A week in the life of Reporting Scotland


  By G.A.Ponsonby

This week the Scottish Parliament will look into a study carried out by an academic that suggested the news output of BBC Scotland was biased against independence.

Professor John Robertson’s research suggested evening news output favoured the No campaign by a ratio of three to two, allowed more comment from pro-Union commentators and led with anti-independence stories more than pro-independence stories.

  By G.A.Ponsonby

This week the Scottish Parliament will look into a study carried out by an academic that suggested the news output of BBC Scotland was biased against independence.

Professor John Robertson’s research suggested evening news output favoured the No campaign by a ratio of three to two, allowed more comment from pro-Union commentators and led with anti-independence stories more than pro-independence stories.

The BBC responded to the interim report by attacking the academic, claiming his study lacked credibility.

Given Professor Robertson’s study is to be the focus of Holyrood’s Culture Committee, Newsnet Scotland decided to carry out our own mini-study into Reporting Scotland.  The results are interesting and can be seen below.

In what might be a first for Reporting Scotland, every programme last week had as its main story an item on the independence referendum.  The first interesting fact to emerge was that anti-independence stories outnumbered their pro-independence by … three to two.

Now it should be noted that where there are five referendum items then it follows that a breakdown of three to two is what might be expected.  However our analysis, we believe, highlighted a trend to focus more on anti-independence aspects of news stories than on pro-independence.

Our analysis covered the lead story from each weekday last week …


The clip below shows Monday’s lead item, which followed a speech given by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.


The item itself lasts approximately 3 minutes 10 seconds.  The item hears both the presenter Sally Magnusson and political editor Brian Taylor suggest the speech has put pressure on the No campaign.

The item shows a clip of Nicola Sturgeon who speaks for 20 seconds, she is heard making key points.  It them immediately cuts to Labour MP Anas Sarwar who is seen speaking for a similar amount of time.  Neither politician is questioned.

The item lists the respective stance of each party with the SNP first, followed by the three pro-Union parties.  However it then inexplicably moves away from Scotland and onto Wales before ending with Mr Taylor giving his own view that the pro-Union parties will not agree a unified package before the referendum.

Overall, aside from a brief exchange between the two BBC presenters near the start of the item, there was no sense from any analysis that the No campaign was damaged in any way.  The item was presented more in a manner that explained the current state of affairs, in that the White Paper has been published and the No camp have yet to announce their own alternatives.


The clip below shows Tuesday’s lead item, which previewed a speech to be given by the First Minister.


The item itself lasts approximately 3 minutes 23 seconds.  The item begins with Jackie Bird telling viewers that Alex Salmond will “claim” and “attack”.  The presenter then reads out a quote from the Better Together campaign calling on Mr Salmond to “reveal his plan B on currency”.

In the outside broadcast piece, we hear the London correspondent tell viewers that the First Minister will be “banging the drum for independence”.  The item then focusses on George Osborne’s recent visit to Edinburgh and viewers are told he delivered a “tough message”.  The presenter then lists some soundbites from Mr Salmond’s speech before we see a video of Mr Salmond who talks for 15 seconds.

The item then immediately cuts to Labour MP Margaret Curran who is heard attacking Mr Salmond for for 16 seconds.  There was no analysis that suggested any impact on the No campaign.

There was no other news that day that could have challanged the Deputy First Minister’s speech.  The order of video’s of the respective politicians was Yes followed by No, both were given the same amount of time.


The clip below shows Wednesday’s lead item, which was based around claims from the BBC’s own Robert Peston.


The item itself lasts 3 minutes and 10 seconds.  The item begins with Jackie Bird warning that a vote for independence could result in Lloyds Bank and RBS being “forced to move by law” to London.  The viewer is told that it is the result of a European Directive.

Douglas Fraser warns that “some jobs could move” which would be a “blow to the prestige of Edinburgh’s finance sector”.  The presenter also claims that if they move it could mean “less risk” to Scotland if another bank bailout is required.  Fraser tells viewers that the news “fuels the debate on independence”.

We then hear Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael launch an attack on independence by suggesting people in the finacial sector will be “walking away” and that it will be “bad for jobs”, the clip lasts 16 seconds.  The SNP’s Stewart Hosie immediately responds and highlights what he says is hypocrisy, the clip lasts 17 seconds.

Douglas Fraser then tells viewers that Standard Life is “preparing a move out of Edinburgh” if it is felt necessary.  Fraser then moves away from the bank story and onto currency where we see a clip of Crawford Beveridge making clear his Fiscal Commission’s advice to the Scottish Government is to agree a currency union, the clip of Beveridge lasts for 30 seconds.

The overall tone of the item was vehemently anti-independence.  The initial story from Peston was based on speculation and employed considerable journalistic licence in order to turn it into the dramatic item we saw.

The clip of Crawford Beveridge giving evidence to a Holyrood committee appeared disjointed and clumsily appended onto the Peston story.  The clip was also arguably very weak with far more newsworthy video clips from both Mr Beveridge and former Chief Economic Adviser to Standard Life, Professor David Simpson available.

Professor Simpson’s comments to the same committee at which Mr Beveridge appeared were particularly newsworthy given his connections to Standard Life – a company referenced in the item by Mr Fraser.  Fraser’s claim that Standard Life is “preparing a move out of Edinburgh” was false.  The company has suggested it may move part of its business out of Scotland.

The Peston story overshadowed the more important and indeed relevant story which was the appearance of Crawford Beveridge and Professor David Simpson.  Currency has dominated BBC Scotland’s news over the last few weeks and here was an opportunity for viewers to hear a counter narrative.

The effect of this editorial decision, to allow a manufactured report from Robert Peston to dominate the evening’s news, was that that day’s constitutional news on currency was suppressed.  Instead a highly speculative and melodramatic report which was damaging to the Yes campaign was presented as the main Scottish story, despite having been broadcast on the UK national news less than half an hour earlier.


The clip below was the lead item from Thursday, which lasts for 4 minutes 43 seconds and which was based on a statement from the boss of Shell who said he wanted Scotland to “stay part of the UK” because he valued “stability and certainty”.


Sally Magnusson introduced the item and immediately followed Mr Van Beuren’s remarks with a response from the Scottish Government who said independence would lead to an “attractive and stable” environment.

This time it is Glenn Campbell who covers the item in an outside broadcast.  He repeats what viewers have already been told that the Shell has boss wants Scotland to remain part of the UK.  However Campbell also reveals that Van Beurden has also expressed concerns about the UK’s membership of the EU.

The item then cuts to Conservative MSP Gavin Brown who is followed by SNP MSP Fergus Ewing where both men are allowed a similar amount of time to make their point.

The item returns to the studio where BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor Douglas Fraser gives his analysis, telling Sally Magnusson the oil and gas sector is “very important for the independence cause”.  The comment coming from Shell, he says “clearly doesn’t help their cause”.

The issue of the EU is remarked on but there is no suggestion from Mr Fraser that this is just as damaging to the No campaign.  Asked why businesses are “coming out”, Fraser tells his colleague that it is because there is a “gulf” between the Scottish Government and the UK Government over who has control of the pound.  Four businesses are listed as having concerns about independence with two being positive.  Viewers are told that “most support” for independence comes from small businesses.

Fraser ends by urging people to look out for Alliance Trust, which he says will be publishing its own report the next day.

This item was clearly styled in a manner that was beneficial to the No campaign.  The thrust of the report focussed almost entirely on the wish from Shell’s boss that Scotland remains in the UK.  The initial introduction from Sally Magnusson made no mention of the concerns over UK EU membership.  This served to set a pro-Union tone with only the Scottish Government portrayed in defensive mode.

Glenn Campbell’s report was balanced and gave equal prominence to both comments from Mr Van Beurden.  However back in the studio there was no mention of how damaging his EU comment was to the No campaign.

The claim by Douglas Fraser that it is most support for independence comes from small companies is made with no reference to evidence.  The possibility that businesses may support Yes but simply not saying is not considered, nor is the possibility that some businesses are expressing concern because of the political leanings of their CEOs [Standard Life, Aggreko] or pressure from the UK Government [RBS, Lloyds].

It should also be noted that this was the second time that Douglas Fraser cited Standard Life.


The clip below was the lead item on Friday’s Reporting Scotland and followed a speech by UK Treasury Minister Danny Alexander – the item lasted 4 minutes 34 seconds.


Jackie Bird introduced the report by claiming that the issue of pensions was “one of the most important matters for voters” in the referendum.

Viewers are told that the UK Treasury has claimed that independence will create “huge problems” for pensions in Scotland.  Viewers are also immediately told that EU changes could make pensions “cheaper to run” if across one member state.

The item soon cuts to Danny Alexander who is heard for just over 20 seconds making a series of claims on the effects on pensions of independence.  The reporter tells viewers that pensions “will cost more” but that things “might be about to change”.  A clip of a pensions expert follows where he confirms the EU rule is set to change.

John Swinney follows and welcomes the expected shift from the EU.  However Mr Swinney’s comment appears to be cut short and we do not hear his full response.

The BBC reporter immediately tells viewers that pensions experts have said “there are more hurdles to overcome”, Colletta Smith then signs off and we return to the studio where Douglas Fraser is once again providing analysis.

Despite the item being about Danny Alexander’s attack on the affordability of pensions, Fraser is asked by Jackie Bird about “businesses having their say”.  Fraser immediately starts to tell viewers about Alliance Trust in Dundee which has that day issued a statement announcing it has registered companies in England as a contingency following a Yes vote.

Fraser, for the third time in succession, reminds viewers about Standard Life.  Fraser then cites a London based company Citybank who themselves issued a report that was widely interpreted as being damaging to the yes campaign.

Incredibly, there is absolutely no analysis whatsoever of the main news item which was pensions.

This was a bizarre item that started off on pensions and ended up replaying the previous evening’s news.  The probable EU shift on cross border pensions was damaging to Danny Alexnder who, as a UK Treasury Minister, ought to have been aware of the plans.  As such it was a blunder and very newsworthy.

That Douglas Fraser opted to ignore the gaff and instead move away from pensions completely in order to re-run the previous evening’s anti-independence narrative from some businesses was telling.

The week demonstrated more than a simple three-to-two in favour of the No campaign as far as lead stories were concerned, it provided an insight into how BBC Scotland reacts to real news events (EU pension change) and expert opinion (Crawford Beveridge and Prof. David Simpson) that favour the Yes campaign.

Both of these pro-Yes news items were played down.  The only news stories, favouring Yes, to receive unhindered coverage were speeches from the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister.

When statements are made that suggest difficulty for both camps, as in the statement from the boss of Shell who stated his desire for Scotland to remain within the UK but also raised his concern regarding the UK’s position in Europe, it was the pro-Union statement that set the narrative.

Reporters were guilty of making claims with no evidence whatsoever, such as Douglas Fraser’s claim that it’s mostly small businesses that support independence.  Colletta Smith’s equally evidence free claim that pension experts see “more hurdles” with independence ignored the fact that experts have already highlighted the problems with pensions that exist already and that may get worse if Scots vote no.

Comments from politicians are broadcast with no scrutiny or analysis, and thus the viewer is left to work out what is credible and what is nonsense.

Finally, despite the broadcasts themselves suggesting a narrow three to two in favour of the No campaign, the amount of time allocated showed 6 mins 33 seconds was given to pro-independence stories but almost double that, 12 mins 26 seconds, was given to anti-independence stories.