One of the benefits of being a regular reader of TuS blog is the ‘education’ it provides by shining its spotlight on ways journalists construct their reports on news and current affairs. One learns of the importance of being an alert – and a sceptical – recipient of their output at all times. However, experience makes one especially wary of certain media sources, and especially when the topic being addressed relates to Scotland.
One the learning points is to note how a news report is being ‘framed’. Sometimes this is done subtly, sometimes not! Note the framing inherent in the use of these sentences from the start of an online news article – ‘To underspend by £1bn is unfortunate. To do so by £2bn looks like carelessness’. Is this subtle?
The quote is not from a tabloid and/or politically partisan newspaper but from the BBC News website’s Scotland page, from a recent article entitled ‘Holyrood’s budget watchdog growls’. Here BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor reveals ‘exemplary’ practice in holding the Scottish Government to account following the publication of this report by Audit Scotland: ‘The 2021/22 audit of the Scottish Government Consolidated Accounts’. (See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-63831950)
Now to be clear, this audit report includes plenty of important cautionary and critical remarks aimed at the Scottish Government. These are not to be dismissed but candidly, in the inevitably complex and imperfect practice of government – at any time but especially in the volatility of recent years – critical comments from an independent auditor are not too surprising. By such critical expert assessments are improvements in governance demanded and hopefully achieved. However, given the BBC article is a lengthy one, it’s harder to understand a certain (let’s call it) ’incompleteness’ in the reporting.
For starters, and for context, the BBC might have told its readers this: ‘My independent audit opinion is unqualified. This means in my opinion, I am content the Scottish Government Consolidated Accounts show a true and fair view, following accounting standards, and that the income and expenditure for the year is lawful.’
Back to the initial quote from the BBC article. Note the use of the word ‘carelessness’: this journalist has made a choice to set a particular tone from the beginning. But is this choice of words even justified by his own subsequent writing? As an ‘exercise’ in examining reporting by BBC Scotland, let’s look first at an extract from the beginning of the article (with my emphasis and my comments inserted) before comparing and contrasting this with what the Audit Scotland report actually stated.
The pejorative phrase: ‘To underspend by £1bn is unfortunate. To do so by £2bn looks like carelessness.’ is followed by: ’Or so Oscar Wilde might have said if he were commenting on the Scottish government’s accounts for last year.
‘But this wasn’t his dramatic dialogue to write. (Comment: no, but why was it the BBC journalist’s?) The auditor general was commenting, however, and Stephen Boyle’s assessment of the underspend on a £51bn budget was not as harsh as some of the government’s critics.’
(Comment: so the negative framing, the implied charge of ‘carelessness’ by the BBC journalist is actually NOT justified even according to the same journalist? Confused? It looks as if this particular negative, the implication of ‘carelessness’, has been contrived but for what – innocent ‘dramatic’ effect? And who are the other critics of this ‘underspend’; how many are there; what is the substance of their criticisms? Are they justified based on the auditor’s findings? We’re not told.)
The BBC article goes on to explain the ‘underspend’: ‘About 40% of that was due to money allocated to student loans but not drawn down.’
‘A large share of it was due to funds being allocated but not spent on business support grants to help them through Covid, or those grants you could get if financially losing out due to self-isolation. The total budget for handling the pandemic last year came to £5.8bn.’
(Comment: so on the budget for Covid support, how much was ‘not spent’ – what proportion of: (i) the total budget allocation, or (ii) the total spend on support does this ‘large share’ amount to? We’re not told by the BBC! A typical perspective free news report? And why were the funds not spent – less need/demand than anticipated or failure by government to meet legitimate need/demand?)
Then next from the BBC we have this: ‘It’s perverse to criticise government for not paying out money that wasn’t needed. At worst, it was a failure of budget planning rather than budget spending.’
(Comment: So the funds were ‘not spent’ because they were not needed! Perhaps the underspend should have been returned at the end of the financial year to HM Treasury: did Labour in government in Scotland not return a big underspend once? And on ‘perversity’, is it not also simply perverse for the journalist to imply ‘carelessness’ in having an underspend given the reasons for it the same journalist has stated? But hey, let’s not lose an opportunity to maximise the negative framing: it must have been too hard for the journalist to hold back from adding – ‘a failure of budget planning’.)
The section of the BBC article being examined here ends with: ‘The financial year 2020-21 was a second exceptional period of extra funds pouring into the budget to tackle the pandemic, and some fast manoeuvring to spend it effectively.’
(Comment: so the BBC, having raised the negative of ‘failure of budget planning’ – I couldn’t find any evidence of Audit Scotland concluding this so is this just a BBC creation? And is the journalist not telling us in terms how exceptionally difficult budget planning would have been during the year in question? Confused …. again?)
Back to source
So let’s now look at what the Audit Scotland report actually stated (with my emphasis). Firstly, on the ‘underspend’ on student loans:
Para 9. ‘High-level reasons for significant variances between actual and budgeted spend are included in the Consolidated Accounts (pages 111-122). The largest variances relate to underspends in the Education and Skills portfolio (£806 million), the Finance and Economy portfolio (£536 million), and the Net Zero, Energy and Transport portfolio (£475 million). The Scottish Government reported that the underspend in the Education and Skills portfolio relates predominantly to the costs of providing student loans which uses a complex economic model and which is affected by interest rate movements. This underspend represents a non-cash saving which cannot be used to fund expenditure elsewhere.’
(Comment: not quite what I got from reading the BBC Scotland article, ‘carelessness’ and all. You?)
10. ‘The variances for the Finance and Economy portfolio included underspends in relation to Covid-19 business support grants, self-isolation grants and lower demand on business ventilation funds. Similarly, underspends in the Net Zero, Energy and Transport portfolio were attributed to demand for energy programmes being severely impacted by Covid-19 as well as delays caused by supply chain issues for energy projects.’
There is (always) more from BBC Scotland!
The BBC article also has this:
‘The Scottish government now controls some welfare benefits, most of which are administered through Whitehall’s Department of Work and Pensions. An estimate of overpayments of these devolved benefits comes to £67.5m.
And it adds: ’There is no estimate of the overpayment of welfare benefits by the new Social Security Scotland agency. Mr Boyle says there should be, as administration is transferred.’
Back to source, again
On the matter of devolved benefits, the Audit Scotland report actually states this:
Para 17. ‘The 2021/22 accounts of Social Security Scotland include benefit expenditure of £3,320 million administered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) under agency agreements with Scottish ministers. Due to these delivery arrangements, Social Security Scotland cannot directly assess the levels of fraud and error in these benefits and is instead reliant on the DWP’s annually published estimates.’
18. ‘The estimated overpayments as a result of fraud and error in relation to each type of benefit that is delivered by the DWP, ranged from 1.5 to 5.2 per cent of expenditure. This means an estimated £67.5 million of overpayments were made in Scotland. As a result, the auditor qualified their regularity opinion as these overpayments were not incurred in accordance with relevant legislation and regulations. Further details can be found in the 2021/22 Annual Audit Report of Social Security Scotland.’
(Comment: so the ‘overpayments’ referred to in the BBC article, whilst indeed relating to ‘devolved benefits’, in terms of the operational decisions on making the actual payments to claimants, the responsible body for administration is a UK government department, the DWP. Read the BBC article again: could the journalist have made it clearer which public body is responsible – if he had wished to?)
And regarding this from the BBC article ‘There is no estimate of the overpayment of welfare benefits by the new Social Security Scotland agency. Mr Boyle says there should be, as administration is transferred’, this is what the audit report actually stated:
19. ‘The auditor also commented on the need for Social Security Scotland to develop its estimate of the level of fraud and error within benefits administered by Social Security Scotland itself. While the auditor concluded that the absence of an estimate of the level of fraud and error in 2021/22 was not a significant financial statements audit issue, this assessment is becoming urgent as the value of benefits administered by Social Security Scotland increases rapidly over the coming years.’
(Comment: so the auditor is pointing up the importance of addressing a need in future and is NOT linking this issue to any matter concerning the audit of accounts for financial year 2020/21. Might the BBC have written this up with more clarity by not juxtaposing in this way a comment by the auditor that is concerned with past and one which is prospective?)
And again from the Audit Scotland report: Para 20. ‘In May 2022, I published a report on Social security: Progress on implementing the devolved benefits. I reported that the Scottish Government has continued to successfully deliver new and complex social security benefits in challenging circumstances which is a significant achievement. There is a conscious focus on the needs of service users, building on the principles of dignity, fairness, and respect. The challenge will be to continue to deliver further benefits within agreed budgets while ensuring the financial sustainability of the service going forward.
(Comment: did I miss this reporting of a ‘significant achievement’ when reading the BBC Scotland article?)
The Audit Scotland report para 21 (below) is also pertinent to this extract from the BBC article: ‘There is no estimate of the overpayment of welfare benefits by the new Social Security Scotland agency.’
Para 21. ‘As a component audit, the qualified audit opinion on the Social Security Scotland accounts requires me to assess the potential impact of its inclusion within the Scottish Government’s Consolidated Accounts. I concluded that, for 2021/22, the likely amount of error and fraud incurred is not significant enough to influence the economic decisions of the users of the accounts and therefore I have not qualified my opinion in respect of this matter.’
(Comment: so the auditor has estimated that the likely amount of error and fraud incurred in the financial year 2021/22 is ‘not significant enough ..’. Does the BBC text give a reasonable representation of this statement?)
Perhaps the problem is that BBC journalists don’t get enough professional practice writing about the findings in official audit reports. They certainly won’t get much outside of Scotland, as BBC News coverage of reports issued by the National Audit Office into UK government finances are (to say the least) extremely rare!
When it comes to BBC Scotland and professional practice on devising subtle (and not so subtle) negative frames, that’s a very different matter.