Propaganda or professionalism on Pacific Quay?

How were political issues covered by BBC Reporting Scotland and STV News in the four months before UK General Election 2015? 

John Robertson
6 May 2015

Glasgow’s Pacific Quay. Image: Flickr/ Bob the Lomond

‘Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.’ 

(Noam Chomsky, 2002)

‘General Election 2015: Bookies predict SNP will smash through one million votes barrier and win by a landslide in Scotland’ (Daily Record, 29th April 2015)

This is a study of how politics was covered from 6 January to 26 April, 2015 by Scotland’s two main news broadcasters, BBC Reporting Scotland and STV News, both based on Pacific Quay in Glasgow. There are 121 days surveyed in total with no gaps. The sample was the evening news slot at 6.00pm for STV, 6.30pm for Reporting Scotland and, at weekends, the same two shows with slightly varying but still ‘evening’ slots. These are the news broadcasts with the biggest audiences. Only clearly political material was covered and its content analysed. This meant items in broadcast reports, of politicians, policies, the economy, public services, the Scottish Government’s performance, or of the political parties.

Of particular interest, BBC Reporting Scotland’s campaign of scares or alleged crises in government in Scotland ran in a concentrated sequence through only February, March and early April 2015, stopping before the ‘purdah’ period. Typically these reports were based on ‘research’ of a quite partisan or flawed nature. I critique them all in the full report.

In short, though: headlines were often of this nature, on the Scottish NHS:

‘Is emergency care in Scottish hospitals in crisis? A government health hit squad is sent in to sort out A&E in this Paisley hospital.’ 

‘The BMA has warned that the situation threatens patient care.’ 

‘Scottish controversial methadone programme is out of control according to a drugs expert. No one knows how long each addict is using it and what the overall treatment strategy is. There are 22,000 addicts costing tens of millions of pounds a year’. 

And the bizarre: ‘Torbay’s Triumph.’

On the economy:

‘Focusing on the figures, the state of Scotland’s finances has improved but still lags behind the rest of the UK.’ 


‘MSPs have clashed on the budget at First Minister’s Question Time after claims that revised oil figures would leave a black hole in an independent Scotland’s finances.’

‘The Nationalists, as we heard, say those powers would give a boost to the Scottish economy BUT [snapped] their opponents claim scrapping Scotland’s current funding system would mean spending cuts or tax rises of billions of pounds each year.’

And, most disturbingly of all, triggered by their own research, they reported on immigration like this:

‘For years public services have been under pressure through tight budgets but is immigration making this pressure worse?’

‘Nearly two thirds of Scots believe immigration should be reduced with women and older people feeling most strongly.’

The performance of Reporting Scotland, a public service provider, left much to be desired especially given its much vaunted charter. At times, its reporting will have misinformed the public and may have done damage to the electoral prospects of the SNP. The overall quality was thoroughly anti-democratic and propagandising in nature. In sharp contrast, as this research shows, STV, a business without a charter, was mostly informative and balanced.

Of course, if the opinion polls are correct, then Reporting Scotland’s efforts have been in vain. Perhaps, if the enhanced political awareness and engagement of Scots, post the Referendum experience is real, it was counter-productive? If the latter is true it would bring a Habermasian tear to the eye!

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