Two weeks ago, we met with BBC Scotland bosses to discuss anti-independence bias in the corporation. We presented them with a document containing our complaints. Here's what wrote back:

From Ian Small, head of public policy and corporate affairs at BBC Scotland.

News coverage

The issue of clarity on reserved and devolved matters, as reported on network news, is one which has arisen at various times in the past. Indeed, the King Report took that very issue as a key focus, in response to which the BBC agreed that there needed to be improved reporting of the whole of the UK, to include improved labelling of stories, more policy comparisons (across nations) and better coverage of the nations and regions.

Since that time there have been various initiatives put in place – the introduction of a Scotland Editor for network, better and more regular connectivity between Scotland and network news teams and, most recently, the proposed introduction of a new TV news programme on the new Scotland channel.

For a number of reasons, this is a really important development. In addition to the significant employment boost it offers in a sector that has for some time been experiencing its own difficulties, the new programme will allow us to cover international, UK, Scotland and local news in one integrated programme, with the capacity to cover stories in greater depth than previously and to ensure space for the widest possible diversity of voices and perspective.

In terms of hours, this will, each year, bring over 300 additional hours of television news and related programming to screens, delivered from a Scottish perspective, for audiences in Scotland. The intention is that this provision will complement that already offered on the other BBC Scotland services, including online, and will add to the weekend TV news programme we are about to introduce on BBC ALBA and the new Sunday news bulletin we will introduce on Radio nan Gaidheal.

We fully take your point about the need for clarity in reporting, particularly between reserved and devolved issues and it’s an issue that our news teams regularly discuss with network colleagues. Of course there are various difficulties in ensuring that distinctions are, on every occasion, made clear and we know it’s frustrating for audiences when labelling isn’t clear or where a story covers an issue that might impact on England or England and Wales but not Scotland – the coverage of the Junior Doctors’ strike was one clear example of such a story. We don’t get it right every time but it’s important that we recognise that and try to make sure we get it right the next time we report on any particular issue.

What I would say is that our news teams are increasingly aware of how the nations of the UK each differ from one another - and how Scotland differs in so many important ways, in areas including health, education, social welfare, our judicial system and so on. The morning telephone hook-up, which involves senior BBC news staff from across the UK, is important in ensuring not just that Scotland is factored in to UK news reporting but that relevant advice is sought and offered, where appropriate, on Scotland perspectives on UK and world stories.

I would agree with you that there’s a strong argument for more varied news coverage from across the UK – but again, where time is restricted in a bulletin, and where there are big news stories to be covered (Brexit, Russia/USA, etc), that becomes difficult (though not impossible). Which is why the breadth of coverage, across various broadcast platforms, including radio and online, is important. And why having a dedicated weeknight hour – and additional news/politics programming - will start to address some of the issues you raise (the addition of £7m of new monies from BBC to support our extended news output is a critical factor in all of this).

In this respect’ I’d make one further point. While you’re right that the decision to take Scotland 2016 off air and replace it with Timeline did reduce the weekly hours count relative to current affairs programmes, the move brought current affairs coverage to a significantly larger audience.

I’d also note that we have, in recent years, increased resourcing on radio (the Saturday/Sunday editions of GMS have been well received, as has their use of longer-form pieces) and online, where the introduction of news podcasts and longer articles has helped broaden our news coverage. But, all that said, it’s a point well-made and one that we will consider further.

On the issue of us lobbying Westminster for broadcasting to be devolved, I’m afraid that really isn’t a function that the Charter allows of the BBC.

One other point you raise that I’ll think further upon is that where differences between Scotland and the UK do feature in network news stories and where, you note, these tend to take the form of negative comparisons. To be honest, I don’t know enough about that right now in order to form a view but I will, on your prompt, now monitor the network news over the coming weeks to assess that. If there any examples that you could point out to me, that would help enormously in that process.

Editorial Policy

You raise a lot of interesting points in this section that require much more time to look into and consider than that which has been available to Alasdair and I in the one week since we met. Below are some initial thoughts. On the more substantive issues, I’d like, if I may, to take a bit more time to look into them. It may take a couple of weeks but I would like to look into them in more depth before responding to you in more detail.

Lack of representation of pro-independence views on current affairs and cultural programming

On this question, I’d note that a lot of our current affairs output isn’t necessarily focussed on constitutional issues, but where it is, we do look to ensure discussion and debate is informed by views, perspectives and voices from across the political spectrum. Again, though, as noted above, I’d like time to look into this in more depth.

Guests on commentary shows

I think I would benefit from knowing which shows it is that you refer to here? Likewise, I’m not sure what is meant by ‘unrepresentative’ or who are the fringe groups to which you refer? I know that we regularly feature SNP representatives on air and we use commentators such as Lesley Riddoch, Iain McWhirter, Andrew Tickell, Alex Bell and other prominent pro-independence voices to contribute to our output. I think their views are relatively representative in terms of the perspectives they offer on issues pertaining to independence. It might help for us to have further dialogue on this subject?

Interview patterns

On the question of SNP representatives being interviewed prior to debate/discussion by other party representatives, there could be a range of reasons for this (eg an outlining of Government policy prior to discussion on that policy by opposition politicians or it could be to do with the availability of the SNP politician, or…) . Again, however, it is something that I will have to look into before I can offer a more substantial answer.

Newspaper Reviews

You pose an interesting question about the role they play in our coverage of news and current affairs, particularly at a time when there is so much content, of various types, now available online. Again, this is something I would like to discuss with colleagues in News before offering a more substantive response.

‘SNP Government’

On the issue of stories referencing ‘the SNP Government ‘and a different tack being taken when making reference to the UK Government, we have now examined our TV news scripts since the beginning of this year and have found only a handful of references to ‘SNP Government’ in scripted pieces. We also have found a number of scripted instances where the term ‘Conservative Government’ was used (I have included some examples of both in Appendix 1).

While it’s true that these may not be the only examples of usage in our output – there may, for example, be use of the terms in unscripted two-ways (though the only way of checking that would be to watch every TV bulletin and listen to every radio news programme) – the fact that we can point to use of both ‘SNP Government’ and ‘Conservative Government’ terminology would suggest that there is no bias in one direction or another.

Differential reporting of accusations

I’m afraid I don’t agree with the argument that we adopt a different stance when dealing with accusations against SNP representatives, as opposed to those from other parties – and, as we discussed when we met, we don’t favour any one politician or party or viewpoint over another. With regard to the Jenny Marra/NHS Tayside story, the First Minister was not “doorstepped” - she agreed to give an on camera interview and answer questions at a public event.

Positive stories about Scotland /Scottish Government given a lower news value than negative stories

I think there are a few points to make here. Firstly, I would note that there is no practice, process or policy operated by BBC Scotland that ranks stories in this way, be they about Scotland or the Scottish Government.

What there is in place here, as there is in any newsgathering operation, in broadcast or in print, is an approach to journalism that is standard across the industry. For example, today’s newspaper front pages all lead in like manner – ‘Brexit Warning for Scots Over Passport Threat’ (The National); ‘Hundreds of women hit by breast screening blunder’ (The Herald); ‘Carney: no-deal Brexit could be as disastrous as financial crash’ (The Guardian), and so on. What each does is look at the implications of policies or decisions taken by those in power and scrutinises them. When the BBC does that, it is not evidence of an attempt to undermine or to denigrate – it is to ask hard questions of those who take such decisions, to understand the implications and properly to assess the merits or otherwise of those decisions. And the importance of that practice is why such stories tend to be at the top of running orders or on front pages.

Lack of pursuit of Ruth Davidson over the “Dark Money” scandal

Ruth Davidson was interviewed earlier today (Friday, 14 September), excerpts of which will be broadcast and the full interview, I understand, will go online. The issue of ‘Dark Money’ was discussed in that interview.


You put forward a number of proposals. On the question of bias, I’d make the point that assessment of whether or not there is evidence of this in our reporting is undertaken every time a complaint on this is made, via BBC, the independent Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) and, importantly, via the independent industry regulator, Ofcom. If viewers or listeners believe we have not been impartial in our reporting of any story, the complaints process is designed to allow them to make their arguments and have them assessed, firstly by the team responsible for the output and then by ECU and Ofcom.

On the issue of story selection and running order, I think that is answered by the points made above? It is something that we assess each and every day, for every news bulletin and programme, and we do recognise the importance of getting it right for audiences.

Transparency and Trust

On the BBC complaints process, I have in the last week or so seen plans to provide a more streamlined and easier-to-navigate website so that should, to a degree, help. One other, relatively recent, introduction is that of a public-facing Complaints and Clarifications website, that allows us to post responses to complaints where they are received in volume or are of particular importance. I don’t think I’d agree with the contention that complaints that come into BBC Scotland are met with ‘evasion, deflection and obfuscation’. I deal with complaints on an ongoing basis, as does Alasdair (in his capacity as Head of Editorial Standards) and I know that every effort is put in to providing as honest and as comprehensive a response to each as is possible. It really isn’t in the best interests of the complainant or of the broadcaster to do otherwise – if we evade, deflect or obfuscate, all that will happen is that the complaint, most likely, will be escalated to the BBC Executive Complaints Unit or to our regulator, Ofcom, both of whom operate independently of BBC Scotland and either of whom would inevitably identify that intent within our response and, rightly, and very publicly, castigate us for it and demand reparation.

Likewise, on FOI responses, even when they are out of scope and subject to the derogation, it is not unusual for us to volunteer information to requesters. There are, of course, occasions when it simply wouldn’t be appropriate to provide information – where it is personal, commercially confidential, where it would take 2.5 days or more to accumulate that information, etc. As we discussed, FOI can be a bit of a ‘blunt instrument’ when used as a device to seek information. That said, I’m happy to assure you that I assess every FOI request I receive very carefully and if I can provide information I will always attempt to do so.

On the question of social media, I have every sympathy for our journalists who are very often attacked for their postings. It’s an important communications medium and it’s important that our journalists use it. However, when the content they post doesn’t chime with the views of some consumers, that should never be an excuse for the vitriol and abuse often hurled in their direction. Disagreement is fine - that’s what democracy is all about: abuse never is.


Though I’ve tried to address some of the issues you raised, both in your paper and when we met, I’m aware that this, rightly, is only the beginning of the dialogue and that we need to do much more. And I’m happy to arrange whatever might be needed to take that forward, be that discussions with newsroom staff, public meetings, etc.


SNP/Conservative Government references (scripted TV, 2108 to date) ‘Passed by a majority SNP government to tackle sectarianism, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was widely criticised as being unclear and unworkable. Earlier this year Opposition parties combined to repeal the law -- and today the retired judge Lord Bracadale said no replacement was required. He said hate crime at football matches could be dealt with under other offences such as breach of the peace. There had been calls for the review to recommend a new offence of misogyny -- hatred of women; but Lord Bracadale instead says gender-based prejudice and hatred should instead be included onto the Statute Book.’

‘From today, drink can't be sold below fifty pence a unit, the latest in a series of steps aimed at tackling what one campaigner calls Scotland's toxic relationship with booze. It follows a dogged battle by the SNP government to get the measure through Holyrood and then the courts. Ministers hailed the new policy, which targets cheap, high strength alcohol such as ciders and vodka, as an important plank in attempts to reduce alcohol-related harm. Having already tightened drink-drive laws and banned multi-buy sales, it's now likely they'll turn their attention to a prohibition of alcohol advertising in outdoor public spaces, including on buses, sports grounds and parks.’

‘Scottish Ministers will be challenged today to scrap the council tax - and replace it with a new levy which would mean higher bills -- for bigger properties. The initiative comes from the Greens who have leverage because -- the minority SNP Government has had to rely on them -- to win support for their overall budget. Scottish Ministers are cautious -- but say they're open to further talks -- with the aim of making local taxation more progressive. ‘

‘Highlands and Islands MSP, Maree Todd claims that the SNP government has made good on its promise to her constituents. She says that she has been advocating for fair ferry funding for some time - and she's pleased that the discussions between both island councils and the Scottish Government have been so fruitful. But she's criticised the Liberal Democrats for not backing the budget as a party.’

‘The First Minister says the Conservative government should "hang their heads in shame" as its emerged Dundee won't be able to bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023 because of Brexit. It was one of five cities UK vying for the title. It had been hoped a successful bid would have helped bring massive economic benefits to the city. The UK government says it disagrees with the Commission and is in urgent discussions with them. Nicola Sturgeon says it's a major blow and they're doing all they can to help.’

‘The Institute of Fiscal Studies has warned that the recent blueprint for the public finances of an independent Scotland would mean a tighter squeeze on spending than the rest of the UK faces under Conservative government plans. It also says Holyrood may have to plan for a further eight years on top of the ten year squeeze on spending set out by the Sustainable Growth Commission.’

‘The miners’ strike ran for a year between March 1984 and March 1985 and included violent clashes between the police and strikers, who were trying to stop the closure of pits by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. An independent review of the impact of policing on communities during the strike was set up by the Scottish Government earlier this year. John Scott QC, who's leading it, says he wants to hear the experiences of miners, those living in mining communities, police officers and anyone else who was affected by or involved in the strike. He says although it happened three decades ago, he's aware strong feelings persist.’