BBC publishes reporting guidelines for independence referendum


  By Chris Rumbles
The BBC is to provide its journalists with specific guidelines to adhere to in covering the Scottish independence referendum.
All of the BBC’s output will be expected to meet the criteria, which has been approved by the BBC Trust, during the 16 weeks leading up to September 18.

Included in the 13-page rulebook is a set of ‘Mandatory Issues’ that detail, among other things, that the BBC’s Chief Adviser in Politics, Ric Bailey, must give approval to interviews, polling and, in some cases, content before they are produced and broadcast.

Other mandatory issues are not running voter intent polls during the 16 week period and not focusing on referendum issues on polling day.

The ‘Referendum Guidelines’ are freely available to view on the BBC website and in the document it is said the corporation ‘can expect to be held to account for their implementation during the campaign’.  In October 2013 the BBC Trust issued a call for public submissions on how the organisation should report on the referendum.

On the subject of attaining ‘broad balance’ the guidelines state: “Due impartiality is not necessarily achieved by the application of a simple mathematical formula or a stopwatch, but the objective-in a referendum with two alternatives-must be to achieve proper balance between the two sides.

“However, referendums are seldom fought purely on the basis of just two opposing standpoints-on each side, where there is a range of views or perspectives, that should be reflected appropriately during the campaign.”

Achieving a broad balance in media coverage of the independence campaign has been a major issue already this year.  The publication of University of the West of Scotland Media Professor John Robertson’s study on the first year of BBC and STV coverage of the referendum, resulted in the BBC sending what Prof Robertson described as ‘insulting’ emails to the UWS principal.

Entitled ‘Fairness in the First Year’, Prof Roberston’s analysis of 620 hours of news coverage across the BBC and STV from September 2012-September 2013 led to the conclusion that both broadcasters ‘feature a preponderance of anti-independence statements’.  Prof Robertson did, however, find that the BBC’s coverage was slightly more imbalanced in favour of the ‘No’ campaign by a ratio of 3:2.

Prof Robertson appeared as a witness on Tuesday’s meeting of the Education and Culture Committee at the Scottish Parliament to take evidence on broadcasting in Scotland along with representatives from BBC Scotland.

During the meeting the academic, who said he was supportive of Scottish independence but was not a nationalist, condemned the behaviour of the BBC who, he said, had suppressed the dissemination of his research.  In his opening statement Prof Robertson also criticised the silence of almost all Scotland’s mainstream media and academics on his research saying that together it was tantamount to ‘thought-control in a democracy’.

One of the most important findings of the research, according to Prof Robertson, was the prevalence of ‘bad-news’:

“They (audience) are much more likely to believe bad-news stories, so beginning with bad-news stories about the economy, job losses and so on has a disproportionate influence.

“There was a tendency for ‘Reporting Scotland’ especially to begin with bad-news stories more often than other channels.”

Among BBC Scotland’s four representatives at the committee meeting was Director of BBC Scotland Ken MacQuarrie who rejected the findings of Prof Robertson’s research.

He said: “The evidence it presents does not support the contentions it makes.  Its conclusions are based largely on flawed analysis or occasionally intuitive guesswork.  It is not a piece of analysis based on empirical research, as it claims to be, but rather a highly subjective and selective assessment of our news coverage.”

Commenting on the broadcaster’s handling of the referendum, former BBC presenter and now blogger Derek Bateman has said the ‘bias row’ would leave a ‘taint’ over BBC Scotland’s reputation.

On the around 50 members of temporary BBC Scotland staff who are running the organisation’s referendum unit, Mr Bateman wrote of current staff views on management at BBC Scotland: “They know who cut the budgets and sacked their colleagues and damaged morale and made quality journalism that much harder.

“In sport it’s called losing the dressing-room.”

The broadcaster is coming under increasing pressure in Scotland over what many believe is an institutional bias in favour of the Union, and against independence.  In January this year BBC Scotland was found to have misled viewers on the issue of Scotland’s EU membership after a Yes vote when a Reporting Scotland item misrepresented the views of Ireland’s then European Minister Lucinda Creighton.

The BBC Trust found the item, broadcast over a year ago, had breached editorial guidelines on accuracy.  Despite the reporter responsible for the broadcast – Raymond Buchanan – resigning from the corporation, there has been no apology or acknowledgement issued by BBC Scotland management.

This week both Professor John Robertson and BBC Scotland management appeared before Holyrood’s Culture Committee to give evidence on news coverage of the independence referendum.

Professor John Robertson gives evidence

BBC Scotland management defend the corporation