BBC Trust rejects more complaints of indyref news “bias”

Cartoon: Bradley & Higgins

By a Reporter

The BBC Trust has rejected a tranche of appeals against BBC News for its coverage of Scottish affairs during last year’s referendum.

In a ruling published this week, a private individual complainant has been told by the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) that an earlier ruling against her complaints has been upheld.

The ruling is the second of its kind this month. The Trust also rejected a complaint – by a former Newsnet Scotland team member – about a key intervention on health coverage in the last few days of the referendum campaign.

Nick Robinson
Nick Robinson

The original complaint in the latest ruling concerned BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson’s reporting of a speech by then First Minister Alex Salmond last September 11, which the complainant considered to be inaccurate and demonstrated bias. At a later stage the same complainant stated that the report had been one of “numerous examples media bias from the BBC’s coverage of the referendum”.

After early exchanges with BBC News in London, the complainant listed a series of complaints to the BBC Trust relating to specific issues. This was because the ESC had advised that it could consider only specific instances rather than a general critique of news coverage.


Complaints included allegations that:

A. The BBC had failed to report that the so-called “Vow” made by Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders was in breach of the “purdah” period set out in the “Edinburgh Agreement” between both governments prior to the referendum campaign;

B. The BBC chose not to suspend its membership of the CBI, which demonstrated a pro-unionist stance.

C. The BBC failed to cover the Scottish First Minister’s speech in Brussels in the run-up to the referendum.

D. When protests about the BBC’s coverage took place outside the BBC’s Pacific Quay building in Glasgow, the BBC at first reported that 300 protestors were present and then updated the figure to over 1,000 when other news agencies reported that number; also the picture used to illustrate the story was of the crowd dispersing.

E. The complainant stated that the reporting of “oil issues” in Scotland showed bias.

F. The BBC had supported an “erroneous tendency to back up the view that England subsidises Scotland”.

G. The BBC had failed to investigate or question claims made by Gordon Brown as to whether (i) cross-border co-operation of organ transplants and blood transfusions would be endangered by independence (ii) independence “would mean the loss of pensions”.

H. The BBC did not report a study by the University of the West of Scotland of the news output of BBC Scotland.

I. The BBC failed to accurately report the riots in George Square, Glasgow after the referendum result.

J. BBC coverage of UKIP was disproportionately high, compared to the SNP, when one considered the membership of each party.


The Trust ruled that it could not deliberate on points B, F, G and J on a technicality to do with the complaints procedure.

On complaint A the BBC ruled that purdah had not been broken because the “Vow” was made by the political parties rather than by government, and that purdah exists to prevent government from spending money to influence opinion during a campaign.

BBC_Scotland_corporate_logo.svgOn complaint D regarding the Pacific Quay protest coverage, it was concluded that “Trustees would be likely to consider that the BBC had reported the protest accurately and impartially and that the complainant had raised no evidence of a breach of the BBC’s guidelines”.

A similar conclusion was reached on complaint E concerning coverage of the oil issue, including the position of Sir Ian Wood regarding future oil reserves, the conflicting claims of the two sides of the referendum debate, and the rumours of a major discovery west of Shetland made last August.

The lengthy adjudication, made by an adviser to the BBC Trust, rejects each complaint that was judged worthy of consideration.

This includes a claim by the Adviser that the BBC gave fair coverage to the report into bias produced by Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland, whose publication provoked an angry reaction from BBC Scotland and led to the Professor and senior figures in BBC Scotland being called to give evidence to a Holyrood committee.

Professor Robertson recently became a regular contributor to, monitoring evening TV news coverage of Scottish politics in the run-up to this year’s UK general election.

The decision is likely to infuriate former Yes campaigners, who point to a series of incidents of alleged bias as part of an overall campaign conducted by BBC News in London and within BBC Scotland.

The position of the BBC continues to remain a contentious issue within Scottish politics, and especially its role in covering the constitutional debate and its ancillary issues including oil, Westminster funding and the question of increasing powers for the Scottish Parliament.


The Daily Record’s coverage of “The Vow” was criticised by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – the new UK press watchdog – a few days ago. The Record claimed in a report headed “The Vow Delivered”, that Holyrood’s income was going to double as a result of the Smith Commission proposals. The Record said its inaccurate report was based on a briefing by someone close to the workings of the Smith Commission, and it offered a correction to its online version.

However, the watchdog concluded that “as a consequence of the inaccuracy, the article significantly misrepresented the fiscal consequences of the Smith Commission’s recommendations. The article was therefore significantly inaccurate in a manner that required correction”, and that a more prominent correction should be published by the Labour-leaning title.