By Anne-Marie O’Donnell
The academic behind a 12-month study that revealed an imbalance in mainstream broadcast reporting of the independence referendum has spoken of receiving a “very stern” email from a BBC policy officer after his findings were published.
Dr John Robertson, an academic at the University of the West of Scotland, appeared on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio programme on Saturday morning and was questioned over the methodology of his study after it suggested TV news coverage of the independence referendum was favouring the No campaign.
In response to questions from BBC presenter Bill Whiteford, Dr Robertson said: “Some people have reacted to this very negatively including one of your policy officers who sent me a very stern and very quick email.”
The email was sent by BBC Scotland Head of Public Policy & Corporate Affairs Ian Small and was also sent to Dr Robertson’s superior at the University of the West of Scotland. In the communication, reproduced below by Newsnet Scotland, the BBC official calls into question the credibility of the survey, saying the BBC has “serious concerns with the methodology applied” as well as the “factual accuracy” of the report’s conclusions.
Mr Small wrote:
Dear Dr Robertson
I read with interest your report on BBC and STV news output, relative to the reporting of the Scottish referendum campaign. On the basis of the document, as published by the University of the West of Scotland (http://issuu.com/creative_futur/docs/robertson2014fairnessinthefirstyear), we have a number of serious concerns with the methodology applied, with the factual accuracy of a significant number of the contentions contained within the report and with the language used in the report itself.
As it stands, many of the conclusions you draw are, on the evidence you provide, unsubstantiated and/or of questionable legitimacy. The BBC, as outlined within its Editorial Guidelines, is committed to accurate and impartial reporting, a commitment that lies at the heart of the public service we offer to audiences.
The independence referendum is the most important constitutional issue of recent times and our duty to provide fair and balanced reporting of that referendum is paramount. Based on what you have published, your report offers a highly subjective and questionable analysis of our news output.
Can I ask if you intend to publish the data to which you refer in the report, given that the report itself contains no footnotes or appendices to allow further analysis or consideration? Or, failing that, would you supply the data to us to allow assessment of the information which has underpinned your findings? I await your response.
Addressing suggestions that the study was biased, Dr Robertson said:
“I think one of the problems is the feeling that there’s subjectivity in the coding. In this case when Alex Salmond says something I tend to feel fairly happy I can put that in the pro-independence position, and when Johann Lamont says something I feel happy to code that [in the anti-independence position].
“In my first wave of coding I put items into the three categories. If I was unsure about it it went into the general descriptive one. I then did a second run and on my second I put more into general descriptive.
“The first phase came up with a slightly more negative view of BBC and ITV coverage. My second phase softened it and then I had samples looked at by post-grad students, recently retired colleagues and by a PhD student I’m working with, and they all pushed me back towards the more extreme one.”
Dr Robertson added that he had not been surprised at the lack of media coverage of his report, which All Media Scotland noted had only been picked up by Joan McAlpine in her Daily Record column and Newsnet Scotland – and said he could understand why broadcasters would find a report highlighting imbalance “upsetting”.
During the interview, presenter Bill Whiteford put it to Dr Robertson that the job of media outlets was to report news and that often meant giving coverage to visits of pro-union government ministers, therefore creating an imbalance outwith the media’s control.
However, Dr Robertson countered that even with that considered, the anger of pro-independence campaigners following his study was still valid.
Referring to a recent visit from UK Government Minister William Hague, the academic said: “If you were to imagine yourself in the Yes campaign you would still think there was scope for editorial decision making there about how much time to give to him or how to present him and the extent to which you allow equivalent time for another commentator,”.
The academic also suggested broadcasters themselves should be monitoring their own news output to ensure impartiality.
He added: “I think what’s necessary is a set of criteria they [the BBC] have themselves for monitoring and maybe employing someone impartial who would… say to editors the balance is shifting here.”
Dr Robertson’s investigation into media coverage of the pro-union and pro-independence arguments over a period of 12 months found that there was an overall ratio of 3:2 leaning towards coverage of the unionist case.
Reporting Scotland on the BBC was considered to have shown 262 news items that were favourable for the No campaign but just 171 favourable for the Yes campaign. The numbers for the STV evening news programme were 255 to 172 respectively.
The study also found that ‘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.
Furthermore, the study showed that 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.