BROADCAST NEWS 20: Should broadcasters spend money on polls during campaign?


Professor John Robertson is still locking in on the news…

April 3 – 9:

I’m so impatient. As I finish this piece, watching Thursday’s BBC Reporting Scotland, the last item is Brian Taylor revealing something.  It was barely noticeable at first. I thought maybe it was just my imagination: Was he using the phrase ‘they say’ frequently when referring to the SNP and not using it when referring to Labour? Hmm…

The Prof: He watches TV news so we don't have to...
The Prof: He watches TV news so we don’t have to…

April 9:
Here’s the piece:
Sally Magnusson: Now the Labour Party has been going pretty strong on that issue (Full Fiscal Autonomy) now, hasn’t it?
Brian on Labour: They have Sally. Now to be fair, they’ve been going on this for weeks, ever since the Institute for Fiscal Studies published new figures suggesting that the deficit in Scotland for next year, were Scotland in charge of Scottish taxation and spending, would be some 7.6 billion pounds. The IFS say that in terms of a share of the economy that’s twice the percentage of the deficit that there would be in the UK as a whole.

Now, Labour has been commenting on this. Ed Miliband is up in Scotland tomorrow. He will go very hard on this indeed and they believe he will drill down into estimating what this could mean in terms of lost spending on nurses, teachers and the like and Labour says they’ve been energised in their campaign by Nicola Sturgeon’s statement in the BBC Debate suggesting that her party would vote in the House of Commons and seek to bring about full fiscal autonomy and Labour says that would be ruinous for the Scottish economy.

Brian on SNP: They say that if you take a single year it can be misleading. If you take a longer period, Scotland’s fiscal position, Scotland’s tax and spending position has frequently been better than England, than the UK as a whole. Naturally, that’s when you include oil. They say that going forward, Scotland’s onshore economy looks strong, sufficiently strong and robust, they say, to mitigate any problems in the North Sea oil industry and they also say that Labour are scare-mongering with regard to the impact on Scotland. They say that all nations are maintaining a deficit and they believe that Scotland could grow the economy with the powers available from full fiscal autonomy, from being in charge of all taxes and spending. Scotland could grow the economy, they say, and grow their way out of any challenges.

OK, let’s not get carried away. Three ‘says’, in the Labour part, and six in the same-sized SNP part means…..something? Now the sentences are not all the same.  In some, ‘they say’ is just an indicator of source but in others it’s a reminder for the viewer that they should remember and be wary of the subjectivity of the information. This is only true in the last one of the three ‘say’s in the Labour section but in all six of the ‘say’s in the SNP section above. Consciously or unconsciously, Brian Taylor seems to reveals here, a clear predisposition to communicate to the viewer a note of caution with regard to the claims of the SNP but does not do so regarding the Labour Party in Scotland. The absence of ‘say’s in the middle of the Labour section and the cluster in the middle of the SNP section mark the former as somehow authoritative and the latter as subjective.

I’m not a psychologist so, I’ll stop there. I’d be really interested in responses on this.
For those who know as little as me, see: Word Choice Detects Everything from Love to Lies to Leadership.

I’ve left much unsaid about the above two sets of comments in terms of content.
Much of the rest of the show, and that of STV News, was concerned with Michael Fallon, Master of Defence, accusing Ed of being a backstabber!

They were all talking about her debate performance until someone made up some crap and put it in the Telegraph
They were all talking about her debate performance until someone made up some crap and put it in the Telegraph

April 3: Fair-play?
In their coverage of the UK Leaders’ Debate of the night before, both STV and BBC give a reasonable hearing to all four parties. Both gave quite extended and early attention to Sturgeon and Murphy with the latter, disturbingly, finding opportunities, wherever he could, to hug weans or, in one case, quite a small gentleman he clearly thought might be a wean.

Sturgeon’s performance, widely praised in other media, was similarly praised by STV (‘Well-received both north and south of the border’) but RepScot could not bring themselves to do so, as James Cook (He who accused me on Twitter of ‘losing my marbles.’) notes ‘opponents say she wasn’t tested’.  “Opponents”, really? Is this all we deserve? Who said it? Ask them to say it again. Your job is to ask, for the viewer, what they meant and crucially, why their leader failed to test her? It seems like we should think it is a weakness in her performance because the others couldn’t lay a glove on her.

April 4: Nicola re-invokes the Auld Alliance with France. Oscar Wilde makes an appearance in one of the Prof’s best jokes.

Nicola Sturgeon denies it, the French ambassador denies it, the French consul denies it. Nobody, who could know, says that Nicola expressed a preference for Dave over Ed. Why on earth would she or anyone else with half a brain, want either of them? It’s not a story but the UK politicians and media gallop with it. It’s everywhere. Ruth, Jim and Wullie Rennie smell a rat and know the rumour to be true, regardless of no evidence, as only those lying in the gutter on a cloudy night can do [Like that wee Wildean trick there?]. To be fair, it looks like it’s on its last legs by Sunday morning.

April 5: Easter Sunday
Nothing at all, on both sides now (pray for Joni Mitchell). No sign of le memo. Bon!

Gratuitous Mogwai image inserted here only because we like Mogwai
Gratuitous Mogwai image inserted here only because we like Mogwai

April 6: Les Revenants
I was wrong. They were just having le weekend aff. Like returning French zombies, Les Revenants (music by Scots greats Mogwai), the French Connection is restored and Jackie Bird tells us ‘The UK Government memo which claimed the SNP would rather see the Tories remain in Westminster continues to pre-occupy politicians.’ Quelle fibber: The memo is pre-occupying you and other journalists. It might be on the minds of a few directly affected politicians like Carmichael and Murphy but most of the others know it’s a naff ploy  which threatens to attach itself to them like spilled egg yolk on clean trousers.

STV can’t resist it either. Together with RepScot they’re creating a kind of reality based on something not said rather than something demonstrably said. Shallow Al Carmichael’s departmental incompetence or, more likely, dirty tricks is surely a better story? But, no, the imagined, desired, First Ministerial faux-pas seems more important for democracy than the all-too-real misconduct of a civil servant leaking something to the press.

April 7: Regretting Tony Blair’s ‘Near Death’
If we add up all the statements made by the SNP’s opponents (or favourable comments by others), then it’s inevitably very one-sided. However this is not a two-way but a four-way struggle. The three other big parties have a right to coverage even though they share, above all, a burning opposition to the SNP’s prime purpose – full independence.

The almost complete neglect of the other two pro-independence parties – Green and SSP – could, however, be argued reasonably to indicate bias of this kind, but their size allows the mainstream media to discount them on a simple objective criterion.

On STV, there were 17 statements by the SNP or about them by the reporter. There were 108 statements by the SNP’s ‘opponents’ or by reporters about them. Of these, 44 concerned the entry of former PM Tony Blair to the campaign and Jim Murphy for Labour, 42 concerned David Cameron and Ruth Davidson for the Conservatives and the Lib Dems had 22 mentions.

Typically, my innate reasonableness gets a wee slap on this occasion as the numbers, by themselves, are quite unfair to the SNP. Journalists who rely on news values as a get-out, as many still do, will say that Blair and Cameron’s visit had to be covered and that this may have led to imbalance. Perhaps a visit by Salmond will receive the same attention then? Let’s see. To be fair, Blair was upset by the ‘near-death experience’ of the referendum.

Next, sequencing suggests deference to the former Labour and current Conservative leaders with the SNP appearing fifth in the running order. Overall the tone of STV’s reporting in terms of tone and vocabulary, was professional, if a little deferential to Blair and Cameron. Finally you might add that Bernard Ponsonby compensated a little, right at the end, by giving the SNP support a wee thrill with one of their favourite lines: ‘carnage for Labour!’ This phrase is becoming, if Bernard is not careful, a successor to the later Arthur Montford’s ‘disaster for Scotland’ as our defence lets in the injury-time  goal to knock us out of the competition.

What could Reporting Scotland do? Glenn Campbell’s the man for this task. The numbers are smaller with less time than STV gave. It’s 14 for David and Ruth, 22 for Tony and Jim, 25 for Nicola and SNP and 16 for the Lib Dems. So, crudely, it’s a bit more balanced than STV.  The sequencing is similar but Nicola gets in third as Tony is relegated to a late surprise appearance, like one of the Ring Wraiths in Lord of the Rings.

Reporting Scotland has kept time for another of their opinion polls. IPSOS-MORI this time with a sample of 1 042 out of more than 4 million voters. I’ll email Douglas Fraser. He was helpful with the contact for the YouGov one on immigration, although they would not let me see their data.
This most recent poll identifies economic issues as of most interest to voters. The previous poll identified immigration as worrying Scots nearly as much as the rest of the UK population. While these findings may be valid and reliable, I have to ask the question, as others have done, why are BBC Scotland using public finances on opinion polling that can influence the election rather than simply reflecting developments using the ‘Hadron Fairness Tool’ they must have developed since being caught out in January 2014?

April 8: STV Cover the Election, Reporting Scotland Direct the Election
On STV News, it’s straightforward. They let the parties present themselves. Old guard members  Annabelle Goldie for the Tories and Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems get only a few words. Jim Murphy visits another charity. Forget his voting for wars and the bedroom tax (by not turning up to vote against). Forget his expenses claims and his property portfolio. Forget his pals in the drinks industry. This man feels. He often tells us how he feels. He’s honest too. At the debate, as often before, he reminds us that he wants to be honest with us. At the Leaders’ Debate, he reminded us that the Labour Party is the party of the common man…and woman. The people must love him after all he’s done for them.

This is not scientific as I only did two years of psychology at university, but going on like this about being leftish and caring so much about ordinary hard-working folk that you could greet, while believing the opposite (judging by previous behaviour) is very bad for your mental health. This ‘cognitive dissonance’ – a gap between your public and inner self – can result in schizophrenia, if the gap gets too big and becomes fixed.

Working with Ed Balls, who keeps saying the exact opposite on English media of what Murphy  has to say in Scotland, can only make this worse.  So, Jim, stop reading Tony Blair, acknowledge the truth of Ed Balls and have a wee look at Glasgow psychiatrist, RD Laing’s ‘The Divided Self’.

STV let SNP start but then shuffle the sequence to get a degree of fairness. Overall figures:
Party            No. of Statements
SNP            24
Labour         14
Conservatives        13
Greens            6
UKIP            6

While STV News seem to have been watching the political activity with a view to informing us, Reporting Scotland appear to have been watching for something they can exploit in pursuit of a pre-existing agenda. That agenda is to seek potential weaknesses in the Scottish government / SNP position and to concentrate on that, worrying away at it. Recent examples have been the alleged crises in the Scottish NHS and in local authorities.

BBC News Scotland: Sourcing news from opinion polls and newspaper headlines ?
BBC News Scotland: Sourcing news from opinion polls and newspaper headlines ?

Sturgeon’s not planning another referendum but won’t rule one out. Opponents have criticised her. We know from the front covers of the newspapers. In a heap where you can only see the headlines in The Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail and The Herald, there are three which clearly make the case for Reporting Scotland. The Herald is less clear. This seems to be Reporting Scotland’s supporting evidence for what the population might think, and it is clawed methodology.

OK, what about the audience of real people? We hear that many of them groaned when James  asked Nicola again. I’ve played it three times now. I thought it was clearly laughter and that the tone was fairly warm as in when a friend has to defend themselves but you know they can cope. Luckily BBC Research Methods Examiner, Glenn Campbell, is there to point out that: ‘The crowd is not a scientific sample of public opinion but…’

Correct, Glenn, nor is it a representative sample, nor is it a random one.  We’d need it to be the first at the size you had in the debate, or much larger if it was going to be random.  Ideally, all other considerations in place, your research might be valid and reliable. However, worry not, another Campbell is there to help.

The ‘but’ above presaged the arrival of veteran Olympian Ming Campbell to validate Glenn Campbell’s assessment, saying that: ‘it was a telling moment and the crowd certainly weren’t supporting her.’ Really, Ming, you could assess the whole crowd on the basis of a wee laugh? I couldn’t. I can count though and we get:
SNP        12
Labour        11
Conservative    8
Lib Dems    8

As in the previous day, BBC has their survey to show us. As with the referendum scare, BBC has research evidence which might help its opponents to identify weaknesses in the SNP. Remember an earlier BBC survey showing Scots were kind of like the English on immigration and the EU? Makes you wonder why anyone would want to split us up doesn’t it.  That SNP lot want more immigration don’t they?

Tonight’s survey, IPSOS-MORI with a sample of 1 042 then, is about the issues ‘voters’ care about. Remember the tiny sample size. How to report this then? Professors Curtice and Taylor show us how. Taylor gives us a list of the four most “popular” issues starting with the ability to increase pensions and benefits (73%), and with no mention of the popularity of full independence (A YouGov poll in November 2014 put full independence at 52%).

Having another referendum comes in at 56%, ‘just above halfway’ and renewing Trident at 40%! Isn’t that the big story? Four in ten Scots want to upgrade Trident?

I repeat, why is BBC Scotland spending our money on surveys enabling them to contribute to the election campaign? No matter your politics, that is not their job. It’s for politicians to campaign and for us to think about what they say. The media role is to report, fairly. Isn’t it?

Professor John Robertson, University of the West of Scotland, 10th April 2015