Media Watch - BBC Scotland 24-hour news blackout on Scottish Labour rift over two-child clause

Viewers of BBC Scotland’s news coverage on TV, radio and their website early this week heard nothing about a major rift in the Scottish Labour ranks for more than 24 hours. There was a bizarre radio  silence on the issue from them – while other stations and media outlets reported the story. 

A raft of prominent figures in the Scottish Labour movement, the STUC and  Holyrood one by one stepped forward to denounce Keir Starmer’s decision to maintain the controversial two-child benefit cap, despite previously promising to abolish it. 

Starmer’s announcement was actually made on the BBC’s Sunday Show with Laura Kuenssberg. So why was BBC Scotland so slow to cover this breaking story? Almost certainly because it is controlled by a London-based network which sees BBC Scotland as on a par with English local radio and which regarded this as a UK-level issue – therefore above BBC Scotland’s pay grade.

That was a huge mistake. The split over the  two-child cap has major implications for Scotland. It  reveals the extent of cultural and political divergence between it and the rest of the UK. BBC Scotland’s silence only strengthened the argument that it repeatedly fails to deliver a fair and appropriate news service to Scotland. 


STV made the row the second top story

STV covered the row as the second item on their six o’clock  flagship news show on Monday, and Scottish newspapers gave it space. Monica Lennon, the Scottish Labour MSP for Central Scotland, even wrote a column for the Daily Record calling on Starmer to stick to the pledge to get rid of the cap, sometimes called ‘‘the rape clause’ because to get benefits for a third or subsequent child, a mother has to prove she was raped.

STV’s Colin Mackay interviewed Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar over the story. Sarwar said he continues to oppose the policy. But Sarwar defended Starmer’s U-turn and merely said he would ‘push’ the London party to lift it at some future time. 

Mackay asked: “So the heinous Conservative policy has become a heinous Labour policy?” Sarwar denied that and said he opposed the policy. But he could not say when or if a Labour government would abolish it.

Mackay explained in clear language that this is a seismic issue for Labour in Scotland. He said: “The Labour party are facing three by-elections in Conservative seats in England on Thursday so they don’t want to rock the boat right now. But this causes bigger problems for Labour in Scotland at an election because, one, some people ask – if Labour is not going to tackle child poverty, what is it for? And two, is this a resurgence of their old branch manager problem? Anas Sarwar wants this policy scrapped but he has just been overruled by Keir Starmer”.


Why did BBC Scotland treat Labour differently?

Rather than discuss the major Scottish political news story of the week, BBC Scotland’s news operation attempted to ignore it. 

Those who are accustomed to BBC Scotland’s highly detailed coverage of differences in the SNP’s ranks took to social media to ask why Scottish Labour doesn’t face the same treatment – especially as the other news outlets made different choices. 

By Tuesday, as the row continued to grow,  the broadcaster had to change direction. Good Morning Scotland carried interviews with Stepehn Flynn, leader of the SNP’s Westminster group and Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie on the issue. 


Many Scottish Labour figures broke ranks over the U turn

This issue has caused the biggest open rift in Scottish Labour ranks for years. Labour leading lights like former leader Richard Leonard, former leadership candidate Monica Lennon and Union activist Paul Sweeney spoke out against the U-turn. 

MSP Pauline McNeill for Glasgow tweeted: “No ifs no buts the Two Child Limit must be scrapped.”  

Paul Sweeney, Labour MSP for Glasgow tweeted: “A third of Glasgow’s children live in poverty. Life expectancy has stalled for the first time. £1.3bn to abolish the two-child limit would lift 250,000 children out of poverty, and 850,000 more would be in less deep poverty. It is obviously cost-effective. It must be scrapped.”

Pam Duncan-Glancy MSP agreed: “It’s a horrific policy that puts and keeps people in poverty and must be scrapped.” 

Mercedes Villalba, MSP for North East Scotland said: “Scrapping the two-child limit is the right thing to do on every level by any measure.” She added: “Keir Starmer was elected leader of the Labour Party on a pledge to scrap the two child limit. It's what Labour members want, it's what the public expects, and it's what the country needs.”

Carol Mochan MSP for South Scotland commented that keeping the cap was: “completely misguided and wrong.” On Monday also former Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard underlined Labour’s change of heart when he retweeted a 2020 tweet  by Angela Rayner condemning the cap and added “I agree with Angela” 

Labour activist Laura McConnell complained about the abuse she received on social media for saying Labour should scrap the cap


The cap pushing thousands of children in Scotland into poverty

John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, said the cap has already pushed 250,000 children across the UK into poverty – with 15,000 of those in Scotland alone. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculates it has increased large family child poverty to 50%.

Dickie commented: “We wouldn’t deny education or health service because they were the third born in a family so it seems extraordinary that we deny those same children social security support.”


One branch office reporting on another?

Many commentators on social media wondered aloud why BBC Scotland chose to embarrass itself by avoiding any mention of this major political row for 24 hours. It is probably to do with the channel’s remit – in terms of autonomy, it is on a par with English local radio and so was instructed to leave this political story to the UK news department. It was a big mistake.  This story is one with huge implications for Scotland – it reveals the growing gulf, as Scotland and England continue to diverge politically. 

With this U-turn, Labour revealed itself as a party that is closely focused on appealing to middle England. The decision must have been taken in response to polling showing there is no real appetite from the majority of voters down south to repeal this policy.

That is a very different story in Scotland, where the Conservative vote is small. Most Scots object to the hated ‘rape clause’, which affects mainly families in low paid work, or who lose their jobs. They want to see it repealed. 

Scotland and England continue to diverge politically. But broadcasting is not devolved – it is under  the control of Westminster. Instead of an independent Scottish broadcaster which can report on issues of importance to Scots, with this 24 hour silence , BBC Scotland yet again revealed itself - like Scottish Labour - as a branch office of a London-run network