell’s question had been prompted by BBC Scotland’s refusal to report in full a statement issued on February 27th by International Ratings Agency Standard & Poor’s.
Below is the key part of the Standard & Poor’s analysis that Maxwell was referring to:
Even excluding North Sea output and calculating per capita GDP only by looking at onshore income, Scotland would qualify for our highest economic assessment. Higher GDP per capita, in our view, gives a country a broader potential tax and funding base to draw from, which supports creditworthiness.
A look at the video clip below provides a flavour of the whole of BBC Scotland’s news coverage of the credit agency’s analysis of the fiscal credibility of an independent Scotland.
As you can see there is no mention of the very specific section of the Standard & Poor’s analysis cited by Stewart Maxwell. The truth is that the specific segment cited by the MSP had not in fact been reported by BBC Scotland. The corporation had simply ignored it. Instead, BBC Scotland news that day was dominated by a statement from another ‘Standard’ - Standard Life - which had announced it had taken contingency plans in the event of independence.
BBC Scotland embellished the Standard Life statement in its saturation coverage.
Despite BBC reports, the statement published by the company never mentioned quitting Scotland or moving staff.
Yet that was precisely the message BBC Scotland promoted.
It did this whilst simultaneously suppressing Yes-friendly aspects of a very significant report from one of the world’s most respected ratings agencies.
But why did the BBC not report the statement Stewart Maxwell quoted? Well it turns out that three weeks after the BBC Scotland Chiefs appeared before the Committee, BBC Scotland sent a supplementary answer to the Committee explaining the 'blackout'. I have reproduced the relevant section below.
To be clear, it is not BBC’s policy to answer questions from a parliamentary committee about its editorial decisions. Moreover, BBC Scotland cannot reasonably be expected to engage in such a forum on such a specific point about an individual story.
However, both Ken MacQuarrie, Director, and John Mullin, editor of the referendum unit, did attempt to reply and promised to come back on this point. So, on this occasion, we will attempt to clarify.
The BBC did cover the Standard and Poor report online, and, on a busy news day, as part of a wider package on Reporting Scotland which led on Standard Life’s suggestion that it could move some of its operations outside Scotland in the event of independence. We did report Standard & Poor’s summary of its analysis that Scotland’s challenge would be “significant, but not unsurpassable”.
As Mr Maxwell said, what to include and what to exclude are often difficult editorial decisions. To have used the quotation he highlights would clearly have required more time, particularly as it would have needed to have been explained, and, on this particularly day, we judged the Standard Life story to be stronger.
The response is written by Ian Small, who is the Head of Public Policy & Corporate Affairs at BBC Scotland. Small is the official who tried to intimidate Professor John Robertson after the academic had carried out a study into BBC Scotland’s coverage of the referendum, and found bias in favour of the No campaign.
Small's letter is breathtakingly arrogant. He insists that it is not policy to answer questions from elected officials. His claim that the Standard & Poor's statement was covered online is true, it can still be seen here. But as you can see its author, Douglas Fraser, made no mention of the key segment quoted by Maxwell.
However it is the ridiculous claim that the statement quoted by the MSP was not included in the Reporting Scotland item because it would “have required more time” that is truly unbelievable.
The reference to Standard & Poor’s by Douglas Fraser took up all of seven seconds in a Reporting Scotland item that was five and a half minutes long. It may as well not have been mentioned at all. By comparison, the Standard Life statement was squeezed for all it was worth. Every drip of anti-Yes sentiment found its way into living rooms.
BBC Scotland hasn’t changed. The person who was head of news and current affairs at the time of the broadcast was John Boothman. Boothman was recently moved from his highly-paid role after he was found to have bullied a camera woman. He wasn’t dismissed from BBC Scotland but moved into another lucrative position.
This Wednesday morning, on the week the Scotland Bill was debated, Radio Scotland ignored the traducing of the SNP’s democratic mandate by the Tory Government. The BBC Scotland news was dominated by a new runway at Heathrow, an attack on the Council tax Freeze and the partial closure of a hospital ward for six weeks.
Someone called Kevin Keenan was interviewed on Good Morning Scotland. Listeners to the programme were told he was COSLA's Finance Spokesperson. They weren’t told that he was the leader of the Labour group at Dundee Council. Keenan attacked the council tax freeze, an SNP flagship policy.
Later that morning, the main topic on the Radio Scotland phone-in was prescription charges – callers were asked if they wanted free prescriptions to end. Presenter Rob McLean told listeners that the cost had “rocketed” and that there was “abuse” of the system. Free prescriptions is of course another key SNP policy. One idiot caller blamed the cost increase on immigrants sending drugs back to relatives in their home country.
The partial, and temporary, ward closure was the top story on Reporting Scotland. This eclipsed the very significant debates in the House of Commons.
On Tuesday and Wednesday evening, on its Scotland 2015 programme [A god-awful replacement for the dated Newsnight Scotland] BBC Scotland held debates on the constitutional issue. On Tuesday there were three Unionists to one nationalist. On Wednesday there were three Unionists to one nationalist. One of the Unionists on Wednesday, Alistair Carmichael, is a noted liar and another, Adam Tomkins, is an unelected academic who represents nobody but himself.
The debates of course were superfluous given that we had them during the general election campaign and the Unionist arguments lost. Scots have already made up their mind on the issue.
I’ve said it all too often, but if people are serious about creating any meaningful new media then they must turn their attention to the institutional corruption endemic at BBC Scotland. This broadcaster will be the number one obstacle when Scotland holds the second referendum. Indeed, such is the parlous state of the Labour party in Scotland, it may well be the only obstacle.
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GA Ponsonby is the author of 'London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum'.
Available to purchase in paperback or Kindle HERE.