It came as absolutely no surprise to me, and I am sure to many of you yesterday, when Newsnet Scotland broke the story of an academic study done by the University of the West of Scotland looking Into broadcast balance on the issue of the Scottish Independence referendum.
The results of this study run between September 2012 and September 2013 were particularly damning on the imbalance in favour of the NO side by both BBC Scotland and STV.
Those who have been following these broadcasters news coverage and other political programming would have already picked up on their bias, it has been that obvious.
In fact the extent of the bias has been so extreme at times that It makes one wonder of these broadcasters have even bothered to hide their their imbalance and partiality at all.
While the study itself focussed purely on the broadcasters evening news programmes, it may well have been letting them off lightly, particularly so the BBC, and its political programmes such as Newsnight Scotland, Question time, and Sunday Politics programmes.
had these programmes been taken into account the broadcasting bias would have been off the scale!
STV like the rest of the Independent media has no obligation to be impartial, or to show strict impartiality. We as consumers can choose not to buy into what they are offering.
The BBC on the other hand has a duty to be impartial as we directly fund them. So the fact that they are the most imbalanced in their reporting is an absolute scandal.
The combination of both BBC and STV coming out against Independence has surely caused an inestimable amount of damage to the YES campaign, and if they were to be at all honest, they should just unite and refer to themselves as Broadcasters Against Independence. However,on this matter at least, the last thing that we can expect from them appears to be honesty.
Given that our foreign print media is almost entirely against Independence also, the combination of print and broadcasting makes for such inequality that the Independence side may as well consider themselves to be fighting off exocet missiles with claymores.
Much analyses of the figures contained in the report has already taken place by Newsnet Scotland, Wings over Scotland and James Kelly of Scot goes pop. Derek Bateman, the former BBC Scotland journalist is almost in despair and anguish in his blog, and no wonder.
But let us have a look at the studies findings again, only this time not only referring to the studies statistical findings but also examples which it has given.
The study gives us the following information:
” Fairness in the First Year? BBC and ITV Coverage of the Scottish Referendum Campaign
from September 2012 to September 2013″
“The‘Phase 1’survey of TV coverage of the referendum campaigns reported here covers the
period from 17th September 2012 to 18th September 2013 including every evening (6-7pm)
broadcast by BBC 1,Reporting Scotland,ITV and STV, in that period. A total, therefore,
of approximately 730 hours, minus advertising breaks in ITV and STV broadcasts, was watched,transcribed and coded.The evening TV broadcasts were chosen as the news media
communications with the largest audiences in Scotland and in the UK”
The questions they set out to answer were:
1.How prevalent were referendum topics in the first year of the campaigns?
2.What was the relative balance of statements given to the views of Yes and No,
representatives, arguments and evidence?
3.What was the relative balance of independent, scientific or academic evidence presented
in support on the Yes and No campaigns?
4.To what extent did No arguments precede the Yes and vice versa?
5.What was the ratio of arguments finishing broadcasts unchallenged in favour of the Yes
and No campaigns?
6.To what extent were arguments equated with the apparently personal wishes of political
personalities rather than as collective positions?
7.What was the relative balance of offensive statements made to Yes and No campaigners
What forms of evidence dominated the discourse economic, political,social?
Overall and to what extent, did reporting favour the Yes or No campaign.
My summary of their report findings is as follows?
During the course of the year to September 2013, BBC and ITV covered 344 Independence news items between them on the evening news. Of these 191 items could be described as being descriptive, merely about Independence favouring neither side. Of these reports, 282 were presented by STV and BBC Reporting Scotland, while only 62 made the main ITV and BBC news, which reflects how little London thought of the referendum as an issue of importance.
Concentrating on the statements contained in the reports, we find an immediate disparity with how both Reporting Scotland and STV favoured one side over the other.
Reporting Scotland carried 171 favourable Independence/SNP statements as against 262 Anti Independence/SNP statements.
STV carried 172 favourable statements for Independence/SNP as opposed to 255 statements against Independence/SNP
Pro Independence Scientific/Academic reports amounted to 4 reports on Reporting Scotland and 7 reports on STV, while on the other hand, Anti Independence Scientific/Academic reports featured 22 times on Reporting Scotland and 20 times on STV
When presenting a news item Reporting Scotland led with the negative view on Independence a total of 66 times while leading with a positive slant only 24 times.
STV were slightly better, leading with a negative slant 61 times and a positive slant 53times.
They personalised Independence as belonging to Alex Salmond, 28times by Reporting Scotland and 32 times by STV, however neither have ever personalised the NO campaign at any time whatsoever. Giving rise to the idea that Independence is all about what Alex Salmond wants and dictates!
18 times each Reporting Scotland and STV carried statements which were abusive of Independence figures, but only 3 times anything negative about anti campaigners.
Reporting Scotland on only 8 occasions and STV on 17 occasions have finished their reports leaving Pro Evidence unchallenged, but conversely Reporting Scotland and STV have allowed Anti Independence to remain unchallenged 28 and 34 times respectively
The report notes that the editorial decisions to allow the 3 main Anti Independence parties to respond against only the one pro independence party in the SNP has helped create this significant imbalance between Independence and Anti Independence viewpoints.
“Anti independence statements were heavily concentrated on economic affairs such as alleged increased unemployment or closures after independence, such as:
inSTV at 6, the presenter announced ‘Scots’ savers and financial institutions might be at risk if country votes for independence
in Reporting Scotland , an extensive piece on Trident and on Scotland’s defence forces after independence offers some space for SNP response but is driven by a weight of one-
sided and unchallenged evidence and commentary–
unnamed economic advisers are allowed to suggest 6500
jobs lost if Trident goes and an overall cost of £20bn while the report
finishes ominously with ‘Whitehall could play hardball’.
in Reporting Scotland, the programme opens with ‘Row over independence could lead to higher electricity bills’ then runs through a series of negative sound bites interspersed with SNP protest–
‘questions mount over independence’, ‘UK government claims cost could rise’, ‘Could
Scots customers have to pay more?’, ‘Labour spokesman–danger’ before allowing the evidence of Scottish over-production, renewables and a captive
market in England to cast serious doubt on the motivation for the initial
in STV at 6, the presenter, referring to a report from the‘Scottish Institute’ offers unchallenged the notion that the Scottish armed forces ‘might have trouble recruiting due to lack of adventure’! The possibility of the reverse trend is not considered.
The use of evidence from sources other than the parties themselves and which might be
presented as ‘independent’, ‘academic’ or ‘scientific’ is a measure of quality in political debate
Notably, there was very little use of such evidence in the reporting overall and
, where there was,there was clear tendency to use anti-independence over pro-independence evidence.Though a rare phenomenon overall, reporting tended to link pro-independence evidence from Scottish Government sponsored committees to their sponsorship while UK
advisory groups such as the Office for Budget Responsibility,The Institute for Fiscal Studies and several Parliamentary, Treasury,or House of Lords committees were typically treated as independent despite linkages to UK government and other government departments or units with a vested interest in the union
Indeed the IFS was referred to as a ‘well-respected think tank’ (Reporting Scotland, 19/11/12)
whereas a Glasgow University academic was ‘outed’ as having been ‘bought’ by the SNP to
support the independence case (Reporting Scotland, 21/8/13).
The sequence of statements whereby anti-independence arguments preceded pro-independence
responses as opposed to the reverse order is of interest. There was a clear majority(66:24)of the former,on Reporting Scotland where ‘bad news’ about independence came first and obliged a defensive response from a pro-independence spokesperson
but a much narrower majority(61:53)on STV News.
The Reporting Scotland imbalance tends to normalise the No/anti-independence position and put the onus of the Yes/pro-independence position to justify itself.
Personalisation of political issues is long-established strategy to weaken arguments,
shifting focus from collective reasoning or shared values to supposed personal desires and personality traits.
Historically, this tendency or strategy has been used to demonise and to undermine numerous political figures in the UK including Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. In the above data, the repeated association of the Yes/pro-independence campaign with the personal desires of Alex Salmond was regular and frequent. No such equation between
No/anti-independence figures’ personal drives and the No campaign was made. Likewise the broadcasting of personally insulting comments by anti-independence representatives (especially Johann Lamont) aimed at Alex Salmond, almost entirely,was predominant though
a few counter-jibes by Salmond against Lamont and the Labour Party did also occur.
Notably the use of insults aimed at Salmond declined and had become less common in the second six months of the survey.
The tendency by opposition politicians to attempt to undermine the Yes campaign by labelling its ambitions as Alex Salmond’s desires is, in part, beyond the editorial role, however, it was common for reporters and presenters to adopt the same style
in Reporting Scotland, ‘Alex Salmond under pressure!’
in Reporting Scotland, Willie Rennie(Lib Dem) ‘challenged Alex Salmond’s policy’.
in STV at 6, ‘Alex Salmond would say that the Westminster…’
in STV at 6, ‘Alex’s agenda!
in Reporting Scotland, Salmond is described by Johann Lamont(Labour) as ‘straight a
s a corkscrew’ and then compared by Willie Rennie (LibDem) to bent salesman ‘Delboy
The closing statements in reports might be felt to leave a lingering impression and thus carry more weight than some others. In many cases,reporters would round-off with a compromise assessment so as to leave the two campaigns in a kind of balance. Quite often, however, a statement strongly supportive of one side would be left hanging as the final thought. This was more likely, especially on Reporting Scotland,to be an anti-independence statement such as:
in Reporting Scotland, a piece on the changes to the NHS in England was used to suggest that the Scottish system’s reluctance to change ‘is bad news for Scotland’ and finishes with the unsubstantiated suggestion that GPs and patients might be ‘planning to move to
in Reporting Scotland, the Scottish Government’s commitment to universal benefits was immediately followed by a reference to ‘spending watchdog chief Robert Black who has questioned whether such benefits are affordable’ and reinforced by reference to Black’s cv
–‘few people are better placed to understand the challenges’.
in Reporting Scotland, a generally negative assessment of the future of insurance companies after independence finished with the Labour spokesperson’s assertion of ‘billions in costs’ and ‘potential closures’.
in STV News, after an extended and mostly negative report on the SNP’s ‘antinuclear stance’ the presenter finishes by suggesting that the latter‘will lead to economic disaster
Comparing Reporting Scotland with STV News,the former seems less balanced and fair to
the Yes campaign if only in the tendency to give pro-independence statements a greater
frequency of opening and closing debates.
Overall, however, both feature a preponderance of anti-independence statements, a majority of anti-independence evidence and a heavy personalisation of the debate around the character of Alex Salmond with the latter often portrayed as selfish and undemocratic.
However,If we characterise viewers as likely to watch both BBC 1 and Reporting Scotland
or both STV and ITV News,in succession,the two experiences diverge further than is apparent in comparing one programme with another.
The BBC1,Reporting Scotland alerts are commonly short and punchy with an attack
, typically a Westminster scare story,on the Yes campaign , mostly left unanswered and unchallenged.
So, on the objective evidence presented here, the mainstream TV coverage of the first
year of the independence referendum campaigns has not been fair or balanced. Taken
together, we have evidence of coverage which seems likely to have damaged the Yes
So there we have it folks….This aint no fair fight….and we are sure up against it!
It is now long past time for the Scottish Government to approach the European Union and ask for the news coverage to be monitored! Otherwise our Democracy is in real danger of going right down the tube!