Glasgow’s former Lord Provost, Michael Kelly, claims today that BBC Scotland now faces scrutiny over claims of ‘institutional political bias’ after an on-air row between one of its journalists and a Scottish Labour MP.
Writing in his column in The Scotsman, Labour politician Kelly, has said that the claims by Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin, Ian Davidson, of a political bias by BBC Scotland during an episode of Newsnight Scotland has seen him take on the corporation twice, and won.
Interviewed by stand-in presenter Isobel Fraser, Davidson claimed that Fraser herself was biased and that claimed the Labour party had made several complaints relating to the bias.
Davidson was being interviewed on his claim that the Scottish Parliament did not have the power to hold an independence referendum, without the permission of Westminster.
“His first victory was over the question of which parliament has the final say over the much delayed referendum, a question which his Scottish Affairs Committee has considered and pronounced on. Davidson’s logic was impeccable,” wrote Kelly.
He added that Westminster did have ultimate legal responsibility over the constitution through the 1998 Scotland act.
“Davidson’s position is simply this: if Holyrood goes ahead and tries to hold the referendum on its own, the matter will be delayed in the courts for years – which may be part of the SNP’s cunning plan to avoid inevitable defeat.
“Fraser refused to accept this view but what triggered off the personal spat was her ingenuous suggestion that, as Westminster had the power to delegate the handling of the referendum to Holyrood, it should do so right away, unconditionally.
“This ludicrous suggestion would, of course, completely remove Westminster’s influence in the matter and allow Alex Salmond to frame as many leading questions as he wants to ensure a win/win result from his referendum, whatever the views of the Scottish people. She also seemed irritated that here was a politician acting politically.
“From the journalist’s point of view this was no doubt a fair question directly put. But it does contrast with the kid gloves’ treatment that the First Minster seem to receive from BBC Scotland.”
Kelly continued to question how often Salmond was allowed to appear recorded rather than in a live debate, or why he had not been pressed on similar questions.
“Next time let him be asked that, as the Scotland Act clearly gives Westminster control over the constitution, why does he not just accept that and abandon his delaying tactics? The answer, I suspect, would see him acting politically.
“Davidson won his personal attack on Fraser, refusing to apologise, going on to suggest that there was evidence of ‘Newsnat’s’ bias and suggesting that she go and stand for election if she wanted to promulgate her own views. Despite her vehement denials of any partisanship, Davidson stuck to his guns and she had to move on, unsatisfied.
“It was highly entertaining to see her outraged reaction – a common response from journalists used to the aggressive interrogation of others when a personal attack is made on them.
“It provoked her into claiming that there was evidence that she was not biased. I’m not sure she needs to produce evidence and even if she does, I wish her luck in proving a negative.
“No, the onus is surely on Davidson to produce the evidence he claims he has that Newsnight Scotland and its presenters habitually favour the views of the Scottish Parliament over Westminster. No doubt it will be documented in time.”
Kelly has also attempted to discredit the presenter and add his own belief, and that of 'others' within his party that she 'has form'.
“More generally, the party hierarchy have for some time been convinced that the Newsnight Scotland team has been infiltrated by nationalists.
“It points to one of its former editors, David Kerr, who resigned from the corporation to seek nomination as SNP candidate for the Glasgow North East by-election in 2009. After he lost the nomination and before party apparatchiks restored it to him, Alex Salmond promised him a job as one of his special advisers. He lost the election.
“But there are many examples of presenters subsequently standing for various parties in election – Austin Mitchell, Robin Day. Michael Gove. That is insufficient to demonstrate institutional political bias.
“The BBC ruthlessly guards its reputation for objectively. And Jeremy Vine’s recent memoirs are testimony to the high standards of journalism that Newsnight demands. As a regular viewer and occasional guest of the programme, I have never experienced any bias.
“Perhaps fault, if there is one, lies in the genesis of the programme. It emerged after devolution and the failure to establish a Scottish Six O’Clock News as the vehicle for serious Scottish political discussion.
“That was taken as to be generally supportive of devolution. If that brief were to be adhered to today, Newsnight would be required to be much more hostile to the SNP. They are, after all, now the only party to oppose devolution.
“Davidson won the substantive case hands-down. Whether he is invited back will be one test of the BBC’s objectivity.”
Following his claims, SNP MSP Sandra White has asked the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont, to discipline Ian Davidson and make him apologise to Fraser.
A statement from BBC Scotland stated: “We absolutely refute any suggestions of bias as Isabel Fraser clearly pointed out on the programme.”