Coverage of the Scottish independence referendum, due to be held on September 18 this year, is a compelling example of the deep establishment bias of the corporate media. Some critics have characterised the BBC’s coverage, in particular, as though Scotland is merely a region or a county of the United Kingdom called ‘Scotlandshire‘.
The establishment, pro-Union bias of ‘mainstream’ coverage emerges clearly from a careful analysis by an experienced media academic, and by the BBC’s reprehensible attempt to rubbish both the study and its author. The year-long study was conducted by a small team led by Professor John Robertson of the University of West Scotland. Between 17 September 2012 – 18 September 2013, the team recorded and transcribed approximately 730 hours of evening TV news output broadcast by BBC Scotland and Scottish Television (STV). The study concluded that 317 news items broadcast by the BBC favoured the “No” campaign (i.e., no to Scottish independence) compared to just 211 favourable to the “Yes” campaign. A similar bias in favour of the “No” campaign was displayed by STV. Overall, there was a broadcaster bias favouring the “No” campaign by a ratio of 3:2. In other words, there was 50 per cent more favourable coverage to the “No” campaign.
Professor Robertson told Media Lens that “more importantly”, there was also:
… undue deference and the pretence of apolitical wisdom in [official] reports coming from London – the Office for Budget Responsibility and Institute for Fiscal Studies, for example; but, also, Treasury officials [were] presented as detached academic figures to be trusted. (Email, March 18, 2014)
There was also a deep-rooted personalisation of Scottish independence by the broadcasters in their systematic conflating of the “wishes” of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, with the aims and objectives of the “Yes” campaign. This was not the case with media coverage of the “No” campaign. The objectives of the “No” Campaign were not routinely portrayed as the “wishes” of Alastair Darling, leader of the “Better Together” group campaigning to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom.
Professor Robertson told us that:
The conflation of the First Minister’s wishes with the YES campaign seems a classic case of undermining ideas by association with clownish portrayal of leading actors [in the campaign].
This media performance was, he said, reminiscent of past corporate media demonisation of former miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot.
Finally, Professor Robertson noted that there was a strong “tendency to begin [news] reports with bad economic news for the Yes campaign […]. Reports leading off with bad news or warnings against voting Yes were more common than the opposite by a ratio of 22:4 on Reporting Scotland (BBC) and a ratio of 20:7 on STV.”
Last year, Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, gave a dramatic illustration of this biased tendency to report bad news for the “Yes” campaign with the following list of BBC headlines:
Please note this amazing litany – and I use the word litany carefully, a verbal repetition to inculcate belief – includes only those where the deliberate practice of repetitive coupling of “independence” and “warning” has been captured by being written on the [BBC] website; there are hundreds of other examples of broadcast, spoken use of the words “Warning” and “Scottish independence” in the same sentence by the BBC.
The presentation of every one of the above stories was in the most tendentious and anti-independence manner conceivable. They have all been countered and comprehensively rebutted.
By contrast, there are no BBC headlines that promote positive claims about Scottish Independence. You will look in vain for headlines that say “Yes campaign says independent Scotland will be eighth richest country in the world” or “Official GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] report shows Scotland’s public finances much healthier than those of the UK”.
So how did BBC Scotland respond to Professor Robertson’s documented evidence of clear bias in its coverage of the Scottish independence referendum? Derek Bateman, a retired journalist with decades of experience at the BBC, summed it up as follows:
Instead of doing what any self-confident public service broadcaster should do and produce a news item out of a critical report from one of our own universities, they seem to have hidden it from the licence-fee paying public who bankroll them and then mounted a sabotage operation against the author.
Amazingly, BBC Scotland sent a 6,000-word letter to Professor Robertson in an attempt to demolish his study and undermine his credibility, copying it to the professor’s Principal at the University of West Scotland. This unprecedented move seemed deliberately calculated to intimidate the researcher. Certainly, Bateman and other commentators, as well as Robertson himself, described the BBC’s action as no less than “bullying”.
Bateman noted BBC Scotland’s “fury at being found out misleading viewers” and he concluded:
It strikes me as the height of hypocrisy for the BBC to try to badger an independent organization because it can’t stand it revealing the truth – that it is failing in its primary duty to the Scots…and they didn’t even report it.
In a careful and detailed response, Robertson rebutted the BBC criticism of his one-year study, and he concluded:
I think I’ve answered all the questions needed to contest these conclusions. […] The BBC response is a remarkably heavy-handed reaction. Why did they not report the research, let their experts critique it on air and then ask me to defend it? Instead we see a bullying email to my employer and a blanket suppression across the mainstream media in the UK. I’m shocked.
The BBC Corporate “Gang Of Four” Emerge From The Shadows
On March 11, 2014, Professor Robertson appeared in front of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee in Edinburgh. He had been invited to present the main findings of his study and to answer questions from those sitting on the Committee, all Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). Four senior staff from BBC Scotland also appeared before the Committee later that same day.
Prof. Robertson began by thanking the Committee for the opportunity to speak to them, and then continued:
Much has happened in the month or so since I released the research paper. Much of it has been quite upsetting for me. So I want to begin by saying some fairly strong things about my experience in the last month or so.
I’d like to condemn the behaviour of BBC Scotland’s Department of Policy and Corporate Affairs in suppressing the dissemination of my research, and in circulating an insulting and ill-informed critique of my research directly to my Principal, bypassing my Head of School, my Dean, straight to the Principal. […]
I’d like to condemn the silence and collusion of almost all of Scotland’s mainstream media in disappearing my research, despite this massive online presence [of Robertson’s study]. Its online presence is a news item which has been ignored. […]
And thirdly I’d like to, unfortunately, condemn the silence of almost all Scottish academics with an interest in this field who might have been expected to challenge censorship of intellectual material.
I’ve been personally hurt by the above combination of threat from a powerful institution. […] I interpret [what has happened] as an attempt at thought control in a democracy, and, of all democracies, the one I like the best. And I’m very upset by that.
Prof. Robertson was asked by one MSP what kind of research he’d conducted in the past. He responded:
My interest is in, dare I say it, thought control in democracies. Everyone knows in a totalitarian state you can’t trust the media. Everyone knows they’re being lied to. Thought control in totalitarian states is totally ineffective because the entire population pretty much know: don’t trust that stuff from the party.
In democracies, there is thought control. There’s undeniably thought control. Media and political elites often work in each other’s interests. They don’t go round in a big cauldron saying, “Let’s do down the working classes and send our boys off to die, because we want them to do that.” They just mix. They go to the same schools. Their children go to the same schools. They share the same interests, the same cultural interests.
So we do end up with a degree of thought control without conspiracy…
Prof. Robertson added that he’d conducted research for many years into media coverage of war and the economy. That research was “more controversial” than the work he’d just published. But:
This is the first piece of research I’ve ever done that’s attracted any interest.
Following Prof. Robertson’s solo appearance before the Parliamentary Committee, BBC Scotland put up a four-man panel to counter him. This heavyweight squad comprised Ken MacQuarrie (Director of BBC Scotland), John Boothman (Head of News and Current Affairs), Bruce Malcolm (Head of Commonwealth Games coverage) and John Mullin (Editor, Referendum Unit). It is worth noting that John Mullin is a former editor of the Independent on Sunday, and his propaganda role there has previously been scrutinised by Media Lens.
This was a rare outing for senior BBC management to be compelled to answer questions in public on BBC coverage, and it was fascinating to watch. Many of our readers will be all too painfully aware of the boilerplate text that is routinely generated whenever complaints are submitted to the broadcaster: copious and vacuous prose about how “BBC News adheres to impartiality”, “we are confident that our standards have been upheld”, and so on, ad nauseam.
Here, then, was an opportunity for the public to see what it looks like when the standard text is read out loud by a senior BBC manager. Thus, Ken MacQuarrie, director of BBC Scotland, can be seen grandly dismissing Prof. Robertson’s careful study and robotically asserting that BBC “impartiality” has been maintained. (Watch from 3 mins : 53 secs). Much of the BBC’s stonewalling of the Parliamentary Committee’s questions that follows is characterised by stock evasive phrases and corporate-speak padding, trying to buy time to think and to shrug off challenges. It consists largely of a verbal shuffling of the feet, a feeble attempt to project an illusion of responding with something, anything, of substance.
The very first question from the Committee chairman, Stewart Maxwell, and the shifty response from MacQuarrie is emblematic of the proceedings:
“Could you tell us, Mr MacQuarrie, why you took the view that it was necessary to respond in the way you did to Professor Robertson’s research?”
MacQuarrie responds woodenly with a prepared written script about the supposed “fundamental errors” in the study, but singularly fails to answer Maxwell’s question.
“We know what you did with this research [i.e. did not report it, but instead issued a 6,000-word response to Prof. Robertson, and copied to his Principal]. What I’m asking about is, in all of the many hundreds of other bits of academic research that you report every year, can you name the number of occasions where you did a similar thing?
“No, in general terms, I can’t name a specific instance where we would have copied the Principal in a piece in academic research.”
“Don’t you find it rather peculiar – wouldn’t an ordinary person looking at this event find it rather peculiar – that the BBC accept academic research, day in day out, respond to that by publishing stories on it, having debates on that research? But on this one occasion, when the research is about your own output, that’s not how you respond; you respond in an entirely different way.”
“I don’t think it’s peculiar in the slightest. We wanted to correct the errors of fact that, you know, were in the report. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable when it is about our own output, and it was on a question, if you like, of our impartiality that we would get the facts on the table. And that we wrote only to Professor Robertson and copied to the Principal.”
Maxwell followed up with:
“I’m quite surprised by that answer because it seems to me frankly astonishing that on no other occasion do you expend effort in trying to analyse research that’s produced by academics – and you’ve said so; there’s been no occasion to your mind that you’ve ever done this before. But on this occasion, you do spend what seems to me quite substantial amounts of effort in attempting to discredit the research of Professor Robertson.”
There followed a comical interlude in which Maxwell tried to determine the number of complaints that the BBC had received about its coverage of the Scottish independence referendum. Maxwell first notes that he had earlier submitted a request under Freedom of Information which MacQuarrie had summarily rejected. He now questions MacQuarrie:
“So you won’t supply this Committee with the number of complaints the BBC has received about the referendum coverage?”
“In terms of specifically about the referendum coverage, no.”
“No. Why not?”
“I think that, in general terms, we use that contact when we reply to each individual complaint. And first of all the body that would release that information is the BBC Trust, rather than the Executive. And we don’t break it, we would not break it down.”
“What I’m trying to understand [is] why you wouldn’t do that. Clearly you’re a body that is paid for by the public. Surely the public have a right to know about the level of interest or complaints about your output?”
“And the Trust regularly publish the data about the number of contacts on an annual basis.”
Maxwell, clearly unimpressed by MacQuarrie’s stonewalling, insists:
“I’m not asking you about the number of contacts, Mr MacQuarrie. I asked you about the number of complaints you’ve received from the public about the referendum coverage.”
“Specifically, we would not break down the complaints into subject by subject areas.”
This was hardly a credible response, to say the least.
As Derek Bateman, the ex-BBC journalist quoted earlier, remarked on his blog:
I don’t believe it. That information is retrievable […]. We’re not hearing the number because it’s too embarrassing to publicise.
Bateman summed up:
From what I saw, the BBC are in full assault mode and totally unapologetic and as a result look unreasonable, defensive and flustered. It has become the default position of an organisation caught out by events and floundering.
A Classic Case Of Thought Control
Prof. Robertson told us afterwards that he had expected that the BBC panel:
… Would repeat the same generalised assertions of flaws without evidence and the magnification of tiny errors into fundamental weaknesses. They had no other path but repetition of that which had already been deconstructed in my full response on newsnetscotland.com. The BBC Gang of Four were, in what I saw, leaden, sullen, defensive and repetitive. (Email, March 18, 2014)
He hailed the Committee Chairman’s “dogged extraction of the fact that the BBC had never mounted such a campaign against a piece of research before, ever.” Prof. Robertson also noted that the Committee had exposed the BBC’s “failure to record and organise criticism of their performance.”
We asked Prof. Robertson to expand on what had been the response to his study from academia, including his own colleagues and management. He told us that at his institution, the University of West Scotland, there had been:
… strong support for me at all levels, including Principal, for my right to expression of intellectual ideas. Otherwise, a disturbing silence with no leading academic in politics, history, media theory prepared to protest the suppression of my report. As a long-time admirer and copyist of the Glasgow University Media Group‘s methodology, the silence on the left is frankly creepy. Further, I’ve had no invitations to speak to such departments but only an invitation from Glasgow University’s Department of Scottish Literature.
Prof. Robertson pointed out that his year-long study was just the first half of a longer research project. The final two-year survey will conclude in September 2014 and he intends to write it up as a book chapter for publication in early 2015. As an example of continuing bias, he pointed to the recent BBC Andrew Marr interview with Alex Salmond which “gives more than a hint of anti-independence bias at the BBC”.
We asked Prof. Robertson whether he had any final remarks about what the whole episode had revealed about his primary research interest: namely, thought control in democracies:
As a long-term adopter of the Propaganda Model‘s usefulness in other contexts, I’ve been naive about its usefulness in Scotland; no longer. It now looks a classic case of thought control enabled by self-censorship within elites and amongst those less powerful that they manage.