BBC Scotland Chiefs defiant after ‘news bias’ study scrutinised by Holyrood Committee

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  By a Newsnet reporter
 
Bosses at BBC Scotland have defended the station’s coverage of the independence referendum after they appeared in front of a Holyrood committee to face questions from MSPs.
 
BBC Scotland Head Ken McQuarrie rejected the conclusions of an academic study that found the broadcaster had been biased against independence in its evening news reports.

Appearing alongside head of News and Current Affairs John Boothman, Mr MacQuarrie launched a scathing attack on the academic integrity of Professor John Robertson, who had carried out the study.

In an earlier session Professor Robertson had explained how he had been taken aback by the reaction by BBC chiefs to his study which had covered early evening news from the BBC and STV.

In a dramatic opening statement, the academic condemned BBC Scotland for suppressing his research and for “circulating an insulting and ill-informed critique” of his study, he said “Directly to my Principal, bypassing my Head of School, my Dean”.  Professor Robertson also condemned what he said was, “the silence and collusion of almost all of Scotland’s main stream media” in what he described as the “disappearing of my research”. 

The academic also criticised other academics with an interest in the field, for failing to challenge “censorship of intellectual material”.  He categorised the response from the establishment as “an attempt at thought control in a democracy”.

Professor Robertson’s report was revealed by Newsnet Scotland in January this year and resulted in widespread interest on social media.  The research, which covered the period from September 2012 to September 2013, took in over 600 hours of early evening TV news coverage, broadcast by the BBC and STV.  The results revealed the No campaign benefited by a ratio of 3:2.

According to the report, the simple numerical preponderance of anti-independence statements over pro-independence statements on Reporting Scotland and STV News, was clear.

The study revealed:

  • Reporting Scotland broadcast 272 news items deemed favourable to the No campaign against only 171 favourable to Yes.  STV was only marginally less biased with the 255 for No and 172 for Yes.
  • Statements which made use of academic, scientific or ‘independent’ evidence favoured the No campaign by 22 to 4 on BBC Scotland and by 20 to 7 on STV.
  • Personalising independence arguments as being the wishes of Alex Salmond appeared 35 times on BBC and 34 times on ITV with no such personalisation of any of the No campaign’s arguments.
  • Broadcasts containing language that was considered insulting to independence campaigners occurred on 18 times on both BBC Scotland and STV but language interpreted as insulting to pro-Union campaigners appeared only 3 times on each broadcaster’s news reports.
  • Finishing a broadcast item with anti-independence claims which were unchallenged happened 28 times on BBC Scotland and 34 times on STV whilst ending items with unchallenged pro-independence claims occurred only 8 times and 17 times respectively.

Commenting at the time, on the over representation of anti-independence news items, Professor, then Dr, Robertson had said: “One obvious explanation lies in the editorial decision to allow all three anti-independence parties to respond to each SNP statement creating an unavoidable predominance of statements from the former even when these were kept short.”

The study found that many broadcasts focussed heavily on economic matters with Trident, Energy and Financial Institutions cited as examples.

However, appearing before Holyrood’s Culture Committee after Professor Robertson, Head of BBC Scotland Ken MacQuarrie challenged the findings of the report.

“The report does make a number of allegations about our news coverage… we completely reject those allegations as we do the questioning of our journalists in terms of both their professionalism and what they’ve brought to air.” He told MSPs.

He added: “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.”

On the email sent to Professor Robertson and the Principal of the University, which the academic described as intimidating and insulting, McQuarrie said: “The content and the tone of our communication was also entirely proper”.

However pressed by Committee Chair Stewart Maxwell, the BBC Boss was forced to concede that the study was the first to be scrutinised in this manner by the broadcaster.  It also emerged that five trainee journalists recruited by BBC Scotland to help with referendum coverage, had been tasked with scrutinising the academic’s work.

The appearance in front of the committee by BBC Scotland Chiefs follows growing concern over the way broadcasters are handling the independence debate. 

Writing in the Scottish Review last week, commentator Gerry Hassan slammed the poor quality from both the BBC and STV.

On the poor quality coverage, Hassan wrote: “The answer is the senior management of BBC and STV who have both failed to invest and nurture in the talent, imagination and drive in their stations over the last decade plus.

“It is BBC and STV managements who are responsible for the calamitous choice of formats on the referendum, consistently opting for unimaginative, adversarial, rhetorically empty exchanges which put politicians and partisanship first and foremost. This is a product of the absence of a culture and practice of programmes which put the public first, in the studio, and which takes risks with formats and styles.”

In January the BBC Trust announced it had found BBC Scotland guilty of having misled viewers after an item on Reporting Scotland which covered the EU membership of a newly independent Scotland, misrepresented the views of a Foreign Official.  Despite the broadcast having happened fourteen months ago, management at Pacific Quay have yet to apologise.

Reporter Raymond Buchanan resigned from BBC Scotland days before the BBC Trust confirmed it would be investigating his report.