The BBC was guilty of breaching impartiality rules when it allowed the then Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to accuse the Scottish government of corruption on air.
The broadcasting regulator Ofcom said BBC Radio 4’s news programme World at One had failed to properly balance Davidson’s allegations, made during a long interview last year on the controversies surrounding the Alex Salmond inquiry by the Scottish parliament.
Ofcom said World at One was guilty of three breaches of the broadcasting code because it “failed to preserve due impartiality in its coverage of the relevant matters of major political controversy and major matters relating to current public policy”.
The regulator launched its investigation after the BBC’s complaints unit rejected a complaint from a listener that the item, broadcast in February 2021, had been biased because it failed to find interviewees to dispute Davidson’s allegations.
She had been interviewed at the height of a complex battle involving the Scottish parliament, Salmond, the Scottish government and the Crown Office, Scotland’s prosecution authority, over the release of evidence to MSPs investigating the government’s handling of claims Salmond had sexually harassed female officials as first minister. Salmond had already been acquitted of 13 charges of sexual assault.
Salmond had pulled out of an evidence session with MSPs due the day World at One broadcast Davidson’s interview, after the Crown Office said some material could not be released.
Sarah Montague, the World at One anchor, had prefaced Davidson’s interview, which led that day’s programme, by referring to Salmond’s “possibly explosive evidence”; Montague also described the Crown Office’s decisions as “unprecedented and highly irregular”.
Davidson went on to allege that the controversies over the evidence suggested the country’s public institutions and democracy had become corrupted under Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as first minister and Scottish National party leader.
“[At] the moment, the government is running riot and is denying the parliament its right of scrutiny and there is no liberal democracy in the world that should allow the executive to become over-mighty and be allowed to snub its nose, in particular to cases as serious as this, to the parliament and to those represented to defend the country,” Davidson said.
The BBC said it had tried hard to find a Scottish National party speaker to go on air, but failed, and that Radio 4’s later news programmes had provided the necessary balance by including counter-arguments and further reporting.
But Ofcom said that was insufficient because of the gravity of Davidson’s allegations; the fact World at One broadcast them at length without any alternative perspectives, such as Sturgeon’s stance; and its failure to tell listeners they could hear more on this later that day on Radio 4.
The BBC said it noted the Ofcom ruling, but is not obliged to broadcast or publicise it.
The Scottish government said it noted Ofcom’s decision, but the SNP went further. A source said: “We welcome this ruling which must be a wake-up call for BBC bosses. It is high time the BBC started reporting matters relating to Scotland with consistent due fairness and due accuracy and stopped giving credence to wild claims from unelected Tory members of the Westminster system.”