Case Study: BBC bias during the 2014 Scottish Referendum

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THIRD YEAR UNIVERSITY ASSIGNMENT – GRADED 1ST CLASS (72%)

Was the BBC biased in its coverage of the Scottish independence referendum? A critical interrogation into impartiality within the BBC

In the build-up to 2014’s Scottish independence referendum, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was accused of being biased in its’ reportage of the event. With the foundations of the publicly funded BBC based on impartiality and reliability – thus maintaining the trust of the licence fee payer – it is important to examine the coverage in the week leading up to the referendum and undertake a critical interrogation to ascertain whether, or not, the accusations of bias are unsubstantiated. In this instance, there are three key terms that must be generally defined; firstly ‘bias’ along with similar terms, ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘bias’ as an “inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2014). Meanwhile, ‘impartiality’ is defined as “treating all rivals or disputants equally” and ‘objectivity’ as “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2014). These definitions back up Harcup’s statement that “impartial reporting is normally defined as being neutral, while objective reporting is taken to be the reporting of verifiable facts” (Harcup, 2009: 83) as well as McQuail’s idea that impartiality means “balance in the choice and use of sources, so as to reflect different points of view” (McQuail, 2000: 321). With this in mind, the BBC does not attempt to give a concrete definition, describing the term as “an elusive, almost magical substance” (BBC, 2009: 23) and even admitting that none of the terms “Accuracy, Balance, Context, Distance, Even-handedness, Fairness, Objectivity, Open-mindedness, Rigour, Self-Awareness, Transparency or Truth” (BBC, 2009: 23) could individually be used to describe ‘impartiality’.

The BBC has to use extended caution in its reporting – more so than its commercially funded competitors – due to its strict guidelines on impartiality, the fact that it is financed by the television licence fee which must be paid by all television viewers, regardless of political allegiance along with the fact that the corporation is ‘politically independent from the executive branch of government” (McNair, 2003: 59). Newspapers, unlike broadcasters, can attribute their political allegiance to a certain direction on the political compass with little to no hysteria; for example the Daily Mirror has historically backed the Labour Party, whilst the Guardian gave its support to the Liberal Democrats at the 2010 general election. With an integral function of the BBC being its commitment to impartial political reportage, it is of interest to investigate why serious allegations of bias have been made; aside from this essay, a petition calling for an independent enquiry into the BBC’s coverage currently has 85,000 of the 100,000 signatures required for a Parliamentary debate, and potentially subsequent enquiry. These allegations of bias must be reviewed through content analysis – despite the fact that the appearance of bias is objectively viewed as people’s opinions differ – to determine whether or not there is a dominant discourse that is biased in favour or against Scottish independence. The focus programme of the research is BBC News at Ten – selected as the prime time of the day when members of the public are likely to be watching – with supplementary editions of the News at One and the News at Ten on the final day of campaigning and finally two episodes of ‘Panorama’; ‘Will the Scots ever be happy?’ (2009) and ‘Scotland’s Decision’ (2014). Firstly the BBC’s own editorial guidelines must be studied, with particular attention to section 4, which deals with impartiality. Prior to this however, the opening sentence of the introduction reads, “Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences” (BBC, 2010: 1). Section 4.2.2 states, “News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinions and main strands of argument” (BBC, 2010: 2). Meanwhile, section 4.4.2 states, “Impartiality does not necessarily require the range of perspectives or opinions to be covered in equal proportions. Instead, we should seek to achieve ‘due weight” (BBC, 2010: 3). Furthermore, the Broadcasting Act 1990 also requires broadcasters to observe ‘due impartiality’ in their coverage of politics, “ensuring ‘adequate or appropriate’ balance during and between election campaigns” (McNair, 2003 cited in McNair, 2007: 46). In addition to this, regardless of the fact that Ofcom has no jurisdiction over the BBC as a public service broadcaster, the organisation had pre-empted potential pro-Union bias and warned commercial broadcasters that they could be “censured if they fail to display impartiality” (MacDonald, 2014) in breach of section 7.9 of its Broadcasting Code.

The referendum in question, which could have seen Scotland become an independent nation, was agreed on 21 March 2013 and took place 18 months later, on Thursday 18th September 2014. The BBC, as a national public service broadcaster placed it at the centre of its news agenda in the final week’s build-up. However in this crucial week, its journalistic integrity was called into question with accusations of bias towards the anti-independence ‘No’ campaign. On closer interrogation of the language and lexical items frequented in the news reports, it could be inferred that, in fact, these claims are not as exaggerated as first thought. Firstly, despite the ‘Yes’ campaign making it explicit that they are the ‘underdog’ party, the editing of the news reports seem to focus on First Minister Alex Salmond and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon’s joint insistence through the week that they are being ‘bullied’ and ‘standing up against the bullies’ from the ‘No’ campaign and their ‘negative messages’. The ‘Yes’ campaign is seemingly portrayed as the moaning victim but as noted by Fowler, “News is not a natural phenomenon emerging straight from reality, but a product” (Fowler, 1991: 222 cited in McNair, 2003: 38-39). In addition to this the ‘Yes’ campaign is always the second campaign to be screened other than exclusively on the final day, where Salmond is shown passionately concluding his rousing final speech with the words “Let’s do this now” and seldom is the ‘Yes’ campaign shown to be promoting a positive message. Whilst news traditionally focuses on issues of negativity – and thus positivity is less likely to dominate – the ‘No’ campaign is rarely seen to be responsible for any of said negativity, somewhat disregarding Schudson’s point that objective reporting “takes pains to represent fairly each leading side in a political controversy” (Schudson, 2001: 150 cited in Harcup, 2009: 82). If the claims against the BBC are to be believed, a central tactic being employed is one of scaremongering the undecided voters into voting against separating the Union. Placing negative and highly relevant stories at the top of the programme puts fear in the undecided voter; for example “New warnings over the potential price of Scottish independence” on 11 September, talk of ‘economic risks’ on 12 September and the following day, Gordon Brown’s somewhat farfetched comparison of the potential financial situation in Scotland to that of Weimar Germany in the 1930s which led to the rise of Adolf Hitler. On the final day of campaigning on 17 September, a young woman supporting the ‘No’ campaign gives a passionate speech on the topic of the NHS, whilst the report was edited to end with a statement about ‘SNP [Scottish National Party] lies’; the perfect platform to smear the ‘Yes’ campaign without anything being spoken by any politicians. Despite these minor examples that are objectively viewed, the first example of what might be viewed as potentially major bias came on 13 September where Scottish reporter James Cook reported on a ‘No’ campaign rally in Glasgow. After a number of shots of the supporters, the reporter speaks their message in the first person as if it is what he believes saying, “We’re as patriotic as the next Scot and we don’t want disruption and disunity” whilst ending the report with no mention of the large pro-independence rally going on just around the corner at George Square. It could be argued that the BBC saw the ‘Better Together’ rally as the more newsworthy event of the day, however with only a minor segment of the report dedicated to the ‘Yes’ campaign, the BBC could be said to be in breach of section 4.4.2 of its own editorial guidelines by not presenting both perspectives with ‘due weight’.

The episodes of Panorama that were taken into consideration were “Will the Scots ever be happy?” (2009) and “Scotland’s Decision” which aired on 15 September 2014. The latter, which was shown just three days before the historic referendum, is almost entirely impartial and undoubtedly gives due weight to both sides; coming just days after the serious allegations of bias against Nick Robinson, which will be discussed later on. However, it does offer a stark reminder that a 1979 referendum regarding Devolution – and its poor voting turnout – saw just 32.9% of a required 40% of votes gained; warning modern day voters of the past hostility that the idea of separatism has created. Crucially though, reporter Alan Little ends the programme with a resigned sign-off, saying that “Future generations of Scots will need reasons to love and trust the Union as our parents and grandparents did”. This could be seen to be an emotive message that the fight for independence has already been lost or equally, it could be a message directed at politicians that the Union will be strong once again, if the people are treated correctly. The first programme focused on the 10-year anniversary of Devolution and appeared free from bias towards either side. Nonetheless, surprisingly, upon closer inspection, one can find various examples of an anti-Union discourse throughout the entire extended report. First of all, images of relevant politicians are visualised in an ‘animation’ feature on the screen; the anti-Union Salmond and Winnie Ewing are flanked by a Saltire, yet with the images of Brown and Blair, a Union Jack is noticeably absent. Scotland is also compared to the extremely successful independence campaigns of Russia and Norway, whilst Ewing, the former President of the SNP, is shown on screen saying that it is wrong that Scots “can’t decide what wars to fight in” . Additionally, in each and every voxpop, the people interviewed promptly insist that they feel Scottish first and British second; an act that almost creates separatism itself. Following from this, members of the English public are interviewed at an overly stereotypical country pub – with Morris dancers performing – all of whom are in favour of an independent Scotland, with no opposition. This links to a BBC news report broadcast in the final week before the referendum whereby, in somewhat similar circumstances, a Warwickshire lady in her 60s proudly proclaimed that she had “always been against Scottish MPs making decisions for us”. It could be deduced that the BBC had produced and broadcast this episode of Panorama with the idea that a referendum was not possible and therefore had no qualms about presenting independence in a positive light. This being said, throughout the two episodes of Panorama and the majority of news coverage in September 2014, the BBC has endeavoured to present a historic togetherness or ‘Blitz spirit’, covering everything that united Scotland and England in the past; from unions of miners to the power of the former British Empire. The clear underlying message is that the BBC feels that the Union is better together. Moreover, it is clear that when the reality of a potentially independent Scotland was made clear, the BBC did not give ‘due weight’ to both sides of the argument. It primarily selected pro-Union voxpops in its reports which almost allows for the organisation’s political viewpoint to be made explicit – albeit subliminally – and gives wind to Ekstrom’s idea that people in the news are ‘extras’ and that “reporters gather statements that fit well into the story” (Ekstrom, 2000: 476). This is backed up by Kelly who argues that the BBC “unleashed the forces of hell upon Scotland, in an attempt to terrorise the country into rejecting self-government” (Kelly, 2014) when a poll was seen to show the ‘Yes’ campaign in the lead for the first time.

The primary example of “unleashing the forces of hell” in BBC’s supposed pro-Union bias during the Scottish referendum that this essay will focus on is a news report from the BBC’s Political Editor, Nick Robinson, which aired on BBC News at Ten on Thursday 11 September. It had become clear earlier in the day that several banks would be likely to move their headquarters to England in the event of a ‘Yes’ victory; a fear that Alex Salmond had played down. Robinson asked Salmond at a press conference, “Why should a Scottish voter believe you – a politician – against men who are responsible for billions of pounds of profits?” A voiceover of Robinson then proceeds to somewhat proudly announce that “He did not answer” when in fact a “heated exchange” (RT.com, 2014) had taken place between the pair. Therefore a BBC Trust article regarding the ‘safeguarding of impartiality’ is crucial in determining whether bias is present in this instance: “It’s [the word partial] original meaning is ‘incomplete’, and in that sense ‘impartiality’ suggests ‘completeness’ or ‘wholeness’ – which can only be positive. And the way to achieve wholeness is to add things in, not to cut them out” (BBC, 2009: 23). Nonetheless, in editing the Salmond’s response, Robinson could be said to be realising Hall’s idea that the media transform “official viewpoint into public idiom’ as part of the attempt of making official discourse more palatable to the public” (Hall et al. 1978: 61 cited in Barkho, 2007: 15). Later on in the report, Robinson conversed with presenter Sophie Raworth live in Edinburgh and appeared, on a number of occasions, to introduce an opinion – be it his or that of the BBC – into his analysis. For example, on two occasions he appears to undermine and mock Alex Salmond, using football terminology, when he says, “Attack – he clearly thinks – is the best form of defence” and “Alex Salmond channelling his inner Alex Ferguson at me”; the latter followed by an almost proud chuckle. Robinson’s questionable lexical choices link to McNair’s suggestion that, “There are subtleties of language and tone which can be used by a correspondent to signify distrust towards a politician, but such perceptions cannot be made explicit” (McNair, 2007: 77). Although there is no completely explicit opinion presented by Robinson, the disparaging comparison to Alex Ferguson and the remark that “he clearly thinks”, are inflammatory acts that he knows will provoke a response. Further to this, through the supposed ‘bias’, an ‘Us versus Them’ dichotomy is created whereby Robinson sympathises with the ‘No’ campaign about getting the message across “to the warn Scots about what they might face” whilst again undermining the ‘Yes’ campaign. He explains, using politically loaded and inflammatory lexical items, how “they” think it is all a “great conspiracy” and that “they” think that it’s all being done “To scare Scots away from claiming their democratic right”. This is seemingly in breach of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) code of conduct, which states, “A journalist strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” (NUJ Code of Conduct cited in Harcup, 2009: 221) and also again potentially in breach of the BBC’s own regulations which state, “BBC journalists are required to “try to avoid using terminology favoured by one side or another in a dispute” (BBC, 2006 cited in Barkho, 2008: 284). The controversial report heightened the tension between the BBC and those in favour of independence leading to of thousands of protesters gathering outside BBC headquarters in Glasgow with claims that the TV licence was “a licence to lie” and Salmond telling journalists, “It’s the unconscious bias which is the most extraordinary thing of all” (Green, 2014). After the report had aired, from 16 September the tone of the news reports seemed to change; focusing on the powers Scotland will be given for staying within the United Kingdom, with reporters becoming more noticeably impartial, using clichés such as “too close to call” and stating that the result was “on a knife-edge”.

In conclusion, the news programmes and documentaries studied in research for this essay, on the whole, undoubtedly give rise to the idea that the BBC was somewhat biased in its coverage of the Scottish independence referendum. That being said, the ‘bias’ was never made explicit yet its existence can be identified upon further analysis of the content of the news. For instance, the tone of the BBC’s Panorama programme on Scottish independence altered from a 2009 episode to a 2014 episode as the reality became clearer; it contained no hefty statement that independence was unwanted, but included voxpops to gauge the English opinion. In 2009, the members of the public interviewed were completely in favour of independence but by 2014 – in both Panorama and voxpops utilised by News at 10 itself – the overriding public negativity is extraordinary. This links to Ekstrom’s idea that “reporters gather statements that fit well into the story” (Ekstrom, 2000: 476) as it is completely farcical to suggest – and then present to the public – a report which unfairly represents public opinion on the Scottish referendum. Further to this, as McNair argues, “Journalism is not, and never can be a neutral, value-free representation of reality” (McNair, 2003: 38), yet examples such as the widespread scaremongering and complete disregard of the ‘Yes’ campaign rally on 13 September show the reality of the frequently politically-charged construction of the mainstream news agenda.

As stated in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines impartiality doesn’t always entail both sides of a dispute being given equal time in a report, instead each side must be covered in ‘due weight’. Nonetheless, whilst the measurement of ‘due weight’ is not specified and is therefore objective, potential examples of bias occurred on 13 September in James Cook’s report whereby a ‘No’ rally was extensively covered yet an equally large ‘Yes’ rally was almost entirely omitted, adding to Allan’s idea that, “If, by definition, it is impossible for journalists to be completely ‘objective’, then should they not abandon the pretence of being ‘unbiased’ altogether?” (Allan, 2010: 269). Perhaps the most relevant example of potential bias was Nick Robinson’s report which clashed with the BBC’s guideline, “the way to achieve wholeness is to add things in, not to cut them out” (BBC, 2009: 23) when Alex Salmond’s response to Robinson’s question regarding Scottish banks moving their headquarters’ south was not included in the final report on 11 September. Robinson’s position as Political Editor was called into question after he undermined Salmond, linking to McNair’s idea that personal opinions of politicians “cannot be made explicit” (McNair, 2007: 77). Finally, if a straightforward and coherent discourse strategy, free of a certain political tone, is employed, then bias can undoubtedly be prevented from appearing in a supposedly impartial news programme. However, in this instance it can be inferred that the BBC made significantly limited efforts to conceal its allegiance in an effort to convince the undecided voters to vote ‘No’. When the BBC’s former Director General John Reith resigned in 1938, he was heralded for making the BBC “safe, responsible, the guarantor of the nation’s cultural capital” (Scannell and Cardiff, 1991: 17), but, just as The Sun’s reputation declined in the North West after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, it seems as though times – and opinions of the BBC – have changed.

Word Count: 3,113 (not including references)

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