This is like one of those murder mystery programmes from Denmark in which you’re not sure what the crime is or if there’s a body but something sinister is going on because it looks dodgy…and strangely dark.
Wings spotted the odd goings-on on BBC news on the day of the Calton Hill rally. See it here… http://wingsoverscotland.com/identity-parade/.
What happened? I don’t know is the honest answer but I’ve a fair idea.
Ironically, this appears to be an attempt at political balance. That is, because there is widespread coverage of the pro-independence rally, the BBC decided they needed to hear from the Unionists as well. The trouble is that the Unionists weren’t actually doing anything newsworthy on the day so they pretended to be canvassing in order to be seen by the cameras. That in turn sets up the interview with Sheila Gilmore.
Now it’s normal procedure for a film crew to set up some kind of action to illustrate a story. It happens on virtually every bit of footage you see. Professor John Curtice is filmed walking at Pacific Quay studiously avoiding looking at the camera lens. He goes out of shot and the next moment you see him full frame telling us how the Yes vote will sweep to victory. (I think that’s what he usually says). Even the editing shots from the back of the reporter – so you can’t see his mouth moving as it’s out of synch – and in which you see the face of the interviewee, are set up. They are filmed after the interview as there is only one camera. It’s not just in news, either. Remember David Attenborough’s documentary on baby polar bears – filmed in a studio but not revealed at the time. Or Michael Palin flying over the Himalayas looking out the plane window and the next shot we see are the peaks below. Only when he flew the cloud obscured them so the shots were filmed on a different flight and dropped in later. This is all part of the gentle deception of television without which it simply doesn’t work.
However…the problem with this report is that it clearly implies something in the script that isn’t actually happening before our eyes. It suggests that we are seeing the public being canvassed by Better Together except that those individuals aren’t the public. They aren’t civilians. They are soldiers. If they are there by arrangement with Better Together – and if they aren’t, I’m a banana – then they are players in a political story posing as something they technically are not. They should not be presented by the broadcaster as being something they are not. That is misleading, if the BBC knows the truth.
I don’t think any BBC executive watching that would think for one moment that the scene in which the leaflets are handed out is anything other than staged. Where did the stooges suddenly emerge from – a Better Together Transit parked round the corner? They walk like performers with the same gait and exactly the same line of approach, seemingly shepherded by the partially-glimpsed figure on the right.
It is excruciatingly hammy and, frankly, professionally cack-handed.
If the camera had for example stayed on the other side of the road and watched the canvassers chatting or just circulating among themselves even if no member of the public appeared, that is fine. The script can say there were canvassing or trying to. To stage the event with partisan actors is verboten.
So what do we deduce from our thriller? First, that the BBC was making a monumental effort to be even-handed. Yet there is absolutely no need to balance what is a genuine news story – the independence rally – with opposing comment in the same item or even on the same day. Balance in news is something that occurs over time. The important part is that is logged carefully and the BBC never loses sight of how many appearances or how many minutes each side has had. That’s why Paul Sinclair – and other party types – call the BBC to remind them of their responsibilities (apply the pressure). There is a strong case for arguing that No should have been left out altogether since this was already a short report and given the scale of the Calton Hill event and the lack of other news, viewers could have expected a fuller report of the rally. To add in as much time to a total non-event without public involvement in an empty street was a disservice to viewers. Yet this report was compiled by an experienced journalist who, if I recall, also worked for the World Service. It suggests to me a lack of direction and coherent leadership in the news department which I’ve highlighted before. Reporters need to know exactly what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of balance. There is no sign this is happening.
It also explains why Blair Macdougall turned up in the middle of the SNP conference which I think is unprecedented. Conferences are political rallies in which the politcos are allowed to indulge themselves. You don’t balance a party conference because you can’t balance a party conference. You look idiotic which is what happened in Perth.
Secondly, this is not political pro-Union bias. It is management incompetence. It is a dysfunctional BBC getting mixed up and making the wrong calls. How can that be when they have layers of executives whose job is to get it right? They are not anti-independence bigots. They’re just not good at their jobs.
And remember, bias comes in different ways. For instance, if there is a Union rally, do you expect them to get away with ranting about separation without a counter balance? Many of you would probably object to the No people going unanswered but if the pro Independence case had been allowed to proceed without Better Together, that’s what should have happened.
Here’s another thought. If it’s true this report was pulled and taken down from the iplayer, isn’t that a sign that the BBC did eventually make the right call? There can be little shame in recognising an error and acting promptly. Time and again, I’m afraid, BBC Scotland puts its foot in it by getting it wrong and creates the impression of being biased. When enough of these cases accumulate, the truth is that, even when it’s not biased, it is no longer believed. The trust is eroded. That is what is happening before our eyes.
And only now is the BBC Trust asking for views on impartiality and balance to be implemented on the last couple of months before the referendum! Too late…many, many months too late.
(I’ll post my response to the Trust consultation on this site. You should all respond to it.)