Broadcasters favouring No campaign according to new academic study


  By a Newsnet reporter
A year-long academic study carried out by researchers at a Scottish university has revealed that both the BBC and STV have been favouring the No campaign in their TV news coverage of the independence referendum.
The study, carried out by researchers at the University of the West of Scotland, found that an overwhelming number of news items were styled in a manner the research team concluded was favourable to the anti-independence campaign.

The research, which covered the period from September 2012 to September 2013, took in 730 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 a report written by Dr John Robertson who headed the team, 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 on the over representation of anti-independence news items, writing in his report, Dr Robertson 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.

Health-related matters were the other dominant theme according to the report which highlighted a lack of balance:

“For example, on 27/9/12 the case of a Scottish patient seeking free cancer drug treatment only available in England was highlighted and linked to the relative lack of GP control in Scotland.  This began a mini-series of reports on alleged failings in the Scottish NHS by Reporting Scotland reporters and by Labour spokespersons.  No balancing cases were reported of a flow in the other direction although such did appear in the popular press.” the report said.

The report also noted the tendency of broadcasters to omit the links to UK Government of some organisations and groups whereas in cases where groups had links to the Scottish Government, the links were made clear.

“The use of evidence from sources other than the parties themselves and which might be presented as ‘independent’, ‘academic’ or ‘scientific’ is a measure of quality in political debate.

“Notably, there was very little use of such evidence in the reporting overall and, where there was, there was clear tendency to use anti-independence over pro-independence evidence.  

“Though a rare phenomenon overall, reporting tended to link pro-independence evidence from Scottish Government sponsored committees to their sponsorship while UK advisory groups such as the Office for Budget Responsibility, The Institute for Fiscal Studies and several Parliamentary, Treasury, or House of Lords committees were typically treated as independent despite linkages to UK government and other government departments or units with a vested interest in the union.

“Indeed the IFS was referred to as a ‘well-respected think tank’ (Reporting Scotland, 19/11/12) whereas a Glasgow University academic was ‘outed’ as having been ‘bought’ by the SNP to support the independence case (Reporting Scotland, 21/8/13).

On the tendency to personalise the case for independence using Alex Salmond, the report said:

“Personalisation of political issues is long-established strategy to weaken arguments, shifting focus from collective reasoning or shared values to supposed personal desires and personality traits.  Historically, this tendency or strategy has been used to demonise and to undermine numerous political figures in the UK including Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.”

Dr Robertson added: “Comparing Reporting Scotland with STV News, the former seems less balanced and fair to the Yes campaign if only in the tendency to give pro-independence statements a greater frequency of opening and closing debates.  Overall, however, both feature a preponderance of anti-independence statements, a majority of anti-independence evidence and a heavy personalisation of the debate around the character of Alex Salmond with the latter often portrayed as selfish and undemocratic.”

The report concluded: “So, on the objective evidence presented here, the mainstream TV coverage of the first year of the independence referendum campaigns has not been fair or balanced.  Taken together, we have evidence of coverage which seems likely to have damaged the Yes campaign.”

The study results will prove embarrassing for BBC Scotland and comes only days after the corporation was found to have misled viewers over a broadcast item on Reporting Scotland.

Following an investigation into a news report that appeared on Reporting Scotland last year, the BBC Trust found BBC Scotland guilty of having broken editorial guidelines on accuracy after the news item suggested Irish Minister Lucinda Creighton believed a newly independent Scotland would lose its EU membership.

Ms Creighton subsequently denied having made any such suggestion.  There was further anger when BBC Scotland employed a news blackout of the Irish Minister’s claims that her words had been “misconstrued” and “misrepresented”.

The reporter responsible for the erroneous broadcast, Raymond Buchanan, resigned from BBC Scotland days before the Trust confirmed it would investigate the matter.

Both the academic study and the ruling by the BBC Trust will be seen as vindication by many independence supporters who have long believed that some at the BBC, at least in Scotland, are working to an anti-independence agenda.

Although not as bad an offender according to the study, the report will also make uncomfortable reading for Scottish Television Chiefs.