Impartial Kirsty Wark
12 February 2006: Wark placed on probation by the BBC over bias fears
Wark was placed on probation by worried BBC chiefs in 1995 in punishment for her controversial fully financed holiday with First Minister, Jack McConnell. Her future behaviour is to be closely monitored.
Concerned corporation governors placed Wark under “review” amid public concern that her relationship with the First Minister, together with her closeness to former Labour leader, the late Donald Dewar and her role in the Holyrood parliament building fiasco, could be damaging to the image of the BBC as an impartial broadcaster.
The release of details of the trip sparked an intense “cronyism” row at Holyrood and within the BBC, taking in complaints about politicians’ declarations of gifts and over Wark’s impartiality.
The Tories led the charge, questioning whether it was “appropriate for a prominent BBC political journalist to be so closely associated with one party”.
The “Villagate” row erupted when it was revealed that Wark had invited McConnell and his wife, Bridget, to spend Hogmanay with her and her partner Alan Clements at their holiday home in Alaro, Majorca. The families previously holidayed together at the villa in December 2002.
It subsequently emerged that Wark and her family had twice been overnight guests at Bute House, McConnell’s official residence in Edinburgh.
IWC Media, the company, owned by Wark and Clements, (a long-term friend of McConnell’s) had been awarded 22 executive and quango contracts by the BBC in the past five years, including the production of “The Gathering Place”, a documentary about the Holyrood parliament building fiasco.
Asked if she felt she was under any kind of probation by the BBC, Wark said: “That’s not my view.” (The Scotsman)
But Wark was already on probation for previous misdemeanors
But a close watch had already been placed on the Newsnight presenter’s performance, after Scotland on Sunday published a picture of McConnell, Wark, and their families enjoying a New Year break at her Spanish villa.
Wark was supposed to be subjected to continuing scrutiny by her own managers, and a team of broadcast executives, who were to monitor her performance on air for anything which might give rise to accusations of bias.
A hitherto confidential document, obtained by Scotland on Sunday under freedom of information laws, detailed exchanges between the BBC board of governors over the affair.
It laid bare their fury over the embarrassing row, which was communicated to the Director-General, Mark Thompson.
At the first meeting of the Board of Governors, after the pictures of Wark on holiday with the McConnells were published in January 2005, they recorded:
“The Board recognized that Kirsty Wark was highly talented and widely respected. Her integrity was not in question but her actions had put the BBC in a difficult position. The issue for the BBC is one of perception of impartiality both among the public and politicians. Addressing BBC management’s handling of the matter they were assured that management would assess her interviewing and presenting roles on a case-by-case basis to address the issue of perceptions of impartiality. The Board asked management to ensure this process remained rigorous.”
A follow-up statement issued by the BBC said:
“Kirsty Wark is a journalist of the utmost experience and integrity and we continue to have every confidence in her ability. In the context of past events, we still continue to review the position regarding interviewees and any issues regarding impartiality as would be the case with all our presenters. We want to make clear that Kirsty Wark has our full support.”
Corporation insiders said that the step of subjecting any presenter to such a long period of scrutiny, together with the unusual step of allowing a statement to be issued on the subject, was a sign that management was “exceptionally sensitive” about Wark and allegations of bias.
Managers within BBC News had been “very annoyed” about the revelations and had devised “a kind of quarantine and rehabilitation period” which saw her taken out of the front line of the news operation for several weeks and then eased back in.
A BBC insider commented:
“The BBC hates giving the impression that it is being told what to do and that it is bowing to pressure. In all such cases the BBC will publicly dismiss the outside world’s criticisms but then say, ‘Don’t you ever do anything so stupid again!’ to the broadcaster in question. While keeping someone under observation is common in such cases, it can be a precursor to ditching someone from a programme because it allows them to build a case to defend themselves in case of a comeback.”
Another insider said:
“Look, it’s all about the viewers’ perception. If people think that she is not impartial then she can’t do it. Luckily for Kirsty, she was taken off the main part of the election coverage and she doesn’t do many political interviews in Scotland anymore. But it would be inconceivable if someone had to interview Jack on Newsnight, for her to do it.”
7 Jun 2007: Just a year down the road and free of her probation she struck again. There was public outrage following Wark’s “Newsnight “interview” of Alex Salmond
Wark’s persona markedly moved towards the Labour hackery she had long managed to keep reasonably hidden. Jack McConnell’s favourite holiday villa companion looked a right twit in the interview which was more like an inquisition with the Scottish Government’s, First Minister.
Fully covered in a media clip published here: “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnQPptuG8uM”. Since taken down by the BBC.
The BBC were forced to respond to numerous complaints, from viewers and some politicians of blatant bias.
The statement said:
“We’ve had a lot of complaints about Kirsty’s interview last night with the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. Some questioned the premise of the interview – that the new SNP government appeared to be picking a fight with London – others thought that Kirsty’s line of questioning was too aggressive and therefore discourteous. But all agreed that the way the interview ended was, to say the very least, unfortunate. The encounter was indeed intense and at times tetchy – Mr Salmond is always a robust and challenging interviewee – but for most of the interview, I don’t think we strayed outside the boundaries of what viewers expect or find acceptable in a Newsnight interview. At the last minute, however, that changed. As the programme producer tried to wind up the interview because of time pressure we cut off Mr. Salmond in a way that came across as rude and dismissive. We have apologized to Mr. Salmond for that.”
Many hundreds of viewers were appalled by Wark’s behaviour and wrote letters of complaint to the BBC. A small sample:
“I watched the interview and have read the comments on this and other blogs. The interview was far from impartial; Ms. Wark was more interested in exonerating Mr. Blair than in trying to get to the truth of the matter.”
Ms. Wark, was a poor choice, even if she were impartial, her close personal links to the leader of the opposition in Scotland should have instantly disqualified her from an interview on so contentious an issue.”
“The BBC prides itself on impartiality, in this instance it has at best failed the Caesar’s wife test of being seen as pure as well as actually being pure and at worst allowed itself (consciously or otherwise) to be a tool of Labour.”
“Ms. Wark’s apology by e-mail, seems to me to be as insincere as it is cowardly and a curiously fitting poor end to this issue.”
“For the record I am no nationalist, but feel that political discourse has been ill served by the BBC and Ms. Wark and the reputation of the BBC has been tarnished, if it really is going to be an effective reporter of Scottish affairs, it should do so with reporters untainted by political links as blatant as Ms. Wark’s.”
“No, the “encounter” was’nt “tetchy”; Ms Wark was. The BBC should apologise not only to Mr salmond but to viewers for the unprofessional rudeness she displayed during the whole of the interview.”
We lodged a complaint immediately after the broadcast about the interview. Kirsty Wark appeared to be more interested in aggressively attacking the messenger rather than pursuing the truth about the message. We think that it would be appropriate that Newsnight tonight, and Ms Wark in particular apologises to Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister live on air, at the start of the programme.”
“As someone who voted SNP at the recent election I wouldn’t want to get too carried away with criticising the way Newsnight handled the Alex Salmond interview last night. I have nothing against a robust interviewing technique but on this occasion, Ms Wark took a dismissive tone from the start of this interview. She was interviewing Scotland’s elected First Minister yet gave the impression she was contemptious of every word he uttered. I had the feeling that she allowed a personal distaste for Alex Salmond to affect how she conducted the interview. Not good.”
“I have a lot of time for Kirsty Wark, and I believe she’s done a lot of good work. Last night, however, was awful. I cringed watching it. It was not professional television journalism.”
“I presume that Mr Salmond and Ms Wark are not friends. However, Alex Salmond appeared to rise above that and Ms Wark didn’t.”
“Most people who watch Newsnight, I guess, by the very nature of the programme, ,have little objection when interviewers adopt an assertive or aggressive approach in the face of evasion, confusion, an apparent intention to mislead or a lack of evidence. However, Alex Salmon made his points in a perfectly comprehensible and supported way. Kirsty Wark behaved as if she was determined to adopt a combative approach regardless of any response she received.”
“I must express my disappointment at Kirsty Wark’s lack of professionalism and sheer bad manners. this certainly falls way below the standards of journalism by which the BBC have formerly purported to set and hold as an example to others. This contained evident bias, continually cut across the Mr Salmond and was thus uninformative. To be honest, I’m actually more concerned about the interview than the cutting off. Having people cut off like that has to happen every now and then and whilst it came across as dismissive I know it has to happen. What I didn’t like about it was the patronising way Kirsty Wark said ‘exactly’ as she turned away from him. However, most concerning was the interview where she seemed to keep pressing the same point getting what seemed to be a fair answer from Salmond.”
“I don’t agree that the interview stayed within acceptable boundaries. Ms Wark is NOT a democratically elected representative of anyone. She is paid by our licence fees to do a professional job as a reporter and interviewer. Much as she obviously loathes Mr Salmond – he is the First Minister of Scotland and is entitled to basic respect and courtesy. Ms Wark showed herself up very badly and made it quite plain that she has completely lost her objectivity (and her cool) where Mr Salmond and the ‘New Politics’ in Scotland are concerned. Fortunately for all of us our elected politicians are, so far, all behaving much better and are swallowing their pride and getting on with the business.”
“The interview was so bad I actually went out of my way to find this page and complain. The interviewer was totally disrespectful to the First Minister of Scotland. Who does she think she is? She was interviewing the most powerful man in Scottish politics and treated him like a nobody. It was poor journalism. Wark did not even listen to the answers given by Mr Salmond.”
“The Newsnight Scotland presenter was a joke too with her line about him “never phones, never writes” comment. Who told her to say that? Mr Salmond was quite right to not enter into further discussion which such an obviously biased programme. I didn’t vote SNP by the way.”
“Had the interview been with our previous First Minister I am sure it would have been much more of a love in. Surely Miss Warks conflict of interest continues when Mr. McConnell is in opposition. And I would have loved to have seen how this whole story would have panned out it Jack had still been in charge.”
“I watched the interview and frankly had Ms Wark conducted an interview of, say, Tony Blair, in that manner, I suspect she’d would have been out of a job within hours. Alex Salmond was trying to answer her hectoring questions, but she rudely interrupted him and basically lost her rag. Perhaps she is too close to Jack McConnell.”
“Kirsty Wark is a good friend of the former first minister of Scotland (and Alex Salmond’s opponent) Jack McConnell. Well, friendy enough to take holidays with him.”
“I can only imagine the furore if John Humphries of the Today programme took holidays with one of Westminster’s political leaders. How could he be seen to be impartial afterwards?”
“I think Kirsty Warks political affiliations are too obvious and are hindering her ability to carry out impartial and unbiased interviews – on Scottish matters in particular.”
“Clearly this is unnacceptable and the BBC must take action to ensure if they task Kirsty Wark with political interviewing, she at least complies with appropriate standards of impartiality that we expect of the BBC. This interview falls way short.”
“Not good enough. Dont blame running out of time either. That was the least of it. Poor, poor show people. Wark was totally unprofessional (intense and tetchy dont even come close). Her objectivity has been completely compromised. Not fit for the Newsnight chair. As far as Newsnicht Scotland is concerned…pathetic.”
Having watched the “interview”, I was appalled at Ms. Wark’s ill-mannered hectoring. As has been commented previously, I am far from wanting to see politicians given an easy ride (as is far too often the case), but Ms. Wark’s attitude did no credit to herself, nor the BBC. She opened and closed the interview in a very impolite and unprofessional manner, and the less said about the content the better.”
“I’m no particular supporter of Alex Salmond, but in this case he made reasonable points, and well put – the tone was entirely unwarranted.”
“To think the BBC pay her for that level of performance. Come to think of it, no, I pay her – she should refund my license fee.”
“Isn’t Kirsty Wark a close friend of Jack McConnell – the man Mr. Salmond took his new job off of? Now I’m not suggesting there is a connection….but.”
“Your summary is very wrong. “not straying outside the boundaries of what viewers expect or find acceptable”. I found it very offensive and for the first time ever have made a formal complaint to the BBC.”
“I was appalled by the behaviour of Kirsty Wark in her interview with Alex Salmond. The venom and spitefulness in her questioning of Scotland’s First Minister was outrageous. She clearly lost all objectivity in her task which I can only put down to the fact that she has a dispute running with Salmond with her company and the proposed film on Hollyrood and the fact that her personal friend the ex- First Minister of Scotland Jack McConnell lost the election to Salmond.”
“This interview was so unprofessional that Kirsty Wark embarrased herself and that it is clear to me that she cannot disguise her personal views which I have noticed on other occassions. To rudely cut off Salmond at the end when she had no time pressures forcing the termination is all the evidence you need.”
“It’s time to take her off the air and not pretend any longer that she is a competent journalist. I am surprised that the producers of Newsnight allowed her to do the interview knowing of her personal dislike for Salmond.”
“For your information, I am not a supporter of the SNP and live in Buckinghamshire. I am a supporter of Newsnight, certainly up to now and of good journalism.”
“I thought people on here were exaggerating until I saw it for myself. I do not believe that the apology given is enough. Wark behaved in a dreadful manner – she was angry and nippy and downright rude. And for Peter Barron to say “the interview” was at times “tetchy” followed by this (by way of explanation)”Mr Salmond is a … challenging interviewee” is just not good enough.”
“He was calm, not tetchy in the slightest. He listened, he spoke in a measured way and wasn’t the slightest bit challenging. God knows what was wrong with Kirsty Wark but she should apologise or go and present gardening programmes.”
“You need to remember Ms. Wark’s chumminess with what was the Labour establishment in Scotland. Close pals with both Dewar and McConnell. I would however have expected a more professional approach from her and Newsnight.”
“In the latter part of the interview, Wark seemed to concentrate on making assertions to the exclusion of actually asking questions. Maybe that’s a legitimate technique but surely you then have to give the interviewee an opportunity to refute those assertions. Given the previous controversy over Wark’s political links this interview has to raise questions about her ability to be impartial.”
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