Ofcom has found that the BBC’s World at One news programme breached broadcasting impartiality rules during a February 2021 interview in which Ruth Davidson accused the Scottish government of corruption. The lead story that day related to the inquiry by the Scottish Parliament into the behaviour of former First Minister Alex Salmond. Mr Salmond had been accused of sexual harassment of female officials but has subsequently been acquitted of 13 charges of sexual assault. On the day of broadcast Mr Salmond had pulled out of an evidence session at Holyrood after the Crown Office said some material from his written evidence had to be redacted.

During an interview on the programme, Ms Davidson, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives expressed strong views, including raising questions about corruption within Scottish government institutions and officialdom. She stated that the controversy had gone far beyond a dispute between Mr Salmond and his successor as SNP Leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Ms Davidson’s comments included: “This has now got to the structure of democracy in Scotland and whether our institutions are robust or whether they have been corrupted”. Ms Davidson expressed concerns about information that was not, she said, being made available to the Scottish Parliament, and called for a full judge-led inquiry.

Ofcom investigated the case under section 5 of the Code which deals with due impartiality and due accuracy particularly in relation to news programming and matters of political controversy. Ofcom also considered the date of the broadcast, and whilst it did not fall within an election period as defined by the Code, it  took place in the run-up to an election.

Ofcom acknowledged that this was a developing story, and last minute changes in events led to changes in the BBC’s coverage of those events. It found that it was perfectly legitimate for the BBC to interview Ms Davidson, but that the broadcaster had failed to reflect an appropriate range of views and give them due weight. The interviewer and political correspondent who also discussed the matter on the programme did provide some context, and Sarah Montague in interviewing Ms Davidson had challenged her on some points, however this was not sufficient. In particular, Ofcom found that the position of the Scottish Government on allegations that it was corrupt, undemocratic, “running riot” in Holyrood and was “denying the Parliament its right of scrutiny” was insufficiently represented in the programme.

The BBC had made repeated requests to the SNP for an interview, which had not been successful. Ofcom took this into account, but noted that the obligation of due impartiality on the broadcaster remains, relying on section 5 of the Code which makes clear that where a broadcaster attempts to seek alternative views, but these are not readily available, there are a range of editorial techniques for maintaining due impartiality. In this case, Ofcom considered that the interviewer could have used robust questioning or provided stronger challenge to Ms Davidson’s statements during the interview.

Ofcom also considered whether the BBC had met its impartiality obligations by providing balance in other clearly linked and timely programming. Although later news broadcasts did present alternative viewpoints, Ofcom did not consider that the programmes were clearly linked, and noted that the presenter could have signalled to listeners that the story would be covered throughout the day, and alternative viewpoints would be offered.