Academic study reveals Good Morning Scotland favouring No campaign

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By a Newsnet reporter

Results from an academic study into referendum output on the BBC’s flagship morning news programme Good Morning Scotland has revealed news headlines and interviews skewed in favour of the No campaign.

According to the month long study, referendum coverage was more likely to lead with a story favouring the No campaign than one favouring Yes.  The study also found a tendency on the part of interviewers to adopt a more aggressive stance with Yes figures than when interviewing their No campaign counterparts.

By a Newsnet reporter

Results from an academic study into referendum output on the BBC’s flagship morning news programme Good Morning Scotland has revealed news headlines and interviews skewed in favour of the No campaign.

According to the month long study, referendum coverage was more likely to lead with a story favouring the No campaign than one favouring Yes.  The study also found a tendency on the part of interviewers to adopt a more aggressive stance with Yes figures than when interviewing their No campaign counterparts.

The research, which was carried out on behalf of Newsnet Scotland by Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland, covered one month’s output from BBC Scotland’s morning radio programme Good Morning Scotland.

Key findings of the study included:

  • Broadcasts were balanced, in crude numerical terms, but, in every other respect, unfair to the Yes campaign and favouring the Better Together campaign.
  • Broadcasts began too often with bad news for Yes and, too often, featured heavy repetition of such messages over several hours in a manner conducive to unconscious absorption of warnings.
  • Statements, from the Yes perspective, were often reactive while those favouring BT were commonly initiating.
  • Interviewers tended, too often, to adopt aggressive techniques with Yes supporters while only doing so on two occasions with BT supporters.
    There was a selection and use of expert witness of dubious credibility and of evidence from partisan sources, the broadcasts were clearly unfair to the Yes campaign.

The new study followed a similar study carried out over a year which found similar levels of imbalance on the BBC’s flagship TV news programme, Reporting Scotland.  Also carried out by Professor Robertson, it found news items on the referendum benefited the anti-independence campaign by a ratio of 2 to 1.

In his reporting based on the study findings, the academic said: “When broadcasts begin too often with bad news for one side this is unfair.  Where one side commonly leads off while the other has to react, this is unfair.  Where bad news is repeated with high frequency in one broadcast, this is unfair.”

On the tendency of some interviewers to adopt a more aggressive stance when interviewing representatives from the Yes campaign, he added: 
“Where interviewers are not consistent in their approaches regarding tone, difficulty or tendency to interrupt, this is unfair.  Where witnesses of clear bias or incompetence or where evidence of dubious validity are used to support one side consistently against the other, this is unfair, unprofessional and perhaps corrupt.”

The study broke referendum related coverage down into specific categories such as good news for No/Yes, bad news for No/Yes, interview interruptions and credibility of evidence backing up claims.

It revealed that during the month long study, news bulletins that were perceived to have been negative about Yes occurred on 376 occasions, whilst there was only 147 damaging news about No.

However it found far more positive statements about Yes (306) than No (70).  There were also more responses from Yes (283) compared to responses from No (176).

Collating these figures, Yes could be said to have had 736 statements in its favour compared to 622 for no.  However Professor Robertson cautioned against assuming this meant more favourable coverage to the Yes campaign.

Highlighting the clear advantage to the No campaign in leading news bulletins he said: “If we add positive statements about Yes to responses from Yes plus negatives about No (736) and compare this total to the total of positive statements about BT and responses from BT plus negatives about no (622) we get a ratio favouring the Yes campaign by 7:6.

“However, this crude measure ignores the fact that many of the positive statements about Yes were reactive and made in response to the quite large number of opening, negative, statements about the Yes campaign (376) while opening negative statements about BT were much fewer (147).

“So, we have a situation where statements favouring Yes are numerous but commonly reactive and overshadowed at times by large numbers of negative statements about Yes positioned ahead of the former.”

Away from the news items and statements from the respective camps, the study also found evidence of a marked difference when interviewing each side in the campaign.

The study found interviewers tended to adopt a more aggressive manner when interviewing Yes figures than with No.  There was also a significant increase in the number of interruptions, or attempted interruptions, with Yes interviewees than with their No counterparts.

“A further piece of evidence emerging from these broadcast transcripts which seems clearly to favour BT was the tendency of interviewers and interviewees to interrupt, almost interrupt and to cut in quickly to break flow of statements in support of the Yes campaign. The totals give a ratio of almost exactly 3:1 in favour of BT.”

Citing examples of two interview with Nicola Sturgeon conducted by James Naughtie and Gary Robertson, the academic wrote:

“The most marked case of aggressive interviewing was James Naughtie’s interview of DFM Nicola Sturgeon on 24th, on the subject of pensions and welfare in post-independent Scotland, where Naughtie made seven full interruptions and one failed interruption while Sturgeon attempted only two later in the interview.

“At one point Naughtie delivered four interruptions in close sequence, two questions which flirted with offense rather than professional challenge and a concluding comment which flirted with patronising dismissal.

“Interestingly, Sturgeon’s earlier interview (8th April) with Gary Robertson, responding to George Robertson’s speech on Scotland and NATO, was marked by quite aggressive interviewing too with eight interrupts, attempts or cut-ins for two by Sturgeon.

“The contrast with Naughtie’s very passive interview of former NATO chief Lord George Robertson, also on the 8th, was marked.

“Lord Robertson’s doom-laden predictions were met with no interrupts or quick cut-ins and only the most polite of suggestions that the former’s language was a bit over-the-top.  The former’s batting aside of this suggestion and further dramatic claims attracted only a quiet thank you from Naughtie who had travelled to the US for this.”

“Naughtie was to repeat this approach interviewing former (1960/80’s) Pentagon adviser on nuclear weapons strategy, Frank Miller (p32 transcripts file), on April 11th, where the latter’s commitment to mutually assured destruction (MAD) and 1960s cold warrior tough-talking was not challenged at all.”

The academic added: “The repeated treatment of Sturgeon with multiple interruptions and irritable tones is notable and worthy of reflection. No accusation of deliberate discriminatory practice is suggested but this form of aggressive interviewing directed at a confident and articulate woman and not matched with male equivalents such as Lord Robertson or the former Pentagon advisor is unsettling.”

The report cited other examples where BBC interviewers failed to make even the most basic challenges to assertions from pro-Union figures.  On the contrary, said Professor Robertson, questions at times appeared to be leading the interviewee in an attempt to “draw more negative information”.

Figures identified with the No campaign were regularly allowed to make lengthy statements without interruption.

Professor Robertson said: “If you add the seven tough interviews of Yes supporters, or evidence-givers, to the four soft interviews of BT supporters and compare these with the two tough interviews of BT supporters you get a 10:2 ratio, which can only be interpreted as a manifestation of some form of underlying bias.”

The academic concluded: “Looking now at the evidence from this study of good Morning Scotland in April 2014, it seems reasonable to conclude that these broadcasts were balanced, in crude numerical terms, but, in every other respect, unfair to the Yes campaign and favouring the Better Together campaign.

“Broadcasts began too often with bad news for Yes and, too often, featured heavy repetition of such messages over several hours in a manner conducive to unconscious absorption of warnings.  Interviewers tended, too often, to adopt aggressive techniques with Yes supporters while only doing so on two occasions with BT supporters.

“Finally, in the selection and use of expert witness and evidence of dubious credibility and of evidence from partisan sources, the broadcasts were clearly unfair to the Yes campaign.

“The BBC clearly needs a system of monitoring and balancing of its content to limit the admittedly unavoidable intrusions of bias, to a minimum. It is wrong that research of the kind reported here and earlier, regarding issues of such importance, is required in a full democracy.”