I was bullied by BBC over academic report on indyref bias – the Scottish media blackout must end

Following a demonstration outside BBC Scotland’s Glasgow headquarters this weekend, Professor John Robertson, media politics professor at the University of the West of Scotland and author of an academic study that claimed Scottish news broadcasts leaned more favourably towards the No campaign on Scottish independence, recounts the aftermath of his report and the implications for Scottish democracy.

By James Robertson (The Drum)

Academic: Professor John Robertson
Academic: Professor John Robertson

When I published academic research at the beginning of the year examining the impartiality of broadcast news reporting ahead of the Scottish independence referendum, I didn’t expect one of the subjects of my report – BBC Scotland, no less – to take such a strong reaction to the findings..

Senior BBC figures reported me to senior staff at my university and colleagues of mine were even warned to ‘stay away’ from me. I see this as a clear form of bullying by a powerful corporation. The great crime I’d committed was in publishing the results of a study which indicated that BBC Scotland’s coverage of the Scottish independence referendum between September 2012 and September 2013 noticeably favoured the No campaign.

The Fairness in the First Year? Study was a year-long content analysis using fairly objective measures of fairness and balance to assess mainstream TV coverage of the Scottish independence referendum. The imbalance the research identified was more marked in the BBC/Reporting Scotland coverage than in the ITV/STV coverage, although both broadcasters fell significantly more towards favourable coverage for No than Yes statements.

The study found that, overall, there was a greater total number of ‘No statements’ compared to Yes; a tendency for expert advice against independence to be more common; a tendency for reports to begin and end with statements favouring the No campaign; and a very strong pattern of associating the Yes campaign arguments and evidence with the personal wishes of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. Taken together, the coverage was considered to be more favourable for the No campaign.

Though absent in mainstream media reporting, the research received massive interest online, especially – and somewhat predictably – in Yes campaign blogs. Newsnet Scotland reported 10,000 hits on the day it reported the findings, and I received more than 100 personal emails of support.

One email I hadn’t been expecting came directly from BBC Scotland’s head of policy and corporate affairs on 21 January 2014. He expressed serious concerns about the methodology, accuracy and language used in the report, and felt so strongly that he by-passed my head of school and dean of faculty and went straight to the university principal.

What triggered the head of policy and corporate affairs to write in such aggressive terms and to report me to my own employer over an academic study has never been explained to me, but needless to say I have received full support at all levels on my academic right to ask questions of power.

The first study prompted the commissioning of a second. Pro-independence website Newsnet Scotland crowdsourced enough funds to sponsor a study into the impartiality of BBC Radio Scotland’s flagship politics show, Good Morning Scotland. The research was carried out by staff in the Creative Futures Research Institute at the University of the West of Scotland in Ayr, and it again indicated a problem in the balance of news reporting.

The broadcasts were balanced in crude, numerical terms, but in every other aspect were unfair to the Yes campaign and sat more favourably towards Better Together. Broadcasts began too often with bad news for Yes and featured heavy repetition of such messages over several hours in a manner conducive to unconscious absorption of warnings.

Statements from the Yes perspective were often reactive while those favouring Better Together were commonly initiating. Interviewers tended, too often, to adopt aggressive techniques with Yes supporters while only doing so on two recorded occasions with Better Together supporters.

Finally, in the selection and use of expert witness of dubious credibility and of evidence from partisan sources, the broadcasts were clearly unfair to the Yes campaign.

With only months to go until the independence referendum, the BBC clearly needs a system of monitoring and balancing its content to limit the admittedly unavoidable intrusion of bias to a minimum. It is worrying that research of this kind is required in a democracy, and it is similarly worrying that this report has been largely ignored by the BBC and mainstream media.

I fear we have witnessed the collusion of broadsheet, radio and TV journalists in their refusal to criticise each other’s ethical behaviour. Until this point, I naively though Scotland was rather more equipped to expose elite collusions.

As for the BBC, the private attempts to quieten this research and their public policy of ignoring it are at odds. Indeed, when I was summoned in March to give evidence to the Scottish parliament’s education and culture committee on broadcasting, the BBC remained silent despite being present at the committee and attempts by callers and audience members to raise ‘the UWS study’.

The BBC’s contradictory behaviour has helped fuel the eruption of protests outside BBC Scotland’s Glasgow headquarters, but whether public distrust is enough to force the introduction of balance checks in time for the independence referendum remains to be seen.

Professor John Robertson has taught and researched in higher education for 30 years. He is especially interested in the relationship between media and other elites and in Western coverage of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia. His interest in mainstream media coverage of the Scottish independence referendum began in 2012.

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