BBC decision is poor judgment rather than political bias - Dani Garavelli

If, as conspiracy theorists believe (and I do not), the BBC’s decision to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s daily Covid-19 briefings live on TV was a politically-driven attempt to undermine the First Minister, then it scored a spectacular own goal.

Sunday, 13th September 2020, 7:30 am
Nicola Sturgeon delivers a Covid update
Nicola Sturgeon delivers a Covid update

It is difficult to remember the last time all the camps within the SNP and the wider Yes movement were so aligned on any issue as they were in last week’s backlash against the corporation.

The inveterate BBC bashers – the type of people who complain the corporation isn’t covering a story on X or Y while linking to a BBC website story on X or Y – were out in force, of course, accusing them of skullduggery and bowing to pressure from George Foulkes and Jackie Baillie/ the new Director-General Tim Davie (delete as appropriate).

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Some of them were resorting to personal abuse against presenters who, as so often, had been left to explain and defend a policy foisted upon them from above (while those responsible for introducing it kept schtum). On Friday night, a weary Gary Robertson tweeted he’d been called a “scum” and a “traitor”: insults that seem to be par for the course for journalists these days, but which should play no part in a healthy democracy.

But there was criticism from more temperate voices too; a near-consensus that – whatever lay behind its decision – the BBC had got this one spectacularly wrong.

Certainly, the timing seemed odd. Had the BBC made its announcement two weeks ago when Covid-19 cases seemed to be petering out and lockdown was easing, there might at least have been a logic to it.

Personally, at a time when the pubs and restaurants were filling up, and the world could be mistaken for normal, I find the live coverage of the daily briefings a welcome corrective – a salutary reminder that the virus was still out there; that we should not become complacent. But, with the schools back and the Scottish Parliament sitting again, I would at least have understood the argument.

To drop the broadcasts now, though, when the number of cases is rising; when seven local authorities are back under partial lockdown, when the R number could be as high as 1.5 – well, that makes no sense at all. Even if the change in policy had been in the pipeline for several weeks, the BBC ought to have been able to respond to a volatile situation. It is a news organisation after all.

Those who have worked in journalism know editorial decisions – particularly those around airtime for politicians – are not easy; nor are they, generally, taken without a good deal of thought. There had been, I understand, a growing sense of unease within the newsroom at the unprecedented platform Sturgeon was being given to address the nation before the Holyrood elections in May, especially given she was so obviously reaping the political benefit.

Then again, it could have gone either way. Having to stand in the spotlight every day – to field questions from journalists in search of a headline – might have exposed her weaknesses. It certainly exposed Boris Johnson’s, which is why he so often sent others in his stead before scrapping them altogether.

The fact Sturgeon shone in comparison to her UK counterpart; the fact her messaging was seen as clearer and more consistent, was down – not to the platform itself – but how she comported herself upon it.

And isn’t it a good and revealing thing to witness first-hand how the country’s leader performs in a crisis? Would the BBC have been so quick to stop live TV coverage if she were floundering? And is she, therefore, being penalised for her competence? Or for the lack of a decent Opposition?

In the midst of a pandemic, there are, in any case, more pressing considerations than what the daily televised briefings are doing to the SNP’s electoral chances. The question the corporation should be asking itself is less: “How important are they to Sturgeon?” and more “How important are they to our viewers and to the effort to control the pandemic?”.

Given they are watched by more than 300,000 people a day, the answer would seem to be “very”. It is all well and good to say these live broadcasts will still be streamed online, and that there will be coverage of key issues across the BBC’s output, but many people do not have access to the internet or simply prefer to watch it on TV. Why would you withdraw something that continues to pull in such a large terrestrial audience in a digital age?

The BBC should also be listening to what health experts think. On Friday, Linda Baulds, the Bruce and John Usher Chair of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said repetition was key in public health messaging, and that positive outcomes can immediately begin to decline when the messaging ends.

A leaked briefing note suggested the BBC wanted to provide consistency with the other UK nations. But one of the reasons live TV coverage of the briefings has been so vital is that there is no consistency in policy, with varying death rates and lockdown restrictions north and south of the border.

Listening to the national news headlines – which last week, for example, constantly referenced England’s new “rule of six” – can be confusing, even where the non-applicability to Scotland is stated; so an easily accessible televisual update at the same time every day performs an important function.

Ever since the independence referendum campaign, the BBC has been haemorrhaging trust in Scotland. You could fill books analysing why this has happened. Most observers could identify faults on both sides – a corporation that was slow to understand fundamental shifts in Scottish culture, combined with a hardcore of disappointed Yes campaigners who needed a scapegoat for their defeat.

Those who protested outside Pacific Quay, those who are now encouraging a boycott of the BBC, may be prone to seeing political agendas where there is only a failure of judgement and an attachment to a flawed concept of impartiality.

But then again, when it comes to its news coverage, the BBC does seem to be singularly incapable of self-reflection, or of responding to its critics with anything other than defensiveness.

It also seems to lack any awareness of how its actions will be viewed. Of how – for example – a visit by former Tory council candidate Davie to BBC Scotland HQ not long before the live TV broadcast of the daily briefing is scrapped – is open to (mis)interpretation.

In deciding to stop broadcasting the briefings in their entirety, the BBC has demonstrated again how out of touch it is with sections of its audience and missed another opportunity to rebuild a broken relationship.

It is – as Sturgeon pointed out – a public service broadcaster with a responsibility to communicate vital information during a pandemic. And yet – just as the country is recording the biggest daily spike in Covid cases since May – it has chosen to put niggles over political balance ahead of national safety.

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