Sturgeon’s PPBs must be called out and called off

Sturgeon’s PPBs must be called out and called off

by Brian Monteith
article from Tuesday 11, August, 2020

WE ARE being taken for mugs. There can be no other description of it. There was at the start justification for having a daily public briefing. Beamed and streamed to our homes and phones from our political leaders, they were taking big decisions about measures designed to protect all of us from ourselves. But not now. Not anymore.

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke we had to be told what to do with immediacy and seriousness. This was life or death information for the nation. Normal political checks and balances were removed. Straddled by their top officials who were there to help set the scene of a national emergency and  give technical back-up, our political leaders only took a limited number of questions from the media. Very quickly follow-up questions were restricted, for those are where the real dangers lie – as most journalists dealing regularly with politicians can see through the bluster and wordplay they use to avoid the real truth.

We are now through the worst of the pandemic. Nobody doubts this. The peak of Covid-19 was April 9th and the trend of the undulating graph is down. There are localised incidents – as Leicester and Aberdeen have shown – but we are now emerging slowly from lockdown with the NHS better able to cope with the crisis and better testing and tracing in place. Covid related deaths are now rare. Excess deaths are in some weeks now lower than the preceding five year average.

There is no longer any need for regular briefings from our political leaders. The last daily briefing was given by the Prime Minister from Downing Street on 23rd June – but in Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon continues her broadcasts as if the pandemic is still at its peak – remaining addicted to the power and control it gives her. A rough, harsh conclusion? I don’t think so, because these broadcasts – made possible only with the willing co-operation of BBC Scotland – have helped her popularity ratings soar and allowed her to humiliate and bully her opponents into silence for fear of politicising the pandemic response.

As is so often the case in politics, the truth is the reverse of how it is presented.

The opposition parties – the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats (but not the Green Party) – have a job to do as an opposition. They must ask difficult questions of the First Minister, giving a voice to those without representation, the ignored, the forgotten, the falsely accused – and most urgently the victims and their families. 

I have written it before and I must write it again. The very act of Nicola Sturgeon claiming she is not acting in any way politically IS acting politically. To assert her claim of being above politics  was to intentionally intimidate opposition leaders into not asking the difficult questions she would rather not face up to or answer. 

The PPE shortages? The Nike conference cover up? The care home scandal? The dog whistling about travellers from England that provoked disgustingly xenophobic demonstrations on the Scottish border with England? There were other questions too – of a more detailed and technical nature – but no matter how big or small the questions the opposition leaders were marginalised so that if their tone offered even a smidgeon of criticism they were suddenly not doing their duty by Scotland but selfishly promoting their party.

All this brazen political opportunism – mostly uncontested but for a few notable exceptions  by Scotland’s supine political media – was bad enough and should have been called out as soon as it started. Now it has reached its zenith – for while the daily broadcasts have halted in England they continue in Scotland (there was one yesterday 10 August and there is another today 11 August) – only now they are openly and unashamedly Party Political Broadcasts – but without the right of reply.

The First Minister was already slipping effortlessly into this territory by using her broadcast annunciations to make critical comments of the UK Government and blatant attacks on Johnson personally. Even public spending announcements have been made by Economy & Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop.

The drift was spotted by Labour Deputy Leader Jackie Baillie, who wrote to the BBC calling on it to halt its coverage so the public broadcaster’s charter would not be breached by giving political advantage and that proper scrutiny could return. That was back on 26 July.

Now we have the SQA exams crisis – as political a scandal as one would wish to avoid at all costs – being discussed by the First Minister on her broadcasts. This is unsupportable. It is beyond outrageous – and it IS politicising the pandemic.

Using a pandemic briefing to apologise for a political catastrophe is a political event. Any need for a politician to make an apology for a bad judgment and bad policy decisions is a political event. It cannot be left to a handful of media to follow it up. The apology should have been given to the nation officially – allowing a right of reply, or to Parliament which is returning from recess.

Strangely, the day the SQA scandal broke the main broadcast news coverage did not include any comment from opposition politicians until near the end of the day. Has the BBC lost sight of its public duty? 

The opposition parties must in unison demand, and the BBC must accept, that the First Minister’s broadcasts should no longer be covered without a daily right of reply of the same length of time to each leader of the opposition parties. It is a simple solution for (yet another) problem of the First Minister’s own making. She will not wish to be called out by her opponents, thus she will not want to give them the airtime – the regular broadcasts will be called off and any personally made announcements, if required at all, can be given to Parliament now that it has returned from recess.

To do anything else is to continue down the path to a one-party state with a directed media and compliant public service that is only following orders. 

The First Minister will not give ground until it suits her politically – only confirming the political nature and advantage she gains from the broadcasts. If the BBC does not accede to the opposition's complaints then the parties or individuals should look seriously at legal redress against the BBC through Scotland’s courts.

 

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and was a member of the Scottish Parliament 1999-2007 and the European Parliament 2019-2020.

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