Dr John Robertson plans to review BBC and STV television news coverage of the Scottish Parliamentary election campaign between now and polling day in May. Dr Robertson’s initial analysis of TV news coverage during the referendum campaign attracted derision from the BBC and his criticism has provoked controversy ever since. His first instalment covers Friday Jan 8 – Thursday Jan 14.
Covering broadcasts from January 6th to May 6th 2015, I reported on BBC bias in Propaganda or Professionalism on Pacific Quay? In a final report, I summarised the findings of the weekly commentaries. See the report below.
I begin again, this year, in the run-up to the Scottish Parliamentary Elections on May 5th 2016, using the same methods. My methodology, including its underlying philosophy, has been much debated by non-researchers though they are uncontroversial in the academic research world and have not been challenged there. They can be found, below, in my free online book, Scotland’s Propaganda War.
In simple terms, I am counting sentences and sequences of such made by presenters, reporters, politicians and others including members of the electorate, which can reasonably objectively be coded as negative or positive, in different ways, for the interests of the Scottish Government/SNP or for the three Unionist parties. Perhaps less clear at first sight, I have been counting sentences which suggest bad news for Scotland including in its current and near-future economy, health, social services, crime prevention, environment and so on. Naïve or ideologically-biased critics will question whether this overall representation of a climate, day-after-day, of relative pessimism or of optimism has consequences for political parties. BBC Scotland has used this defence to critique, unsuccessfully, my 2014 research. It does not stand. Academics know well that to represent a nation’s well-being in predominantly negative terms can only harm the government of the day. These broadcasts may have consequences for voters’ impressions of the effectiveness of the SNP in government and, in some cases, the former’s attitudes to the idea of full independence. Critics will no doubt question the objectivity of my coding. I will maintain a full recorded set of the broadcasts and my daily coding of this and be able to provide the actual quotes coded for each day if challenged.
Friday 8th January
STV reported extensively on the flooding but did not politicise the reports in anyway. None of those interviewed complained of government failure.
Reporting Scotland was, by contrast, quite explicit in politicising these disasters. On the one hand they covered more locations and at greater length than STV thus creating a stronger sense of negativity in the impressions of viewers. Though not specifically blaming the current Scottish Government, this level of emphasis might subliminally affect voters. More important, however were the direct attempts by the reporter in Inverurie to link the floods to possible political failures.
After the local councillor had suggested that: ‘I’m not sure any measures could have stopped this’, the reporter went straight on to say: ‘After a succession of devastating floods, local and national politicians are under pressure to provide guarantees. They’re finding it increasingly hard to explain this to voters.’ Alex Salmond is then interviewed and asked of the locals: ‘Are they happy with the response from local and national government?’ Salmond is then allowed to repeat that as far as he can observe, there has been ‘complete admiration for the efforts.’
Note in the above, the hyperbolic language used and the attempt to politicise events in very negative terms which, ironically, no local flood victim could presumably be found to express. The reporter does not evidence any of his concerns. What exactly is the pressure, from where and by whom is it being applied? Are people asking for guarantees, really? These have been the highest river levels in 45 years according to the BBC’s own website. Are politicians really finding this ‘hard to explain to voters?’ Where is the evidence? Expenditure on Scottish flood defences has been maintained while in England it has been cut repeatedly since the Lib-Con Coalition took power. In BBC 1 News, we have seen numerous angry citizens blaming government for lack of investment but we have not seen the like in Scotland. Here lies the fundamental problem with the validity of Reporting Scotland’s accusations. They have no evidence. Scottish flood prevention is superior to that in most countries. See my previous paper, Despite the deluge, for extensive independent evidence for this claim. We are left with the conclusion that this report was biased against the Scottish Government and the SNP on no real evidence base.
Monday 11th January
STV headlined this: ‘A national flood management plan is launched by the Scottish Government.’ The fuller report came later. It contained no comments from any source critical of the Scottish Government (SG) despite interviewing several victims of the floods.
Reporting Scotland did not headline the new flood prevention initiative. Rather they choose: ‘Some of the country’s biggest councils aren’t using their powers to take polluting vehicles off the road.’ This extensive story quickly moved from the role of councils to that of the SG despite the content of the headline. After admitting that these tests have been shown to be less effective than annual MOTs the report contains these comments:
‘Some senior councillors have told us they’re struggling to cope with the impact of the Scottish Government’s road building programme and lack the resources they need to make a real difference. It’s claimed Scotland spent just £3m last year fighting pollution while investing £700m building new roads.’
After the Health Minister tries to stress other measures such as encouraging walking and public transport, the reporter interrupts to say: ‘Just 1.9% of your budget?’ and finishes with: ‘Experts say pollution remains a real threat.’ No sources are given for any of the claims made by the reporter and the budget percentage is not contextualised. How are we to know if 1.9% is good or bad?
When we get to the report of the flooding strategies half way through the show, we hear:
‘The Scottish Government has launched a national flood risk management plan. It combines 14 local strategies which identify 42 flood prevention schemes to be worked on over the next 5 years at a total cost of £235m.’
Tuesday 12th January:
STV News covered the BP job losses but with fairly moderate language and no suggestion of blame for the SG. The RS report was longer, more pessimistic and extended the likely impact of the damage for the Scottish economy, beyond oil production itself. It is worth noting however that, unlike in either of these broadcasts, lower oil prices can be shown to be beneficial for other areas of the Scottish economy. This view comes, even, from the Economist, no friend of ‘Skintland’ if you remember:
‘For the rest of the country, lower oil prices have acted like a tax cut for firms and consumers, boosting growth….’
See also this by Alex Russell, professor of petroleum accounting at Robert Gordon University:
‘Scottish independence: Low oil prices would have been of benefit to an independent Scotland.’
And from the admittedly pro-independence, Business for Scotland:
‘Without oil – would Scotland already be independent?’
Wednesday, 13th January:
STV opened with the Moray Council’s announcement of its intention to make a major increase in council tax charges. The report was balanced with almost as many comments suggesting the move was actually not very likely and reminding the viewer of SG initiatives to compensate councils for the freeze so far. This was followed by quite a short piece on MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh’s charity fund for Muslim Women in Scotland which was critical but even Labour’s Ms Baillie seemed hesitant to really go for this one, suggesting a kind of underlying sympathy for the charity’s purpose. Third, was a fairly extensive light-hearted piece on Alex Salmond’s new role on LBC radio in London. For those who already like his sharp wit and cheeky manner, the report gave him the opportunity to charm them even further. He is allegedly a divisive figure. For those who don’t like him, the report will no doubt only have deepened their disapproval of him. His Tory host, Iain Dale, seemed to like him quite a lot.
RS also headlined on Moray Council’s threat of a large council tax increase but interpreted it as a much more challenging threat to the SG than did STV. RS shouted:
‘The days of the national council tax freeze may be numbered!’
‘Enough is enough!’
‘A flagship government policy is facing a real challenge!’
This was quite a depressing night from RS with seven downers to STV’s two downers and one upper.
Next it was the economy which: ‘grew slightly last year but it’s lagging behind the UK as a whole.’ Loss of oil revenue will have been a major cost in 2015 but wouldn’t it have been possible to note that Scotland’s economy has not gone into decline despite the considerable loss of oil revenue? Don’t these figures suggest a form of resilience? No, with a short interlude to recognise growth in IT businesses, we got these:
‘Hammer blow!’ ‘Choppy waters!’ ‘Fizzle out!’ and ‘Lagging behind!’
Space prevents full discussion of this ‘hammer blow’ of a broadcast so suffice to say we also enjoyed: ‘Scottish Government is facing the threat of court action if it fails to tackle illegal levels of air pollution in our biggest cities!’, ‘Police release film of Mosque fire.’ and ‘Hundreds of people are dying waiting for care packages to be arranged!’
If bombarding viewers with bad news makes them judge the incumbent government badly, then this evening’s show would be a ‘Hammer blow’ for the SNP!’
The report into care package deficiencies was carried out by the MND sufferer, ‘No’ campaigner and former Labour party activist, Gordon Aikman and presented by Eleanor Bradford, so it was clearly highly independent. The report found that 276 people died awaiting packages. How good or bad this is, relatively, was not clear. One has to presume it was peer-reviewed and checked–out thoroughly by RS researchers.
Thursday 14th January:
‘A life-line for workers! Scotland’s two remaining steel plants may have a potential buyer.’
STV opened positively with this report and allowed Fergus Ewing to make the careful reservations about not getting too confident. There was a fairly extensive piece on the spat between Alex Salmond and Donald Trump. This report was not coded given the difficulty in doing so.Noting his allegedly divisive nature, the report will no doubt have been good and bad for the SNP. One further major story concerned: ‘Glasgow parents protest over the placements of their severely autistic children in mainstream schools.’ This was quite balanced and, again, no link to SG/SNP was made.
RS opened equally optimistically with: ‘New hope for steel workers in Lanarkshire!’ The full report was similar to that of STV. A report on suicide risks amongst oil workers who had lost their jobs was, again, fairly balanced. Dramatically changing the overall climate of the broadcast were two positive, heart-warming, stories on a new valve for lung surgery and a Sport Relief project, with Judy Murray, in Easterhouse, Glasgow.
So, after counting the number of sentences used in each of these coded categories, this table illustrates the distribution and level of each.
The Score for 8th to 14th January: Number of sentences:
Broadcaster: STV BBC
Negative comments by reporters for SG/SNP 5 13
Negative comments by reporters for Unionist Parties 0 0
Positive comments by reporters for SG/SNP 8 0
Positive comments reporters for Unionist Parties 0 0
Good news for Scotland’s Economy, Health, Crime etc 95 149
Bad news for Scotland’s Economy, Health, Crime etc 315 342
Bad news for SNP/SG start 4 4
Bad news for SNP/SG finish 2 4
Bad news for Unionist parties start 0 0
Bad news for Unionist parties finish 0 0
Uncritical use of evidence against SG/SNP 1 1
Uncritical use of evidence against Unionist parties 0 0
At this early stage, the data can only hint at possibilities. There is, however, early evidence of a tendency in Reporting Scotland reporters, to adopt a more aggressive stance toward Scottish Government representatives. This was notable in four stories – that of the flooding, that of polluting vehicles, that of the economy and that of the council tax. In all four cases, contrary to STV, RS attempted to fully politicise these issues in terms of explicit or implied failure in the SNP-controlled Scottish Government.
Dr John Robertson, Ayr 15th January 2016
Footnote: Dr Robertson is now retired after 35 years in education and has resigned his personal professorship in protest against recent managerial actions in his previous employer and in many other Scottish universities. These include nepotism in the appointment of professorships and other senior posts, excessive salary awards for senior staff, the waste of public funds in the pursuit of vanity projects especially in the field of internationalisation, the consequent under-funding of teaching and research and the impoverishment of loyal, hard-working support staff.
Declaration: Dr Robertson joined the SNP in late 2015 after 35 years of no party membership in the interests then of attempting impartiality in teaching. Despite his membership and great respect for the party’s achievements, he differs from current policy on NATO, the Monarchy, Land-ownership and Fracking.
Robertson, J. (2015) Despite the deluge, is flood protection stronger and better funded in Scotland? at: https://newsnet.scot/?p=116159
Robertson, J. (2015) Propaganda or Professionalism on Pacific Quay? How political issues were covered by BBC Reporting Scotland and STV News in the four months before the UK General Election 2015 at: https://thoughtcontrolscotland.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/propaganda-or-professionalism.pdf
Robertson, J. (2014) Scotland’s Propaganda War: The Media and the 2014 Independence Referendum at: http://thoughtcontrolscotland.com/2015/08/24/scotlands-propaganda-war-the-media-and-the-2014-independence-referendum/
Russell, A. (2015) Scottish independence: Low oil prices would have been of benefit to an independent Scotland at: http://www.cityam.com/224490/scottish-independence-low-oil-prices-would-have-been-benefit-independent-scotland
Anon (2015) Of whisky, oil and banks, at: http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21664219-year-after-independence-referendum-scotlands-unexpectedly-strong-economic-performance