Being Seriously Concerned
Let’s imagine there’s a news story which is very important. It has received a great deal of coverage, and quite rightly.
In fact it’s literally been front page, and for a long time.
Then imagine, if you will, that this story has been politicized from the outset, for reasons which are clearly recognized and understood.
As a third and final act of imagination, pretend you’re a broadcaster funded by the public purse to produce news content consistent with the mission of public service broadcasting.
Which is to say, you’re a broadcaster determined to avoid an accusation levelled at British broadcast news for slavishly following an agenda set by a press notorious Europe-wide for its lack of objectivity on matters of politics and ideology.
Now let’s look at two Scottish broadcast news websites for Sunday 25 June 2023.
At STV, just a few careful steps down the river bank from BBC Scotland, the news site leads with a story about a technical fault with the emergency 999 line, then a story about the Scottish government taking control of the Caledonian Sleeper rail service. Third is coverage of sewage dumping in nine council areas. (Which is why you should be careful on river banks.)
It’s important to note that STV doesn’t ignore ferries – did I say ferries? apologies, I haven’t even mentioned ferries yet – entirely. There is indeed a story nine items down about a protest march in Glasgow over catastrophic disruption to South Uist ferry services.
Let’s acknowledge that failures in the provision of ferry services, as those of us who use ferries are well aware, strike at the very heart of island life. Even people who never use ferries are highly aware of this matter, because the Scottish press, perhaps most of all Glasgow’s Herald, carry ‘ferry fiasco’ stories on a regular, often daily, basis.
(To the extent in fact that some of us, as widely noted, have long rebranded the Herald in our good-natured fashion as Ferry Fiasco News. And it never lets us down.)
It’s inevitable that news provision from any source is going to be subject to accusations of non-objectivity from politically interested consumers, even although much of the British (and Scottish) press doesn’t, as it were, lie awake at night worrying about it.
That’s because where the world of politics is concerned, everybody knows where British newspapers stand; and objectivity seldom has anything to do with it.
But as a public service broadcaster you’d be fairly cautious, would you not, over the risk of appearing to align yourself with any political camp. Especially, in fact, if you were often subject to that very accusation.
And even if you felt that you could never win, and you were attacked from all sides, and you got really fed up, it would still be self-destructive, not least if you were funded by a licence fee, to hand ammunition to your critics.
Nonetheless, the BBC Scotland news website (until 14.00, to be precise, after which it remains prominently on the site) leads with ‘New documents spark fresh concerns over Ferguson’s ferry contract’.
The piece begins thus: ‘Opposition parties say newly-released documents raise further concerns about the procurement of two overdue ferries being built at Ferguson shipyard’.
Earlier this month The National newspaper covered research by Professor John Robertson about disparity in coverage of public services by BBC news respectively in Wales and Scotland, which persuasively indicated an exaggerated tendency in Scotland to relate such matters to government responsibilities.
We seem to have a further example here – the first two words are ‘opposition parties’, that is, opposition to the SNP government, so the story is political from the outset.
But we don’t have to deduce politicization here at all, since effectively BBC Scotland is actively choosing to be a platform for the opposition parties – the article doesn’t mention ‘concerns’ from anyone else except the Labour and Conservative parties, so this is merely reporting of the latest phase of long-standing criticism of alleged Scottish government failure in the ferries saga.
It turns out specifically that the ‘concerns’ the BBC is reporting are on the part of Scottish Labour’s Neil Bibby, who says he has ‘serious concerns’. Scottish Conservative transport spokesperson, Graham Simpson, the other source quoted in the story, does sound concerned too, though in the service of objectivity, I must report that he isn’t quoted as using the actual word ‘concern’.
So the ‘concerns’ which BBC Scotland are reporting are two statements by political opponents of the SNP.
There are various links in the piece, in this order: ‘The lifeline ferry deal that went adrift’ (March 2022); ‘Leaked dossier suggests Scottish ferry deal may have been rigged’ (September 2022); and ‘Ten things we learned about Scottish ferry fiasco’ (September 2022).
A later link from February 2023 problematizes, so to speak, the language of the earlier link: ‘Top lawyer to investigate if Scottish ferries contract was “rigged”’.
Only BBC Scotland knows if the quotes around ‘rigged’ this time refer to the fact that it was generally thought to have been ‘rigged’ – or that BBC Scotland claimed earlier that it might have been ‘rigged’. This is why broadcasters should be careful about language.
Noting in passing that ‘rigged’ and ‘fiasco’ belong to a linguistic register better avoided by broadcasters seeking objectivity, the real question here is about the prominence of this story on this website now and also formerly, and the language in which reporting and comment on the subject tends to be couched.
Such a degree of prominence raises a question about why BBC Scotland is not more cautious about aligning itself with the agenda of Scottish newspapers largely hostile to Scottish independence and the SNP.
Which, judging by long term scrutiny of the news website of the only other relevant comparator, STV News, is a characteristic which in Scottish news broadcasting provision belongs solely to the BBC.
This, too, remains a serious concern. From the recent Richard Sharp debacle to the sad fact that while global threats abound and news has never been more essential, the Corporation substitutes a radio phone-in for its morning TV news coverage, the BBC seems to be in self-defeating mode.
There are enough real threats from its political enemies and American competitors. It doesn’t have to manufacture more itself. Every part of its operation should offer arguments for the BBC’s continued existence, and its Scottish news operation ought not to provide exceptions.