How the BBC muzzled a professor who cast doubt on its impartiality

August 30th, 2014

Meet John Robertson, professor of media politics at the University of the West of Scotland.

Robertson led a team of researchers from the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) that investigated how TV broadcasters were covering the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The research, which covered the period September 2012 to September 2013, included an analysis of 620 hours of news broadcasts on BBC News in Scotland (‘Reporting Scotland’) and Scottish Television (STV or ITV Scotland) and was published in February 2014.

In the above film Professor Robertson explains how these research findings were suppressed and rubbished by the BBC and largely ignored by other media in Scotland, with the exception of being mentioned in columns by Ian Bell in the Sunday Herald and Joan McAlpine in the Daily Record. Aunty became vindictive and apparently sought to bury not just the research itself but also the career of its author (Professor Robertson explains what happened in this interview he gave to OpenDemocracy).

Robertson’s research revealed that the BBC was using a range of techniques to distort the debate about Scottish independence. The research found that pro-union stories  outnumbered pro-independence stories by a ratio of three-to-two. It also found the BBC was using well-worn propaganda techniques including the frequent repetition of ‘bad news’ stories about how badly Scotland would fare as an independent country (which I would add as an aside some BBC presenters do sometimes seem to quietly relish and/or smirk about!).  It also found the BBC was sequencing stories (for example with “Yes” messages often bookended between more negative “No” messages) and that it was over-reliant on sources close to the “No” campaign such as the Treasury, Office of Budget Responsibilty and Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The research also found the BBC was overly deferential towards such sources and was neither open or transparent about their political, constitutional and ideological allegiances. Frequently clearly biassed commentators were “passed off” as impartial observers.

Professor Robertson’s research also raised issues such as the demonisation of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, who was democratically elected in the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2007 and 2010, for example by the “editing in” of comments that “questioned his honesty”. Both the research and the film (and indeed my own knowledge of the BBC’s output) suggest the BBC has been taking a deliberately partisan line in its coverage of the Scottish independence referendum (though I would add that the Corporation may be learning from its mistakes and become more even-handed in recent weeks). Its failure to resign its membership of the “No” supporting employers’ organisation, the CBI, continues to cast doubt over its objectivity.

In the spirit of transparency, Robertson happily divulges that he is former Labour and SNP voter who “will be deciding on Yes because I believe this is a great opportunity to achieve a more equal, wealthier and, above all, democratic Scottish nation.”

Footnote: Only yesterday, BBC Radio 4 ran a news report based on unsubstantiated allegations from the former Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy, that he has been plagued by “organised mobs” and physical threats in his recently aborted “100 Streets in 100 days” speaking tour of Scotland (he’s been trying to emulate John Major’s soapbox campaign but most of the recent events have been beyond farcical, as pro-independence supporters, many of whom used to vote Labour, have been drowning out his attempts to convince them to vote “No” on 18th September). In a sure sign of skewed sequencing, the BBC Radio 4 report ended with one sentence about an actual conviction in court of an individual for threatening the First Minister Alex Salmond … but which failed to mention that the offence was a threat to assassinate him.

Professor Robertson’s Research

Professor Robertson’s Facebook page

Short URL: http://www.ianfraser.org/?p=10758

Posted by on Aug 30 2014. Filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

3 Comments for “How the BBC muzzled a professor who cast doubt on its impartiality”

  1. Both the research, the film (and indeed my own knowledge of the BBC’s output) suggest the BBC is taking a deliberately impartial line in its coverage of the Scottish independence referendum – To me it seems as if you mean partial or partisan right about there.

  2. Thanks Greg, I’ve changed it!

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