Does Radio Scotland really deserve a huge pat on the back?


By G.A.Ponsonby

So, 90% of listeners think Radio Scotland is value for money, is doing a “good job” and possesses “great talent” according to a report by the Audience Council for Scotland.

The news was heralded on the station yesterday as someone called Bill Matthews came in to explain just how the body he sits on came to their conclusion.

The report from the Audience Council, described as “representing the licence payers” painted a supposedly “positive picture” of the radio station based at Pacific Quay in Glasgow.

So there you have it, the stats don’t lie.

As always though one cannot take the BBC at face value, nor it seems the representative from the Audience Council who, it turns out, was less than forthcoming about other aspects of the report.

The 90% figure is not surprising of course.  Many people will tune into Radio Scotland for varying reasons, they may be confronted by music, chat, news or sport.  To them the station does what they expect it to do and they will respond accordingly in any survey.

With a mixed listener base and a wide range of listener interests it is unlikely that an overall all-encompassing survey of satisfaction will flag up any problem areas.  However, a significant number of respondents expressing dissatisfaction with one specific output area should sound alarm bells.

And that appears to be just what happened with this particular report.  The figures are very interesting indeed, for when asked to gauge the impartiality of Radio Scotland’s reporting 12% expressed concerns.

The report also acknowledges that a significant number of people felt strongly enough to actively accuse the BBC of bias against the SNP.

Now, we don’t know if every one of the 12% believed that bias against the SNP was evident, however the views must have been held by a significant number of respondents for it to be mentioned.

So, how did the report deal with these concerns of bias?

Well, they did something that simply beggared belief.  They blithely assumed there was no problem because 88% of people expressed no concerns.  As far as can be determined there was no attempt at analysing Radio Scotland output to see if the accusations were justified.

Here’s what the report said: “Some of these respondents argued that that Radio Scotland lacks impartiality and suggested that news coverage is biased against the Scottish National Party.  Although this is certainly a strongly held view among some listeners, our research indicates that this view is not representative of the station’s audience as a whole.  As set out in Figure 10 some 88 per cent of listeners trust the station to provide them with impartial news.”

But here’s the deal; the type of person who will discern political bias is probably someone with an interest in that particular field.  The vast majority of Scots are as interested in politics as they are in quantum physics, and just as knowledgeable.  It is therefore unlikely that partisan reporting will ever be flagged up by large numbers of a typical cross section of society – it will always be a minority.

Statisticians will be able to extrapolate from a small number whether there is a problem to address or not.  There will be a figure, a kind of critical mass that, when met or exceeded will demonstrate the existence of something significant.

The head of the audience council, Bill Matthews, will be familiar with BBC Scotland output and one would imagine given his biography on the audience website that he is politically aware.

Mr Mattews describes himself as “a big fan of the BBC for years, with one of my earliest happy memories being the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show.  Nowadays I consume lots of news and current affairs, and visit the BBC News website several times a day.  I’m a regular listener to Radio Scotland and Radio 4, and as a failed musician enjoy much of the BBC’s musical output (with “Songwriters Circle” being a recent great example of quality output).  I watch every episode of “Spooks”, thoroughly enjoyed “Upstairs, Downstairs”, and admit to watching lots of “Strictly Come Dancing”.

Mr Matthews will no doubt have heard the replaying of Nick Clegg’s attacks on Alex Salmond yesterday (Sep 20th), described variously as ‘scathing’ or ‘fierce’ depending when you tuned in, with no reply from the SNP.  He will also be aware of the habit of stuffing the all too rare current affairs programmes with people who typically adopt a less than favourable stance on the SNP and independence.  There’s also the many examples of adopting one stance when interviewing Unionist politicians and quite another when interviewing SNP politicians.

Readers of this news site will know that we have provided a catalogue of proof of what can at best be described as ‘questionable’ practices from the BBC.  Indeed it isn’t restricted to the BBC’s radio station in Scotland, it is prevalent within all spheres of the BBC’s Scottish news output.

One need only have watched Reporting Scotland last night to see what can only be described as a smear story against a civil servant who is to head large building projects for the Scottish government.  On Newsnight Scotland last night a report on today’s budget announcement was peppered with phrases like ‘conjuring trick’, ‘sleight of hand’ and ‘clever tricks’.

So the Audience Council report may have been presented as ‘good news’ by Pacific Quay but as ever there was more than met the eye (or ear).

Here is just a few other snippets from the report that failed to make the headlines:

“A separate consultation response submitted during our review raised concerns that Radio Scotland was not meeting its condition to deliver news and current affairs.  We looked into this and found that during 2009-10 the station broadcast, on average, 59 hours of news and current affairs a week, thus meeting its 43 hour condition. For Radio Scotland this condition is monitored by adding together news summaries, bulletins and headlines, travel news (sic), sport news (sic), business news, fortnightly Investigations, the debate show Brian Taylor’s Big Debate, the politics show Scotland at Ten and the topical phone-in show Call Kaye (sic).”

“In the first nine months of 2010-11 some 54.8 per cent of adults in Scotland had heard of Radio Scotland. While the station’s reach has increased, awareness levels have fallen in the last year and are currently lower than for Radio 1 (73.6 per cent), Radio 2 (72.7 per cent), Radio 3 (59.7 per cent) and Radio 4 (61.5 per cent).”

“At 7 hours a week in 2010-11, the average length of time each listener stays tuned to Radio Scotland is low compared with other BBC stations (11.1 hours a week for Radio 4) and commercial radio.”

“Audience approval scores for the station tend to be slightly lower than for other BBC radio stations”

“The proportion of listeners who had a high overall impression of the station was lower for Radio Scotland than for the BBC’s other national radio stations. In our survey 45 per cent of listeners gave the station a score of 8 to 10. This compares with 56 per cent for Radio Wales, 58 per cent for Radio Ulster/Foyle and 52 per cent for Radio Cymru.”

“Another strongly held view which emerged through the consultation is that some people feel Radio Scotland is too focussed on the central belt and more specifically on Glasgow. In response, we analysed the results of our audience research based on the region where people live. We found that there were no consistent differences in audience perceptions of performance between different parts of Scotland.”

Radio Scotland can allay some of our fears the day Gary Robertson or one of his colleagues reads out a Newsnet Scotland headline on one of their ‘what the papers are saying’ stints.  Until then they will be well advised not to pat themselves too hard on the back.

Newsnet Scotland would like to ask our readers to take part in our own short survey that can be viewed here.