Media Watch 12: First full week of purdah and a campaign in earnest

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Reporting the Run-up to the Scottish Parliamentary Elections in 2016: STV and BBC Scotland News: Dr John Robertson continues his analysis of TV news coverage of the Scottish election campaign: Wednesday 23rd March to Wednesday 30th March

Dr John Robertson
Dr John Robertson

It’s Purdah Time!  We can look forward to absolute fairness in the broadcasting from now on, can’t we, like the last time, what?  I’ve added at the end, Section 6 of the Ofcom Broadcast Code and then the BBC Principles for Impartiality.

BBC doesn’t have to follow the quite specific Ofcom code, like STV do, but have their own woollier, not so disciplined, ‘disciplines’. After last week’s cumulative data showing heavy bias by BBC Scotland, from January 8th until today, they have a way to go to improve their act. Here are the data for this last week, with the running total from 8th January, in brackets:

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Wednesday 23rd:

A deal for Tata Steel! The Scottish Government edges closer to a settlement to save the Lanarkshire firm. The deal would keep two factories open saving 270 jobs.’ 3

‘A deal to save two steelworks could be in reach but will full production resume at the Dalziel and Clyde Bridge plants?’ 1

It’s ‘game time’ again – which is the STV and which is the Reporting Scotland headline? Too easy, you say? I suppose it is. STV are optimistic and give credit to the Scottish Government while RS are typically mean-spirited and grudging. This is classic, devious and insidious propaganda from RS but it wouldn’t be caught by their impartiality ‘disciplines’. The subsequent RS story was very long, anxious and heavily retrospective, dwelling on the earlier fears for the industry, the job losses and, ominously, the ‘three potential sticking points’. Oh dear, I fear the worst. Little enthusiasm was shown for what STV clearly saw as a contemporary good news story. RS might as well have used the Reverend I M Jolie to deliver this depressing sermon.

Both report quite fairly on the beginnings of the election campaign though only RS saw the debate over taxation as a ‘bitter dispute’. Kezia does seem bitter at times. Propaganda here by RS, would be too obvious and possibly counterproductive, in this explicitly party-political context. Everybody would spot it.

‘More than fifty doctors in Aberdeen have condemned plans which they say would mean people with the most serious injuries transferred to the central belt for treatment.’

‘This is a real hot potato in the run-up to the election.’1, 9

TRAUMA

They’re back, the Bird and Bradford Scare Company! Not surprisingly the local Dundee Courier and the Aberdeen-based Press & Journal reported this rumour and were against the rumoured plans. However, the Herald, (Helen Puttick, 23.3.16) included some very important contextual information to help us make better sense of the issue:

‘However, a special report by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh published in 2012 suggested Scotland needed a maximum of two major trauma centres to improve patient care. Since then research involving Aberdeen staff and published in the Journal of Acute Care Surgery also concluded that:  ‘Scotland’s trauma system could be optimized with one or two MTCs.’

The story got little attention in the Press or in other media. Rather than listening to 50 practitioners with clear interests, inevitably biasing their views, why couldn’t Eleanor Bradford check out this highly credible, peer-reviewed, recent (November 2015) research. It only took me minutes to check it out. It is quite clear and unambiguous. Bradford does briefly mention that: ‘doctors who work in bigger centres have better outcomes’ but then pushes this highly significant and, for the researchers, determining factor, to one side. This is surely an astonishing piece of arrogance and, more worrying, evidence again of the shameless politicising of health stories in an attempt to damage the SNP Scottish Government during the official ‘purdah’ election period. The reference for the full report is below. Further, the suggestion that ‘The North’ would be disadvantaged is simply wrong and geographically ignorant. Scotland’s main arteries run north-south. Anyone who has tried driving from Inverness or from further west, to Aberdeen or to Dundee, will know that it’s slower than the route to Glasgow.

The absence of the above information from the National Broadcaster’s report does a real disservice to its viewers. The suggestion that this will be a ‘hot potato’ in the run-up to the election is disgraceful. If it is to become such a tuber, it will be because of Reporting Scotland’s editorial decisions and not because of the story’s intrinsic significance. I’m reminded of their coverage of the FE lecturers strike last week. On one day it was to be the Education crisis ‘of a generation’ yet the dispute was to be resolved only two days later.

‘Enterprise areas which were announced five years ago as a key part of the Scottish Government’s economic strategy have been found to have barely any effect…..minimal impact on jobs, no evidence of inward investment or any training  or recruitment support.’ 2

This is a second piece of bias by selection. The HIE press release says:

‘The economic climate has resulted in slower uptake of EA sites than hoped, particularly in energy related sectors and supply chain. In light of this, the report recommends consideration is given to continuing the designation for a further five years beyond 2018.’

Thursday 24th:

Scottish Six

At Six

From Scotland

I told you. STV race ahead of BBC Scotland and launch a Scottish Six while BBC Scotland dither and girn. I knew STV was up to something with their recent excellent reports on the Westminster crisis in the Tory party and the Brussels bombing while Reporting Scotland returned to Ballater for the eighth time. 2

Both channels, naturally, covered the Election campaigns. STV were, as before, thankfully brief yet professional and balanced. Willie Rennie on the floor with weans announcing himself in his (usual) cheeky wee boy voice revealed his special talent for children’s TV. ‘Children, what shape of hole will the Lib Dems fall through?’ Kezia was typically pained and Ruth, as always, seemed up for it. Luckily, we don’t want it. The UKIP guy sounded…oh I can’t be bothered to describe him. By contrast Patrick sounded intelligent, mature and articulate. The boy will go far if he can get some support. Nicola was impressive as always, maybe a bit irritable, getting? Reporting Scotland’s extended piece on what might have been Independence Day was also pretty fair (Sally in the chair, again?).

That’s it! I’m going back over my reports. Blow me down if there isn’t a correlation between the presence of Bird and a higher level of negativity regarding the SNP Scottish Government.

Two hours later, here’s a starter on the Bird Bias Count (BBC):

 

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I couldn’t use earlier data because my reports don’t always mention who the presenter was. Why would I, it’s a crazy idea isn’t it? My collection of recordings only goes back this far. Should I ask the RS editor to do it for me? However, what do you think? Far too soon to say too much but I’m getting a feeling there actually might be something in this and if there is, why would it be so? She’s just the presenter isn’t she?

In the light of the other fatal tragedies on the streets of Glasgow and on the Scottish mountains, this next was a diminished story. It was, nevertheless, a wee bit emotional for me. This was the last gasp of Longannet power station in Fife. I worked there for a year (1979-1980), between University and teacher-training and I know many who depended on it for their income and their purpose in life. Since then, I’ve greened of course but my feelings remain mixed. On a lighter note, it was clear from the report, that after all these years, not everyone, even people working there, can say the name properly. It’s ‘long annet’ not ‘long gannet.’ I’m not aware of Gannets longer than the other Gannets (A less well-known track by pop-combo, the Smiths). From http://fife-placenames.glasgow.ac.uk/placename/?id=889

If Watson is correct (1926, 250–1), the first element is G lann, ‘an enclosure or field’ and the second element, annet, is from G annaid, which Clancy (1995) has shown means something like ‘mother-church’. However, the earliest form cited above, Langannand, makes a derivation from annaid problematic, while the first element lang could be Sc lang ‘long’.

Accuracy matters……………….to obsessives like me.

Friday 25th:

It was another night of violent death and loss with, thankfully, little politics in both News reports. It’s impossible to take much pleasure in falling crime statistics on nights like these.

Easter Monday broadcasts were too short and lightweight to bother with so:

Tuesday 29th:

‘Across the UK there are wide variations. Figures show library services in England have suffered the deepest cuts. Scotland has been least affected.’

I don’t really do BBC 1 News but always catch the last bit and heard the above. What could be causing the difference I wonder? Is it something to do with having Tory and SNP governments, maybe? Sounds like a case for Reporting Scotland, wouldn’t you say? Here are the actual figures from the BBC at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35707956

In Scotland, there were 3,515 paid library jobs in 2010 and 3,416 in 2015, a drop of 99 (3%)

In Wales, there were 1,241 jobs in 2010 and 979 today, a fall of 21%

In Northern Ireland, the paid jobs fell from 922 to 719, a reduction of 203 (22%).

The English figures were not given separately (why?) but the UK totals were, so a bit arithmetic and we get this:

UK 2010 – 31.977 Scotland, Wales, NI – 5 678 So England – 26 299

UK 2016 – 24 044 Scotland, Wales, NI – 5 114 So England – 18 930

England fall is 7 369 England fall is – 28%

That’s quite a difference, cuts varying from 3% to 28%. Worthy of comment, don’t you think?

RS didn’t mention it but their election coverage was fair and balanced – Purdah rules holding? Two further pieces on the tenth anniversary of the bus pass and on a hydro-electric project were positive images of contemporary Scotland. 4, 4

STV hosting the leaders’ debate, tried to talk it up, boxing-style. ‘The toughest test so far!’ Other than that, it was fair and balanced. Interestingly, both were kind to the Greens, giving them a bit of prominence.

Wednesday 30th:

‘Taxing times for Scottish Labour, as they abandon a rebate for those earning under £20 000, just days into the election campaign. Opponents say they are in disarray.’5

‘Scottish conservative leader, Ruth Davidson has been criticised for saying that students would have to pay £6 000 for tuition and that prescription charges up to £8 will be phased in.’

‘Willie Rennie was at his most uncomfortable defending the Lid Dem’s participation in the Coalition Government in the last parliament.’

These were the STV soundbites which along with the reporter’s comments and filmed exchanges can only be read as very bad publicity for these three parties. Reporting Scotland rejected all of these and took a different tack despite Jackie Bird on the 22nd March having announced: ‘The issue of tax is dominating Scottish politics and the election campaign hasn’t even begun.’ Reporting Scotland prioritises five other stories before having to tackle Labour’s humiliation and six minutes in, we hear Jackie say:

‘The SNP Leader, Nicola Sturgeon says she doesn’t have the right to rule out a second referendum on independence during the next term of the Scottish Parliament. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats argue that disrespects the No vote in 2014, but Nationalists say there’ll only be a re-match if the public demands it.’1

Now, didn’t she say that tax was dominating politics? STV’s reporters certainly agree with that judging by their report on the same debate. Wasn’t Labour’s ‘U-turn’ newsworthy? What about the return of prescription charges and tuition fees if the Tories win? We got 3 minutes on the possibility of Ref2 then just 20 seconds on the likely election issues. We eventually we get a soft soaping of the Labour U-turn and no opportunity to see the dramatic moments in the TV debate, so damaging to the Labour, Tory and Liberal-Democrat leaders. This has been one of the sharpest contrasts between STV’s reasonably impartial and balanced reports and Reporting Scotland’s Barely concealed attempts to distort reality, damage the SNP and protect Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem electoral chances. One of the best/worst examples of bias by selection, I’ve seen in recent times.

 ‘What a difference a channel makes, twenty-four little minutes.’

‘I think it’s one of the most important initiatives we’ve had in emergency medicine in my twenty years of practice and I say that unreservedly.’

RS then present a very positive story about the Scottish NHS. The above words come from a medic about the Navigator Project which aims to help A&E staff cope with troublesome patients. Strange that Eleanor Bradford wasn’t there to report on this fantastic development, don’t you think? Only two things were missing from the report. Whose wonderful idea was it? Who funds it?

Luckily the BBC website had the answers to both questions – Police Scotland, one of the SNP Government’s responsibilities. No way!  Isn’t Police Scotland in crisis, with demoralised staff and poor performance, across the board? I’m sure I’ve heard that from Labour politicians on Reporting Scotland so it must be true. How could they have come up with something good like this? Wait a minute, haven’t they also been training US cops not to immediately kill anybody who comes near them or who runs away from them? Can’t be the same organisation, surely? Oh, there was no time in the report to mention that. An extra four words is quite a lot, I suppose.

Sources:

Access to specialist care: Optimizing the geographic configuration of trauma systems  J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2015 Nov; 79(5): 756–76 at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4623849/

Appendix:

Section 6 of the Ofcom Broadcast Code has detailed rules on impartiality that broadcasters must follow during election and referendum periods. Some of the rules found in Section 6 of the Ofcom code state that:

  • • Due weight must be given to the coverage of major parties during the election period, and broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to other parties and independent candidates with significant views and perspectives (rule6.2)
  • • If a candidate takes part in an item about his/her particular constituency, or electoral area, then candidates of each of the major parties must be offered the opportunity to take part (rule 6.9)
  • • Broadcaster must offer the opportunity to take part in constituency or electoral area reports or discussions, to all candidates within the constituency or electoral area representing parties with previous significant electoral support or where there is evidence of significant current support, including any such independent candidate (rule 6.10)
  • • Any constituency or electoral area report or discussion after the close of nominations must include a list of all candidates standing, giving first names, surnames and the name of the party they represent or, if they are standing independently, the fact that they are an independent candidate. This must be conveyed in sound and/or vision. Where a constituency report on a radio service is repeated on several occasions in the same day, the full list need only be broadcast on one occasion, but for the audience should be directed to where the list can be seen – for example,  a website (rule 6.11)

BBC principles on impartiality:

4.2.1 We must do all we can to ensure that ‘controversial subjects‘ are treated with due impartiality in all our output.

4.2.2 News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument.

4.2.3 We seek to provide a broad range of subject matter and perspectives over an appropriate timeframe across our output as a whole.

4.2.4 We are committed to reflecting a wide range of opinion across our output as a whole and over an appropriate timeframe so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly un-reflected or under-represented.

4.2.5 We exercise our editorial freedom to produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate, as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so.

Note, paradoxically, how more rigorous the Ofcom regulations are and how vague the BBC ones are. ‘As long as there are good editorial reasons’ means, essentially we can do what we like. Editorial reasons are utterly subjective.