The Prof asks: Has the BBC approach failed or backfired?

Dr John Robertson

Have the BBC’s dirty tricks failed? Have they even back-fired?

As I write on May 4 2015, I have only the opinion polls to tell me, so but if they are correct and there is an SNP landslide on the 7th, then the Scottish people will have delivered a massive show of popular political intelligence, for self-determination and against the propaganda machine operating across Scotland’s mainstream media.

Of course, it is possible the propaganda has been quite effective and the SNP surge would’ve been even greater. Even more fascinating for me would be the possibility that the reporting by BBC Scotland had been so obviously biased, hysterical, Pravda-like, such that everybody was laughing at it and it thus made them even more likely to vote against its pro-Labour message. I have only anecdotal evidence of the latter and of the suggestion that the Referendum campaign has helped to both educate and to energise the Scottish electorate beyond what is typical in Europe.

Loving a 'crisis'
Loving a ‘crisis’

During a peak period from February to early April 2015, BBC Reporting Scotland ran a series of more than 20 ‘Crisis’ for the Scottish Government?’ stories. They stopped in mid-April. Typically these reports were based on ‘research’ reports of a quite partisan or flawed nature. I take them all apart in my latest academic research.

Notably, STV News did not follow Reporting Scotland’s approach. Headlines were often of this nature, on the Scottish NHS:

‘Is emergency care in Scottish hospitals in crisis? A government health hit squad is sent in to sort out A&E in this Paisley hospital.’

‘The BMA has warned that the situation threatens patient care.’

‘Scottish controversial methadone programme is out of control according to a drugs expert. No one knows how long each addict is using it and what the overall treatment strategy is. There are 22,000 addicts costing tens of millions of pounds a year’.

And the bizarre: ‘Torbay’s Triumph.’

On the economy:

‘Focusing on the figures, the state of Scotland’s finances has improved but still lags behind the rest of the UK.’

‘MSPs have clashed on the budget at First Minister’s Question Time after claims that revised oil figures would leave a black hole in an independent Scotland’s finances.’

‘The Nationalists, as we heard, say those powers would give a boost to the Scottish economy BUT their opponents claim scrapping Scotland’s current funding system would mean spending cuts or tax rises of billions of pounds each year.’

And, most disturbingly of all, triggered by their own research, they reported on immigration like this:

‘For years public services have been under pressure through tight budgets but is immigration making this pressure worse?’

‘Nearly two thirds of Scots believe immigration should be reduced with women and older people feeling most strongly.’

STV News: Pass marks from the Prof
STV News: Pass marks from the Prof

This meant that, on average, there were two scares per week for this extended period of around eight weeks, all led by Reporting Scotland and all directed at the performance of the Scottish Government in the period of three months before the election but, cleverly, stopping in the ‘purdah’ period just before when such campaigning might have seemed too obvious.

In the end, I conclude, the verdict is simple. STV News have performed professionally throughout the period surveyed. Labour supporters might criticise what did at times seem to be gleeful announcements of ‘carnage’ ahead of them in the election judging by opinion polls.

BBC Reporting Scotland’s performance has been similar to that in the approaches to the Scottish Referendum – biased, irresponsible and, in the end, counter-productive, judging by the opinion polls. Their reports featured repetitive use of exaggeration, the frequent adoption of tabloid headlines to unsettle older voters, the use of either flawed or misunderstood research reports to misinform voters and, worst of all, the potential exacerbation of ethnic tensions.

The full report can be found here:

Professor John Robertson, University of the West of Scotland, 4th May 2015