By Bill Heaney
A news item at the top of the BBC Scotland News about Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon breached broadcasting rules, Ofcom has said.
The watchdog stated in a ruling issued on Monday that the BBC had made a “significant mistake” which it failed to acknowledge or correct on air.
Sarah Smith, the BBC’s former Scotland editor, made the error saying that Mr Salmond, now the leader of the pro-independence Alba Party, had said Ms Sturgeon should resign as First Minister.
However, Mr Salmond did not call for his successor to go, saying it was not a decision for him.
The BBC received a barrage of complaints over the inaccurate report on its main evening network news programme.
Former First Minister Alex Salmond pictured in February last year giving evidence to the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against him.
Ms Smith, now the broadcaster’s North America editor, made the incorrect statement to viewers across the UK who had tuned in to watch the Six O’Clock News on February 26 2021, the day the former First Minister appeared at the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s mishandling of complaints against him.
Appearing on camera, Sarah Smith, filmed outside the Scottish Parliament, said: “He [Salmond] believes Nicola Sturgeon has misled Parliament and broken the Ministerial Code which he thinks means she should resign.”
However, the former First Minister did not call for his successor to go and said it was not a decision for him.
Ms Smith later wrote that evening on Twitter that Salmond did not say the First Minister should resign.
She posted: “On the 6 o’clock news headline tonight I said that Alex Salmond had claimed the First Minister had ‘broken the ministerial code and that he thinks she should resign’. I would like to clarify that Mr Salmond did not say that the First Minister should resign.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pictured giving evidence to the Holyrood inquiry.
“He said ‘I’ve got no doubt that Nicola has broken the ministerial code but it’s not for me to suggest what the consequences should be.’”
Data later released by the BBC stated that a total of 348 complaints were made to BBC One up until February 28 last year about Ms Smith’s report on the grounds of inaccuracy.
Further information made public by the BBC in May last year revealed that two more complaints were made relating to the broadcaster not sufficiently correcting the inaccurate news story.
The broadcaster did not uphold those complaints – prompting those making them to take them to Ofcom.
An Ofcom spokeswoman said: “News must be reported with due accuracy. This programme broke our rules by including a significant inaccurate statement that was not acknowledged or corrected on air.”
“Our investigation also uncovered differences between the BBC’s published final decision on the programme and its response to a particular complainant. The BBC must be transparent in how it handles and resolves complaints, and we will consider this case as part of our review of BBC regulation.”
On editorial guidelines, Ofcom said: “Our investigation found the BBC’s editorial guidelines do not clearly reflect our requirements around on-air corrections and the BBC should amend its editorial guidelines to tackle this. We intend to discuss this matter further with the BBC as a priority.”
It was the latest controversy to surround Ms Smith’s reporting. In May 2020 she said the First Minister “enjoyed” taking a different route out of lockdown to the other UK nations.
Ms Sturgeon was among those to object on Twitter. She wrote: “Never in my entire political career have I ‘enjoyed’ anything less than this. My heart breaks every day for all those who have lost loved ones to this virus.”
Ms Smith corrected her report, writing on Twitter: “I do not believe that Nicola Sturgeon is enjoying this crisis. I had meant to say on the Ten O’Clock news that she has ‘embraced’ the opportunity to make a policy unique to Scotland.
“I said ‘enjoyed’ by mistake. Not suggesting she is enjoying the crisis but embracing devolution.”
The Holyrood committee which took both oral and written evidence from the First Minister and her predecessor was seeking to establish what went wrong in the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints made by two civil servants against Mr Salmond. He has always denied the allegations.
The former First Minister launched a judicial review in August 2018 after the Scottish Government completed its probe into him, after the complaints were filed in January of that year.
Mr Salmond won his case in January 2019 with the Scottish Government forced to concede the investigation process used against him was unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”.
He was awarded £512,000 in costs.
At the Court of Session, Lord Pentland, pictured right, said the government’s actions had been “unlawful in respect that they were procedurally unfair” and had been “tainted with apparent bias”.
The Scottish Government admitted it had breached its own guidelines by appointing an investigating officer who had “prior involvement” in the case.
The MSPs’ inquiry also later found the Scottish Government’s handling of the complaints into Mr Salmond was “seriously flawed”.
However, the committee was split on the question of whether Ms Sturgeon gave inaccurate evidence to the committee and broke the ministerial code, with Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and independent members concluding she did, while the SNP members disputed this conclusion.
A separate investigation by the Irish Republic’s former director of public prosecutions, James Hamilton ruled the First Minister did not break the ministerial code.
In March 2020, Mr Salmond was cleared at the High Court in Edinburgh of sexually assaulting nine women while he was First Minister.
Following a two week trial a jury found the former SNP leader not guilty on 12 of the sexual assault charges facing him, while another was found not proven.
Mr Salmond had said he was innocent of all the charges against him throughout the trial.
Last month Ms Smith said she was relieved to walk away from the “bile, hatred and misogyny” of Scottish politics.
She claimed the abuse she received while she undertook the role in Scotland since 2016.
Picture of Sarah Smith by Bill Heaney