Making sense of media coverage as Scotland approaches election

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Dr John Robertson brings Part 2 in his series of analysis of TV news in the run-up to the Scottish Parliamentary Elections in May. This chapter covers  January 15 – 21

Friday 15th – Thursday 21st January

‘Eleanor Bradford scares Dr Robertson’s mum!’

Dr John Robertson
Dr John Robertson

My mum (85) is in hospital and she watches Reporting Scotland faithfully. Note the word faithfully. She is unnerved every time there’s a Bradford NHS scare story and is reluctant to go into hospital. This is personal. Reporting Scotland, check your facts and forget about getting the SNP!

Friday 15th January:

‘Laid bare – the massive financial pressures for Scotland’s largest health board!’

STV opened with a fairly extensive and dramatic report of possible job-losses and closures in Glasgow NHS. Only toward the end of report, after Labour’s Jackie Baillie has had the opportunity to criticise the plans, do we hear that they are only proposals for further debate in the board. There are further short pieces on job cuts and a plague of potholes in Scotland’s roads.

Reporting Scotland delivered a very quiet broadcast with no real drama. Perhaps they had not seen the Glasgow NHS cuts leak. They led with:

‘A week ago the River Don burst its banks and raced through homes. Now flood victims are pulling together to help each other.’

It’s not clear why RS persists with this story after several intensive reports over the last week or more. It reminds of their determination to continue reporting on the Forth Bridge closure for 6 or 7 evenings at the end of 2015, well after STV had found new stories to squeeze it out and apparently denying them the space and time to report on improvements in SNHS waiting times. Similarly, the slightly worn story of flares at football matches was extensively covered.

Monday 18th January:

‘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?’

Eleanor Bradford
Eleanor Bradford

We’ve been here before many times in Eleanor 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 an attempt to continue a long term strategy to damn, directly or in this case, by association, the Scottish Government’s management of the SNHS.

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.

I can be anecdotal too. My mum (85) is in hospital in Kirkcaldy. I’ve phoned several times and every time, every time, the nurses have been really kind and helpful. I’m always polite and express gratitude to them of course. Could that be important? 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.

Though this report may contribute to a wider negativity regarding the SNHS and by association the Scottish Government, it does not explicitly blame the SG. Consequently, I have only counted six of the more dramatic and negative comments, out of a fairly long report, for inclusion in the quantitative data table.

On the same night, we had another extended piece on flood damage to one bridge which is now being repaired so not much of a story I’d have thought. Most puzzling was the extended piece, on Donald Trump threatening to ‘scrap millions of investment in Scotland.’ In the report we had five comments explicitly about this threat with no attempt to balance or counter it thus leaving the audience with the feeling it might be really bad news for Scotland. A quick search and we get from the Economist via the Daily Record on 10th January: ‘Donald Trump’s £700m blowhard: Economist brands billionaire’s promise of Scots bonanza a ‘fairytale’.

The url is below if you’d like to read the whole demolition of the ‘the Donald’. For the above to be balanced and fair it absolutely required this kind of credible counter-evidence which any programme researcher could have found in seconds.

To be balanced myself, I should note RS’s very positive piece on natural flood prevention including the opening: ‘The Scottish government’s flood prevention strategy is seeing millions being spent on schemes in places like Selkirk but projects are also in places miles away from towns.’ Nice.

STV, as in the pre-General Election phase in Spring 2015, offer a convenient comparison for RS. First, I have to accept that the closed railway bridge story was worth it as they both covered it. However, in the case of two other stories, the STV versions suggest greater professionalism. First in the Trump story, we hear from the reporter: ‘Experts say only a fraction of this (£700m) has been spent on his Aberdeenshire and Ayrshire golf estates.’ It’s not much and it’s unattributed, but it is balance. Does STV have more researchers? Second, we hear that Professor McQueen has apologised. Only two sentences are used and there is no mention of any rumoured horde of managers, nurses or angry patients supporting the hon prof.

STV also cover important developments in the frankly disgraceful treatment of Gulf War veterans. At least 50 percent are suffering a form of PTSD. The well-documented closeness of BBC Scotland and Tony Blair’s New Labour made this story less comfortable for them I suppose.

Tuesday 19th:

This was quite a quiet evening, in terms of party-political impact of the selected news events, on both STV and RS. Unsurprisingly RS headlined The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital’s failure to meet A&E targets by an admittedly very long way. The always professional Reevel Alderson reported in a direct but balanced and contextualised way which couldn’t really be criticised. These are worrying figures even for the winter period and the new hospital clearly has problems to address. In previous articles I have questioned the failure of RS to report successes in November 2015. Fairness is important.

Reevel Alderson: always professional
Reevel Alderson: always professional

STV led somewhat bizarrely to my mind with the not-so exciting claim that taxpayers were being asked to pay for face recognition technology, by football clubs. If the Scottish government does agree, do readers think it should be a means-tested benefit with clubs attracting 40,000 fans or more being told to pay for it themselves? STV also gave quite a bit of time to cover the Labour Party’s pre-election scramble to get to the top of the MSP lists, in quite negative terms:

‘Many in the party fear another SNP surge can wipe out labour constituency MSPs leaving them with just list members elected by the second vote. Senior labour MSPs are admitting there will be casualties!’

RS did report on this but more briefly and neglecting to mention any possible anxieties. The fining of the BT campaign by the electoral commission was covered briefly and almost identically by both.

Finally, only STV gave quite extensive coverage to the protesters who are still camped on the grass outside Holyrood. The STV reporter even let their spokesperson talk for some time and to blame media bias for a previous reluctance to speak.

Wednesday 20th:

‘End the council tax freeze! The First Minister’s own poverty adviser calls for reform to help the poorest families. Opposition parties say the report is deeply embarrassing for the First Minister.’

STV certainly went for this as very bad news for the SG/SNP. They represented the adviser’s comments accurately and produced a report with was quite heavily skewed against the SG. The FM did get a brief opportunity to appear calm and responsive but this was a very small fraction of the time for the adviser herself and opposition politicians though I have a feeling that Labour’s Ms Baillie is not helping to weaken the SG much. One obvious and important weakness in the report was the lack of explanation and discussion of the extent to which councils are compensated by the SG. Here’s a report titled Local authorities ‘overfunded’ for council tax freeze on research (research, remember?) from the BBC’s website, saying, something very interesting indeed:

‘Local government has been more than adequately compensated for revenues lost through the council tax freeze, new research has suggested. The Scottish Parliament’s information centre has been looking at the figures. It found extra cash given by the Scottish government to councils was worth slightly more than they would have raised in increasing council tax.’

If you don’t trust the Scottish Parliament’s information centre, ask for a copy of the report, find the flaws and let me know. I’m quite a soft marker.

Another extended piece on the Forth Road Bridge repairs can again only have been bad news for the SG though the report was balanced and fair.

RS led off very brightly and nearly caught me off guard, with:

‘The number of people in work in Scotland reaches 2.6m, a record high!

We got 12 very positive comments then a sneaky wee sideways pass to Professor Bell (he is a real one) who reminded us not to get too cheered-up because there were less full-time and more part-time jobs created so ‘..the composition of jobs is not as good as in rest of the UK.’ We could have coped with that in the interests of balance but RS were not finished pouring cold water on anything that might be seen as success for SG policy. Another reporter then launched into an extended piece on the down-side to all this: ‘And problems remain! Falling oil prices mean thousands of jobs lost in the offshore industry. Today that trend continued.’

We had interviews with unemployed oil workers and pictures of their sad faces not to mention redundant rigs in lovely Scottish sea-lochs. How did this report start? Wasn’t it good news? I can’t remember. It seems ages ago. Seriously this is a very clear example of bias. The extended links to the oil industry are bias pretending to be balance. Further where was the reminder that low oil prices are good for other sectors of the economy? See my report No.1 for evidence on that.

Finally, RS reported on the SG Poverty Adviser’s report. It was actually less dramatic than the STV one but likewise had no reference to the fact that councils are well compensated for the loss, See above.

Thursday 21st:

‘I can only say please help us. We are living like animals’

STV opened with words and images that were frankly shocking as they revealed: ‘Squalor and decay, the despair among some residents of Glasgow’s Govanhill.’ The piece was quite extended with numerous local residents showing the very real decay and confronting the First Minister who is also the local MSP. Now there’s maybe something I’m not getting here, but it seems the SNP has missed a real priority here. If we can’t house all of our people in decent conditions, then we really shouldn’t be able to afford vanity projects like the Commonwealth Games, a rail-link to Glasgow Airport or Edinburgh’s trams. Did the SNP want the trams expenditure? The Games alone at over half a billion pounds, could have built at least 5,000 new homes. It would have been a no-brainer for me.

Some SNP supporters might see this as a hatchet job on the FM. I don’t know. She was there that day as were the protestors and, above all else, it looked awful beyond words as I sat in my study with a view of the rolling Ayrshire hills. I nearly wept. The only criticism, I suppose would be that the report didn’t get some of the private landlords who own these places of despair, on film.

There was a wee piece on council cuts but again no debate using a balancing report titled Local authorities ‘overfunded’ for council tax freeze, mentioned earlier and listed below. The same was true for the RS report on the same thing.

RS were clearly in a very different frame of mind. Having missed the Govanhill story they went for these topics as headlines: two sleeping drivers kill, murder, drink-driving and gin vs whisky.

The council funding cuts story did blame the SG but only briefly and with little drama from Jamie McIver. It was balanced with a chance for councils, SG and street protestors to have their say. Again, balancing evidence from the report titled Local authorities ‘overfunded’ for council tax freeze seemed to be unknown or undiscoverable by the programme researchers.

Finally and maybe a bit late in the show we got:

‘The Scottish Government has announced that it will spend more than £160m in the next year to help people own their own homes.. The money will be targeted on young people and families on low incomes.’

If I hadn’t seen STV’s Govanhill report, I might have been saying: ‘Why isn’t it a headliner and the starting story?’ After seeing Govanhill, I’m left thinking, maybe this could wait too till we sort out the greater problem.

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 15th to 21st January: Number of sentences:

Broadcaster: STV /BBC

Negative comments by reporters for SG/SNP 34(68) 2(47)

Negative comments by reporters for Unionist Parties 6(6) 2(2)

Positive comments by reporters for SG/SNP 8(20) 4(16)

Positive comments by reporters for Unionist Parties 1(1) 1(1)

At this early stage, these quantitative data tell us little. There’s more negativity for the SG but then they are in power so that’s to be expected. More important have been the reports from Ms Bradford and at times, elsewhere, a disturbing lack of evidence of research into the stories to find credible data to balance the reports. This was particularly true in the reporting of the oil/economy and council cuts stories.

On a less scientific note, I’m beginning to detect the effects of different reporters and presenters on the reports. I know these are only impressions and we can all fool ourselves but when it’s Sally Magnusson, Reevel Alderson and young Jamie McIver, I find myself less critical and thinking this is more professional, accurate, balanced and delivered as you might expect from a national broadcaster.

When it’s the other BBC – Bird, Bradford and Campbell along with their never-far-away pet Labour MSP, Ms Baillie, we seem to get more bad news, more blaming of the SG, no balance and melodramatic language. Ms Baillie  may be playing a big part in the reverse propaganda effect whereby the more she appears, the more people like Ms Sturgeon.

Dr John Robertson, Ayr, 22nd January 2016

Sources:

Daily Record (2016) Donald Trump’s £700m blowhard: Economist brands billionaire’s promise of Scots bonanza a ‘fairytale’

BBC News Online (2015) Local authorities ‘overfunded’ for council tax freeze