Is BBC Radio Scotland covering the independence referendum impartially?


A qualitative content analysis of BBC Radio Scotland’s coverage of the 2014 Referendum on Scottish independence:

This is a research project submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the BA Broadcast Production (Honours) at the University of the West of Scotland.  It is reproduced here with the permission of the author, David Crossan, who was supervised by Prof. John W. Robertson.  The methodology used in the study together with references can be found at the end of the submission where a link is provided to the full document.

A qualitative content analysis of BBC Radio Scotland’s coverage of the 2014 Referendum on Scottish independence:

This is a research project submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the BA Broadcast Production (Honours) at the University of the West of Scotland.  It is reproduced here with the permission of the author, David Crossan, who was supervised by Prof. John W. Robertson.  The methodology used in the study together with references can be found at the end of the submission where a link is provided to the full document.

On the 21st of March 2013, Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, announced that there would be a referendum on the 18th of September 2014 asking the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ (, 2013).  The 2014 referendum vote could lead to one of the most important changes in the Scottish political landscape since the 1707 Act of Union which led to the formation of the United Kingdom (Mackie, 1969).

The potential ramifications of the referendum are enormous, not only for Scotland but the United Kingdom as a whole.  Since the 1707 union, Scotland has experienced turbulent relations with its neighbour England.  In 1715 and 1745, the Jacobites challenged the rule of the house of Hanover without success and led to events such as the Battle of Culloden and the Highland Clearances (Flamini, 2013).

High taxes imposed by the British government led to protests in Scotland against economic hardship in 1820, whereby two of the lead protesters, Andrew Hardie and John Baird, were arrested and executed (Couzin, 2006).  Although Scotland had integrated into the United Kingdom, it still retained its own legal, educational and religious institutions, which helped maintain the sense of a Scottish national identity and a distinctive culture (Kinealy, 1999, p13).

At the beginning of the 1740s, Scots made significant contributions in fields such as moral philosophy, history, economics, science, literature, geology and mathematics.  Thus began the origin of the Scottish Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.  Scots participated and played an important role in areas such as politics, the civil service, the army, navy, trade and economics and travelled all over the world  (Davidson, 2000, p94-95), transforming and educating those that they came in contact with.

Voltaire, a French philosopher and a leading figure in the French Enlightenment, was influenced by figures from the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Smith and David Hume, and remarked that ‘we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation’ (Education Scotland, n.d.), illustrating the impact that Scots were making out with the United Kingdom.

The growth of Scots working and leading in many diverse fields, not only in the United Kingdom but around the globe, led to the re-introduction of the post of Scottish Secretary in 1885, which had been axed in 1745.  This led to the creation of the Scottish Office in order to administer central government functions in Scotland (The Scottish Government, 2012).  A period of unrest occurred after this time, culminating in the 1920s, where a number of individuals within Scottish society believed that Scotland needed to rediscover its own identity and culture in order to become a political entity in its own right.

In 1922, Hugh MacDiarmid (real name Christopher Murray Grieve), a journalist and poet, founded the magazine Scottish Chapbook, whose motto was ‘Not traditions – precedents’, to reignite interest in Scottish literature (McCulloch, 2009).   MacDiarmid was passionate about Scottish nationalism, and in 1928 became a founding member of the National Party of Scotland, which over time evolved into the Scottish National Party (SNP) (MacDiarmid, 2013).

In 1967, Winnie Ewing won a historic by-election for the SNP in Hamilton (University of Glasgow, 1999). This led to the Labour government giving Scotland an opportunity to vote in a referendum on devolution in 1979.  However, although a narrow majority voted for change, legislation required that at least 40% of the entire electorate turn out to say yes, which did not occur (Canavan, 2013).

Devolution was not seriously raised again until Tony Blair, Labour Prime Minister, conceded after a referendum in 1997 to grant Scotland its own parliament with devolved powers in areas such as education and training, environment, housing and law and order, whilst powers in relation to tax, social security, defence, international relations and broadcasting were reserved by Westminster (White and Yonwin, 2004).  Support for the SNP continued to grow, and in 2011 the party won an overall majority under the proportional system, which allowed the SNP to give the people of Scotland a referendum on independence.

A vital component to the outcome of this historic referendum is the Scottish media.  Much of the communication of information between the political parties involved and the people of Scotland will occur through the mass media.  The growth of technology in the field of broadcasting has allowed information to be relayed to the public in a wide variety of formats: television, radio, newspapers and the internet.  For the purpose of this dissertation, the area of broadcasting that will be focused on will be radio, specifically BBC Radio Scotland, as it is the national broadcaster of Scotland.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, better known as the BBC, was officially formed in 1926 after the Crawford committee in 1925 recommended that a broadcasting monopoly that operated for the national interest was required (Gilfoyle et al, 2012).  The original ethos of the BBC was to serve the whole nation (Reith, 1924, p24).  The BBC is funded by the taxpayer, who pays a licence fee, currently £145.50 per annum ( and is regulated by the government to maintain standards of public service in their output.

As the BBC is responsible to licence payers it has a duty to present a balanced and impartial account of issues from a wide range of perspectives that are occurring in society so that the public can make an informed choice (Deacon et al, 1999, p. 34).  Huntington (1991) described the media as playing an educative role: the more educated people are, the more likely that democracy will occur.  The media acts as a forum where the public can debate and discuss issues that can help create a better society (Habermas, 1989).

The BBC has a worldwide reputation as a broadcasting corporation that is trusted to provide accurate information. This puts the BBC in a powerful position, as it has a perceived credibility (Schlesinger, 2003, p. 60).  Research on talk radio audiences has shown that listeners are more civic minded and participatory than non-listeners (Hollander, 1995, p. 232), which could indicate that the information that they are absorbing is used to determine how they might vote in the 2014 independence referendum.

Issues of political bias and inaccuracies (Miller, 1991) can have serious consequences to how a party or politician is perceived, and could affect the outcome of a vote.  The manipulation of information as well as the media’s power to selectively ignore particular issues is a critical media effect which can have a negative effect on the issue being ignored, as it is not receiving any public reinforcement (Harrop and Shaw, 1989, p. 334) illustrating that the media can have an authoritative relationship with its audience.

The 2014 independence referendum could have major consequences for the future of Scotland.  BBC Radio Scotland is the national broadcaster for the country, and their coverage of this event could determine how many members of the public view the debates leading to the referendum, and in doing so potentially influence how they vote on the 18th of September 2014.  The rationale for this dissertation is to focus attention on an area of study that has not received that much attention to illustrate that radio, despite competition from other mediums (e.g. television and the internet), is still a valuable source of information and can be used as a tool of influence

This dissertation will aim to discover if BBC Radio Scotland is as impartial as its mandate requires.  To answer this question several sub-questions where examined:

1. What is the academic/journalistic background to the forthcoming independence referendum?
2. Did one side of the debate receive more coverage than the other?
3. How positive or negative were the news stories for each side of the debate?
4. What picture was projected of the independence referendum?
5. What was the climate of opinion for the timespa

The origins of content analysis arose from early communication studies that began in the late 1940s.  An early theory of communication was Lasswell’s model of communication (1948).  Lasswell proposed that communication could be broken down into its essential parts: “who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect”.

I aimed to use Lasswell’s theory as the foundation to build my content analysis of how political communication is disseminated.  In these early days, qualitative content analysis struggled to be taken seriously as a scientific method of study.  One of the first researchers who attempted to legitimise the approach was by Bernard Berelson, who in 1952 published Content Analysis in Communication Research.  Berelson described qualitative content analysis a “research technique for the objective, systematic and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication “(p. 18).

However, there was some criticism of the approach by researchers such as Berger and Luckman (1966), who argued that the approach could never be completely objective as it relied on a researcher’s interpretation of the evidence.  This point highlights how important it is to focus on the facts gathered so informed inferences can be made from the data.

Throughout history methods of communication have gradually evolved, from the earliest days of human interaction where information between people was passed on orally, to today, where there are multitudes of ways in which people can communicate and pass information on to future generations.  Inventions such as paper, the printing press, radio, television and the internet have revolutionised the field of communication.  The growth of globalisation, in conjunction with advances in technology, has allowed messages to be transmitted to millions of individuals not only simultaneously but instantaneously.

The role of citizens taking an active interest in the betterment of their society is believed to have originated in the mid-17th century, when merchants and aristocrats frequented coffee shops to engage in rational-critical debates on issues that had a bearing on their lives. This period could be viewed as the emergence of ‘public’ culture (Ellis, 2004, pp. xi – xii).

Habermas (1962) expanded on this idea in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.  He proposed that in the 18th century, a bourgeois public sphere emerged from capitalist modes of production and the long distance trade in commodities and information, where a sphere of private people came together to form a ‘public’.  In order to form a collective opinion to benefit the citizenry, Habermas argued that the public sphere had to be free from the influence of institutions such as the marketplace, the state and the family.  The use of rational-critical debate allowed the domination of the state or the illegitimate use of power to be discussed.

Habermas’ early theories regarding the public sphere received criticism.  His postulation that discourse in public places was devoted to the public good was criticised, as only the wealthy, educated and aristocratic members of society participated in the public sphere, therefore excluding other divisions of the populace and their views on what would improve their day-to-day lives (Fraser, 1993).  Fraser postulated that, in response to Habermas’ single public sphere, subordinated groups formed their own alternative publics, which Fraser termed ‘subaltern-counterpublics’ which ran alongside mainstream public spheres, whereby they formed their own identities and counter-discourses to further their own needs and desires.  This can be seen within the independence referendum, where the origins of the SNP began as a counter-public to a government they believed were not serving the needs of the Scottish people.

Habermas went on to theorise on the corruption of the public sphere, partly due to the blurring of the boundaries between state and society but also due to the advancement of the mass media: the ownership and control of the mass media industries, the growth of advertising and public relations and spin-doctor culture.  Habermas called this change the ‘re-feudalised public sphere’, where there is more of an emphasis on citizens as consumers and where profit is a driving concern rather than contributing to the democratic process by providing a wide variety of public spaces free of influence. The corruption of the public sphere creates a conflict of interest between serving citizens to allow them to make informed decisions and making a profit (Feenberg, 2002, p. 27).

News reporting has an important role within the public sphere in that it keeps the citizens of a society informed, encourages debate, and helps citizens to reach informed decisions as to what, if any, actions to take (Dahlgren, 1991, p. 1).  Reporters became known as the fourth estate in 1828 when the Whig politician Thomas Babington MacCaulay turned towards the reporters in the press gallery of The House of Commons and called them the fourth estate of the realm, indicating how important the profession was to public life (Cole and Harrop, 2010).    Turner et al (2000, p. 29) claim that journalism has been contaminated by the fifth estate (PR merchants and spin doctors) that seek to influence the news agenda.  Over the years concerns of partisan reporting has led to accusations that political journalism is failing in its duty to inform the public and is becoming too reliant on official sources for information (Hargreaves and Thomas, 2002, p. 9).

News agencies have the potential to wield enormous power through the control of knowledge. It can generate opinions and attitudes through critical discussion and debate (Soules, 2001), it has the power to legitimise and challenge governments and authority (Rutherford, 2000, p. 18) as well the potential to reinforce prejudices and to highlight differences between social groups. News reporting can act as a social and political agent within the public sphere; however news means many things to different people.  Is the role of the news to report facts? To seek out materials reporters think we should know about and enable people to be more socially aware? Or could the purpose of the news be to entertain people and distract them from issues they should be made aware of so informed decisions can be made? (McChesney,1999, p. 281).

Van Dijk (1996) argued that the news media has a great potential to influence the populace.  He used discourse analysis to examine the structure and function of text and talk in relation to power within the news media and proposed that several factors contribute to this process.  The control of mass media communications means affects the power to influence (e.g., the organisations with large resources and backing will be able to exert more influence) by controlling access to information on, for example, government reports or political arguments.

This can be viewed as a strong display of power due to the potential effect on decision making by the public and the consequences such decisions could have on their lives.  In order for news reporting to have an impact, it needs to be understood.  The language and lexicon used, particularly in political news, as well as a deeper knowledge of structures of organisations can affect the level of attention these types of news items receive.

A lack of education may prevent understanding and lead to issues of how to make news accessible to a wide section of the populace without being dumbed down.  This can lead to challenges in news journalism whereby deeper investigation into complicated issues is compromised by the need for more light entertainment programming (Kovach and Rosentiel, 1999, pp. 6-9).  However, Van Dijk proposed that the control of knowledge can also contribute to the level of understanding. The use of experts and statistics, for example, can be used to manipulate how news is portrayed.  The norms and values of the targeted audience are also important aspects to consider.  Whilst the media cannot tell people what to think directly (McCombs and Shaw, 1972), the repetition of particular items can help cement particular attitudes or ideologies in the mind of the reader/listener.

The process by which events/stories are filtered into broadcasting/publishing is known as gatekeeping. This process determines what goes into a newscast, and it regulates the flow of events within programming.  Within this concept, journalists, presenters and producers act as ‘the gates’ and figures such as editors and media owners ac as gatekeepers, as they decide what stories are approved for broadcast/publishing (Bruns, 2003).

The agenda-setting function theory first proposed by McCombs and Shaw in 1972 suggested that while the media cannot tell you what to think, it can tell you what to think about.  They studied American presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972 using content analysis and interviews to assess the relationship between what voters in one community said were important issues and the actual content of media messages used during the campaigns.

Their core assumption was that the press and media did not reflect reality but filtered and shaped it. The media’s concentrations on certain issues lead the subjects to believe that these issues are more important than other issues.  According to McCombs and Shaw, the media uses selection, omission and framing to focus public opinion on certain issues/topics.  The agenda-setting theory was a precursor to the study of framing. How a debate, whether on radio or television, is framed could have an effect on the perception/participation of those tuning in or actively involved.  Framing refers to the assumptions made by the producers of mass media that control the boundaries of debate regarding a news topic. Entman (1993) explained framing as thus “the concept of framing offers a way to describe the power of a communicative text” (p. 52).

Frame analysis studies began in the 1970s. Goffman (1974), a Canadian sociologist, described frames as being cognitive structures which, often subconsciously, steer individual perception and representation of reality, which is influenced by communicative processes.  In terms of a debate this can be seen as one viewpoint receiving more coverage than another.  How information is framed leads to how the information/issue is perceived by others.  Presenters/reporters may not always be as objective as they think they are due to subconscious framing that affects how they present information (Fico and Soffin 1995, p. 622).

McCombs and Shaw (1972) found a strong correlation between the topics the media stressed during the 1968 American presidential election and those the public believed were important.  How a presenter’s ability to shape a message can affect how an audience thinks about a topic.  This can be illustrated in a study from Kahneman and Tversky (1984), who gave subjects identical options regarding a hypothetical virus outbreak. One frame highlighted that 200 lives would be saved, and the other highlighted the likely deaths.  Kahneman and Tversky found that the subjects responded differently depending on how the potential responses were framed.   This illustrates how important BBC Radio Scotland’s coverage of the referendum debate could be, as language can be used as a tool of influence.

Qualitative content analysis today is used within many different disciplines (communication, social sciences, history, language and advertising) besides political communication.  One definition of qualitative content analysis is “any qualitative data reduction and sense-making effort that takes a volume of qualitative material and attempts to identify core consistencies and meanings” (Patton, 2002, p. 453). This method of research allows meanings, themes and patterns to be identified, which can highlight aspects of social reality in a scientific manner using subjective but informed reasoning (Zhang and Wildemuth, 2009).

The media plays a significant role in the dissemination of information, particularly that of political communication.  Torfing (1999: pp 210 – 224) argued against the classical sender-receiver model – whereby the media takes the place of the sender and the audience the receiver – as being too simplistic to explain the dynamics of the relationship between the media and the world of politics.  The nature of the message being transmitted should be examined as well as the identity of the person/group sending the message to determine their objectives.  The identity of the receiver should be examined along with the reasons why they are being targeted.

‘The term ‘mediatisation’ was coined in 1986 by Kent Asp, a Swedish media researcher, to describe the influence the media could exert on society and culture. Asp used the term to describe the media’s relationship with politics: “a political system to a high degree is influenced by and adjusted to the demands of the mass media in their coverage of politics” (cited in Hjarvard, 2008, p. 106).  Media broadcasters in today’s world have the power to reach vast audiences almost instantly, a concept that just a few decades ago would have been unimaginable.  Hjavard has argued that “mediaization has blurred and complicated the distinction between reality and media presentation of reality “(2008, p. 11).   Media representations do not merely reflect the world around us but also play a significant role in constructing the public’s understanding of it (Schlesinger, 1999).

Researchers such as Kaid and Johnstone (2001) have identified a growing trend whereby politicians are talking less and journalists are talking more. This decreases the amount of time politicians have to get their message across to the electorate.  Media control of or over political aspects (e.g., how a politician or an issue is presented, the amount of coverage the item receives, whether the issue being adequately reported or is the reporting focusing more on the private life or physical appearance of an individual), and how the business of day-to-day reporting is conducted can give a sense of the ideology of the media entity involved and whether they are biased in their reporting of particular issues (Corner, 2007).

The effectiveness of political messaging in such a debate as the independence referendum is vitally important, as the choices individuals make (either yes, no, or they do not vote at all) could have serious ramifications for years to come.  In 2013 Lewandowsky et al conducted a metastudy into misinformation and why it is difficult to amend such information.  One result from their study revealed that cultural norms predispose listeners to believe that speakers are honest and not operating under an ulterior motive.  This could have serious repercussions within political debates if a speaker is believed but is not being entirely truthful.

Accountability is a serious issue, as it may lead to listeners absorbing information that is inaccurate, which then creates a false perception of the issue being discussed in the mind of the listener. This could be due to political bias in reporting (Miller, 1991). Inaccurate information gathering can also be responsible for problems in public perceptions of an event or issue.  In January 2004, a parliamentary report was published, The Hutton Inquiry, criticising fact-checking and editorial conduct of BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan’s accusation that the government report of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq  was ‘sexed up’ on the 29th of May, 2003.  Incidents such as these could result in the public losing trust in their national broadcaster where curiosity could arise and begin speculating as to whether such lack of care in research and accuracy is more commonplace than previously thought.

One particular aspect to consider is the absence of information.  Views may die off before they can be discussed in a public forum as there is no reinforcement of the message, which Harrop and Shaw (1989) found that in their study of the Labour campaigns 1989 during the British general election; later in 1997 the Labour Party won their first election since 1974.  This negative aspect of the media, to selectively ignore issues or individuals/groups within society, can be viewed as having a serious detrimental effect on the use of power that can mislead the public via the process of misinformation.

One interpretation of the misuse of power could be viewed as the dominant elite within the media world using its outlets (e.g. television, radio or newspapers) to serve their own interests and not those of the public (Herman and Chomsky, 1988, cited in Klachn, 2002).  A similar viewpoint was put forward in 1922 by Lippman, who argued that the media is harmful to democracy as it supports the views of the ruling elite.  This demonstrates that the concept of the media manipulating the public has been an issue that continues to be debated about to this day.  One criticism of journalism is that it offers little room for the voice of the ordinary person as it focuses on the activities of the powerful (Gans,1980).

In preparation and research for this dissertation, I examined some debates and current affairs radio programmes on the day that Alex Salmond announced that on the 16th of September 2014, there would be a Scottish referendum on independence.   The Victoria Derbyshire Show on BBC Radio 5 Live held a debate in Glasgow, consisting of 300 participants who were split into three groups: those for independence, those against, and those who were undecided.  This was an interesting debate not only due to the subject matter but due to the level of participation.  The audience participation was not merely by speaking out from their seats ,but involved them being able to move to different sections of the studio if an individual made a case which swayed them from their current opinion.

Not only was this broadcasted on radio, but viewers could also watch the debate on television via Red Button coverage. The show featured on the BBC iPlayer, viewers could tweet, text or email Victoria Derbyshire as she hosted the live debate.  Brian Taylor’s Big Debate, broadcasted on BBC Radio Scotland on the 14th of February, 2013 illustrated how one-sided a debate can be.  On this occasion there were three panellists who favoured staying in the UK versus one SNP candidate who was in favour of independence.  It is aspects such as these that can be used within qualitative content analysis to make objective critiques regarding the behaviour of media institutions.

To conclude the growth in methods of communication throughout the ages has resulted in messages being able to be transmitted to millions of people simultaneously all around the world.  In the past individuals and groups who took an active interest in their society used many means of communication (e.g. word of mouth and pamphlets) to form ‘publics’ (Ellis, 2007: (pp xi-xii) in order to better the society in which they lived by engaging in debates.

Habermas argued that the public sphere had to be free of influence from the state and the market place in order to truly benefit the people.  However only the wealthy and educated members of society could join and therefore benefit from these public spheres.  The emergence of subaltern-counterpublics allowed the poor, female and other subordinated groups to form to fight for what was important to them.  The corruption of the public sphere whereby there became an emphasis on citizens as consumers, the rise of mass media and the increasing drive to create profits could be seen to be more important than allowing citizens to make informed choices.

The role of news reporting has become increasingly important, the advent of multi platforms and the rise of 24 hour news channels give’s the listener a wealth of choice as to where and how they access news.  As much political information is disseminated via the mass media, the sources of news need to be trustworthy, accurate and fair to enable voters to make informed choices that could affect their future.  How information is selected (if at all) and framed can affect how an audience thinks about an issue.

Partisan reporting may sway individuals to a particular ideology without them necessarily being aware of it.  A vital component to a successful democracy is the availability of knowledge.  Within a political debate or analysis, it is important to offer impartial, expert advice alongside the main arguments.  In recent times there has been a rise in reporters/presenters becoming as well known as the politicians themselves, giving their outlook on a situation.

The danger of this change in reporting is that it could arise in politicians not getting adequate time to put across their views to the electorate.  Lasswell, who in 1948, said of communication ‘who says what, in what channel, to whom and with what effect’ is still very much relevant to political dissemination today.  The purpose of this literary review was to answer the first question I posed in the introduction ‘what was the journalistic and academic background to the forthcoming independence referendum?’ Answering this question has allowed the development of a methodology to be devised in order to carry out the qualitative analysis that this dissertation is based on.


The approach used to study the media content of BBC Radio Scotland was to analyse all programming from 5.30am to 7pm in order to determine what level of importance BBC Radio Scotland placed on the issue.  However, to do this accurately, all programming was transcribed and timed so the issue of independence could be placed in context against other news stories and featured items.  This will allow the potential exposure of the coverage to listeners to be identified by analyzing how much coverage there was and where it was placed within the day’s programming.

This study examined BBC Radio Scotland’s coverage of the independence referendum as it has substantial listening figures and is the national broadcaster for Scotland.  One week of programming (14th November 2013 to 20th November 2013), approximately 13.5 hours per day, was recorded, transcribed and coded (see appendices one to six for full transcriptions).  Coding the data allowed themes to be identified which informed the direction that the qualitative analysis would take.  This week was chosen as it was the week leading up to the Scottish government’s release of a white paper setting out their plans for an independent Scotland after permission was granted to hold a referendum to let the people decide their future: to become independent or stay within the UK.

The amount of coverage BBC Radio Scotland gave the independence referendum each day is shown below in Figure 1.  As content can be determined by what is going on in the world, coverage of particular items will rise and fall over the course of the week depending on what events are occurring.  An important element to any media outlet is deciding what should be included in its output as it is impossible to cover every story.  Gatekeeping, the process by which events/stories are filtered into broadcasting, can reveal what the media owners/agencies ideologies are as the output is determined by what they believe to be important (Bruns, 2003).

The amount of time given to independence coverage by BBC Radio Scotland can be used to contextualize the importance BBC Radio Scotland places on the issue, as can comparing independence against other items.  Figure 1 on the following page indicates how many minutes per day were devoted to the topic of independence.

Figure 1: Time given to independence

As can be seen from this figure, independence news related items were relatively high to begin with at the beginning of the week.  This is most likely due to the third and final passing of the bill on the 14th November 2013 (day one) that granted an independence referendum to take place.

The third day of the survey had no independence items at all. Most of this day’s programming (Saturday) consisted of sports items.  News items on the fourth day included some independence items, but were dominated by the UK government’s intention to investigate union tactics, Paul Flowers alleged drug buying on tape, and a call to debate lowering the age of consent.  A number of international issues arose, such as the airstrikes on rebel areas in Syria, a plane crash in Russia, which killed everybody on board, and typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  This could explain why there was less coverage of the independence referendum on this date.

Over the next two days, independence coverage rose and peaked to its highest level on day six.  On this particular day on BBC Radio Scotland there were numerous debates focused on the independence referendum, which could be why this day’s independence coverage is as high as it is.  On the last day of the survey, coverage of the independence referendum dropped significantly. Items featured on this day included same sex marriage legislation proposals, plans to restructure the army, calls to stop prosecutions in Northern Ireland for killings during the Troubles, and Dundee losing the bid to be 2017 City of Culture.

The amount of coverage a particular item receives can highlight the perceived importance of that item to the media agency in how it is broadcasted to the populace.   After each day of radio programming was transcribed, each item was then coded into particular subcategories in order to determine how the independence referendum was being framed.  This allows the examination of one of the sub-questions of this dissertation, what picture was projected of the independence referendum? Below is figure 2a, which shows a breakdown of the sub-categories of items, broadcasted on the first day of the survey.  This chart shows that independence was the fourth most discussed topic on that day, behind international, business and political (non-referendum related) items.

Charts of the remaining survey days can be found in Appendix 7. [See link at bottom of page]

Figure 2a: Breakdown of coded stories

Day two of coverage showed that independence was the third highest topic (of seven) under discussion that day behind public affairs and international items.  On day three there was no independence coverage. The fourth day saw independence rise to being the most discussed sub-category of the week so far, ahead of political, public affairs and international items.   None of the major sub-categories received an overwhelming amount of coverage on this day; this could be attributed to several hours that were devoted to an international rugby match.   On day five, public affairs items dominated the coverage, with very little time given to independence or any of the other six topics (e.g. international, politics, business and arts).

Independence coverage increased on day six to being, for the second time so far in this survey, the top topic of discussion.  Out of the other six sub-categories, international and public affairs items were the only two topics that received close to the amount of coverage that independence received.  On the last day of the surveyed material, the amount of time independence received dramatically dropped to becoming the fourth most discussed sub-category out of five.  Political items far outweighed the other four topics (public affairs, business, independence and crime)

The salience of a topic, in this case the independence referendum, can also be illustrated by examining its placing within the news agenda and whether the statements made were positive, negative or neutral.  Within the timeframe transcribed, there were14 segments of main news that were played on the hour (e.g. 6am, 7am, 8am, etc.) every day (with four exceptions on day one when First Minister’s Question Time featured, and there was no news at noon and on day four when an international rugby match was on).  Table 1 on the following page shows a breakdown of the rankings of independence items within the main news for the week.

The table shows that on day one, independence was placed seven times, five times between 6am and 10 am and then at 5pm and 6pm.  Day two also had seven placing’s, with the only difference being the two later placing’s were at 6pm and 7pm.  Most of the independence items were placed in the middle or towards the end of the news agenda, day three had no independence items at all.   The fifth day had less independence items featured, only five between 7am and 10am and noon, all placed within the middle of the news agenda.  Days five and six saw a significant rise in placing of independence items. On day five, there were 13 items on the news agenda, and on the sixth day, 12 items were featured.  On the last day of the survey, independence was only featured once within the news agenda.

Table 1: Rank of independence items within the main news running order

The content of the statements made within the news items was categorized into three categories: positive, negative or neutral.  Over the course of the week, independence was placed 45 times within the main news.  Below is a table showing the frequency of the content theme of the messages within the on-the-hour news.  The themes within messages can leave impressions on the listeners which could potentially affect how they think about an issue

Table 2: Theme content distribution

Audiences use media platforms such as radio as a significant source of information.  How information is presented and by whom can shape the opinions of those listening to the broadcasts.  Below is a breakdown of the week in terms of the type of people who spoke during the independence referendum coverage and the number of times they had the opportunity to contribute.

Table 3: Demographic breakdown of contributors.

Examining this aspect can help provide evidence towards answering the questions posed in this dissertation; what picture was projected of the independence referendum? As well as what, was the climate of opinion of opinion within the stated timeframe?  As can be seen from the above table, the number of statements made by BBC employees vastly exceeds the statements made by any other group that participated during the week.  The comments made by BBC staff were categorized into positive, negative and neutral statements. The distributions of the statements made are illustrated in the pie Figure 4 below.

Figure 4: Overview of statements made by BBC staff

Figure 4:  Comparison of BBC staff versus non-BBC contributors’ comments

Figures three and four were compiled during the coding of the transcripts into positive, negative or neutral comments, and illustrates that BBC representatives had more time to put forth their views or that of the corporation than did the independent guests.  Whilst this coding is based on my opinion, every effort was made to examine each statement in an objective manner in order that the validity of the qualitative study undertaken was not compromised.   I ensured that, during the undertaking of the coding, I was aware of the possibility of researcher bias on my part.  I regularly reviewed the coding I gave each statement so I could ensure the coding was as objective as possible.

The announcement on the 21st of March 2013 by Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, that there would be a referendum in September 2014 asking the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ marked the beginning of what could be one of the most significant changes in the Scottish and British political landscapes.  To convince the population of Scotland to either back independence or to stay within the UK, political parties will use a variety of campaigning techniques to sway the public to their particular viewpoint.

The Scottish media will play a vital part in the run up to the referendum: as a method of dissemination by political parties wanting to get their message across and to provide the general public with information to make sense of the forthcoming arguments so informed decisions can be made.   The array of platforms available for individuals to access information (e.g. television, newspapers, radio and the internet) is wide ranging, and finding sources that are trustworthy could have an effect on voter’s perception of the debate, and in turn, how they might vote on the day, if they vote at all.

As the independence referendum is a significant event that could potentially have wide ranging ramifications, I decided to examine this issue by conducting a survey of BBC Radio Scotland content.  A 2013 Ofcom report (‘News Consumption in the UK’) found that, of the 35% of the UK population who use radio as their source of news, 65% of those surveyed that this was due to their perception of the BBC being ‘trustworthy’ and ‘impartial and unbiased’.  As BBC Radio Scotland is the national broadcaster for Scotland and funded by the taxpayer, the main aim of this dissertation was to find out if BBC Radio Scotland is acting as impartially, as Ofcom and its own guidelines dictate with regards to the independence referendum.

As of August 2013, BBC Radio Scotland has a 9.3% audience share  (948,000), roughly equating to reaching one in five of the Scottish population, which is a significant number of people tuning in each week (All Media Scotland, 2013).   An important element to any media outlet is deciding what should be included in its output as it is impossible to cover every story.  Gatekeeping, the process by which events/stories are filtered into broadcasting can reveal what the media owners/agencies ideologies are as the output is determined by what they believe to be important (Bruns, 2003).

The time given to the stories covered can also reveal how important that story is to the agency broadcasting it.   For the first six days of the survey period (excluding day three), the independence referendum received more coverage than any other stories on those days.  This demonstrates that BBC Radio Scotland appears to be giving the issue of independence the gravitas it deserves, given the potential ramifications to all aspects of Scottish life if a ‘yes’ vote is secured.  On day seven, however, coverage of the independence referendum dramatically drops from being the top item to the sixth (of twelve).

This coincides with the publication of a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, released on the 19th of November, which on the whole portrayed independence in a negative light.  The sudden drop of referendum items could be perceived as the issue not holding any more  relevance, despite the Scottish government’s release of its 200 page economic report the day before and the white paper being published several days later.  Another potential explanation for this could be that it reduces the opportunity for those in the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign to refute the claims made in the IFS, report and could leave a negative impression in the mind of the listeners. This could be perceived as a form of bias against the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign.

In many political discussions where one party tries to sway the voters to their point of view rather than that of the opposition, it is important that the MPs get the airtime needed to put forward their arguments.  BBC Trustee Richard Ayre attended an Audience Council Scotland Meeting on the 20th November 2013, and reiterated that the coverage of the referendum had to reach as wide an audience as possible and explore all issues in depth, as the BBC had a reputation of being an authoritative and trusted source of impartial information (BBC Trust, 2013).

This is contradictory to the response a listener received after complaining that Brian Taylor’s Big Debate in March 2013 was imbalanced after one SNP MSP had to argue against three pro-unionists.  The spokesperson told the complainant in an email that, as the referendum campaign had not began yet, there was no need for them to give an equal balance to each side of the argument (Anon, ‘We don’t have to be balanced in Referendum Debate says BBC’, 2013), this is despite the BBC reporting the launch of the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign in Edinburgh on the 25th of May 2012 (BBC News Scotland Politics, 2012).

Within the surveyed week, the statements on behalf of the ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ campaigns were roughly the same (52/53). However, the number of different politicians who made statements on behalf of each camp differed.   On the ‘Yes Scotland’ side, there were six representatives of the SNP, Green Party and independent party, compared to nine representatives of the ‘Better Together’ (Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats) side.  Whilst the results show that not every party had the same representation, the higher number of different voices on the ‘Better Together’ campaign could give weight to the impression that the arguments against independence are stronger than those for independence.

Examining the week’s coverage illustrated how much time was given not only to the pro-independence versus anti-independence debate but also to the amount of time each individual party received regardless of what side of the debate they were on.  What became clear as the week progressed showed that of the pro-independence side, the predominant party that was discussed was the SNP.  The Green Party received very little coverage, with coincided with the launch of their campaign for independence, and consisted of brief soundbites during news bulletins, giving no depth to their potential arguments.  The Green Party was referred to as ‘the junior party’; no such distinction was given to any party campaigning on the behalf of ‘Better Together’.  Specific mention was also given to the number of Green supporters at the launch (around 50 people); no mention of numbers was made for gatherings of other parties.

The highlighting of these aspects could imply that the Green Party is of little consequence, no mentions of the independent MPs were made other than their contributions to First Minister’s Question Time or their view/policies at all.  This contrasts with the Better Together campaign where all three parties had the opportunity to put forth their views.  The process of gatekeeping (Bruns, 2003) within the BBC coverage could be seen to discriminate against the pro-independence side.  The highlighting of the SNP gives the impression that independence is a purely SNP issue. For listeners who are predisposed to being anti-independence, the coverage offers them no fresh perspective (i.e. the Green Party or independent views/policies) to a wider ranging campaign than is being portrayed.

The use of experts within a political debate can be used to manipulate how an issue is portrayed and perceived by the listeners (Van Dijk, 1996).  BBC Radio Scotland featured eight individuals from academic, business and independent backgrounds to participate in the debate over the course of the week.  However, nearly half of these individuals (three of eight) were from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose report was not favorable to Scotland becoming independent, and was frequently highlighted by Better Together campaigners as a reason not to vote for independence.

The use of three individuals from the one organization demonstrates the importance the BBC has placed on the report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) which was released on the 18th of November.  Given that the coverage of the report was predominately negative in its response to independence, the high number of experts over two days of the survey period from the IFS reinforces the view that independence could be detrimental to Scotland’s economic future in the mind of the listener.

Further credence was also given to the report when loaded terms such as ‘respected think tank’, ‘leading think tank’ and ‘authoritative’ were used by both BBC reporters and supporters of the ‘Better Together’ campaign with regards to the IFS.  Using emotive language can be used as a tool to leave an impression on the listener, which in this case is signaling that the IFS should be trusted. No such emotive language was used when discussing the economic report from the Scottish government.

The remaining experts who appeared over the course of the week comprised of three university lecturers and two individuals from an economic/business background.  Their statements provided a more balanced view of the independence referendum with the majority of the 39 statements being of a neutral nature.  Both positive and negative statements were made for each side of the debate, but neither side was favored over the other.

Psychological studies into recall have shown that where an item is placed in a list has an effect on how that item is recalled.  The first four days of the survey showed that, within the main on the hour news, independence items were placed within the middle of the running order, which studies have shown to be the least remembered items in a list. This could indicate that while BBC Radio Scotland is demonstrating awareness of the issue, it is not placing that much importance on it.  This sequence changes on the fifth day, where positive independence items were found higher up in the ranking order between 6am and 8am.  However, after 10am, independence items became ranked first in the running orders but were of a negative nature, detailing the results from the IFS report.

This sudden shift potentially reveals how BBC editors want the independence issue to be regarded by the listeners.  Primacy and recency effect studies show that items first and last in a list are recalled the most, so highlighting negative statements with regards to independence and repeating them at regular intervals throughout the day not only reinforces the information to the listener, but reveals the importance the editor’s place on the information.  The following day’s news rankings show that, whilst independence is still top ranking throughout the day, the items are more balanced towards both sides of the campaign.  However, while a positive statement was made to begin each of the news items, eight of the twelve hourly news items ended negatively using information from the IFS report, therefore reinforcing the impression that independence could be detrimental to Scotland’s future.

The day after the Scottish governments released its 200 page economic report on independence, no mention was made of it within the main news headlines.  The only independence item that was featured consisted of the Labour MP for Dundee West, Jim McGovern raising a challenge on who could vote in the referendum.  This could be viewed as BBC Radio Scotland editors trying to distract the listeners from the Scottish government economic report by focusing their attention to a matter that has already been debated and agreed upon.

The item ended curiously with Mhairi Stuart reporting that Scotland would have its own public service broadcaster.  The report detailed that the Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, said there would still be a relationship with the BBC so Scots would not miss out, but ended with Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory Leader, saying that this would stretch resources.   This appears to be scaremongering on the part of the BBC, indicating that if a ‘yes’ vote is secured, then there is a possibility Scots may not have access to BBC content.

The complete absence of the Scottish government’s economic report from the main news headlines the day after its release echoes McCombs and Shaw’s (1972) results, whereby they found that while the media cannot tell you what to think, it can tell you what to think about, and in this case it would appear that BBC Radio Scotland does not want its listeners to be thinking of the independence referendum.

The transcriptions allowed for topic themes to be identified with regards to the independence referendum.  What became clear from the survey period was that the debate was framed from an economic perspective, with the main discussion points focusing on what currency Scotland will use, debt, taxes and Scotland’s oil reserve levels.  The framing of the information presented demonstrated that these are the issues that BBC Radio Scotland editors want listeners to be concerned about.   Examining these aspects can help determine what the climate of opinion was the week that was surveyed and build a picture of the referendum that is projected to the listeners.

One notable finding from the qualitative study was the number of BBC journalists/presenters that reported on and contributed to the debate.  Over the course of the week 24 individuals represented the BBC, making a total of 379 statements, compared to 203 from all other non-BBC participants.  This supports findings by researchers such as Kaid and Johnstone (2001) of the rise of journalists talking more and politicians talking less.

As shown in this study, politicians had considerable less opportunity to put forward their arguments, leaving the BBC journalists to have more time to discuss the issues with each other to the alleged benefit of the listeners, putting across their perspective of the independence referendum debate.  Given the potential consequences of a ‘yes’ vote and the release of the IFS report, the Scottish government’s economic paper and the release of the white paper on independence, it might be expected that there would be more arguments not only from the politicians but a wider range of independent experts, looking at a broader range of issues, which, in the case of this survey period, did not happen.

It could be argued that, as two economic reports were being released during the week, focusing on economics was demonstrating sensible and informative programming for its listeners.  However, there appeared to be an over-emphasis on the IFS report, with little from the BBC reporters countering their arguments to give the listener a more balanced viewpoint.  The arguments presented could give the impression that oil is the only income source that Scotland possesses. No mention was given of other industries such as electronics, renewable energy, whisky and tourism.  As economics was the predominant theme throughout the week and is an issue that could affect how individuals vote, ensuring that the information the BBC staff use is accurate is very important.

In an interview conducted by Hayley Millar with economist/journalist George Kerevan, he corrected her inaccuracy regarding business tax rates as she was attempting to challenge a point he was making (19th November 2013).  If the remark had been made outwith an interview context, it may have been left uncorrected and be absorbed by the listeners, who may not have a detailed knowledge of taxes and economics.

Research has found that misinformation is very difficult to correct (Lewandowski et al, 2013). This could potentially leave the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign at a disadvantage, as individuals are absorbing information that is incorrect from an organization that has a reputation as being trustworthy.  In May 2013, the BBC announced that an additional £5 million had been sourced for referendum programming (BBC Media Center, 2013). The amount of this budget which could be put aside for research could have a bearing on individuals’ perception of the issues raised by BBC reporters, as the referendum date grows closer.

As the findings showed that BBC reporters had more opportunity to discuss the independence referendum than those outwith the BBC, the manner in which they discussed the issue could have had a bearing on how its listeners perceived the arguments discussed.  Over the course of the week, BBC reporters put forward more negative comments than positive ones (40% compared to 26%).

However, roughly a third of the comments made were of a neutral nature (34%).  It could be argued that the BBC coverage of the independence referendum from the perspective of its reporters has not shown an overt bias, as the positive and neutral comments (60%) outweigh the negative comments.  One particular exchange between Hayley Millar and the Welsh Political Editor Nick Servini on the 20th of November could be viewed as a pro-independence item, despite the BBC’s mandate to be impartial.

Whilst discussing the Welsh First Minister’s trip to Scotland, Hayley Millar implied that the coalition government was resorting to unconventional methods to convince the Scottish populace that independence is not the way forward for Scotland.

Hayley Miller: “…and the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, will be in Scotland today, adding his voice to the independence debate. He promised to contribute if Wales was given more financial powers.  Well, two weeks ago the, Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister went to Cardiff to give the Welsh Assembly limited tax and borrowing powers.  Carwyn Jones is keeping his part of the bargain, making his speech ahead of the white paper here next week.  Let’s get more from our…the political editor for BBC Wales, Nick Servini. Good morning to you.”

The framing of this story could indicate that the presenters believe that this story is worthy of being brought to the listeners’ attention as it potentially shows what the ‘Better Together’ campaigners could be willing to do to secure a ‘No’ vote in September’s independence referendum.  This item illustrates how difficult it can be for a reporter working for a public broadcaster when attempting to inform the listeners of a story whilst maintaining neutrality and avoiding possible legal repercussions.

The qualitative analysis of the week has demonstrated that BBC Radio Scotland has not fully maintained independent, objective and impartial coverage of the independence referendum.  This can be revealed by the number of political representatives from each side of the debate, which in this case favored the Better Together campaign.  The number of experts invited to join the debate and inform the listeners was not very high (eight over the week period) given the significance of the two economic reports that were being released that week.

However, nearly half the experts involved were from the IFS, whose report was not particularly positive regarding Scotland becoming an independent country. The number of IFS representatives illustrates the importance the BBC placed on their report, which is then filtered through to the listeners.  Although statements made from each side of the debate were virtually equal, the number of statements made by BBC representatives far outweighed those made by politicians, experts and callers in, which allows for the ideology of the BBC to be absorbed by its listeners.  In this week, there were more negative stories put forward than positive stories, potentially demonstrating that the BBC favors this viewpoint.

The picture projected of the referendum was overwhelmingly of an economic nature, with the main issues being examined consisting of taxes, debt levels and oil revenues.  This was a very narrow spectrum of a wide ranging topic and illustrates what BBC political editors want its listeners to focus on. No mention was made of other industries or resources that are successful in Scotland. The climate of opinion for the timespan was more negative, particularly with the repetition of the results of the IFS report.  Whilst coverage was given to the Scottish government’s report on the day of its release, no coverage was given on the following day.  Given the size of the economic document (200 pages), it should be questioned if the BBC gave this document the due consideration it deserved, considering the choice that the Scottish populace is expected to make in September, and the potential ramifications that could arise from their choice.

To truly determine if the BBC Radio Scotland is acting impartially, a much longer period of time would need to be recorded and transcribed to examine what patterns emerge.  Studying the effects of radio programming on its listeners could prove to be very useful in terms of political messaging, as research on talk radio audiences has shown that listeners are more civic minded and participatory than non-listeners (Hollander, 1995).  With this in mind, the information listeners absorb could have an effect on how individuals vote.  Examining the relationship between information gathered from talk radio and the voting patterns of the listeners could be a valuable insight into an area of political communication that receives little attention, particularly as there are no visual distractions, and the sole focus is on what the individual is conveying through speech alone.

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