By GA Ponsonby
What do you know about the SNP’s council tax reform plans? You’ll know that those who live in the most expensive homes will pay more. You might also have heard something about income tax. I’ll hazard that most people in Scotland know nothing more beyond that.
Well, not quite. Voters will know that the SNP has broken a nine-year-old pledge to scrap the council tax and that pretty much everybody from academics, opposition politicians and local councils are unhappy with the proposals to reform the unfair system.
Nicola Sturgeon revealed the SNP’s plans to reform the most controversial tax since the poll tax this week. The First Minister’s announcement was trailed on BBC Scotland. I heard it first on the radio when I tuned into Good Morning Scotland on the morning of Wednesday February 2nd. You can hear the clip below.
The item was unremarkable save for a throwaway line regarding the SNP’s 2007 pledge to replace Council Tax with a Local Income Tax. As the programme progressed, references to the SNP’s nine year old pledge popped up again and again. It was mentioned in bulletins, interviews and analyses.
Running in parallel with the nine year old ‘broken pledge’ line was a narrative of unhappiness with, and criticism of, the SNP proposals. Guests on Good Morning Scotland included ex-Labour councillor Professor Richard Kerley and a little-known Tory councillor from Moray, Allan Wright. Wright’s contribution was particularly partisan as the recording below shows.
By the end of Good Morning Scotland it was clear that BBC Scotland was intent on painting as negative a picture as possible of the SNP’s council tax reforms. A hostile commentary from guests framed an image of a party which had broken a solemn nine-year old vow.
Looking through the archives
Now I’m not denying the SNP did indeed want to scrap the council tax and replace it with a Local Income Tax in 2007. But if a nine year old pledge is to be considered worthy of repeated mention, then so too are the reasons for the failure to implement LIT, one of which was the UK Labour government’s threat to cut Scotland’s block grant.
How many people remember, or are even aware, that proud Scots Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown threatened to withhold £400m from Scotland if the SNP scrapped the council tax? Not many I’ll hazard. But they did as can be seen from this paragraph from a BBC Scotland article from March 2008.
The UK Treasury also announced it would not assist in collecting revenue for LIT. The nationalists’ desire for a Local Income tax eventually waned, but back in 2007 it was key figures within Scottish Labour who effectively killed LIT off.
BBC Scotland research
Before I continue analysing BBC Scotland’s coverage of the SNP’s council tax reform proposals I want to highlight a trend I’ve noticed when it comes to the corporation’s political reporting. Whoever carries out research at Pacific Quay thinks nothing of trawling through the archives looking for pledges and comments from the SNP. If these pledges can be used to discomfit the party then they’ll find their way into news reports and interviews.
BBC Scotland rarely if ever shows the same appetite when it comes to the Labour party. Take this comment from Alistair Darling from 2008 when attacking LIT.
"If you are trying to attract people to Scotland, telling them income tax will be more than it is in the rest of the country would be extremely damaging."
I can’t recall Kezia Dugdale being confronted with Darling’s words of wisdom when she recently proposed a hike in income tax for every worker in Scotland earning over £11,000. Nor can I recall BBC Scotland reminding the public that Dugdale herself, months before calling for income tax to be raised, called for workers to pay less tax.
But back to the present and BBC Scotland’s coverage of the council tax reforms. By mid-afternoon on February 2nd Scottish Labour had responded as expected by calling the SNP reforms a “broken promise”. The Scottish Labour spin machine was now echoing the ‘nine-year-old-pledge’ line from BBC Scotland.
The attacks on the SNP proposals were coming thick and fast. Nobody, it seemed, had a good word to say about them. BBC Scotland’s evening radio programme Newsdrive had perhaps the most bizarre anti-SNP commentator of all in the shape of Eben Wilson. Wilson heads an organisation called Taxpayers Scotland. I challenge you to listen to the interview below and work out what Wilson’s rambling comments have to do with the council tax.
Wilson’s agenda driven addition to the coverage added to a chorus if disapproving voices that was to get much louder. Below is how BBC Scotland’s flagship news programme Reporting Scotland covered the SNP’s council tax reform.
The report was little more than a parade of politicians and former politicians eager to voice their disapproval of the SNP’s council tax reforms. It featured no less than six people critical of Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement earlier that day. Two of the commentators [Councillor Kevin Keenan and former Councillor Prof. Kerley] had links to the Labour party that were not revealed.
The SNP’s nine-year-old Local Income Tax pledge made it onto the programme. It dovetailed nicely with Kezia Dugdale’s ‘broken promise’ accusation.
By the time the day ended, the BBC/Labour ‘broken promise’ narrative all but overshadowed the actual details of the reforms. The corporation, rather than help explain the reforms to the public, pursued an agenda that sidelined them and in doing so failed in its duty to inform.
A broken promise or a fairer system?
Thursday morning’s Good Morning Scotland opened with a report from Glenn Campbell. The full item can be heard below.
The ‘Broken Promise’ line was still being pushed. However another accusation was introduced into the coverage. Local councils, according to Glenn Campbell, had accused the SNP of a “power grab”. The power grab claim was based on the SNP plan to target the extra funds, raised through targeting expensive homes, towards education.
Claims of a power grab came from Labour officials of the local authority group Cosla. It is a variation of a Scottish Labour party line-of-attack that accuses the SNP of stripping power from local authorities, of centralising power.
However these same councillors said nothing when Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale recently boasted that cash generated from her income tax hike would be targeted at education. BBC Scotland had an opportunity to highlight the hypocrisy when Cosla chief David O’Neill was interviewed on Good Morning Scotland on Thursday 03rd March.
As you can hear from the recording above, Mr O’Neill was not pressed. O’Neill was also not pressed when he attacked SNP plans to cap any future council tax increases at a maximum of 3p.
He told interviewer Gary Robertson:
“So we’re replacing a council tax freeze with a council tax cap. That sounds very much like what the Tories are doing in England.
“[Tax variation] should be a matter for individual authorities. They should have the freedom to either increase or reduce the council tax in line with what their communities want, and they should not be getting dictated to by central government.”
A cap on council tax increases was a plan initially proposed by Scottish Labour. The headline below is from a BBC Scotland article in October 2010.
There’s little doubt that when it comes to providing platforms for people to attack the SNP, BBC Scotland is no slouch. Yet when there is clear evidence of hypocrisy on the part of those carrying out the attacks - especially if they are Labour politicians - they are rarely pressed.
Appearing on Good Morning Scotland around one hour before Labour councillor David O’Neill was his party colleague, MSP Jackie Baillie. Listen as Baillie actually boasts that Scottish Labour’s income tax increase will raise £500m specifically for local authority education.
The reasonably robust interview focused initially on the council tax freeze with Baillie being asked whether her party backed its end. However I am still waiting for any BBC Scotland presenter to confront Jackie Baillie with comments she made in 2014 in which she appeared to give a conflicting account to her constituents and to the Scottish parliament on her historic stance on the council tax freeze.
BBC Scotland’s reporting of the SNP council tax reforms continued in the same vein right up until Saturday. It featured on the weekend edition of Good Morning Scotland where the agenda of minimising informed analysis of the SNP’s reforms in favour of agenda driven criticism continued.
First up was an academic by the name of Colin Copus. Copus’ opinions on local councils just happened to chime with the ‘local autonomy’ line being pushed by Scottish Labour. Not surprising really given that in December the academic published a book entitled ‘In Defence Of Councillors’.
Colin Copus was pushing his own agenda. He previously worked as a local government officer and a policy researcher in the House of Commons. He has served as a councillor on the London Borough of Newham, a county and a district council and two parish councils. His agenda was just what BBC Scotland was looking for.
Immediately following Copus was Scottish Green candidate Andy Wightman and former Labour councillor Ewan Aitken. Both, as you would expect, were critical of the SNP council tax reforms. In keeping with BBC tradition, Aitken’s political affiliation was not revealed.
The Saturday Good Morning Scotland programme was followed by the Shereen show which featured three guests in the form of ITV reporter Martin Geissler, Herald journalist Brian Beacom and someone whose name sounded like Andrea Meleanie. The three discussed the council tax reforms. Their views pretty much mirrored criticisms already broadcast by BBC Scotland.
It’s not possible to watch and listen to every broadcast on BBC Scotland, but from my observations of radio and TV output I did not catch one academic or media pundit say anything remotely positive about the SNP’s proposals. All in all I counted no fewer than fifteen people who for one reason or another, were critical of the SNP or its plans.
The coverage was never styled to inform the public. What was presented as news and/or analysis was more often than not politically motivated attacks or agenda driven opinion.
There was very little attempt to educate the public as to what exactly the SNP had proposed. The plan to give local authorities a share of income tax receipts was never fully explored or explained.
Also missing from coverage was a proposal for legislation to allow councils to end the council tax discounts that presently apply to second homes from April 2017 to support local housing markets. There will also be consultation on enabling councils to levy a tax on development, and vacant and derelict, land to reduce land banking and increase supply of homes.
There was indeed support for the SNP proposals from someone with expertise in the field. Writing for PublicFinance, Head of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, Don Peebles said:
“But it is in the longer-term future proposals where local tax takes a different and more imaginative turn.
The proposal is to assign 25% of Scotland’s future income tax receipts to councils.
This would replace revenue grant and it could result in much-needed increased revenue for Scottish councils.
“The proposals taken together do introduce a measure of progression to local finances and that is to be welcomed. It means that property, income and land could all feature as part of the local taxation system.”
Peebles actually sat on the independent commission that reported on the council tax last year. Thus, his views were highly relevant. Indeed a clip of Peebles speaking back then appeared on Good Morning Scotland the day Nicola Sturgeon announced her party’s council tax reforms.
The council tax issue has caused the Scottish Labour party trouble since 2007. Scottish Labour leaders have variously supported the council tax freeze and attacked it - sometimes arguing for both at the same time. They have always been protected by the Scottish media.
It’s going to be interesting watching the media when Kezia Dugdale responds to the SNP proposals. The Scottish Labour leader faced almost no scrutiny when she announced her ridiculous tax-raising plan and its unworkable rebate. Don’t be surprised if she enjoys the same kid-glove treatment when she eventually reveals Scottish Labour’s plan for the council tax.
With the SNP certain to win the Holyrood elections, Dugdale has the luxury of proposing anything she wants. It’s only a Scottish Labour party manifesto after all. Look how easily the last one, published by Kezia Dugdale and Jim Murphy last year, was forgotten.
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