Fairness in February?


  By Professor John Robertson

Fairness in February? BBC and ITV Coverage of the Scottish Referendum Campaign in February 2014 in the period around the BBC’s complaints about Phase 1 of the research and giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee.

The ‘Phase 1’ survey of TV coverage of the referendum campaigns, reported in January 2014, ‘Fairness in the First Year’, covered the period from 17th September 2012 to 18th September 2013 including every weekday evening (6-7pm) broadcast by BBC 1, Reporting Scotland, ITV and STV, and shorter weekend broadcasts in that period.

The publication led to massive online dissemination contrasted with almost complete neglect in the mainstream media and a brutal response from the BBC in Scotland.  The latter included the suggestion to the researcher’s Principal that the research had damaged the corporate reputation of the University of the West of Scotland.  The lead researcher was promoted to Professor in March 2014.

This report covering only February 2014 is an attempt to update the research findings after the BBC response in January 2014.  As always with no preconceived expectations, the researchers were intrigued to explore possible effects of the first, even though rejected, report on reporting in the following month.

Our purpose, as in Phase 1, is to answer these questions which emerged as prevalent issues from first and second readings of the year one transcripts:

1. How prevalent were referendum topics in February 2014?
2. What was the relative balance of statements given to the views of Yes and No, representatives, arguments and evidence?
3. What was the relative balance of independent, scientific or academic evidence presented in support on the Yes and No campaigns?
4. To what extent did No arguments precede the Yes and vice versa?
5. What was the ratio of arguments finishing broadcasts unchallenged in favour of the Yes and No campaigns?
6. To what extent were arguments equated with the apparently personal wishes of political personalities rather than as collective positions?
7. What was the relative balance of offensive statements made to Yes and No campaigners and broadcast?
8. What forms of evidence dominated the discourse – economic, political, social?
9. Overall and to what extent, did reporting favour the Yes or No campaign?

The methods adopted in this ‘snapshot’ of one month’s data are as in Fairness in the First Year and are repeated, in Appendix 1, after this report on the results for February 2014.

The above tables present data which can be used to reveal the distribution, over 12 months of 2012/2013 and in one month of 2014 (February) , of different types of message within broadcasts, allows comparison of the relative presence of each category, enables comparison between channels for the same categories and, critically, allows comparison between the two periods.

Note that the February 2014 results represent the period immediately after the controversy surrounding, especially, BBC Scotland’s response to the first report. BBC Scotland rejected the report out-of-hand and STV ignored it.

Online media exploded with traffic (c 2,000,000 messages in blogs, Facebook and Twitter) amongst, especially, Yes campaigners and sympathisers.  Professor Robertson and BBC Scotland were called to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee on March 11th.  On March 13th, comedian Frankie Boyle ‘re-tweeted’ a link to the research for his 1.5 million followers.

News reports relating to the referendum were fairly regular occurrences on the two Scottish channels over the first twelve months.  In sharp contrast the UK-wide broadcasts rarely reported on this topic.  The BBC1 figures are inflated by the Reporting Scotland headline alerts which followed the ‘national’ headlines and which were only seen in Scotland.

This apparent disinterest in a major constitutional challenge to the very existence of the UK, by its two dominant news programmes, was the first observation to be taken from the above data.  However, in February 2014, the two ‘national’, UK-wide, programmes had considerably increased reporting with BBC 1 actually exceeding the Reporting Scotland coverage.  This awakening closer to the Referendum date is to be expected. Less predictable was the content.

In Year 1, the simple numerical preponderance of anti-independence statements over pro-independence statements by a ratio of c3:2 on Reporting Scotland and on STV, is also clear.  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.

In February 2014, the ratio for Reporting Scotland was almost 1:1 and STV was at 11:8.  This is almost perfect, crude, balance and therefore a form of impartiality of the kind so dear to the BBC’s mission.  BBC Scotland had rejected the Year 1 study as of no value to them yet their behaviour, for that month, seems to have changed. The same might be said of the less reactive STV.

Equally interesting are the results for BBC1 and ITV, national, broadcasts.  Both have dramatically increased coverage and both are marked by a notable imbalance between statements favouring the Yes Campaign and those favouring the No Campaign of approaching 2:1.  This is a notably stronger indicator of bias than the circa 3:2 ratio found in Year 1.

A more thorough examination of the Reporting Scotland and STV figures for February 2014 reveals, also, the disappearance of more subtle forms of bias that had been apparent in Year 1 but their replacement by similar phenomena in the February 2014 results for the ‘national’ BBC 1 and ITV broadcasts:

1. a tendency to more frequent use of expert advice favouring the No campaign;
2. a tendency for bad news about independence to precede any good news;
3. the continuing personalisation of the debate in Alex Salmond, but only on ITV;
4. the continuation of a dogmatic assertion that the economy was the only game in town.

The emphasis on the importance of economic evidence over other forms relating to justice, welfare and the constitution persists across all four programmes despite evidence from a survey by the Church of Scotland and in more anecdotal evidence from journalists and audience participation debates.

This ‘snapshot’ report for February 2014, is clearly limited by the length of its census period but its continuation of an intensive methodology, as opposed to one based on sampling, allows some confidence in its representation of a key phases in the TV coverage of the Scottish Referendum campaign.

Click here for an explanation of methodology