SCOTTISH Labour has accused BBC Scotland of being “complicit” in a “co-ordinated campaign” by the SNP to manipulate coverage of the independence referendum.
The Scotsman has seen internal e-mails sent by Scottish Labour’s chief spin doctor Paul Sinclair, revealing anger at the “undemocratic and unfair” way the corporation has acted by excluding his party from a programme on the issue.
The row appears to centre on BBC Scotland’s decision to drop shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran from a programme on the constitution broadcast on 18 September. It featured representatives of the SNP, Scottish Greens, Tories and Liberal Democrats.
Concerns have already been made public over Good Morning Scotland (GMS) interviewing Ken Cairnduff, who was described as “undecided” but turned out to be a Nationalist. The incident raised doubts over Newsnight’s “audience of neutrals” who voted in favour of independence in the 18 September programme.
But in a statement, BBC Scotland defended its coverage, saying parity in the debate was about “those supporting independence and those backing the Union”, not individual parties.
In the e-mails to Scottish Labour MPs and MSPs, Mr Sinclair made it clear that the party has long-standing concerns over the fairness of the coverage from the public broadcaster. He said: “As many of you will know we have had to make more complaints to BBC Scotland about their referendum coverage than to any other media outlet by far.”
On the treatment of Ms Curran, he added: “I believe that decision, and indeed their entire conduct, to be discourteous, undemocratic and unfair.”
In his e-mail on the GMS coverage, Mr Sinclair said of Mr Cairnduff’s involvement as an “undecided”: “This is clearly part of a co-ordinated campaign by the SNP, and one with which BBC Scotland are complicit.”
He urged MPs and MSPs to complain to John Boothman, BBC Scotland’s head of news and current affairs, and Ken MacQuarrie, BBC Scotland controller.
The row also spilled into last week’s Labour conference in Brighton where BBC Scotland representatives were berated by MPs and Scottish Labour figures. Several Scottish Labour MPs told The Scotsman they had written to Mr MacQuarrie to complain. In a statement, BBC Scotland said it was “satisfied the debate met our obligations in terms of impartiality and fairness”.
It added: “Parity in the debate is between those supporting independence and those backing the Union. That may be within a single programme, but is often over a series.
“We have now had five televised debates since the beginning of last year and members of the Scottish Labour Party have featured in all four previous debates. We expect members of Scottish Labour will feature in a number of the debates we plan to have in this series over the next 12 months.”
It added: “In relation to the interview with Ken Cairnduff on GMS as an undecided voter, we accept that more thorough inquiries should have been made before the item was broadcast.”
The SNP denied any co-ordinated campaign and likened the attack to the tactics of Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor Damian McBride.
A spokesman said: “McBride may be gone, but the politics of orchestrated smear is clearly still the modus operandi of Labour in Scotland. This is a bizarre attack on the BBC and the SNP by Johann Lamont’s spokesperson without a stitch of evidence. ohann Lamont should apologise to the SNP and BBC.”
To: Scottish PLP
From: Paul Sinclair (chief adviser to Johann Lamont)
As you will see from the email I’ve pasted below, on Thursday Good Morning Scotland interviewed two voters they claimed were ‘undecided’ in the referendum.
We have now discovered that one of the ‘undecided’ interviewees, Ken Cairnduff, is in fact a long time campaigner for independence.
This is clearly part of a coordinated campaign by the SNP, and one with which BBC Scotland are complicit.
To: John Boothman (BBC Scotland head of news and current affairs)
From: Paul Sinclair
On Good Morning Scotland on Thursday, 19th September at around 8.20 am, Gary Robertson conducted an interview with two voters purporting to be undecided about how they will vote in next year’s referendum on Scotland remaining within the UK.
Although introduced by Gary as undecided one of them, Ken Cairnduff, did not confirm he was ‘undecided’.
He was billed as a retailer from Glasgow. We Googled him.
The result was we found a Ken Cairnduff who is a retailer from Glasgow who is a supporter of the pro-independence group called ‘Business for Scotland’ and whose name has been added to a number of pro independence adverts. As is his right he campaigns for independence.
I presume that there will be an on air apology to GMS listeners who have been so clearly deceived. Is it your policy to present pro-independence campaigners as ‘undecided’?
To: Scottish PLP
From: Paul Sinclair
Tonight BBC Scotland are televising a debate on the constitution which is being held in Inverness to mark one year to go to the referendum. It is to be broadcast on BBC 1 starting at 9pm. We, as the Scottish Labour Party, have not been invited on.
As many of you will know we have had to make more complaints to BBC Scotland about their referendum coverage than to any other media outlet by far.
I thought you would like to know the background to this latest snub.
BBC Scotland did not approach us until Tuesday afternoon of this week, barely 24 hours before the scheduled recording. They made a specific request that we put up Margaret Curran as our representative. I contacted Margaret and within 75 minutes was able to confirm to BBC Scotland that she was rearranging her diary and was available to take part in the debate.
When I did so BBC Scotland informed me that they no longer wished to have the Scottish Labour Party represented on the programme. The SNP, the Conservatives, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats will be represented, I am told.
I believe that decision, and indeed their entire conduct to be discourteous, undemocratic and unfair.