Selfless in my duty to readers, I watched last Monday’s edition of the long-running Nicola Sturgeon Show on BBC Scotland though it might also have been called Pointless, writes BRIAN WILSON.
The weekend statistics did not reveal much while the star’s daily monologue was devoted to trailing what she might or might not say the following day about changes to tiering levels.
So was there nothing worth reporting to the anxious nation, to justify this devotion of air time? Well, of course there was – if this really was a “public health update” rather than the exercise in political spin and news management it has long since become?
At least since the previous Friday, Ms Sturgeon knew that figures she had for weeks been quoting for test and trace in Scotland, repeatedly describing them as “excellent”, were inadvertently inaccurate and seriously misleading. That story remained unspoken.
If a health professional had been fronting this briefing, as happens in most countries, his or her professional reputation would depend on being open and honest about such a revelation, explaining the cause of error, expressing regret and moving on.
Ms Sturgeon is not a health professional but a skilled manipulator of information who has been given an extraordinary platform to dictate the agenda on her own terms. To paraphrase Edgar Allan Poe, the oftener she speaks of her clarity and frankness, the faster we should count the spoons.
Accordingly, my complaint is not with her. I expect nothing else. But is there any point at which BBC Scotland will face up to the fact they have been taken for a very protracted ride, surrendering along the way an editorial duty of care to viewers and listeners?
Fortunately, Scotland still has its independent print media and a diligent journalist, in this case Chris Musson of the Scottish Sun, noticed what had happened and how the data had been changed on the Public Health Scotland web-site without announcement via a press release far less Ministerial statement.
If I was a BBC Scotland editor, faced with the front page of Wednesday’s Scottish Sun – “Testing Bombshell – Messed and Protect” – I would want to know: “Why did Sturgeon not tell the country this on Monday? How can we justify giving her this platform when she uses it to withhold the stories that actually matter?”
I feel confident no such questions will have been asked for the show must go on and the broadcasters have abrogated to Ms Sturgeon and her fixers, to a quite shameful extent, the right to control format and content. Everyone responsible must know it is an abuse but decline to call it out.
Did the altered image of Scotland’s test and trace system matter? Well, of course it did. Testing and tracing has been critical to winning this battle from the outset. It has been puzzling it took so long to crank up but we had recent assurances it was working well when it wasn’t.
An Edinburgh University infection and immunity expert, Christine Tait Burkard, describes the adjusted figures as “a relatively big concern” and believes “a good look into the system” is called for. More weeks have been lost on a crucial step towards reducing the spread of the virus and escaping from the economic damage.
That is disappointing but everyone can make allowance for human error which was presumably responsible for feeding in the wrong kind of data. What is unforgivable is that there was no intention on the Scottish Government’s part of owning up to it.
Clearly concerned lest Ms Sturgeon does not receive sufficient air-time, Thursday’s Reporting Scotland sought her view on the great issue of the day. Some might have thought ‘test and trace’ or possibly the charge by an SNP-chaired Holyrood committee that her government was being “deeply disrespectful”. Alas, no.
Rather, she was invited to opine on President Trump and offered the sage advice that it was time for him to put “country before ego”. Satire is not really allowed in Scotland but sometimes life does improve upon art.
SCOTLAND’S LOTTERY OF LAND OWNERSHIP HASN’T CHANGED IN 200 YEARS
Sheep Hill at Bowling and beyond – subject of endless planning rows, but who owns this land?
Community Land Scotland published an interesting report this week on links between the slave trade and land ownership in the Highlands and Islands. Unsurprisingly, both our indigenous gentry and their successors were up to their eyes in it.
Calum MacLeod, Community Land Scotland’s policy director, said the report reminded us how “slavery-derived wealth helped sustain and shape the pattern of monopoly private land ownership …that persists to this day”. The words “persists to this day” should concern us.
Estate boundaries were defined centuries ago. Often, the convenience of those acquiring them was in minimising the human presence. Great wildernesses were created. And in due course, these private kingdoms were handed down or sold on.
Essentially, nothing has changed. When estates change hands, the only criterion for acquisition is wealth. Nobody asks purchasers what they are going to do with them or where the money came from. At no point is there any test of public interest or need.
Two decades ago, some progress was made in redressing history, mainly in the Western Isles. Hence the existence of Community Land Scotland. But by and large, the land lottery continues. Perhaps in 200 years, someone will write a report on it.
Pressures on rural housing are being exacerbated by the pandemic with demand for scenic bolt-holes inflating prices further beyond local reach. The future of fragile peripheral communities is at stake and land ownership is crucial to outcomes.
If the will existed in Edinburgh, radical political intervention could ensure that public policy trumps the power of money. I fear that is far beyond the vision of those who talk a lot about Scotland but ignore its most basic asset.