31 March 2004

S2M-1117 Fraser Inquiry (BBC Tapes)

Scottish Parliament
Wednesday 31 March 2004
[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]
... ... ...
Fraser Inquiry (BBC Tapes)
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1117, in the name of David McLetchie, on the failure of the BBC to hand over tapes to the Fraser inquiry, together with two amendments to the motion.
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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): There are many occasions on which I would wish to direct the media in their activities, but it is not the job of the Parliament or politicians to operate the BBC or any broadcasting—other than that which directly provides the feed of our own activities from this chamber and the committee rooms. On that basis, the Tory motion is entirely misplaced. However, there may be more to this issue than there appears. Mr Michael Howard's desire to sook up to Murdoch by disconnecting the BBC from its core public service obligation and by supporting the efforts of News International to become the most significant provider of news is well understood. The Tories hate anything that serves public good at the expense of private profit.
Note the words that David McLetchie used about the BBC: he said that it should be "required to comply". Required by politicians, that is. David McLetchie fails to make the very important distinction between a command from politicians and a command from a legal institution.
That is why the SNP amendment focuses on the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, to give the Fraser inquiry—that legal institution—the power to require the BBC to act. There is a world of difference between politicians directing the BBC and lawyers doing so.
However, none of that is to say that the BBC comes out of this with its reputation enhanced—far from it. A dignified recognition that a public good would derive from its releasing the interviews with those who cannot now speak for themselves would have done the BBC much good. In the absence of a response from the BBC to the Fraser inquiry's requests, we are left with two possible conclusions, neither of which is especially palatable.
The key point is that the tapes may contain dynamite; if they do, withholding them from the inquiry so that the real meat cannot be seen is concealment, which is not acceptable. The alternative is that the tapes are banal. In a sense, that also tells us a story about the lack of attention of those people who were involved.
The apparent absence of fair dealing on the part of some members of the Executive is what gives some weight to the conspiracy theorists and traps our democracy in a backward-looking time warp.
The First Minister could set to one side many of the criticisms by a brief appearance in front of the inquiry. I regret that he has not done that, but he could exercise real leadership now by joining the other leaders and adding the weight of his office to the weight of their offices to persuade the BBC to do the decent thing. He could do even better by giving the tribunal the powers and persuading Westminster in that regard.

Stewart Stevenson
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