The BBC first entered the fray proper when in quite dramatic fashion it confidently announced on 12th Aug, fully eight days before the actual announcement, what Kenny MacAskill’s decision would be and when it would be announced.
This ‘leak’ signaled the beginning of a series of attacks by Unionist parties in Scotland on The Justice Minister. Incredibly, those attacks included allegations that it was the Justice Minister himself who had leaked to the BBC – quite why Kenny MacAskill would deliberately bring such pressure on himself was never fully explained.
One week later and the hours immediately after the decision the BBC coverage was much as expected, the same Unionist MSP’s were again given a platform to utter much the same rhetoric as they had done the previous week. However, Iain Gray’s sudden declaration that, had he been First Minister then Megraghi would have died in a Scottish jail was new and a clear departure from Westminster Labour who had negotiated a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. The refusal of the BBC to ask Iain Gray to comment on the Prisoner Transfer Agreement was a very noticeable failure to scrutinise equally.
As the day wore on a crescendo of additional voices against the decision flooded onto our screens and radio’s. Families of the victims, with the exception of Jim Swire, were particularly vociferous in their condemnation, whilst leading American politicians also joined the chorus of disapproval – all of this was dutifully reported by the BBC.
And so at the end of the evening we tuned into Newsnight Scotland hosted by Gordon Brewer, Glenn Campbell was there to provide 'expert' analysis of both the decision and the hitherto unseen footage of Megrahi’s arrival in Tripoli.
Almost immediately we were presented with images of a frail Megrahi descending the steps of the plane onto the Tripoli tarmac. A crowd of people could be seen welcoming him home – however, clearly visible in this crowd, were two saltires!!
Here the BBC’s handling was less than professional. The images of Megrahi being warmly received will have been interpreted by many viewers as an inappropriate celebration of a convicted bomber – the saltires being waved demanded some sort of explanation.
Sadly, Glenn Campbell decided that no informed analysis was required, the scenes, he tells the viewer, will heap further pressure on the SNP government. Campbell also declares that this day may well turn out to be a defining moment for this SNP Government and that “MacAskill is the toast of Tripoli”. The tone and nuance of Campbell’s delivery make it clear that in his opinion the SNP will suffer. Rather than educating the viewer, Campbell simply leaves them ignorant and his comments merely serve to confirm his own prejudices.
Campbell had failed the viewer by refusing to offer even the most basic explanation of the scenes. The ‘crowd’ welcoming Megrahi home were to be expected, Libyan culture includes a strong sense of tribal belonging, those people were mostly members of Megrahi’s tribe. Equally, the saltire waving surely demanded at least an acknowledgement that Libyans considered Megrahi to be innocent. Far from being waved in celebration at the return of a bomber, the flags were actually being waved as a sign of gratitude for the mercy shown by Scotland to an innocent and dying man.
These subtle omissions were compounded by the interviews that followed. Gavin Esler’s ‘interview’ with Kenny MacAskill for Newsnight UK was surely a low point in Esler’s career. Esler’s face contorted in bitterness and rage as he shed any pretence of professionalism and spat one emotive accusation after another at Scotland’s Justice Minister. Gordon Brewer’s interview that followed was handled better, but not much better.
Worse was to follow as throughout the weekend we were treated to interviews and sound bites from anyone and everyone who wished to attack the decision. When two former First Ministers each took different views it was the anti-MacAskill view that prevailed. Jack McConnell had decided that MacAskill had shamed Scotland whilst Henry Macleish supported the decision – Macleish was sidelined by the BBC in favour of McConnell. Far from presenting both sides, the BBC seemed intent on giving a platform mainly to one.
As we entered the start of the following week the BBC’s behaviour became more and more questionable. Monday morning’s daily phone in on Radio Scotland covered the Megrahi decision and what followed suggested that the portrayal of a massive anti-MacAskill sentiment by the BBC mightn’t be as accurate was being suggested.
Caller after caller supported MacAskill, overwhelmingly so. So many texts, emails and phone calls were in support that show host Shereen Nanjiani began to plead for any listeners who disagreed with the decision to get in touch. Radio Scotland’s Drive Time was similar as again texts were overwhelmingly supportive; show co-host Laura Maxwell also implored anyone who disagreed to contact the show.
That afternoons emergency debate at Holyrood was the single most important debate in the history of our parliament, a high profile event where every nuance and word would be scrutinised. Proceedings were broadcast live as Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MSP’s lined up to accuse and attack Kenny MacAskill.
So imagine the gasps and resultant applause when, amidst the baying mob, Labour’s Malcolm Chisholm stood up and declared that he supported Kenny MacAskill’s decision, Chisholm then launched an attack on Iain Gray’s politicising of the issue.
Such a symbolic attack from a former cabinet minister on his own leader in the most high profile arena Scottish politics had ever witnessed should have been the day’s biggest item – bar none. However it was given scant coverage by the BBC and wasn’t considered worthy of pursuit by their Chief Political Correspondent Brian Taylor who didn’t even mention it in his blog.
Indeed Newsnight Scotland that evening featured representatives of the four main Holyrood parties, including Iain Gray. Again though the BBC interviewer completely failed to mention Malcolm Chisholm’s attack.
Newspaper letters, online polls, phone in’s, texts and emails to radio shows were indicating strong support for MacAskill’s decision, the Unionist parties and indeed the BBC itself appeared out of step.
BBC Scotland’s response to this show of support was to have another phone in. Tuesday’s phone in would be on the same subject, this time however the BBC decided that trailers for the programme would echo a phrase uttered by Labour’s Iain Gray in Monday’s emergency debate at Holyrood – the BBC trailers called on Iain Gray’s “silent majority” to get in touch. The BBC was now openly soliciting views from only one side as they desperately tried to harvest some kind of anti MacAskill feeling. Tuesday’s calls if anything were even more supportive of MacAskill with many venting their anger at the disgraceful behavior of the opposition in Monday’s emergency debate.
Indeed not just the public but also respected religious and legal institutions who expressed a view were overwhelmingly supportive of MacAskill. The Scottish Law Society endorsed the decision with Ian Smart stating “the decision had upheld the reputation of the legal profession”. Retired judge Lord McCluskey said “There is no reason for us not to show compassion”. Even the normally rabidly anti SNP Scotsman newspaper had calmed down it’s rhetoric and reverted to a more balanced coverage, even sympathetic at times to MacAskill.
The BBC however had other ideas and what happened next is probably one of the most blatant abuses of BBC privilege I can recall.
The role of the BBC is to present a non partisan view of events, to educate, inform and entertain – neutral political coverage and informed analysis is key to the BBC’s reputation. It is for precisely these reasons that we, the viewers, are compelled to pay the licence fee.
Instead of simply covering the news and reporting the facts the BBC decided to influence the news as it hastily commissioned a poll from its favourite pollster – ICM. The resultant poll apparently showed those against the decision outnumbered those who supported the issue by almost 2:1. The BBC announced that Scots were ‘opposed’ to the decision; Brian Taylor shamefully declared that ‘Scotland’s flag hangs a little more limply tonight’.
By the end of the week the poll had been headlined by the Scottish press and used as ammunition against the SNP by many Unionist politicians – in the opinion of Newsnet Scotland the BBC had deliberately influenced the political debate in Scotland.
It wasn’t finished there though, for when documents released by both the Scottish Government and Westminster revealed that Jack Straw had been heavily influenced by trade deals when negotiating the Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya – an agreement that the SNP had always opposed – the BBC decided to conflate the story with the compassionate release of Megrahi.
A revelation that badly damaged Labour was reported by the BBC as though it was related to Kenny MacAskill’s decision. The BBC were reporting two completely separate events as though they were part of one and the same – it exemplified the BBC’s coverage of the whole issue.
This article appeared in Edition 3 of Newsnet Scotland - to receive Newsnet Scotland simply click the link at the top of the page.
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