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  • Adam Losekoot

Leave coronavirus briefings to the experts

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

The BBC have had a rough time over the last few weeks and months. Some of it earned, some of it not. But their recent decision (and subsequent u-turn) on whether or not they should broadcast the First Minister’s daily coronavirus briefings was certainly a low moment.

For much of the last few months various opposition politicians have made a big deal about the daily briefings the First Minister makes, they have complained that it is little more than a party political broadcast and insisted that the BBC stop broadcasting them live (the first half hour features on BBC 1, while the entire thing – on average an hour and a half long – is shown on their flagship local news channel BBC Scotland). These briefings offer the public a better insight into how the pandemic is affecting the country, what new measures are being discussed to stop the spread (yeah, we get advance notice of our government’s decisions – sucks to be you England), a chance to hear from the many experts who are constantly rotated on to the briefings – Jason Leitch and Gregor Smith are basically household names at this point – and to see journalists from up and down the country and from an assortment of different media sources rigorously question the First Minister. These briefings put much of the government’s covid-19 strategy into context and are a way for us to get real time answers about the more obscure parts of the plan from the people who make the policies and the advisors who they in turn rely upon.

It’s important to note that the Scottish Government briefings (which always feature the First Minister) have not stopped since this began, unlike those from the Supreme Leader in London. When the UK government daily briefings ran it was a rarity to see the Prime Minister, instead he would regularly delegate the role to junior ministers and nobodies – and I mean nobodies, he sent the fucking culture sec. More than once. Turns out you can shove any old ginger into a suit and push him in front of a camera as long as you add on a wee pretendy title. He saw his Winston Churchill moment coming and promptly shat his breeks, instead preferring to stick to pre-recorded statements where possible. Cast your mind back to the few briefings that the Prime Minister actually presided over himself, was there ever a clear answer to anything? Was there ever anything but bluster and waffle?

Much of the outrage over the ongoing coverage of the First Minister’s briefings stems from something else entirely. The not-so-widespread upset over Scotland’s democratically elected leader explaining the pandemic strategy to the people she derives her authority from, is more about the unprecedented surge in support for independence, the Scottish National Party and indeed her own personal approval ratings. Opposition politicians like Jackie Baillie, George Foulkes and whichever rando the Scottish tories have dug up today can’t justify arguing against informing the public so they have started spouting the absurd claim that the daily coronavirus briefing is a ‘party political broadcast’.

It is likely that this ongoing pressure is what drove the BBC to finally decide to stop broadcasting the briefings on both BBC1 and BBC Scotland earlier this month. That’s certainly what George Foulkes thought had happened, when unable to contain his excitement, he gleefully exclaimed on twitter that he was responsible and shouted from the rooftops about how grateful he was that the BBC had taken account of both his and Jackie Baillie’s representations. Baillie has since denied that she encouraged the BBC to stop showing the briefings.

BBC Scotland's headquarters at Pacific Quay, Glasgow

Ian Small, the head of public policy and corporate affairs for BBC Scotland claimed that the briefings – which contain the latest case numbers, hospitalisation figures, deaths, ICU numbers and which allow journalists to ask questions of the nation’s public health experts, top medical professionals and ministers – would only be shown if they were expected to contain ‘crucial bits of information’. The briefings had approximately 280,000 regular viewers on BBC 1 and a further 40,000 on BBC Scotland as of 17 September.

On BBC 1 the regularly scheduled public health address was to be replaced by ‘Bargain Hunters: Battle of Britain edition’. No, I am not shitting you. Meanwhile on BBC Scotland, the channel would go back to the regularly scheduled viewing at 12:15 – which is nothing. BBC Scotland doesn’t begin to air shows until 1:30 pm at the very earliest. A protest was organised at Pacific Quay and the organisers, AUOB, claim that approximately 300 people attended the static rally on 17 September.

A few days later the BBC reneged, following a spike in cases in Scotland, and agreed that the briefings would be shown that week. In the days and weeks since the BBC appear to be going back to showing the briefings regularly, following a petition with over 54,000 signatures and arguments put forward by Donald MacAskill of Care Scotland who warned that cutting the briefings from live television would unfairly impact the elderly and people with disabilities. The change in position has been praised by Scottish Government ministers.

In their new coverage of the briefings, the BBC are offering spots for commentary to opposition politicians in Scotland, for them to discuss the policies and positions announced by the First Minister immediately after they are made. This is politicising the briefings. Where the statements made by the Scottish Government and the plethora of public health experts who we have gotten used to seeing on our screens are non-partisan and purely covid-focused there can be absolutely no doubt that these opposition politicians will make this a political issue rather than a public health one. Why should Murdo Fraser be telling the nation about the faults or strengths of one particular policy when Professor Jason Leitch or Doctor Gregor Smith or Doctor Nicola Steedman or Chief Constable Iain Livingstone are standing up in front of journalists and answering these questions at length and in detail? Dare I say that any one of these individuals (and many more besides, I just happen to have a word limit) is better placed to comment on how we are handling this virus than Murdo Fraser or Douglas Ross or, God forbid, Jackie Baillie. All that is achieved by putting opposition politicians on to speak about these policies is muddying the message.

Douglas Ross is not the man to convey these vital public health messages, let’s leave that to the experts.

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