The debate over BBC journalists’ freelance activities, sparked by Andrew Gilligan’s article on the “sexed-up dossier” for The Mail on Sunday in June, intensified this week when the Scottish Labour Party complained to the region’s head of news and current affairs over a radio presenter’s article in The Herald newspaper.
Last week, Colin Edgar, Scottish Labour’s head of press, wrote a letter to Blair Jenkins, BBC Scotland’s head of news and current affairs, after Radio Scotland presenter Alex Bell wrote an opinion piece that overtly supported the Scottish National Party (SNP).
Edgar, a former BBC Radio Scotland current affairs producer, objected to what he saw as Bell’s obvious political bias at a time when the BBC’s reputation for impartiality was being tested.
“I should make it clear that I do not dispute Mr Bell’s right to present programmes on the BBC and write articles for the national press,” Edgar said in his letter to the BBC.
“What I do dispute, however, is his right to present programmes on the BBC while writing columns which are nakedly enthusiastic for the principal and defining policy of the Scottish National Party, while also demeaning Labour MPs by describing them as ‘The Labour minions who voted through devolution’.”
Edgar told Press Gazette: “I wanted to say to the BBC that ‘we are aware of what BBC employees do when they are not being BBC employees’. On that occasion, Bell had stepped over the line in terms of being so very supportive of a political party as well as being a presenter on the BBC.
“As a former BBC employee and clearly a Labour Party supporter while I was at the BBC, I appreciate you don’t switch off your politics as soon as you get into Broadcasting House in the morning. But I don’t think BBC staff should be being very supportive in public of a specific political party.”
He added that it was in everyone’s interest that the corporation upheld its reputation for impartiality. “I wasn’t asking for much more than that.”
A BBC Scotland spokesman said the broadcaster “made a distinction” between occasional presenters like Bell and its regularly employed journalists “primarily associated with day-to-day BBC Scotland business”.
BBC director of news Richard Sambrook is currently reviewing the guidelines for BBC staff doing freelance work, in the wake of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee session that looked into Gilligan’s dossier report.
The spokesman added: “When the review is concluded, we’ll see if there’s anything we need to look at vis-Ã -vis our position in Scotland.”
By Wale Azeez