Unfairness in Early 2016? BBC Reporting Scotland and perceptions of propaganda

Dr John Robertson

Media critic Dr John Robertson has been reviewing Scotland’s TV news coverage of the political campaign since January, and presents his conclusions today.

Final Statistics from January 8th to April 27th 2016

Although the evidence of bias is more clear and valid in the detailed textual analysis of full reports (the language, the sources, the balance), a more quantitative approach to counting and representing data, in a form admittedly reduced in complexity and less valid (but not invalid by any means), does offer an idea of the frequency and distribution of forms of bias. Here are the results of my coding of reports broadcast which could be considered relevant to the development of a climate of fear before the Scottish Election on the 5th May 2016.

Opinion polls suggest, however, that the electorate is not listening to criticism of the SNP anymore. So, you might say I’ve wasted my time here.

The cumulative data shows heavy bias by BBC Scotland, from January 8th right up until 7 days before the election.


At first glance, there is clear evidence, on BBC Reporting Scotland, of a narrative of general negativity and discontent regarding Scotland’s government, economy, health and social services. Reporting Scotland were to report negatively about some aspect of the aforementioned, on average, more than once every weekday evening over 75 week-days in 15 weeks. For STV, it was only once every four nights or so. Reports favourable to Scotland and to the Scottish government were almost twice as common on STV. Only STV was to report unfavourably on the Labour Party in Scotland and only BBC were to report favourably on Labour. In particular, Reporting Scotland was to studiously avoid linking the Edinburgh PFI Schools Closures Scandal to the Labour Party, in the weeks close to the election date. The apparent betrayal of the BAE Systems shipyard workers, in the last week of the survey, was reported by BBC Scotland and so will have unavoidably favoured the SNP .

Eleanor Bradford
Eleanor Bradford

BBC reports were commonly imbalanced against the interests of Scotland or its institutions and in particular, deriding the Scottish NHS, despite the many reports of superiority of the Scottish system in national and international research reports (NY Commonwealth Fund, Royal College of Emergency Medicine and BBC 1 Salford itself). BBC reports were also prone to use, uncritically, low-quality investigations masquerading as research and to rely on anonymous sources. Of particular note was the failure to offer useful contextual, comparative, evidence on, especially the Scottish NHS, where the English NHS was receiving very critical coverage elsewhere even on its sister BBC 6 broadcast!

Numerous examples of the above can be found in my weekly Media Monitor reports on https://newsnet.scot/

A small selection from the above reports is offered below as illumination of the above table. Please note I have not added to these since the interim report prior to the Purdah Period.

Here’s a useful example from Tuesday 8th March.

BBC 1 (Salford) was first to ask the question: ‘Why aren’t junior doctors in Scotland on strike?’ It’s taken them some time mind you. Forced out into the open, Reporting Scotland covered the story for the first time, not headlined but 12 minutes in, and found a way to turn it into a bad news story for Scotland.

A short introduction to the story of junior doctors not striking in Scotland was quickly hijacked by accepting Jeremy Hunt’s claim that it’s all about reducing deaths at the weekend. Yes, Eleanor Bradford was more determined than ever to remind us of the dark side. She launched into a confused and evidence-light scare story.

‘If you go into a hospital at the weekend are you more likely to die? That’s the central question which has led to strikes in England and thousands of cancelled operations. Several studies have suggested that the death-rate is higher at weekends and UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt has made it his mission to address it.’

‘It’s not just in England’, Eleanor notes and refers to one study in Dumfries. She tells us it is four deaths in 100, during ‘normal times’ (?) and six in 100 at the weekend, based on that one study. It’s sourced (!) as ‘BMJ, January 2013’. Here’s what it actually covers:

‘All emergency medical admissions to Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary between 1 January 2008 and 31 December 2010

_72512901_jamie_clycde_twoHere’s what it concluded:

Adjusted weekend mortality in the all weekend versus all other days analysis was not significantly higher’ 

So, the data is from 2008 to 2010, six to eight years old and thus not valid. It’s only one study and it’s from a tiny atypical region (rural). Secondly, it does not suggest at all that weekends are significantly more dangerous. It does demonstrate that public holidays are, but we all know that people are more likely to be taking risks on mountains or driving motorbikes, for example, on public holidays.

She speaks to the professor responsible and he tells her straight:

‘As a rough guide the number of people who are admitted on a Saturday and die is the same as the number of people who are admitted on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and die. The difference is that there are fewer people admitted at the weekend so if you express the death rate as a percentage it would appear that the death rate at weekends is higher.’

Eleanor: ‘So far so confusing.’

Me: ‘What? What primary school did you go to?’

Most children understand percentages in P6 at 10-11 years of age.

OK thinks Eleanor, never mind the only research I looked at and which contradicts me, I’ll try a different tack. She asks the Prof, suggestively, if Scotland doesn’t need to worry. She gets what she needs. The Prof says that: most of his colleagues agree that we are understaffed at weekends…so we probably don’t provide patients with the same high quality service at weekends’

We start off with research and then dump it for one man’s hesitant opinion when it doesn’t suit the reporter. This is bad journalism.

The Scottish Government get a chance at the end, spoken for them by Eleanor of course, to deny there’s any evidence. They don’t have to prove that. Eleanor has to prove there is evidence. She blatantly hasn’t.

We then get a wee piece on a junior doctor coming home but it’s finished off with ‘…but the debate about weekend care is just beginning.’

Remember the ‘several studies have suggested that the death-rate is higher at weekends.’ All we’ve been shown is the Dumfries study which clearly doesn’t do that. How many is ‘several’. It doesn’t matter because a quick Google search for ‘NHS weekend deaths research’ reported in the last four weeks, only suggests the exact opposite of Eleanor’s claim. Here are the first five results and they all contradict Jeremy Hunt, David Cameron and Eleanor Bradford:

‘Jeremy Hunt Misrepresenting Data – Independent


Jeremy Hunt’s claim of 6,000 NHS weekend deaths was ‘inaccurate’ – Independent

Why David Cameron is completely wrong about 11,000 weekend deaths – Independent


David Cameron claims there are 11,000 ‘Weekend Deaths’ – Huffington Post


Hunt ‘misrepresented’ data on 7-day NHS – BBC News

Here’s another example:

‘She (Professor Fiona McQueen) does stand by her comments which were made at times when she saw behaviour (bad) from staff when they weren’t understaffed and they weren’t overly busy. She’s also received support from some sectors of the profession, from other nurses and also from patients who point out that if she receives this level of criticism for pointing out poor care then what hope do they have?’

108877849_OVERVIEW_342x198We’ve been here before many times in Bradford’s melodramatic reporting on alleged crises in the Scottish NHS. See my earlier report, Professionalism or Propaganda at Pacific Quay. The above quote from an extended story on Reporting Scotland, has all the marks of quite shoddy or biased reporting and, if the latter, an attempt to continue a long term strategy to damn, directly or in this case, by association, the Scottish Government’s management of the NHS. First, why is this reported at all? Professor McQueen is not reporting on a piece of scientific research across Scotland’s hospitals but on one or two observations, in an email, in one or two hospitals in Ayrshire. This is scare-mongering. Further Professor McQueen is an Honorary Professor. Again in an earlier piece, When is a professor an expert?  I clarify the nature of professors and whether you should pay much attention to honorary, visiting and emerita/us professors. Professor McQueen is a high-status managerial professor so not really a professor at all to us bean-counters.

I looked for research into the kind of standards of behaviour desired by Professor McQueen, Executive Nurse Director of University Hospital, Ayr, but could find none we might use to critique sensibly her observations. There are many reports published on what the standards should be but no one has been brave enough to get into wards and try observing with a clipboard in hand, in the midst of all that blood, tears, sweat and shit, what they actually are in practice. What we really have here is a local problem, if that, based on the unstructured observations of a senior manager of considerable experience but no apparent research training. It has no national relevance or significance, should have been dealt with locally and should not have been exploited, for cheap effects, by a BBC reporter in this way.

Further, there is the shoddy use of unsubstantiated rumours, in the second sentence of the quote, as if it were evidence. Why is no other professor of nursing, or senior member of staff prepared to support the hon prof in public comment? How many patients or relatives of patients have complained to her? Did someone actually say ‘What hope do I have?’ This is simply not good enough for the national broadcaster with a captive audience of, especially, older voters to scare to death.

Here’s an example of a code not really possible to do scientifically but still important on the construction of propaganda – Good news for the Scottish Government ignored:

I don’t usually do bias by omission because it’s too hard to demonstrate anything scientifically. They can always say, ‘Oh we had bigger stories to cover’ or ‘We didn’t receive that’ and you can’t easily prove they’re lying. However look at this:

‘The UK has the best A&E performance in the world (measured by process indicators). Scotland has the best A&E performance among the UK nations.’

This was released on 27th January as: ‘PRESS STATEMENT – For immediate release RCEM Scotland launches Essential Facts regarding A&E services in Scotland’ with the above quote clearly stated on page two. Now this is from one of the royal colleges. Reporting Scotland and STV have regularly headlined bad news from the Royal College of Nurses and the Royal College of General Practitioners in the last few weeks. Neither STV nor RS gave this any attention, yet it’s clearly big news. What’s wrong with the Royal College of Emergency Medicine then? Just telling a story some of the MSM don’t want you to hear, I think.

Dr (Resigned Professor) John Robertson, April 28th 2016