Moray council is getting ready to set its budget. I know this because it was considered headline news by BBC Scotland on Wednesday.
Actually Moray wasn’t in the news because it was setting its budget, it was in the news because it had U-turned on an earlier empty threat to end the council tax freeze. I say ‘empty threat’ because Moray council was never in a position to end the freeze.
But you wouldn’t have known that if you’d followed BBC Scotland’s coverage of the great council tax sham.
It’s a sham that goes all the way back to January 12th when a story emerged from nowhere. 'Scots council could ditch tax freeze' BBC Scotland reported.
The council in question was of course Moray council. Within 24 hours the council’s leader, Stewart Cree, had upped the ante when he announced his administration was considering increasing council tax by a whopping eighteen per cent.
The story saturated news coverage on BBC Scotland on January 13th as the clip below indicates.
It looked a great story. The SNP’s ‘flagship policy’ of the council tax freeze was under threat. A small council located in the North East of Scotland was about to defy the Scottish government just months before the Holyrood elections. The media piled in. But was the council tax freeze really on its last legs in Moray?
On the day the story broke, I checked to see who Stewart Cree was and which party he represented. The council website site informed me he was an independent councillor who led a group of ten other independent councillors, including himself.
But his group wasn’t the largest. The largest group of councillors in Moray was the SNP with eleven. The remainder of the council was made up of two Labour councillors and three Conservative councillors - two of whom sat with the ten independent councillors on the ruling administration.
It was obvious that Cree would need the backing of the one remaining Conservative councillor who was not on the administration and at least one of the Labour councillors, in order to obtain the majority needed to end the council tax freeze. Did he have this support?
Let’s top there for a moment. BBC Scotland was already headlining the threat to end the council tax freeze without knowing if the threat was credible. When the story broke - or rather when Stewart Cree issued his statement - he was speaking on behalf of a minority administration. A cursory check of the makeup of the council would confirm this.
As far as BBC Scotland knew, Stewart Cree’s administration faced being outvoted 14 to 12. His threat was empty. If it was empty, which meant the council tax freeze would remain, then it wasn’t news. BBC Scotland had an obligation to scrutinise Cree’s claim.
But there was an arguably more compelling reason to check whether Cree’s threat held water.
The ten independent councillors and the two Conservatives on the ruling administration needed the backing of at least two others councillors. Those two could only have come from the Labour and Conservative groups. If Cree was to be believed, then he was effectively saying he had the support of at least two of these councillors.
Think about that for a moment. A council leader is effectively saying he has the backing of Labour and Conservative councillors in a bid to end the council tax freeze. If you’re a journalist then Cree has potentially handed you the biggest political story of the year. It’s incendiary. Labour joining up with the Conservatives in order to end the council tax freeze would have had huge political implications for both parties in election year.
Either we had the year’s biggest political story by a country mile, or we didn’t. But BBC Scotland made no attempt to contact any Labour or Tory councillors throughout the day and into the early evening when it appeared on Reporting Scotland.
It made it onto that evening’s current affairs programme Scotland 2016. The programme introduction was classic BBC Scotland.
Viewers were told that Scotland’s councils had “reluctantly” accepted a freeze on council tax. This was false. Labour controlled Glasgow council had introduced its own five year freeze in 2012.
Viewers were also told that Moray was the first to threaten a council tax freeze. This was also false as the newspaper headlines below prove.
Also appearing in the item were two ‘pundits’ who gave their views which were sympathetic to Moray. Both had links to the Scottish Labour party, which weren’t revealed.
The gentleman on the left, David O’Neill, is a serving Labour councillor and the one on the right, Professor Richard Kerley, is a former Labour councillor. Kerley is heard describing Moray council’s threat to increase council tax by eighteen per cent as a “bold move”.
By the end of January 13th the Moray threat to increase the council tax was well and truly established. BBC Scotland had pushed the story relentlessly on TV, Radio and Online. At no point had anyone at BBC Scotland sought to establish whether a majority of councillors at Moray actually backed Stewart Cree.
On Thursday January 14th the question of whether Cree had enough support was answered when the Conservative councillor not on the administration gave an interview on Good Morning Scotland.
Cree’s threat to end the council tax freeze was exposed as a sham. If the Conservative councillor was to be believed, BBC Scotland had based a full days political output on an empty threat.
There is no love lost between Stewart Cree and the SNP group in Moray. The nationalists attempted to replace Cree and his administration in 2015 after the SNP increased their group number from ten to eleven following a by-election. The by-election triumph meant the SNP were now the largest group in Moray. However Cree fought off the challenge and likened the SNP deputy leader Graham Leadbitter to a "lion attacking a herd of wildebeest".
BBC Scotland could have, and should have, sought to establish where each of the political groups in Moray stood on the council tax freeze. That it didn’t, suggests it wasn’t interested in testing the credibility of the story it was headlining. BBC Scotland clearly wanted to give the impression that Moray council could indeed have ended the council tax freeze. But why?
Since the original story broke on January 12th, Moray council has being used as a hook on which to hang a narrative about the council tax. That narrative is being cultivated by the Scottish Labour party, with the help of BBC Scotland.
There are essentially three strands to the narrative.
1. The SNP is slashing council funding.
2. The council tax freeze prevents councils making up the shortfall.
3. There will be cuts to local services and job losses.
The Moray council story was crucial in building that narrative. It helped embed the image of councils being bullied by the Scottish government and of these same councils ‘standing up’ to the SNP government.
Even after Cree’s threats were exposed as completely baseless by a Tory councillor in Moray, the sham continued. BBC Scotland has repeatedly sought to portray Moray council as genuinely planning to increase council tax.
Two weeks later on Tuesday the 9th February BBC Scotland rolled out the story again. This time the attacks on the Scottish government were spearheaded by Labour councillors, although the Moray council ‘threat’ was prominent.
By now Stewart Cree had backtracked on his empty threat to end the council tax freeze. The excuse for the climb-down was an apparent increase in the penalty his council would face if it did indeed end the council tax freeze.
The penalty for ending the council tax freeze was £1.1m when Cree issued his threat and was still £1.1m when he backtracked. The increased penalty appears to be related to the extra money councils are being given in return for maintaining teacher numbers and to help integrate social care.
BBC Scotland gave the Moray story a final outing this week. On Wednesday Moray again dominated BBC Scotland news.
We were back to where we started with Cree’s threat to end the council tax freeze being presented as realistic. If BBC Scotland was to be believed Moray had “abandoned plans for an eighteen per cent rise” only after the Scottish government had threatened to increase the funding penalty. As you’d expect, the story was also covered on Reporting Scotland.
The Moray story was always nonsense. There was never enough support for ending the council tax freeze in Moray. BBC Scotland, rather than carry out its journalistic obligations and risk wrecking an SNP battering ram, instead decided to promote the myth.
Good Morning Scotland presenter Gary Robertson did confront Stewart Cree on the morning of February 17th on the lack of support the Moray councillor had for ending the freeze. Robertson inexplicably refused press the independent councillor on who it was had pledged support.
All it took was for a leader of one small local authority to issue a press statement threatening to end the council tax and the apparatus of the BBC was suddenly at his disposal. To this day I have seen no evidence that any of Moray’s Labour councillors were questioned by BBC Scotland in order to determine where they stood on the issue. BBC Scotland appears not to have wanted to know.
The Moray council tax story is now, it seems, over. The sham served its purpose. The SNP has received a battering at the hands of Scottish Labour weilding its big BBC club.
This week the Scottish government published its paper into the future of the BBC in Scotland. Fiona Hyslop’s suggestions for improvement are constructive and positive. I hope she succeeds in her endeavours.
That said, only a fool [or a Unionist] would fail to recognise that there are very serious issues in the way political news is handled by BBC Scotland. Any new autonomy for BBC Scotland must go hand-in-hand with a change in management and a review of its political news gathering.
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