Media watch: One sided calculations in the great funding stand-off

Total's new Shetland gas plant

Reporting the Run-up to the Scottish Parliamentary Elections in 2016: STV and BBC Scotland News: Number 5. Dr John Robertson continues his analysis of TV news coverage of the Scottish election campaign.

Thursday 4th to Wednesday 10th February

‘UK 9 Scotland 0 in One-sided Calculation Cup!’

Now I’m not doing the 1.30 Reporting Scotland report as a rule, but I often watch if for differences with the 6.30 edition. Last Monday it was kind of interesting. Reporting the massive ‘two million homes’ Total gas field development, RS said ‘Shetland’ 11 times, ‘UK’ 9 times and ‘Scotland’ or ‘Scottish’ zero times.

Dr John Robertson
Dr John Robertson

I know, I’m being paranoid, they’ll say. But after a few hours of social media buzz, the 6.30 edition opened with Jackie saying ‘A new frontier for Scotland’s energy industry as the massive new Shetland gas terminal comes on stream!’ There was still a wee ‘our beleaguered oil and gas sector’ tail to the headline. Right, I tweeted the imbalanced figures so I’m claiming all the credit for making Jackie say that! RS think of me as a wise old adviser, I’m told so that must be it. It’s me, me and more me. STV forgot ‘Scotland’ too, but in a much shorter report, which resulted a narrow UK 1 Scotland 0. There’s more detail below.

Thursday 4th February:

‘The UK and Scottish Government are at loggerheads over devolution of more powers from Westminster to Holyrood.’ STV

‘Scottish Government is ‘chancing their arm.’ RS

Both reported in a fairly balanced way, giving Nicola Sturgeon time to speak confidently. Indeed, STV challenged Mundell with a cheeky ‘Whose side are you on?’

‘Cancer death rates plummet as more and more people respond to treatment!’

‘Cancer Research UK says death rates in Scotland are down 9% over the last decade but one charity boss says not enough of those diagnosed are aware of the support services they’re entitled to.’

‘Death rates may be falling but three people every hour are diagnosed with cancer.’

STV got off to a very cheerful start with these words over images of a smiling female skydiver but went straight-on, mid-sentence, to ‘but’ lots of sufferers still don’t know where to go for help. We then had an extended, anecdotal, piece interviewing sufferers and carers who had been left to find out by themselves. No doubt this will be described as balance but most of the report focused on the un-researched anecdotal evidence from the head of one charity and only a few lines were given to the scientifically-obtained results from Cancer Research. For the umpteenth time, let me say that one person’s opinion, no matter their perceived status, is not enough for a national news report pretending reliability.

RS headlined, again, yes again, with the Forth Road Bridge delays and the enormous damage to the economy based entirely on the not-scientifically-obtained evidence from one representative of the hauliers. Viewers must be falling asleep with these repeated doses of tedium from RS. This is massively over-reported. Where, on the other hand, was Eleanor Bradford to report on the plummeting cancer deaths research? She has now missed three opportunities to report on good news about deaths from heart disease and stroke falling by a third since 2007, Scotland’s A&E targets being met in December and Scotland having the best A&E services in the world according to the Royal college of Emergency Medicine (see No.4 for references). In between, remarkably, she has surfaced, Nessie-like, to wail unconvincingly about false mental health and ambulance scare stories.

The other big story on RS was on university applications up and also up by those from deprived areas:

‘There’s also an increase in the number of young people applying from the most deprived areas BUT critics say more still needs to be done!’

Applications are up by two thirds in ten years BUT a real challenge remains.’

‘The proportion at Scottish universities from a working class background is slightly lower (31% as opposed to 33%) than the UK average.’

To explain, well distort, the above figures we get Iain Grey, quite overcast it seems, to say

‘What’s disappointing is the lack of progress on widening access…very small increase in applications from poorer areas…..much larger in England and Wales.’ 

Now, I’m a first-generation graduate so I do agree the figures are not satisfactory but isn’t an increase something to welcome? Isn’t Iain Grey stretching it a bit? I doubt if a difference of 2% in a comparison of two quite different/incomparable countries is significant.

Friday 5th:

STV led on the selection of the Labour list MSPs in a fairly kindly way as you would with a dying relative. Ponsonby, though, was struggling with his facial expression as he announced that dynastic heir and lavish entertainer, Anas Sarwar, had topped the Glasgow list! STV had missed the big story though.

Reporting Scotland had a fabulous scoop: ‘Raising income tax in Scotland – a new independent analysis says it could reduce the impact of spending cuts.’ I did note you couldn’t see Sally’s face while she said this. We got more ‘independent’ thinking:

‘Raising income tax in scot could reduce the impact of spending cuts and would weigh more heavily on higher earners. That’s according to an independent report.’ We saw Sally but not too close up.

‘Another reporter said: ‘So should the Scottish Parliament raise income tax as a way to fill this gap?’

Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t they already vote democratically on this two days ago on the 3rd? It’s on their own websites dated for that day as: Holyrood rejects income tax calls. I know it was only the draft budget statement but the scale of the defeat (81-43) means that there is not a scoobie of a chance of it being changed. What gives the BBC the right to ignore that and restart the campaign on behalf of a minority opposition party? I’m sure the BBC claims to only report and not to make politics. Actually this is biased against the Tories too!!! There’s a thing.

I’d never heard of the Resolution Foundation or of its Trust. It’s well seen they’ve retired me before it gets any more embarrassing for me and for them (UWS). How did RS get the report so quickly after Labour lost the Holyrood vote? Do they have connections, one wonders? So, what is the RF? Well the current Chief Exec is Baron David Willets! I know, your wiry wee Scottish ear-hairs are twitching, already! Yes it’s him, Homer Simpson look-a-like and:

‘former minister in David Cameron’s coalition government [who] argued “pampered Scots” should face deep cuts in public spending when he advised Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.’ (From the Guardian 30th December 2015)

A former Chief Exec, Sue Regan, was Special Adviser to David Blunkett, he of: ‘Phone Scottish relatives and tell them to vote No’ and ‘I think their minds have switched off to even rational argument.’ Remember that blaming of the voters and excusing the Labour candidates? The author of the report is Torsten Bell, formerly Director of Policy for the New Labour Party and former something in the Treasury. So, in the context of Scottish politics, how independent is research from a foundation led by a Tory lord and a bunch of New Labour spads likely to be? Don’t swear, now.

The presenter of the findings was David Finch who worked for the DWP. He said:

‘This income tax proposal is progressive in the sense that it leaves higher income households paying more tax and actually the majority of lower income households in the bottom half of the distribution aren’t affected at all. That’s because they aren’t earning enough to pay tax at all.’

We then had a few seconds of Kezia and a bit of the SG to balance it. That’s that then, balanced, fair, eh? Well, not really. We didn’t get a balancing expert and we didn’t get much of the actual Resolution Fund report itself: Here are some snippets we didn’t get:

‘First these proposals will raise money, although not enough to ‘end austerity.’

‘Advocates of Scottish Labour’s plans to raise income tax and reduce spending cuts can correctly argue that the proposals would raise money and do it in a progressive way. But those opposed may argue that there are even more progressive ways to bring in revenue, that the plans will still take money from middle earners pockets….’

Now David Bell and David Eiser of Stirling University are independent, I’m sure. BBC has used Prof Bell a lot in the past. Here are some snippets from their work:

‘However, everyone earning above the personal allowance would pay more tax.’

‘So, when John Swinney said in his Budget statement ‘By its nature, exercising that power [increasing the SRIT] would have a disproportionate effect on the amount of tax paid by the taxpayers on the lowest incomes’, he is correct (as long as, by ‘taxpayers on the lowest incomes’ he is referring to anyone earning less than the Upper Rate threshold, i.e. £43,000).’

OK, I’m not a trained economist. Indeed, my wife says I’m a bit careless with the cash. However, I know Dr Eiser is kind of trying to undermine Swinney’s comment, but if he thinks people earning between £11 000 and £43 000 are somehow able to stand raised taxation with VAT at 20%, rent or mortgages to pay and maybe children to bring up, he’s way off. Finally, back to Sally’s perhaps embarrassed: ‘weigh more heavily on higher earners.’ I could lose my cool over the callous disregard for low and ‘middle’ earners in that statement. The ‘weight’ for a low/middle earner of a reduction in income is how much damage it causes to the ability to pay for basic needs. Even though the sum paid by a high-earner may be much more, the weight will be feather-light because it will only damage, at worst, the ability to buy extra luxuries.

Monday 8th:

I’ve introduced this earlier, referring to the 1.30 RS report on the new gas field when the words Scotland and Scottish had disappeared. Notably in the past, such as on February 2nd, it was clearly ‘Scotland’s oil industry’ and disused rigs were ‘littering the UK coastline.’ Kidding, it was ‘Scotland’s coastline.’ At 6.30 ‘Scotland’s Energy Sector’ made it to the headline. After that of course it was forgotten again with the final score UK 13 Scotland 1. In addition, RS were to tag on, as they have done before, a much larger piece reminding us again of our ‘beleaguered or troubled ‘energy/oil and gas, sector/industry.

In this remarkably long tail to the shorter actual news of the gas field coming on-stream we had a report, mainly from a schoolmasterly Douglas Fraser, peppered with around 20 generally worrying terms such as difficult, tough, delayed, poor-success, high-cost and so on and on. Listen to it yourself and count them, just for fun. Douglas finished his piece warning us that because of EU ecological policies we might have to leave the oil and gas in the ground. ‘Aye laddie, dinna get too carried awa wi yer fancy ideas!’ Douglas should watch Sky Arts’ new drama ‘Occupied’ which shows what the oil-dependent EU and Russia might do if wee Norway was to try that in the near future!

This is a recurring theme with RS, when forced to report anything positive, they imbalance it with something, longer, darker and often poorly-evidenced such that the viewer’s memory of the good news is seriously suppressed. It’s propaganda.

One little ray of sunshine was Total UK CE, Elisabeth Proust’s desk with three wee flags on it – France, Total and Scotland! Vive la France! Proust’s great, great grandad was (maybe) Marcel Proust whose famous À la recherche du temps perdu at 4 300 pages is a much better read than the impending 10 000 pages, plus How I saved the World,  by one Gordon Broon, MP.

Tuesday 9th:

‘Many of Scotland’s young doctors plan to flee to England for better conditions!’

A disgraceful scare story by Reporting Scotland or at least it would be if I hadn’t just dreamt it! That Eleanor Bradford has popped up in my dreams now. Nurse, more drugs! Seriously though, the young doctors of England are on the news nearly every night. What’s happening in Scotland? We have a right to know. I had to go all the way back to the 27th of September in the Independent newspaper to find the answer:

Scotland opens doors to junior doctors angry at NHS contracts in England. The Scottish government has rejected the new contract proposals by Westminster, meaning doctors in Scotland will not be affected by any reforms to pay and conditions.’

Is that the reason I wonder? Did RS (or STV) report it? I don’t remember them doing so but I can’t be sure. Either way, why don’t they update us after BBC 1 finish?

STV led on the Scottish Government deal on council budgets and it was mostly balanced coverage other than in a lack of reminders that Westminster is the prime cause of the cuts.  There was a wee mention of ‘Westminster reductions’ by one SNP minister. Interviews with the public were pretty much in favour of council tax freeze continuing. The report on the fiscal framework negotiations was similarly balanced.

Reporting Scotland opened with:

‘A victory for the Government over the council tax freeze as local authorities  look set to sign-up but councils say the settlement means big cuts to services.’

This report and that on the fiscal framework settlement negotiations with the Treasury were again pretty balanced other than the lack of mention of the Westminster cuts triggering the Scottish budget reductions for the local authorities.

Wednesday 10th:

‘Out of Europe and out of the UK!’

STV reported on their exclusive poll which suggests an exit from the EU would trigger a Yes vote in a new referendum.  The research also predicted a ‘resounding victory’ for the SNP at the Holyrood election in May. Not surprisingly, having paid for it, there was an extended piece on the Ipsos-Mori report. It was further very bad news for Scottish Labour. They weren’t interviewed.

Reporting Scotland led with two worrying, indeed upsetting, headlined:

‘Police fear a return to the football ‘casuals‘ culture of the 80s. They say two thirds of clubs have organised hooligan gangs among their supporters.’


‘People who have suffered child abuse accuse the Education Secretary of becoming complicit in the cover up of offences by failing to widen a government inquiry.’

I think they said ‘casual culture’ when it should be ‘casuals culture’ but hey ho, they’re getting on a bit at RS. This was a very weak, pointless piece really and to be headlined, OMG as the children or grandchildren of 80s casuals might say. Here we go. ‘An investigation by BBC Scotland has revealed that two-thirds of the 42 clubs have a casuals-like problem.’ One police representative is interviewed. He repeats the opinion of the scale and that they fear a re-resurgence of 80s style casuals violence. It wasn’t really casual violence because it was planned. Should they have been called the not-casuals or the planners? We get to see the 1980s Rangers/Celtic cup final battle, which was nothing to do with casuals whatsoever, then one piece of film, repeated, of some casuals fighting more than ten years ago. Now here’s a thing. Since the 80s/90s nearly everybody has got a mobile phone video camera and they upload stuff like fights regularly for their pals to see. There are hundreds of clips of the George Square violence. If there is really a resurgence, where are all the clips on the internet?

The same police representative assures us it’s definitely happening but the reporter can then only name three locations/incidents in this season so far. Here we go again. Twenty-eight clubs have a problem but only six sets of fans have been involved this season. Are they taking it in turns to riot every three or four years? There’s no sign of even an internal police report.

The reporter then speaks to one former 80s hooligan who promptly disabuses him of the whole notion that there a comparable, serious, problem. There’s a ‘vast difference’ he says proudly. Is it more casuals-light than casuals-like, I wonder? The SPFL issue a standard statement suggesting they’ve missed the resurgence too and then the police representative softens and reminds us that the ‘vast majority of fans are fine.’

The reporter finishes off with ‘but for now it’s the few who are causing trouble who are causing concern.’ I haven’t seen such a self-contradictory, unsubstantiated and incoherent piece of reporting for some time so well done Mr McLaughlin. He’s a ‘Senior Reporter’ I’ll have you know.

More bad news so keep your head down. Jackie announces:

‘People who suffered child abuse have accused the Scottish Government of becoming complicit in the cover-up of offences. They’re to demand minsters change the remit of an extensive inquiry designed to investigate allegations.’ 

Now these stories of child abuse chill me to the bone so, let me make it clear, I really want all of these cases tackled. However, the sensitivity of these reports does not permit Reporting Scotland to lie about the accusations. Here’s what the young man actually said, on film to RS:

Are they complicit? I couldn’t offer an opinion either way.’

That’s just shameful or stupid. Should the Education Secretary, who is blamed in the headline, be defending herself in the courts on this one? Does the cunning use of the word ‘becoming’ get them off? I don’t know.

Fort Augustus Abbey School will be investigated by the independent inquiry but one Catholic priest says abuse within the Catholic Church won’t be heard. Wasn’t Fort Augustus Abbey School Catholic?

Finally, we hear in an overlong imbalanced piece that ‘the PM has warned the FM that the Scottish Government must give ground.’ They then show an extremely patronising bullying speech by the PM, followed by Brian Taylor reading out more patronising comments in the PM’s letter. There is no opportunity for a Scottish Government response! This is quite naked bias although I wonder if many viewers might have come away feeling angrier with Cameron than with the SG? Is this the reverse Propaganda Model? The more RS slag the SG the more the electorate like SG?


After the faked child abuse report, I felt I had write and complain. See below:

To: BBC Trust, Police Scotland, Ofcom etc…

From: Dr John Robertson


I write to complain of an accusatory but demonstrably inaccurate and dishonest headline statement and report introduced by presenter Ms Jackie Bird on BBC Scotland’s Reporting Scotland at 6.30pm on Wednesday 10th February 2016. This accusation, un-supported by evidence, can be seen as deeply offensive and hurtful to the Scottish Education Secretary, Angela Constance and potentially damaging to the electoral prospects of the SNP Government.

Bird said as a headline:

‘People who have suffered child abuse accuse the Education Secretary of becoming complicit in the cover up of offences by failing to widen a government inquiry

Then in the report:

‘People who suffered child abuse have accused the Scottish Government of becoming complicit in the cover-up of offences.’

No individual or organisational representative was to repeat these words for us at any point in the reporting. Only one interviewed representative of a group was heard to say anything and, significantly, only this:

‘Are they complicit? I couldn’t offer an opinion either way.’

It’s not clear if the Education Secretary was directly challenged with these words as would have been fair to allow her to respond. As a citizen, tax-payer and licence-fee payer, I find this disgraceful and to me, illegal. Consequently, I have written to you, the BBC Trust, Police Scotland, my local MP and MSP. Please deal with this as soon as possible in order that the above can have only limited effect on the upcoming Scottish elections in May 2016.

Thank you

Dr John Robertson


  1. Plus ca change plus la meme chose!

    I’m convinced Eleanor Bradford has it written in her contract that she’s not allowed to deliver good news about the NHS on air.

    As for the Resolution Foundation, wouldn’t it be more accurate to describe what they produced as a blog post as opposed to a report?

    Apart from that, loving your work as always John ?

  2. Oh aye, behold my massive blog post!

    Seriously though, one of the great legacies of the referendum campaign, plus the work you & GA Ponsonby have done, is that we immediately question stuff that is as heralded & heavily promoted as this Resolution Foundation stuff.

    My first thought was who are they?
    And who’s behind them?

    Didn’t take long to join the dots!

  3. Hi John. I’ve tried getting hold of the so-called ‘report’ BBC Scotland claimed had been published by the Resolution Foundation. No success. The foundation seems to want to ignore any questions about it.

    Douglas Fraser referred to it having been written by “authors” [note the plural]. I believe there is no report, just Torsten Bell’s blog. Maybe you could get in touch with the Foundation and ask them where the report is?

    • Thanks, didn’t think to check there actually is a report. I will do. The Commonwealth Foundation (US) won’t give the Scottish breakdown from their global research on primary care. At first the Ed said ‘sure’ and copied his PA in. She has now fobbed me off because of refusal, I think, from one of their ‘partners’.

  4. Hi John I look forward to seeing the reply you get from BBC Trust regarding the Burd but I can’t see them do anything about it just the usual waffle from them.
    I look forward to your scrutiny of both STV and BBC.

    • Thanks Really Terrific Person (?)
      I’ll pass anything I get. Police Scotland said it wasn’t a crime and refused to pass my claim to a senior officer. Sent it to Ofcom too.

  5. “STV led on the selection of the Labour list MSPs in a fairly kindly way as you would with a dying relative. ”
    Brilliant! Vote SNP/Rise or SNP/Green and help remove as many Labour/Tory MSP’s as possible.

    A few years ago, just afore the referendum, I was at the airport in Paris waiting on my flight back when I got talking to a Total executive. She was off to Shetland, something to do with “building a very large gas plant”. I said that I had not heard anything of it. She implied Total had been asked to keep it hush hush until after the referendum. Talk about Christmas (and ‘NO’ voting turkeys); enough gas for the whole of Scotland for 30+ years, and we gie it aw awa, AND we are forced to pay the highest energy prices in Europe!

  6. Yes, it must have taken since well before 2014 to get that massive thing built. Wasn’t Cameron spotted there (Shetland) before the Ref with a Total (Bar Steward) hat on?

    • Aye John, he was up there – it was that important! But for sure we never saw any msm headline: “Scotland self-sufficient in gas for 30+ years”.

  7. The 10th Feb reports on child abuse and Cameron’s hectoring on tax made me sit up in shock. The bias was so blatant. Glad you picked it up. I sometimes wonder if I’m imagining things.

  8. Great piece John which verifies my rantings at GMS on my journey to and from work. I always note the differences between the morning live pieces and the edited bias highlights which form the headings on my way home. Many a rant has been had!

    The bias has never gone away but is ramping up significantly as we head into another electoral campaign. The piece attacking Education Secretary Angela Constance was a disgrace and an outrage. As you pointed out no SG balance…but don’t let that get in the way of a good bad story.

    I’ll look forward to seeing the response to your letter.

  9. “New Shetland gas fields ‘could supply whole of Scotland'”

    Surprise, surprise, John, this is todays BBC Scotland headline the day after we discussed it. Well done Mike Mackenzie. Nae mention of the price of gas for Scottish consumers though; another example of ‘union’ interception of economic rents awaiting downtrodden Scots.

  10. John thanks for work. I watch, listen, read the so called MSM news with a cautious suspicious mind, but the overall intake of negative SNP or YES associated propaganda is mindboggling over pressured that the relief valve is constantly blowing off. Its reports like this which dissect and reason the cunning to the obvious bias, that kept us all sanely informed.
    Keep up the good work.

  11. Great stuff John. You have enlightened many with your media beady eye. I really enjoy reading your dissection of the news, it makes me feel that I’m not alone when I’m shouting at the TV of an evening. I stopped watching the BBC after the referendum but I’m back again casting my critical eye over the usual suspects. After all, you should always get to know your enemy. Thank you for all you do and keep up the great work. Maybe one day you can oversee a truly unbiased and independent media in an independent Scotland. One can only hope! The

  12. Great stuff John. You have enlightened many with your media beady eye. I really enjoy reading your dissection of the news, it makes me feel that I’m not alone when I’m shouting at the TV of an evening. I stopped watching the BBC after the referendum but I’m back again casting my critical eye over the usual suspects. After all, you should always get to know your enemy. Thank you for all you do and keep up the great work. Maybe one day you can oversee a truly unbiased and independent media in an independent Scotland. One can only hope!

    • Cheers LM thought I doubt it’ll be me somehow. I’m sure you’re far from alone shouting at the TV these days. Have you noticed a difference between the days when Sally and Jackie, respectively, are in the chair? Is it my imagination or is there more bias with Jackie?

  13. John, I cannot tell you how much I value the work you do, and I am sure there will be hundreds of thousands of other people like me who will never get the chance to thank you.

    • Thanks John. Comments like that really keep me up for it. If you’re ever down in Ayr, you can thank me in person with a wee whisky.

  14. West of Shetland oil and gas have provided a little difficulty for some ministers and spinners in Edinburgh. How to play up new oil and gas from Shetland, whilst at the same time trying to justify their support for the hugely unpopular Viking Energy windfarm scheme in the same Shetland isles. The £1bn+ of which will effectively be subsidised by the poorest electricity consumers in the country. Said project has been continuously lobied for in Westminister by one Alistair Charmichel (remember him) and Shetland MSP Tavish Scott (ditto).
    If the SNP had been sensible about this scheme, and not ignored the advice of SNH to refuse planning permission, there would be a different Orkney and Shetland MP in Westminister, and a forgone conclusion for Shetland in May.


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