News Feature

By The Drum, Administrator

November 6, 2003 | 5 min read

From the moment the new Scottish Government announced that a new independent parliament was to be built, the project has been beset with problems ranging from the deaths of Donald Dewar and the chief architect of the Holyrood project, Eric Miralles, to the escalating cost of creating such an imposing and grand building. However, the announcement by the BBC last month that it would not be handing over documentary tapes of the late Dewar and architect Miralles to the Holyrood Inquiry has only added fuel to the fire of the already raging debate on the cost of the new Scottish Parliament.

Both the tabloids and the broadsheets alike have gone to war on the escalating costs of building the parliament. But now that the BBC is refusing to be coerced into giving up its tapes, where does the inquiry go from here? And, how badly tarnished has the reputation of the BBC and its journalists been, following a summer of accusations at the Hutton Inquiry?

Flora Martin, managing director at Citigate Smarts, believes that the BBC has every right to hold on to the tapes: "I really don’t think that this will have much of an impact on the BBC. The BBC itself is a bit of an enigma and by refusing to hand over the tapes it is doing what it always does – being a law unto itself. I think that it will probably come out of this situation untarnished. The Gilligan affair will have had some impact on the way [BBC journalists] run things, but at the same time the way they are behaving is just what they have always done. The whole thing is a bit of a shambles really – by not giving over the tapes they are making more of an issue than there probably is."

The Gilligan Inquiry will have hurt the BBC; there is no doubt about that. But have the revelations that were made over the summer in any way contributed to how the BBC now deals with its reporters? John Crawford, who previously worked with the Scottish Conservative Party and is now strategy director at PR consultancy Halogen, believes that the BBC’s failure to hand over the tapes will have severe repercussions for the broadcasting station. He comments: "The BBC should hand over the tapes – I have no doubt about that. I think the BBC's argument that it is protecting sources is seriously flawed. How can you protect sources when they are going to be broadcast on TV anyway?

"To me it looks as if the BBC is trying to protect, not its sources as it claims, but the juicier bits of its Holyrood documentary or one of its top journalists. After the Gilligan affair and their attitude to the Fraser Inquiry, the BBC would be well served to give some thought to how the public looks at it and in the current circumstances it is not in a positive light. Its credibility is in serious danger and its principle of balanced journalism is already in doubt. The natural next step is surely privatisation."

Jack Irvine, chief executive of the Media Shop, disagrees entirely with this point of view, fully supporting the BBC on the issue of journalistic sources: "Journalists are supposed to protect their sources and this is what the BBC is doing, so I cannot see this really affecting its reputation. The Hutton Inquiry would have had some effect on the BBC but I am glad to see that John McCormack is standing firm on this issue. But the Hutton Inquiry was completely different to this inquiry – it had an element of gravitas. This inquiry doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by any of the media. It is a pointless exercise and it amuses me, as the print media would never think of having to give up sources or notebooks themselves. I have a suspicion that there is nothing on these tapes. I mean, the documentary was never meant to be a hard-hitting insight into the world of politics. It is a fluffy piece of work, which has now been entirely blown out of proportion."

For managing director of the Hatch Group, Graeme Jack, the issue that has really been brought to the fore is that of journalists’ rights. "I think that the BBC is right – it needs to protect its journalists," comments Jack.

He continues: "I suppose the real issue here is that of political principles versus journalistic principles, and I am glad to see that [the BBC] isn’t throwing all it stands for out of the window. The pressure that the BBC is getting from the media is a bit rich. I am sure if the press were in the same position they wouldn’t be handing over their notebooks all that quickly. The BBC is a soft target for the media at the moment. It has been burnt, following the Gilligan affair, and it is obviously learning from it. I respect [the journalists] for sticking to their principles and I think that the vast majority of the country will respect them too. My advice to the BBC would be to articulate what it is doing. This dispute is about a principle that the BBC is daring to stand up for and if it keeps to its word then I am sure it will get the endorsement of the general public."


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