BBC cannot be an arm of Sturgeon’s PR operation

There is nothing Nicola Sturgeon loves more than posing as an international stateswoman. She may struggle to get Jacinda Ardern to reply to her tweets but Donald Trump’s post-election tantrum gave her an opportunity to share her wisdom with the world.

Asked last Wednesday about the US presidential election, which Trump has yet to concede, the First Minister declared: ‘What is most important right now is the integrity of American democracy… I won’t be the only one who listened to the President’s speech earlier with a sense of discomfort and foreboding and I hope sensible voices in America come to the fore in terms of the protection of the integrity of democracy.’

All very laudable and I don’t disagree with her. My problem is where I saw her make her remarks: on BBC Scotland’s live broadcast of the daily Covid-19 update. As I understood it, the Corporation was giving the First Minister a regular slot to keep the public informed about the pandemic and the Scottish Government’s response to it.

Donald Trump may be doing nothing good for everyone’s blood pressure, but what does his futile foot-stomping have to do with a health crisis in Scotland?

Few will want to risk being accused of defending Trump, but Sturgeon’s use of her BBC platform to offer commentary on his political conduct should trouble those who care about democratic norms and the independence of the BBC.

If this was an isolated incident, it wouldn’t matter all that much, but there is a clear pattern of the First Minister taking advantage of her broadcast slot to make political statements and promote her government’s wider agenda.

This is not about pedantry and not even about politics, really. It is about the judgment of senior editorial staff and executives at BBC Scotland. They know this themselves, for they attempted to curtail these broadcasts then retreated under pressure from Nationalists.

I don’t blame Nicola Sturgeon. Like any politician, she is going to exploit whatever platform she gets and answer whatever questions she wants. The people at fault are the Pacific Quay management who would rather jeopardise the BBC’s reputation than get on the wrong side of the SNP.

BBC Scotland is home to some fine and hard-working journalists. The actions of their higher-ups should not be allowed to reflect poorly on reporters and other editorial staff who take the Corporation’s charter seriously.

It is those higher-ups who took fright at the campaign of intimidation waged against BBC Scotland during the 2014 referendum and, instead of defending its journalists and their output, decided to appease their detractors. As such, BBC Scotland has spent the past six years trying to ingratiate itself with the Scottish establishment, whose ranks were already well represented at Pacific Quay.

The effect can be seen on air in some of the programming of the BBC Scotland channel and positively bursts from BBC The Social, but nothing is quite as blatant as giving the First Minister, in effect, her own daily TV show.

In the early days of the pandemic, when everything was new and it was essential to reassure the public, this was a sensible decision. Since then, red flags have shot up repeatedly and each time they have been ignored by BBC Scotland.

On July 1, Sturgeon used the broadcast to assail remarks by the Prime Minister on the England-Scotland border as ‘absurd and ridiculous political comments’ and added that for ‘a prime minister or secretary of state… to try to politicise these things is shameful’.

Again identifying the Prime Minister, Secretary of State and also the Scottish Tory leader, she said: ‘If you find yourselves trying to turn any of this into a political or a constitutional argument, go and take a long, hard look at yourself in a mirror and, if you’re being honest with yourself, you will admit that you’re failing people – or risking failing people.’

During that same briefing, Sturgeon singled out three newspapers (all centre-right, all pro-Union) and attacked their coverage: ‘The front page of the Express or the Mail or the Telegraph tomorrow… I could probably write them right now myself. They can say what they like…’

On October 20, Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville was brought in to announce money for local authorities to address financial insecurity and fund free school meals over the holidays.

These transfers were addressing the knock- on effects of the pandemic but they were not a public health matter in themselves. How do I know this? Because Shirley-Anne Somerville said so, prefacing her announcement with the words: ‘Whilst the pandemic remains first and foremost a public health emergency, we know that it is causing increasing financial pressure for many people.’

On November 3, Somerville again joined the First Minister on the broadcast to unveil her decision to ‘prioritise the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment’. This new benefit was a ‘key element of our Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan’, the Cabinet Secretary said. There is no reference to Covid-19 in that plan and no wonder – it was published in 2018.

Somerville added that stakeholders had branded the policy a ‘game-changer’. It may well be but the game it intends to change has nothing to do with coronavirus, even if the payment is being expedited under its auspices.

The First Minister is at liberty to take as many digs as she likes at the Prime Minister or the opposition. But the BBC is under no obligation to participate in – indeed, it is under a charter obligation not to participate in – what amounts to early campaigning for the 2021 Scottish parliament election.

The regulated period for that poll kicks in 58 days from now, the timeframe in which broadcasters must adhere to more stringent than usual rules on balance. That the BBC continues to afford a live daily platform to the leader of one political party, even as she uses that platform to made partisan statements, is difficult to justify even in the context of a pandemic. Elections do not take place only on polling day. Policies are weighed up, performances judged and opinions formed over the preceding months.

The SNP grasps this, which is why Nicola Sturgeon is the face of these briefings and not Health Secretary Jeane Freeman. Sturgeon’s sympathisers may say such electoral considerations should be set aside during a pandemic, but that should only be the case if the election is being set aside too.

Even if the First Minister restricted herself to Covid-19 matters, the provision of this daily platform would be dubious six months out from polling day. The Scottish Government’s handling of coronavirus – from its dumping of infected elderly patients into care homes to its withholding information on the Edinburgh Nike conference – is sure to be a major issue.

Yet BBC Scotland is permitting the SNP leader to retail her policies and performance to voters without questioning from MSPs, let alone other party leaders. BBC Scotland has allowed itself to be corralled into Nicola Sturgeon’s re-election campaign. No wonder some pro-Union voters brand it ‘BBC Sturgeon’.

The Corporation has done some fine work during this pandemic but its journalists’ efforts are being undermined by a management so bent on pandering to one side of politics it appears oblivious to the growing discontent on the other.

If that management does not withdraw or refashion Nicola Sturgeon’s political platform, the opposition parties and their supporters will have no alternative but to enter the complaints process.

For those of us who support the BBC, it was heartbreaking to witness it under assault in 2014 and would be even more painful to see a second front open up from the other direction. But the decisions being taken by the Corporation’s executives are making such an outcome ever more likely. If BBC Scotland is going to play politics, it will get politics in return.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Feature image © Batchelor at English Wikipedia by Creative Commons 3.0.

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