BBC News favoured the No Campaign by a ratio of more than 2 to 1

BBC News favours the No Campaign by a ratio of more than 2 to 1

Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland
Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland

By Professor John Robertson (12/09/2014)

Last night (Thursday 11th September) I watched BBC 1’s coverage of the events around the visit to Scotland of the three Westminster leaders and the press conference with First Minister, Alex Salmond. As the thirty-minute programme proceeded I became increasingly uneasy and decided that I would apply the same research methods I had used before to measure objectively how fair it had been that night.

In February of this year, BBC Scotland reported me to my employer, the University of the West of Scotland, for allegedly bringing both them and the University into ‘corporate disrepute’. Luckily I kept my job. What had caused their venomous reaction? I had carried out research which revealed bias in their coverage of the Scottish Referendum campaigns. Most offensive to them, given their proud claim to impartiality, had been my finding that they had favoured the No campaign by a 3 to 2 ratio.

Looking first at the total number of statements by presenters, politicians, business people and citizens, I counted 33 supportive of the No Campaign or attacking the Yes Campaign. By contrast only 16 statements supported the Yes Campaign or attacked the No Campaign.

This ratio of slightly more than 2 to 1 is more biased in favour of No than I had found in February. In February I had also found a tendency for anti-Yes statements to precede pro-Yes statements forcing the latter onto the defensive. This time in only one of six identifiable blocks of discourse did pro-Yes statements precede pro-No statements. This clearly presents the No argument as somehow ‘normal’ and requires the Yes argument to justify itself.

Again, in February, I had drawn attention a regular tendency for the Yes Campaign to be conflated with the personal wishes of Alex Salmond. Through a process, mainly used by opposition politicians then adopted uncritically by many presenters, the First Minister was demonised and the Yes Campaign was, by association with him only, undermined. In the year-long study published in February this had only happened 35 times in total. In 30 minutes, on 11thSalmond ‘accusing’, ‘launching’, ‘knowing’ and so on. The Yes campaign was mentioned only once by a student 23 minutes into the broadcast. Ed Miliband was mentioned only once, ‘being drowned out’ and the other leaders not at all. The effect is surely to portray the Yes Campaign as a one-man band despite a signed up support of over 1 million.

In February, I reported a 22 to 4 ratio of evidence favouring allegedly impartial sources attacking the Yes Campaign over a period, again, of a complete year. On Thursday 11ththere were 7 cases of evidence being used inaccurately to support the No campaign with none supporting the Yes Campaign. In every case criticism of the Yes position was answered by a quote from Alex Salmond simply rejecting the evidence without offering counter-evidence. Sometimes the inaccurate use of evidence was by politicians and left unquestioned by reporters and presenters. Sometimes it was made by the latter. For example, Alistair Darling appeared twice suggesting that ‘every’ Scottish bank would move ‘business’ south of the border and was not contradicted despite the fact that only three banks had talked of moving their registered office and that none had suggested loss of jobs or business in Scotland. Also Darling stated inaccurately that ASDA stores had announced that prices would go up after independence when they had only suggested they might go up or down depending on arrangements. Most notable, however, was September, BBC 1 made 15 references to Alex reporter Nick Robinson’s assertion that Salmond had not answered his question at the press conference. Salmond’s extended corrections and put-down of the reporter had already been circulated around the Internet and can be found on Youtube.

Later, reporter Kemal Ahmed warned of banks moving to England yet failed to remind us that none of these banks are, in any meaningful way, Scottish banks, but are already owned by UK (Lloyds, TSB) and Australian (Clydesdale) companies or by the UK government in the case of RBS. Kemal then goes on to introduce Owen Kelly of Scottish Financial Enterprise as ‘the man who speaks for the industry north of the border’ and who worries about our reputation as a ‘stable place to do business’ if large companies do not register here. Yet minutes later, Ahmed introduces Martin Gilbert, of Aberdeen Asset Management, flatly contradicting this view.

Bias by omission is difficult to demonstrate as objectively as bias by insertion and distortion.

With the latter, the evidence is before your eyes while with the former you can be accused of cherry-picking to suit your argument. So, with some reservation, here is evidence that the BBC 1 broadcast omitted and which would have helped with balance. First and most important for the viewers and the subsequent referendum voting, is the evidence that the ‘additional powers’ being offered by Gordon Brown, encouraged by the three unionist parties, seem unlikely to be offered after a No vote. Not only did the Calman Commission reject additional taxation powers as unworkable and the Edinburgh Agreement make the offer, at this stage, illegal, but only one day before the broadcast, House of Commons Leader, William Hague, made clear, in the Herald, that the offer of additional powers was ‘not government policy’ and only ‘akin to a statement in a general election campaign’ ie breakable. The widespread hostility, evidenced in opinion polls, to any preferential treatment for Scotland is apparent from a quick browse of the Daily Mail or Telegraph. That a No vote is more likely to lead to punishment rather than to reward is completely absent from BBC reporting.

With regard to threats of increased prices from supermarkets with HQs in England, BBC reporters missed the rather obvious question. How do Aldi and Lidl operate so successfully and cheaply so far from their HQs in Germany? These stores are currently eating into the markets of the bigger chains. Will the latter impose higher prices than in the rest of the UK, or compete as we understand companies typically do.

So, as we approach the vote, we can clearly count on our public broadcaster, funded as much by Yes as by No voters, to betray its charter on impartiality even more so.

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