Sunday 14 September 2014

Some thoughts on Scottish independence and BBC bias

Given that both Sue and myself have - in our own different ways - had an absolutely crazy, hectic, unforgettable week this past week (massed cellos, new-born twins, overtime, exhibitions, Edinburgh...oh, yes, new-born twins!...), it's not surprising that Is the BBC biased? has been very quiet over the last few days (for which, apologies)...and might very well be just as quiet next week too (for which further apologies...but, fear not, our vast legions of readers, we will burst out with renewed vigour and purpose next month)...

As I've a spare few hours I intended to write about so much tonight, especially given the stomach-turning news from Syria, but instead I've got stuck [given time restraints] on the issue which is presently obsessing me...the potential break-up of my country within the next week. 


I see that the article Scottish independence: Crowd protests against 'BBC bias' has been kept well away from the main headlines of the BBC News website home page this evening. It even took a wee while to spot it on the site's Scotland page.

The article is initially just as coy about exactly which side is protesting and what they are protesting about:
A large crowd gathered outside BBC Scotland's Glasgow HQ to protest about coverage of the referendum.
Police said up to 1,000 people took part although other observers suggested a much higher figure for the crowd.
Only in the third paragraph is it made clear:
The protesters said BBC coverage had been biased against independence.
This is only the latest protest in an ongoing series of anti-BBC demonstrations from pro-independence supporters. As far as I am aware, there have been no such sizeable anti-BBC demonstrations from 'No' supporters. 

Similarly, Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere are full of 'Yes' supporters facebooking, tweeting and blogging en masse about BBC bias against Scottish independence. 

The 'cybernats' have pretty much succeeded in  monopolising the social media debate over BBC bias, and blogs like Newsnet Scotland and that of former BBC presenter Derek Bateman have been highly effective [and in my Mr Bateman's case very amusing] at amplifying those complaints against the BBC from the 'Yes' side. 

Now, there have been occasional stray unionists (like Lord George Foulkes, Alan Cochrane or David Vance) claiming bias in the opposite direction - and one-off media upswells like the second Salmond-Darling debate [the one hosted by the BBC] which saw more pro-independence questions/heckling from the audience than otherwise - but the complaints of Scottish politicians, commentators , activists and (apparently) ordinary folk criticising the BBC for bias have come Overwhelmingly [capital  letter deliberate] from the pro-independence side (including Jim Sillars and Alex Salmond in recent days). 

There's even been a widely-aired study from Professor John Robertson claiming clear evidence of such bias. 

This huge imbalance suggests that one side really thinks it has a case against the BBC while the other side sees little problem with the BBC. This indeed appears to be the case. 

Some might, therefore, take that as evidence that there is bias against Scottish independence at the BBC. 

That, of course, is to fall into the trap of thinking that just because the 'Yes' side are so vociferous and numerous with their complaints that those complaints are in any way justified. It could be merely because they are loud, numerous - and wrong. After all, the large demonstrations against BBC bias over Gaza came from just one side (the pro-Palestinian side), and were completely without substance.  

All of these 'Yes' supporter complaints could all be (as the BBC says they are) completely false charges of bias. Professor Robertson could be no better than Greg Philo and his colleague Mike Berry at Cardiff University - an activist in academic's clothing. (I don't think he is though. Even though he is open in being pro-independence himself, his methodology and results look much stronger than theirs. They certainly rattled the BBC.)


I never really looked into it myself, regrettably, other than dipping a little toe in from time to time. 

All I can say I what I see, and I began by examining James Naughtie's Today interviews with politicians from both sides and found - in the early stages - that, for example, the ones with Alistair Darling were noticeably gentler and less-interruption-ridden than those with Nicola Sturgeon.

However, that was early on and I failed to follow up on it. I've heard a lot of James Naughtie pieces since then though and, as time has passed, I've rather come to agree with Rod Liddle that "Jim Naughtie’s stuff from north of the border has been admirably meticulous and even-handed". 

Yesterday's Today (minus Jim) couldn't have been more scrupulous, despite Sarah Montague's scrap with Jim Sillars [which was at least as much down to him as to her], with Justin Webb's interview with the three elderly voters an exemplary piece of interviewing. [I can imagine some 'Yes' people quibbling that Justin did adopt a surprised tone and also ask one slightly tougher question to the pro-'Yes' lady than to the 'No' man and the 'Undecided' man, but that really would be quibbling].

This week's PM saw Eddie Mair interviewing both Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond on one day. Both interviews had tough passages and both had somewhat more relaxed passages of interviewing. Eddie did get much more personal with Mr Salmond than with Mr Darling, doggedly questioning his personal honesty (though not quite going so far as to call him "a nasty piece of work", as he did with Boris), though he then eased off somewhat. Mr Darling was probed more quietly (though there was a passing dig at his poor performance in the second TV debate), but Eddie put plenty of pointed questions to him and interrupted him more often. [Eddie managed to sneak in more digs at Boris though, oddly]. 

I analysed the reaction to these interviews on Twitter and was intrigued at how varied and contrasting the reactions were. Some pro-'Yes' people denounced Eddie Mair, some praised him. Some pro-'No' people denounced Eddie Mair, some praised him. There was no strong trend of denunciation or praise either way, just lots of differing, strongly-held opinions.  

Criticism and praise from both sides? BBC getting it about right? In Eddie Mair's case there, I'd say yes. 

The much-derided new-look, touchy-feely Newsnight of Ian Katz has also been on good form, with far-from-touchy-feely interviews with politicians from both sides of the Scottish independence issue. 

Those complaining (elsewhere) that having 'orrible lefty Ken Loach and pretentious lefty Ekow Eshun on to discuss Britishness in the light of the referendum is proof of BBC bias ignore the fact that other Newsnight discussions this past week (on similar themes) featured counterbalancing right-wing pro-British guests (including Niall Ferguson and Fraser Nelson), and that out-of-Scotland unionists and English reactions were also spotlighted. By dipping in so randomly and them shouting 'Bias!' such people risk making fools of themselves (and their/our cause) as the BBC has them absolutely banged to rights. 

On a sort-of-related matter, a highly-rated comment at another blog ['The Other Place'] includes the charge that 
"...the BBC’s activists...have...for some considerable time been further to the left than even Miliband’s Labour Party...and it’s no surprise that was reflected in the ‘Scotland Decides’ debate last night with an unbalanced panel of:
  • The Scottish Green Convener Patrick Harvie (impeccable left wing CV)
  • Sturgeon (Left wing SNP)
  • Galloway (Left wing – from some party or other)
  • Ruth Davidson (Tory)"

That comment has 33 'likes'. Another comment from last night, responding to the above and linking to Harry's Place, has 0 'likes'. It says:
The answer, unfortunately, had nothing to do with BBC as the ever reliable Harry’s Place testifies. The Better Together mob chose him as one of their 2 spokespersons.
Indeed. Harry's Place says:
Last night the BBC carried a major debate on the referendum from Glasgow – with the audience specifically Scotland’s youngest voters. Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ were allowed to nominate two people for the debate.
The SNP and Green party represented the Yes campaign. The ‘No’ ( Better Together) chose the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party and incredibly George Galloway leader of the tiny far-left Respect Party. Just let that sink in for a minute. To defend the union – they chose not a representative of the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats but a man who has shown nothing but contempt for the British state they seek to maintain.
One lesson here? Bloggers and commenters about BBC bias beware: Always check before you make serious charges of bias against the BBC lest your assertions are based on quicksand and you end up looking silly as the incoming tide draws near. The other lesson here? People who agree with you on blogs (your 'tribe'] will keep 'liking' you regardless...which is nice.

From dipped toes to Toenails...

What to make though of the Nick Robinson affair? 

The anti-BBC protestors outside Pacific Quay are calling for his sacking. Why? Well, follow the link here to Russia Today and watch both videos and (once you get over the deep, deep irony of Russia Today complaining about media bias from another state broadcaster!) you'll see for yourselves. Nick Robinson is being accused of lying about Alex Salmond, by claiming that Mr Salmond didn't answer his question, and the BBC is being accused of editing that report to make it look, indeed, as if Mr Salmond didn't answer Nick Robinson's question. A non-BBC video shows the whole exchange and shows Mr Salmond answering Nick Robinson at considerable length. Further exchanges, which Alex Salmond later described as 'heckling' from Nick, have also caused controversy. (The BBC is, of course, standing behind Nick 100%.)

I've got my fair hat on today, so I will say that the BBC's defence that Alex Salmond didn't answer that part of the question featured in Nick's highly-edited report - the one about why politicians should be believed over businessmen -  has some truth to it. Mr Salmond didn't directly answer that one (though his whole answer can be read as an indirect answer to it.) 

However, that part of the question was only one part of Nick Robinson's initial question to Alex Salmond and Mr Salmond did answer all the other parts of it and - keeping my fair hat on - probably felt he was addressing the serious parts of Nick's question. Nick Robinson's "He didn't answer", therefore, made it sound as if Alex Salmond ignored his whole question, which is far from the truth, and the report's editing [which ignored the other parts of Nick's question] strongly reinforced this false impression. 

Well, that's my take on it, and I think the BBC should 'fess up and admit that the editing of this report, at least, could have been much, much better.

By chance, I myself went to Edinburgh this week and found something curious - which I'm passing on just for the sake of it, as bloggers do...

I saw very little visible evidence that there was that a dramatic and highly historic referendum campaign going on there. 

I will admit that I was expecting to find the campaign hard to miss, but in all the time I was there I saw just four buildings across the whole of central Edinburgh with campaign posters up (three 'Yes', one 'No') and a 'Yes' sticker on a statue of Adam Smith [as if he were wearing it proudly]. Two small groups of 'No' campaigners were handing out leaflets to the vast hordes of shoppers and strollers on Princes Street (few of whom seemed very keen to take them, or to talk to the campaigners). A 'Yes' protest banner (denouncing Trident) was manned by two people at the foot of Arthur's Seat, just round the corner from the Scottish parliament, but was studiously ignored by everyone else - all of whom appeared intent on enjoying a lovely sunny afternoon in the scenic parkland and countryside into which Edinburgh opens at Holyrood. People were obviously chatting amongst themselves about it, at home and in pubs, rather than flooding the streets of the Scottish capital for political reasons during weekdays. 

Of course, they could have been talking about it whilst shopping or lying around in Holyrood Park or climbing Arthur's Seat and Carlton Hill...

Incidentally, it did strike me whilst exploring the area around the striking Scottish parliament building that Scottish parliamentarians couldn't have a better place to work. They step outside and there's Holyrood Palace directly in front of them, they go a couple of minutes round the corner and they are at the foot of Arthur's Seat, they walk a minute on and a lovely park unfolds before them. Wander in the other direction and you're at the bottom of Carlton Hill in about fifteen minutes, climb it in ten. Take along a fine whisky kickback and, wow, the world's your oyster! [Watch out for the BBC cameramen though. They are always up there.]


  1. I've been on the fence about this issue for a couple of years now, but the last few weeks have made me see it as the BBC actually is somewhat biased against independence. As has already been discussed here, they have a vested interest in keeping both the territory and the revenue, so it's not credible to think that there's no extra concern over a Yes result.
    But having seen Norman Smith's wildly dishonest introduction to the BBC's edited version, I say there's no question about bias on this one. However, Nick Robinson is also right that Salmond didn't answer the second question. What caused them to twist it that way, I have no idea. It was deliberate, not accidental. I assume Robinson oversaw the editing of the footage, but Smith was way too engaged in his delivery for him not to be on the same side as whoever produced the segment.
    Salmond introduced the charge of leaking information into the conversation, and he was accusing the BBC of leaking, not the Treasury. Completely dishonest to present that bit as being a response to Robinson's second question, ironically about trust. I know Salmond didn't actually answer that question, so the BBC had to get their revenge for the accusation. Seriously unprofessional, and in no way helps the BBC regain its legacy of trust.
    Salmond did answer the first question, though, mostly (according to Peston he was wrong about no jobs lost). If I understand it correctly, the RBS question was based on the information he's accusing the BBC of publishing illegally. So it's a mess, and it really seems like the BBC had to spin it cover their own asses. Smith set it up by telling the viewers that the Treasury denied it was a leak, and it was instead just them answering questions from journalists. Which means that the journalists - the BBC - are responsible not only for illegally publishing, but for bringing it up in the first place. Whom to trust? Probably not the BBC.
    Peston puts it on Robinson for reporting it first, but starts out his defense strategy by blaming the Treasury for briefing journalists. Just as Norman Smith said.
    But why were the journalists asking questions? I bet it's because Peston got insider info and couldn't keep his mouth shut. Again. He let Robinson break it to distance himself from it. If that's all it takes for the BBC to completely twist a story in a most dishonest fashion, it's just sad.
    I've always maintained that Nick Robinson protects the people he reports on more than he does inform his viewers honestly, and if this doesn't get him sent home, I don't know what would at the BBC anymore. Maybe if he said somebody had a Muslim appearance again.
    To judge from today's Sunday Politics, it will be a narrow Yes result. Andrew Neil was fair and challenged both sides equally, even while strongly hinting that he expects a vote for Yes. The only real bit of anti-independence bias I noticed was them having on that Tommy Trotskyite guy. The BBC does that all the time, using some extremist pantomime character to present the non-elite view for the side they don't like. There was nobody living in the real world who could articulate that point of view? Neil did the usual undermine the messenger bit and pointed out that the Trotskyite's party got 8000? votes at the last election while the Tories got far more. So if he's a fringe, why have him on, if not to keep that side of the debate from having a fair fight? We've all noticed the BBC does that regularly.
    Paul Mason has lashed out, and I bet it's killing the Paul Masons still working there that the BBC has to take sides with the Tories against darling Marxists and the dream of turning Scotland into a communal farm or whatever he's dreaming of this week.

    1. I'm glad to have your thoughts on this David, and relieved to find that you're inclining the same way as me in thinking that the BBC is - for understandable, selfish reasons - somewhat 'institutionally biased' in favour of a 'No' vote in the Scottish referendum. [I'm institutionally biased that way too].

      The more times I see that Nick Robinson report the worse it gets, and the feebler the BBC's response - as per this less-than-coherent verdict on the BBC's Complaints page:

      Was the Trot on the 'Sunday Politics' from TUSC? We had a comment from a TUSC guy here, complaining about BBC bias against TUSC and claiming it was doing well in elections (even though it wasn't).

      I still think it will be a 'No' vote, by a small - but not too small - margin. I suspect some people are too nervous to admit to being 'No' voters.

      I'll be wildly speculative here and predict 53% No and 47% Yes.

      Paul Mason seems to be claiming that the BBC are anti-independence-biased in the same extreme way that they were pro-Iraq-War-biased which is based on the dead-wrong premise that the BBC were pro-Iraq War (which is 180 degrees wrong.) Paul Mason has built a career out of being dead wrong though, and it's still doing him all right (so far).

    2. I have no dog in this fight, and it was still obvious what the BBC did there. It was more to cover their own asses than to take sides against independence, but that's another aspect of BBC bias we've talked about for years. Their perspective on what's news and what isn't, and choices about how to report things still betray their intentions. As Salmond himself said earlier, they don't realize they're doing it, and refuse to accept that they're players in the game. It's amazing that nobody at BBC News was clear-headed enough to stop this from happening. This was a hatchet job on Salmond, and whether it was about anti-independence or simply protecting the BBC from the accusation is almost beside the point.
      The Trotskyist was Tommy Sheridan from Solidarity. Straight out of central casting, he was. Every time Neil pointed out that he couldn't really say just how much oil revenue Scotland would get in the first few years, he kept going on about how there would be North Sea oil for 100 years. He couldn't answer the question, echoed Salmond's claim about RBS and "brass plaques", and nearly foamed at the mouth over his imagined utopia of "investment" in healthcare, "investment" in social housing, and the total redistribution of wealth. Pretty much Mason's dream as well. I laugh out loud every time he or some other Yes voice brings up Scotland's ownership of 25% of Britain's renewable energy sources as evidence of their awesome economic potential. Tommy Trotsky complained bitterly about the BBC's anti-independence bias, and one can see why Mason would agree with him.

      The inability to openly broadcast extremist propaganda on pet issues was a major reason why Mason left the BBC. Of course, as biased as Mason's reporting was, Paxman never seemed to mind.

      Aside from all this, how sad is it that George Galloway is almost the most-respected (no pun intended) voice for the No side?

    3. Ah yes, Tommy Sheridan. It HAD to be Tommy Sheridan, if I'd have thought about it. One side chooses Tommy, the other chooses George - both demagogues (one at Trot, the other a Stalinist). That's not a good reflection of the state of either campaign I'd say.

      At least the Nick Robinson affair has provoked David Vance into declaring himself to be on the BBC's side in this dispute with the man he usually calls 'Mr Toad' (Alex Salmond).

    4. Well, those who say Salmond was using offense as the best defense are right. He dodged the question about trust, and I honestly am not sure now whether he's right or not about the RBS information being market-sensitive. But that does not excuse what the BBC did to the video. It was telling a lie, period.

      Robinson had a right to ask the question, and I think Salmond had a right to stick a finger in his eye. But he should have answered the second question. Instead of doing a Paxman imitation (they're all at it these days), Robinson should have called him out on the jobs leaving with the RBS office. It would have had more of an effect and the BBC would not have become the story. But the Beeboids just can't help themselves. So arrogant, so consumed with being in control and maintaining power and influence.

  2. Firstly if I ever try to amend what I type here the comments just freeze and need a re type. If it didn't happen you would see my comments more often.

    Secondly may the twins bring much happiness to their parents.

    As someone who thinks she wants an 'aye' vote so that we can get rid of Scottish politicians from English politics I have felt there has been years of pro devolution bias from the BBC. Years of holidays in Scotland have resulted in hearing BBC Scotland on Radio 4 in the morning. The sub text has always been that what happens in. London has nothing to do with the Scots. And I have felt for the last few months that there has been a softness in Naughtie's voice when considering an independent Scotland, no real questioning of the Nationalists on the hard questions. Also the BBC are willing to end reports where a statement has been said by the 'no's' to finish with but 'Salmond' says what was said was a load of rubbish or something of that ilk.

    I know what I have written needs the odd correction but my comments will just freeze and be lost if I try.


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