BROADCAST NEWS: Armchair view Part 8

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Falling asleep in the armchair and waking up to an email from “Alistair Campbell”

It’s been slim pickings over the last few days as I watch for bias in reports connected with the forthcoming election. There has been a bit here and there about the Scottish NHS presented so as to favour Labour but nothing to compare with the serious propagandising, on Good Morning Scotland and on  Newsdrive,  or so I hear from our long-suffering Radio Scotland Correspondent, George Kerr.

On February 4, George reported: “Following on from Jackie Baillie’s attack on the teacher numbers in Holyrood she said one local council, that she refused to name, couldn’t afford to advertise for teachers. The council was in fact East Renfrewshire, a Labour-run council, and its leader, Jim Fletcher, went on to say that the Scottish Government were ‘holding a gun to their heads’. The current Member of Parliament for East Renfrewshire is Jim Murphy.”

George correctly notes that:  “A further £10m was offered by the SG, in addition to the previously allocated £41m of funding for those local authorities who commit to maintain teacher numbers. Is this what Fletcher meant by a ‘gun to the head’?”

But what’s this about Alistair Campbell? I don’t think it’s the same one, unless he’s up to something so devious I just don’t get it. Here’s part of what “Alistair” wrote to me a few days ago:
“I do believe we in Scotland are now a much more informed and politically astute nation. However, masses still form their voting intentions strongly influenced by the BBC. Claim of their bias is raised but it is difficult from written articles to apprehend/visualise the scale/influence.

“So can I suggest publishing a weekly (Snow moment) ‘BBC Election Bias Swingometer” – a simple swing chart that makes the point instantly, visually and in a memorable form. It could also show trends as it swings and we approach the election date. It would be easy to share on social media and as a tool to help seek accountability from the BBC.”

My first reaction was mixed. I liked it and I didn’t like it. The editor seemed unsure too. You can see how turning news report sentences into numbers and then angles immediately draws the accusation of undue subjectivity and lack of validity. You might remember my study in January 2014 drew the same criticism,  despite my indignant assertions that after 30 years I knew how to do it properly and that people who weren’t professors like me should just shut up and show some respect. A reasonable position I felt.  And, the people noticed the numbers especially when I turned them into betting ratios like 2:1, BBC is biased against Yes campaign!

The BBC noticed the ratios too and reacted not very ratio nally (deliberate space, Editor) to them. My ratios made them mad as hell.

However, my second reaction was good. I like Alistair’s idea, not because it’s impeccable scientifically (it’s not). I like it because it will do, as he suggested, more to “make the point instantly, visually and in a memorable form” and “show trends as it swings and we approach the election date”. This would mean daily and cumulative diagrams as we progress toward the election.

The Prof's caricature adopts a new position in the armchair
The Prof’s caricature adopts a new position in the armchair

So, I’m up for it. I’ll pilot it, test the water and take it from there, if the editor publishes it of course! Here’s what I’ll count:
1.    Pro Opposition: Sentences, clauses, phrases critical of SNP/Scottish Government or supportive of Opposition Parties;
2.    Pro SNP/SG: Sentences, clauses, phrases critical of Opposition Parties or supportive of SNP/Scottish Government.

To be more precise, any phrase, sentence clause or single clause sentence that is part of an argument/announcement is counted as such even if it is only descriptive. I’m interested in the sheer weight of presence for SNP/SG and Opposition statements.

Day 1: Saturday 7th February 2015: STV
STV open with “Jim Murphy, the Labour Leader has announced a £25 million plan to help the poorest pupils in Scotland”. It’s a cracker as they say. The opportunities to deconstruct the piece and point to inadequacies in the reporting are obvious but we have a different strategy for the moment. Reporting Scotland pass on this Murphy opportunity altogether. What’s going on? Have I mistaken their allegiance to SNL? Let’s wait till Sunday night.
Here are the results for Day 1 of the Newsnet.scot Election 2015 Swingometer (Piechart):
Pro Opposition 22
Pro SNP/SG         4

So we have an 11:2, or greater than 5:1, ratio in favour of the Opposition in Scotland. It’s only one report I know. How we make the thing swing will be the thing. Let’s see where this takes us.

Day 2: Sunday 8th February 2015: STV
STV open with “Scottish pupils could benefit from a radical initiative”. This time it’s Nicola Sturgeon’s offer to implement a scheme derived from London and there’s a wee chance for Jim Murphy to claim she’s copying Labour and that’s a good thing. The Murphy comment is, however, a very small part of the report. Again, Reporting Scotland does not report.
Here are the results for Day 2 of the Newsnet.scot Election 2015 Swingometer:
Pro SNP/SG        25
Pro Opposition   4

So we have a 25:4, or greater than 6:1, ratio in favour of the SNP/SG on STV.

The cumulative figures for these 2 days are:
Pro SNP/SG        29
Pro Opposition 26

Clearly telling us nothing other than that two initiatives, one from each side, were both presented rather passively by STV

Not much to look at. I’ll keep going for the moment. [Let’s see how it goes. Ed]

Professor John Robertson, 8th February 2015