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Interview: BBC bias, bullying, and the Scottish referendum

Following the recent publication of his report, Dr John Robertson speaks to OurKingdom about his findings, his methodology, and an unusually fierce response - "bullying" - from the BBC itself.

Dr John Robertson from the University of West Scotland has just published research on bias and fairness in the coverage of the Scottish referendum debate, which he has written for OurKingdom about here. The research covers the period Sep 2012 to Sep 2013 and 620 hours of news broadcasts on BBC news in Scotland (‘Reporting Scotland’) and STV (ITV Scotland). He is interviewed by Oliver Huitson, who in September 2012 published How the BBC betrayed the NHS.

 

Oliver Huitson: You recently published a lengthy report based on examination of a year’s worth of output from BBC and ITV news broadcasts in Scotland on the subject of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. What was your overall impression of the BBC’s coverage with regard to bias and fairness?

John Robertson: I found clear imbalance and a number of practices which combined, I’d argue, to favour the No campaign. The rough 3:2 ratio of statements favouring the No campaign over the Yes campaign struck me as less remarkable than it did the BBC policy head, who contacted me angrily, or than it did many of the online Yes campaigners often referred to as ‘cybernats’. I would have been surprised if the ratio had run the other way. Imagine the state broadcaster in somewhere like Ukraine or Nigeria performing as impartially as 3:2 suggests. We’d probably think that was alright. More important I’d say was the tendency on both channels to demonise First Minister Salmond, to edit in offensive comments about his honesty and the deferential manner in which ‘research’ from ‘independent’ sources, mostly with an interest in preserving the Union, was treated.

OH: What were the key mechanisms by which you felt the coverage was skewed, intentionally or otherwise?

JR: Some examples I have given above, but I don’t think the overall ratio is that important when it allows a fairly big presence for both sides. More important are the features such as the sequence of statements whereby, for example, broadcasts were more likely to open with bad news for the Yes campaign, putting the latter on the defensive and then finishing off with another negative assessment so as to bracket the Yes supporters’ comments between two negatives.

OH: Bias is by nature a tricky and subjective area, perhaps arguments could equally be made that the BBC favoured the Yes vote. Is there an element of the ideological inclinations of the researchers apparent in all studies on media bias?

JR: I think one the main reasons my work has upset the BBC so much has been because I am not easily linked to an ideological position. I’ve never been a member of any political movement other than Amnesty International. I’ve marched against war and the illegal detention of asylum-seekers in a Scottish prison. I’m a socialist, pacifist, feminist and anti-imperialist. The latter position inevitably means I do favour independence for Scotland, and for Catalunya, the Basque Region and so on but I’m not a nationalist.

Alex SalmondI do not argue for impartiality on my part just a commitment to fairness and self-awareness. The rigorous adoption of a grounded theory method combined with a complete survey with no sampling and triple phase coding makes my research far more objective than most that commonly appear unchallenged on UK TV news. It is quite common for samples of around 1000 to 2000 telephone  interviewees to form the basis of findings presented by pet career professors to be broadcast with absolutely no challenging of the academic, where their research offers no real challenge to establishment elites.

However, I accept that the coding of language cannot avoid a degree of subjectivity. Could the BBC demonstrate that they had been favourable to the Yes vote, contrary to my interpretation of the same broadcasts? Notably, they have not done so despite a level of staffing in their Referendum Unit well in excess of that available to me. My guess is that less experienced than me, their junior researchers came up with an even more damaging 3:1 ratio?

OH: Are there any particular instances of bias that you found stood out?

JR: I touched already on the demonising of First Minister Salmond. This struck me as a clear example of the kind of process which destroyed the image and electability of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock in earlier times. While not researched rigorously, I have seen repeated evidence of the success of such a strategy where colleagues broadly sympathetic to independence express a personal dislike of Salmond’s appearance and his alleged dishonesty. Further, the undue authority conferred on quite clearly ideological agencies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Office for Budget Responsibility is clearly biased.

OH: Has the BBC responded to your report?

JR: Yes, within days a short and quite insulting email was copied to my Principal. Two weeks later a six thousand word ‘forensic’ attack on my research was sent, again widely copied to anyone who had contacted them about my research. I replied, taking their argument apart, point by point. Four or five days later, a short email agreeing to disagree appeared. The full text of these exchanges can be found on the Derek Bateman blogs and on newsnetscotland.com.

An Early Day motion at the House of Parliament on 5th February called on the BBC to at least report on the research. This has been ignored.

Between the first email and the fuller critique, Newsnight Scotland made a provisional offer of a place that night then withdrew the offer after management interference with editorial autonomy. Other initial invitations led to later withdrawals. I did however make it onto Radio Scotland on Saturday 1st February at 8.20 am for 8 minutes.

Since then, the radio interview has been pulled from the Radio Scotland site (it’s still on YouTube) and several of my colleagues have been warned by BBC contacts to distance themselves from me.

OH: Do you feel this was intended to bully either you or your institution, and have you been surprised by the response?

JR: I see this as a clear case of bullying by a powerful corporation through  direct threats to me, reporting me to senior staff in my university, and by shutting down almost all mainstream press through, presumably, calling in favours from newspaper editors. My Principal and Dean have supported my rights as an academic. The University will not, however, do a formal press release.

My research was mentioned in a Daily Record column by SNP MSP Joan McAlpine and recently within an article in the Sunday Herald by Ian Bell. By contrast online reporting has triggered a massive response which in itself is a media news story worthy of covering by TV news.

OH: The BBC has made numerous criticisms of your methodology, has this been mostly bluster or have there been some valid shortcomings identified?

JR: This is classic suppression. There are a handful of minor factual errors such as a date out by one day. All research of this kind involving a team of researchers and a mass of data will produce minor errors which have no bearing on the findings. My methodology is superior to that in most studies reported uncritically in the media. The use of sampling techniques, unnecessary in my study as I surveyed the whole domain, introduces major loss of validity. See the regular failures by opinion polls including those which failed to predict the SNP election win over Labour.

The BBC has only ever challenged one piece of research, this one, because it undermines their reputation – coincidence?

If they really think it’s flawed they’ll have the nerve to report it and then let me debate it with another experienced researcher. Their reluctance to do so speaks volumes.

Ironically, as this blew up, I was marking more than 60 essays on research methods with a section on research ethics included! I’m chair of the School research ethics committee. I’ve been teaching research methods and supervising research students for nearly thirty years. Why would I adopt the wrong methodology? I know, it’s because I’m old (62). That’s it – ‘Academic bullying BBC admits he’s past it!’

OH: Is this bias a result of pressure from Westminster, or career minded editors, or is it a more subtle reflection of the shared socio-economic backgrounds, and interests, of the senior figures involved?

JR: This has to be conjecture on my part as I did not research this topic empirically. However, it’s getting on for 30 years since I read Herman & Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent with its all too clear and persuasive account of the interlocking of elites including media elites, their promotion of class interests by simply pursuing their own interests--which are the interests of their class--and the self-censorship of media elites and junior media staff to produce, consciously or sub-consciously, consent. When that consent is challenged by rogue academics or other critics that leads to them being bombarded with ‘flak’ in the form of threats and insults to their competence.

In the case of the Scottish media, their long-term loyalty to the Labour Party is much discussed online. The interlocking of political and media elites in Scotland is unavoidably the linking with Labour. Again I have no evidence. Indeed, I didn’t expect this. Perhaps victim myself to Scottish exceptionalism – we’re better than that, a fairer, kinder people than those in the South? The Scottish newspaper journalist is more of a fighter than his English counterpart so we’ll not be standing alone – more fool me.

OH: Do you feel  the BBC become less a public broadcaster and more a state broadcaster?

JR: There are good people in the BBC. Mindless loyalty to a now fatally corrupted Labour Party is not uniform but dissidents are often afraid in the presence of corporate discipline.

To answer the question, I think the public humiliation of the BBC by Blair and Campbell during the Iraq War in 2003 scared the institution out of its principles and into a fearful defensiveness in responding to the rightward lurch of English politics, so yes.

 

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About the authors

Dr John Robertson is Reader in Media Politics at University of West Scotland and has worked in Higher Education for 25 years. His background is as a sociologist and educational technologist and his teaching experience covers, in particular, learning theories, technology-based education and the critical analysis of socio-economic change.

Oliver Huitson is a former Co-Editor at openDemocracyUK and a freelance journalist. He contributed chapters to Jenny Manson's 2012 book, Public Service on the Brink, and NHS SOS (2013). He has written for The Guardian, The New Statesman, Vice and the BBC. He is on Twitter as @OllyHuitson


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