Anyone who follows the Scottish independence debate will be aware that the BBC’s reputation for fairness and impartiality comes with an important caveat: Except for viewers in Scotland. During the independence referendum campaign in 2014 the BBC was shameless in its shilling for Britain. The examples are legion. The Corporation gave huge publicity to a suspiciously well funded anti-independence astroturfing organisation Vote No Borders’ – more accurately titled ‘Vote Nob Orders’ – which the BBC assured us was a genuine grassroots organisation and whose launch was awarded a gushing ten minutes long puff piece on the main BBC news. Meanwhile genuine grassroots initiatives from pro-independence supporters passed entirely unreported.
My oft cited example of BBC bias is the publicity given to claims that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to join NATO if the Scottish Government insisted on the removal of the British nuclear warheads and missiles from the Clyde. Yet not once in the many minutes of coverage that the BBC gave to this story did the BBC see fit to mention that another country had done exactly what Scotland was being told was impossible, got rid of a NATO member’s nukes and submarines from its territory then gone on to join NATO, Spain did just that in the late 1970s and early 1980s after concluding a treaty with Washington to remove US nukes and submarines from the American base at Rota near Cádiz, and then joined NATO shortly thereafter. You might have thought that this was germane information to a story about claims that it would be impossible for Scotland to get rid of the nukes on the Clyde and then join NATO, but not apparently if you are a news editor at BBC Scotland.
There are many more examples, from Nick Robinson shamelessly asserting that Alex Salmond had failed to answer a question about currency that he had in fact answered in full, to the repeated failure to give equal coverage to positive stories for independence as was given to press releases from pals and cronies of the Conservatives warning of doom and catastrophe if Scotland voted yes. Gordon Brown’s infamous Vow was given star billing and presented to the public uncritically as a cast iron commitment to ‘Devo Max,’ a term usually understood to mean the Scottish Parliament would control everything except defence and foreign affairs.
It’s not just independence supporters who accused the BBC of bias during the independence referendum campaign. Veteran journalist Paul Mason, formerly the economics editor at BBC2’s flagship news and current affairs programme Newsnight said of the BBC’s reporting of the referendum campaign: “Not since Iraq have I seen BBC News working at propaganda strength like this. So glad I’m out of there.”
I could go on at considerable length and indeed have done in previous blogs, but this is not just history that is almost a decade old here, the BBC has continued in a similar vein ever since. The BBC is not what it purports to be, a neutral and unbiased observer and reporter on Scotland’s constitutional debate, an organisation which is funded by the public, the BBC is an active and enthusiastic participant in Scottish constitutional politics, one of the most important actors on the anti-independence side.
Naturally the BBC continues to brush off all accusations of bias, it has become an expert in gaslighting the Scottish public it purports to serve. It’s not the BBC that is at fault, it’s our perception of the blindingly obvious.
We might all know that the BBC is biased, but what is important is to quantify and prove that bias, particularly to those who are as yet unconvinced about Scottish independence and who are willing to accept the BBC’s denials of bias at face value. That is where the work of Dr John Robertson is so valuable. John was formerly the media politics professor at the University of the West of Scotland who authored an academic study which showed how Scottish news broadcasts on the BBC leaned more favourably towards the No campaign on Scottish independence. For his trouble the BBC reported him to senior staff at the university and he says that colleagues of his were even warned to stay away from him.
I am quite certain that I too am blacklisted by the BBC, a previous editor of The National once told me that he was regularly asked by the BBC for the contact details of pro independence writers who could comment as guests on the BBC. He told them that I did most of the public speaking at roadshow events for The National and that I lived in Glasgow within a short distance of BBC Scotland’s studios, but I was never contacted by the BBC. Broadcaster and campaigner Lesley Riddoch once told me that a few years ago she was invited by the BBC to comment on the Catalan independence debate, she told them that I used to live in the country and speak the language so I was far better placed to provide commentary than she was, but again I was never contacted by the BBC. But I regularly call out the BBC for its lack of impartiality when it comes to Scottish independence, so it’s obvious why my name is mud at Pacific Quay.
I am convinced that BBC Scotland preferentially platforms anti independence voices and marginalises and sidelines those who have the temerity to criticise its evident bias against Scottish independence. The BBC continues with its industrial strength bias. Now John Robertson has carried out a new study comparing the framing of political stories by BBC Scotland with similar stories covered by BBC Cymru Wales. Unsurprisingly, he again discovered evidence of systematic bias in BBC Scotland’s reporting.
We are now at the point with BBC Scotland where it would have been truly gob smacking if Dr Robertson had not found evidence of systematic bias in BBC Scotland’s news coverage favouring those opposed to independence. He said he decided to embark on a comparison between Scotland and Wales after noticing that “just about every BBC Scotland news story” whether it was about policing, nursing, or education, ended with a statement from the Scottish Government, and frequently platformed opposition politicians who were given the opportunity to attack the Scottish Government.
He then embarked upon a month long survey of news reporting on BBC Wales Cymru and found that it did not make the same connection of news stories to the Welsh Government. In Wales the BBC speaks to the health board, the chief of police, or the organisation directly responsible. His study produced figures showing that of 52 negative stories on BBC Scotland over the study period, 24 made mention of the government. In Wales, there were 47 negative stories about the country but the government was mentioned only 13 times. Additionally the opposition parties were platformed four times on the BBC Scotland morning news during the study period, but not once on BBC Cymru Wales.
Dr Robertson told The National: “It’s a politicising of public services in Scotland that is not happening in Wales. Nowhere else in Europe would people think if there’s something wrong in a hospital you go straight to the government.”
He added: “This is a very objective piece of evidence. A lot of research into media bias is very subjective, based on interpretation and so on. But objectively, BBC Wales did it by a ratio of 1:2 with BBC Scotland.”
The big difference of course is that Wales has a Labour government which is committed to keeping Wales a part of the UK. While there has certainly been a surge of interest in independence in Wales in recent years, support for independence remains very much in the minority in the country, and the anti independence parties and their supporters in the media do not fear any imminent threat from the Welsh independence movement or Plaid Cymru, the major pro-independence party in the country.
In Scotland by contrast, politics are dominated by the independence question, support for independence often exceeds 50% in opinion polling, and so the anti-independence parties and their supporters in the media are very much concerned to keep a lid on support for independence with an urgency which is lacking in Wales. Hence the relentless attacks on the SNP and the Scottish Government while far bigger scandals involving the Conservative party and the British Government pass with relatively little comment in the Scottish media while voices like mine and John Robertson’s are sidelined and ignored. There is a link to John Robertson’s blog “Talking Up Scotland” in the links section of this blog. He’s well worth a read – as not seen on the BBC.
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