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

In Blog by Ian Fraser3 Comments

30 August 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 claims that the 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. He accuses Aunty of becoming vindictive and seeking to bury not just the research itself but also the career of its author (Professor Robertson explains what happened, including the BBC’s complaint to his boss, in this interview he gave to OpenDemocracy).

Robertson’s research suggested the BBC was using a range of techniques, including “subtle imbalance” 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 “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, certain 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 Responsibility and Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The research also found the BBC was overly deferential towards such sources and was neither open nor transparent about their political, constitutional and ideological allegiances. Frequently clearly partisan commentators were “passed off” as impartial observers.

Professor Robertson’s research also raised issues such as the alleged demonisation of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, who was democratically elected in the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2007 and 2010, for example through the “editing in” of comments that “questioned his honesty”.

To me at least, both the research and the “Bigger The Lie” film above (and indeed my own knowledge of the BBC’s output) suggest the BBC has been taking a subtly pro Union 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 spoiled, 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 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 Alex Salmond … but which failed to mention that the offence was a threat to assassinate the First Minister. Surely this is a bigger story than Murphy being heckled?

Professor Robertson’s Research

Professor Robertson’s Facebook page


  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.

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