By a Newsnet reporter
Last week the latest circulation figures for the Scottish newspaper industry were published. As expected, and in keeping with latest trends, the figures were worse than disappointing.
That the newspaper industry in Scotland is in crisis is not exaggeration – and this has nothing to do with Leveson.
The internet has much to do with this demise, but also lurking in the shadows is the cancer of falling standards – and this affliction isn’t confined to the printed press.
Running through Scotland’s media is a corrosive inability to adapt to a changing Scotland. A hitherto hidden network of commentators, reporters and politicians with an agenda are destroying journalism, and with it any iota of balance in the run up to the independence referendum.
There are a few sparkles of ethical light in this dark and dingy place – but like a long disused goldmine any seams of hope have long since been exhausted.
The problem was no better evidenced than the EU letter story front paged by the Scotsman last Thursday. The story was a virtual clone of similar anti-independence inspired pieces based around claims that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for EU membership.
At the centre of this latest incarnation of EU apocalypse was a claim of a letter sent from the European Commission to a House of Lords committee. The Scotsman newspaper had, we were told, seen the letter - the contents of which were published by the newspaper.
Taken at face value it appeared a very decent scoop by the paper – notwithstanding similar scare stories. That it gave it significant prominence was in keeping with the paper’s pro-Union editorial stance and perfectly legitimate.
Labour peer George Foulkes, not slow to display his anti-independence credentials, was quoted in the article and the package was presented as a ‘blow to independence’ – or as the Scotsman described it “a separate Scotland”.
Newsworthy without a doubt, however alarm bells started to ring when at 6 o’clock on Thursday morning Radio Scotland afforded the story a profile normally reserved for events of significant importance.
When Raymond Buchanan appeared on Good Morning Scotland in a very lengthy item, it heralded a day where the BBC would go into overdrive. Throughout the day and into the evening the story went from the pages of a Scottish newspaper to the airwaves of the whole of the UK.
The BBC had decided that this story would be promoted – and how, as the corporation threw significant resources thus ensuring as many people as possible were aware of the EC letter, its apparent contents and the now ubiquitous anti-independence narrative.
There was one snag though – according to the European Commission the Scotsman story was incorrect. No letter had been sent and no decision had been taken on what any letter would contain.
Newsnet Scotland revealed this rather uncomfortable fact when a team member decided to contact the office of the EC President himself. The reply we received at 17:02 on Thursday was clear and unequivocal and rather uncomfortable for both the Scotsman and the BBC.
In a statement, an EC spokesman for José Manuel Barroso told Newsnet Scotland: "President Barroso has been invited to contribute to the House of Lords inquiry on the economic implications for the United Kingdom of Scottish Independence. The President has not yet replied.
"The Commission position is well known and set out in the series of responses given to European parliamentary questions. The Commission has been very clear that we do not comment on specific situations but can only give a view in general".
He added: "So to be clear – no reply has been decided or sent by the President yet so the Scotsman story is incorrect."
No reply had yet been decided and no letter had been sent, the charade had been exposed.
It begged the question: how had an unconfirmed story by a known Unionist leaning newspaper merited such widespread coverage and apparently significant resources by the BBC?
There’s no question that the story deserved acknowledgement of some sort, but the willingness of the BBC to promote it in the way it did was disproportionate in the extreme. Why did the corporation not wait until the EC had officially confirmed either the contents of the letter or the sentiments reportedly expressed?
Throughout the day the BBC’s reporting changed as the facts emerged. Initially the BBC’s online article blithely reported the Scotsman claim that the letter had already been sent.
"The European Commission has yet to confirm the details of the letter, which was sent to the House of Lords economic affairs sub committee." it said. [Our emphasis]
This claim was dropped in later versions.
The BBC's broadcast media was little better. On the UK wide Daily Politics Show, Unionist leaning presenter Andrew Neil took the Scotsman story at face value when questioning SNP MEP Alyn Smith about the ‘letter’. Incredibly, when confronted with the truth that no letter was sent and that all that existed were provisional drafts – Neil defended the Scotsman article as “original journalism”.
On Radio Scotland that afternoon the truth began to dawn that there were significant inaccuracies in the earlier versions of the story. The narrative changed to claims that the letter did indeed exist but simply hadn’t yet been sent.
At exactly two minutes past five that afternoon BBC Radio Scotland was reporting bizarrely that the EC had confirmed the letter existed but that the contents were different from that reported by the Scotsman. It appeared to escape BBC Scotland's notice that if the contents did not match then the letter, clearly, did not exist.
Wording from the Scottish government was also being very subtlely manipulated with Radio Scotland’s Bill Whiteford reporting that First Minister Alex Salmond had insisted that an independent Scotland would “gain automatic entry”. In fact gaining entry is something Scottish government ministers have denied Scotland would require, given that Scotland is already a member.
The “gain automatic entry” phrase would be used throughout Radio Scotland’s evening news show.
In a further blow to the narrative which was quickly falling apart it emerged that the Scottish government were about to complain to the EC over the episode. The BBC response was to begin scrabbling about looking for ‘evidence’ to keep the story alive.
Appearing on Radio Scotland’s Newsdrive at 17:15, the BBC’s Tim Reid altered the corporation’s approach – the Scotsman letter was still being cited but was now being bolstered by apparent remarks made by Mr Barroso earlier this year that Reid claimed supported the newspapers claims.
Referring to the newspaper claim that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for EU membership, Reid said it was true, telling listeners: “We know because they [the EC] have made their view known before”.
The day also saw the BBC with reporters based in Brussels make the same claims as the Scotsman. In addition to BBC Scotland Radio there were several other news and current affairs programmes also reporting the story – all of course attacked Scottish independence which was almost universally portrayed on the defensive.
Even when it became apparent that the original story contained significant inaccuracies which were confirmed by the EC, the direction of flow did not alter. The news that the Scottish government was to complain to the EC about briefings apparently given by EC officials was given nothing like the coverage of the original incorrect claims.
At the end of the evening Newsnight Scotland, clearly unwilling to change its pre-arranged programme, covered the issue in a manner that all but ignored the now firmly established new story – which was the EC statement that no decision had been taken on how to respond to the House of Lords, and that the Scotsman story was incorrect.
In an intro item for the programme viewers were simply told again “The letter has been written but not yet sent”. Unsubstantiated claims peppered the item, including that EC officials had told a BBC reporter that an independent Scotland would need to re-apply. The officials were not named and no evidence was produced to support the claims - the day ended as it had started.
Gordon Brewer's half hearted attempt at questioning Lord Foulkes about the origin of the incorrect Scotsman story followed a quite appallingly ignorant and gratuitous opening remark to SNP MEP Alyn Smith.
The next day the Scotsman newspaper issued a correction – the BBC carried on as though nothing untoward had happened.
The BBC had been caught out. It had poured significant resources into a story that an EC official statement, as reported by Newsnet Scotland, had all but destroyed. Despite the new development emerging, the corporation paid scant regard and ploughed on with their anti-independence narrative.
Claims that an independent Scotland would be forced out of the EU are in fact all but impossible to support. There exists no mechanism for removing a country or territory that is already a member. Indeed one example where an existing member, Greenland, requested an end to its own membership took fully two years.
However it isn’t the spurious nature of the claims by opponents to Scottish independence that are the concern – scare stories and apocalyptic predictions are part and parcel of the anti-independence rhetoric. The Scotsman newspaper’s pro-union line and the emphasis it placed on what it believed was reliable information is understandable.
What is more worrying is the eagerness with which the BBC picked up an unconfirmed newspaper article and gave it a prominence it ill deserved. That the state broadcaster now feels it appropriate to promote unconfirmed pro-Union articles from newspapers should worry us all.
To its credit, the Scotsman newspaper issued a correction the following day and admitted its original claim that a letter had been sent was untrue. It still remains unclear though what letter the newspaper claims to have seen – given that we now know it is currently a work in progress.
Alex Salmond asked who was behind the original story run by the Scotsman? We may never know.
Whatever the truth, Scots deserve to be told who at the BBC took the decision to give this story such a high profile and why hasn’t the subsequent revelations that the original story was incorrect not received the same prominent coverage?
It may in fact come to pass that the EC does indeed draft a letter that Unionists will claim supports their assertions that an independent Scotland will need to re-apply.
Expect more of the same coverage if that is the case.
What though will be the reaction of the BBC if no such letter is ever sent?