By Anne-Marie O’Donnell
An academic from the University of the West of Scotland, Professor John Robertson, has accused the BBC of bullying after he carried out research which highlighted an apparent bias in favour of the No campaign in coverage of the Scottish independence referendum.
Professor Robertson told how senior BBC Scotland figures reported him to senior staff at the university after the research was published, and how the broadcaster’s head of policy and corporate affairs wrote to his employer in “aggressive terms”.
In an opinion piece for The Drum, the academic also called for and end to the ‘media collusion’ he claimed was preventing his research being widely reported.
“When I published academic research at the beginning of the year examining the impartiality of broadcast news reporting ahead of the Scottish independence referendum, I didn’t expect one of the subjects of my report – BBC Scotland, no less – to take such a strong reaction to the findings.
“Senior BBC figures reported me to senior staff at my university and colleagues of mine were even warned to ‘stay away’ from me. I see this as a clear form of bullying by a powerful corporation. The great crime I’d committed was in publishing the results of a study which indicated that BBC Scotland’s coverage of the Scottish independence referendum between September 2012 and September 2013 noticeably favoured the No campaign.
“One email I hadn’t been expecting came directly from BBC Scotland’s head of policy and corporate affairs on 21 January 2014. He expressed serious concerns about the methodology, accuracy and language used in the report, and felt so strongly that he by-passed my head of school and dean of faculty and went straight to the university principal.”
He added: “What triggered the head of policy and corporate affairs to write in such aggressive terms and to report me to my own employer over an academic study has never been explained to me, but needless to say I have received full support at all levels on my academic right to ask questions of power.”
The article comes days after a protest was held outside BBC Scotland’s Glasgow headquarters over claims of anti-independence bias, and Professor Robertson – who spoke at the demonstration – said BBC Scotland’s heavy-handed response to his research had heightened public concern about the broadcaster’s impartiality.
“The BBC’s contradictory behaviour has helped fuel the eruption of protests outside BBC Scotland’s Glasgow headquarters, but whether public distrust is enough to force the introduction of balance checks in time for the independence referendum remains to be seen,” he wrote.
“With only months to go until the independence referendum, the BBC clearly needs a system of monitoring and balancing its content to limit the admittedly unavoidable intrusion of bias to a minimum.
“It is worrying that research of this kind is required in a democracy, and it is similarly worrying that this report has been largely ignored by the BBC and mainstream media.”
Professor Robertson added that the failure of any media in Scotland to seriously address the issues raised in the report was a concerning development.
“I fear we have witnessed the collusion of broadsheet, radio and TV journalists in their refusal to criticise each other’s ethical behaviour. Until this point, I naively though Scotland was rather more equipped to expose elite collusions,” he wrote.
Professor Robertson’s research found that in the space of a year BBC Scotland broadcast 272 news items deemed favourable for the Better Together campaign, while only 171 were favourable to Yes. It also found that statements using academic, scientific or independent evidence favoured the No campaign 22 times against just four for the Yes campaign.