By Kenneth Roy 
BBC News Online is the most popular news website in the UK. Its 40 million ‘unique users’ every week – of whom 25 million are in Britain – give it a position in the media market of enormous dominance and authority. That is why anything that happens on BBC News Online should be watched carefully.

And something is happening – something rather odd. Since the appointment of Tony Hall as director-general, the BBC has embarked on a perverse mission to save a failing British institution – the mainstream press.

Until recently, the daily summary of the newspapers on BBC News Online was about as exciting as the shipping forecast. Suddenly and without explanation, this modest feature has been transformed into one extremely big deal. Not only are the papers regularly promoted on air, mostly as a cheap way of filling the yawning hours before the latest ‘breaking news’. They are also extensively gutted and filleted for consumption online.

Part of the new service is a daily facsimile of the front pages – as close to free advertising as it gets – so that the seediest of the tabloid pap is routinely republished by BBC News Online without the corporation requiring to exercise any responsibility for its content. Such behaviour used to be called the prerogative of the harlot.

Last weekend, this shabby practice enabled BBC News Online, on its Scottish home page, to share with readers the Sun’s revelation of ‘Bra queen’s 4hr hotel tryst with Liz ex’ – a story about a Scottish businesswoman which the BBC itself would never have published, since it involved an invasion of the privacy of an individual who is not a public figure. Yet the BBC had no hesitation in using the story vicariously, no doubt on the spurious grounds that it had nothing to do with them, guv.

The newspapers are bought in diminishing numbers and quickly discarded. But the facsimiles of their front pages stay online all day, courtesy of the BBC, and are accompanied by a thorough digest of the main themes of the day.

It is well enough done, up to a point. The mystery is why it is done at all. Circulations are in freefall, the power of the mainstream press has sharply declined, and the opinion-forming role of newspapers is being steadily usurped by the internet’s greater independence and diversity.

There is another reason to be baffled by the BBC’s obsession with a twilight industry. Its addiction to old-fashioned newspapers has coincided with the long trial at the Old Bailey of Rebekah Brooks and her friend Andy Coulson, the prime minister’s former press secretary, on a variety of charges related to newspaper ethics and practices.

The trial has been poorly reported in the mainstream press (the only reliable account of it is to be found in James Doleman’s daily blog) and any meaningful comment must be postponed until the middle of May, when the jury is finally expected to deliver verdicts. But it is no exaggeration to claim that the newspaper industry itself is on trial in London. Why, then, has the BBC chosen to have a dizzy affair with Britain’s unloved press? Only the BBC can say, and it probably won’t.

From Scotland’s point of view, there is a growing political dimension to the BBC’s slavish coverage of what the papers say. The public service broadcaster, which collects its licence fee with a zeal bordering on the fanatical, prides itself on the impartiality of its journalism – an impartiality which will be scrutinised and tested the closer we get to referendum day. But the newspapers have no such obligation. They can be – and are – as outrageously biased as they wish.

The danger of the BBC repeating, parrot-fashion, the prejudices of newspaper proprietors was spotted as long ago as 1959, during the general election campaign of that year, by Willie Marshall, the Scottish secretary of the Labour Party. Marshall complained that the BBC in Scotland was broadcasting a daily review of the newspapers. ‘The practice,’ he said, ‘is to quote extensively from editorials, and since the majority of these editorials favour the Tory Party, it looks as if the BBC are not honouring their much-vaunted claim of providing impartiality’.

If this was true in 1959, it is true with referendum knobs on in the media and political worlds of 2014, when a vote on the constitutional future of the UK is less than seven months away. Yet the BBC behaves as if its duty to be impartial is confined to its own journalism. In reality, it has a responsibility to be fair in all it publishes.

The party that has most to lose from the BBC’s slavish devotion to the press is the SNP. Few national newspapers (national in the sense of being British, the Herald and the Scotsman having rebranded themselves as ‘regional’ titles) support the Labour Party, but there is not one which supports the SNP.

This leads, on BBC News Online, to the sort of one-sided coverage we saw last weekend, when millions of consumers, including many in Scotland, were invited to access a press summary notable for its barrage of anti-SNP, anti-independence sentiments.

The BBC informed us that two of the Sundays were leading on the importance to Scotland’s oil industry of staying in the UK; that the Independent on Sunday viewed the SNP’s response to the rejection of a currency union as ‘disappointing’; that, according to the Sun, the No campaign had been ‘inspired’ by David Bowie’s statement at the Brit awards – a photograph of Kate Moss, who made the statement on Bowie’s behalf, rubbing it in; that a new UK-wide poll showed that a majority of English voters were in favour of ‘the whole country’ having a say in Scotland’s future; and that the Sunday Express was carrying an editorial extolling the ‘untold advantage, tolerance and opportunity’ of retaining the union and the ‘tragedy’ if it were to end.

None of this was surprising. The various beasts make their jungle noises as predictably as they ever did. Nor is it surprising that there was not a balancing word in favour of Scottish independence; it is conceivable that not a single national newspaper contained such a word. But if the BBC still values its reputation for neutrality it should consider the lack of fairness in these press summaries. The drip-drip of hostility to the independence cause, dutifully reflected by the BBC, cannot but have some effect on public opinion over the coming months.

If the result is a narrow rejection of independence, the SNP will be entitled to point to the bias of the BBC in influencing the result. That bias is already an issue.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review

Related Story: Referendum 2014: BBC ramping up coverage


Auld Rock
2014-02-26 18:08

I believe that it is time for current BBC Current Affairs/News staff to think very carefully about how they apply their supposed impartiality for after the ‘YES’ vote I expect that they will still be hoping to have a job. From my own point of view if I found any deliberate manipulation of news etc I would have them all turfed out on their ears!!!

Auld Rock
2014-02-26 18:10

Excellent piece flushing out the BBC’s bias
2014-02-26 18:14

Good article Mr Roy and a very timely piece as the figures for news sales are due.

Couldn’t agree more that the internet is very much leaving dead tree in its wake as evidenced today by the remarkable achievement of Wings Over Scotland smashing through its crowd funding target in under a day.

A damning indictment of the main stream media if ever there was one. Well done WoS.
2014-02-26 18:14

They are unionist stakeholders, dependent on London for their sustainance, see Maria Miller’s comments in The Herald.
2014-02-26 18:24

The pro-union bias of the Scottish press is so widely known, surely this cannot continue in the official campaigning period – where the BBC has a duty to be impartial ??

The free pro-union advertising on front pages in the weeks running up to the referendum will be nauseating.
2014-02-26 19:00

I’ve noticed that on the BBC’s press preview at 2230 and 2330 they only deign to show a “Scottish” edition of a London newspaper when it criticises the Scottish government or puts forward a pro-unionist view-point.
Then it is usually followed by a unionist rant from the likes of Lord Digby Jones.
2014-02-26 19:03

It is extraordinary witnessing the ‘news’ from the press in Scotland being passed on by the BBC, and the Labour politicians glorying in the advantage it gives them.
The extraordinary thing is the lack of awareness by these politicians that if there is a No vote, Labour will be next for the treatment in the UK press, leading up to the next GE.
From The Suburbs
2014-02-26 19:18


Any compulsory attempt to provide balance in the last 16 weeks will be blown asunder by the “national” BBC output.

The BBC has learnt nothing from Dr Robertson’s well researched academic report on their pro Union bias in their referendum coverage.

Yet again this evening their news coverage of the referendum headlined a businessman attacking independence although subsequent coverage attempted to balance the report.

Can the BBC point out when they last headlined with a business person or show biz celebrity coming out for Independence?
2014-02-26 19:27

And in the meantime over on Wings the Rev has raised over £50,000 in 8 hours…………
call me dave
2014-02-26 19:46

It’s now £57250 + £10000(separate donation) that’s a whopping £67000+ and all within 12 hours.

As someone said it’s like the last ten minutes of ‘It’s a wonderful life’

Still 33 days left to contribute…

2014-02-26 19:46

Once upon a time the bbc news was my homepage and first stop of the day…not for a long time now. I no longer pay the licence fee nor will I if it’s extended to iplayer.
Once upon a time, I used to buy newspapers…not for years. I sometimes browse the herald using archive is or incognito in chrome, but seldom linger…why should I when they do not present any semblance of balance.
2014-02-26 19:50

All they have done is give us a documentable, verifiable evidence based case for a further Ref. if it is a No vote. Idiots (Beeb controllers).
2014-02-26 20:16

Corm – now that’s a comment that could really strike at the heart of biased journalism –
2014-02-26 20:51

I don’t want to sound overly paranoid but I was certainly a little surprised when the usual run through the papers at about 2 minutes to 8am on weekdays on BBC radio scotland skipped that segment coincidentally the day the Herald had a main page story about how Westminster might not honour a yes independence vote. As I say, no doubt coincidence, but with the BBC going increasingly berserk, it fits the pattern.
2014-02-26 21:29

If one threatens to take from a controlling power a third of its land mass, 90% of its oil reserves etc., etc., you cannot expect a fair or measured response. This is war where the victor get the spoils.
The BBC is possibly the finest weapon in the British states armoury. Unless you find a way to neutralise its power, it will ultimately produce the victory.
Victors write the history and any underhand methods employed to achieve that victory will be set aside and ultimately excused or forgotten.
Marga B
2014-02-26 22:03

Article this week in The Guardian about the BBC paying for use of the press.…/…

“The president of the Newspaper Society, Adrian Jeakings, told MPs that “unconstrained commercial expenditure by the BBC could if taken to its limit wipe out the local press”.

He said: “If we could find a mechanism where by we would be appropriately rewarded for creating content for them and sharing it with them then we’d be very interested. Just stealing it though, we’re not keen on.”

Maybe it’s already started …
2014-02-26 22:08

And everyday the BBC clearly demonstrates it is surreptitiously spearheading the ‘No’ campaign and may well have a bearing on the outcome of the referendum result. Denying Scotland’s democratic right today, what and to whom will it do tomorrow?
2014-02-27 01:13

Given most people who know about Wings over Scotland, Newsnet, attend Yes forums, donate and deliver the Yes newspapers etc., ect., are Yes supporters, it is very much a ‘preaching to the converted’ campaign. To reach the No, Undecided, Apathetic, Unregistered you need a medium that is accessed by the vast majority of the population. The BBC. The Trojan Horse, setting off bombs of half-truths, dis-information and simply bias reporting. The propaganda machine opening gates for the ‘No’ forces. A counter force has to be employed.
2014-02-27 21:47

Quoting pints:

To reach the No, Undecided, Apathetic, Unregistered you need a medium that is accessed by the vast majority of the population.

Good point “Pints” the YES campaign have been using a medium accessed by the majority, it’s called pavements. Go out canvassing knock on peoples doors. That’s how we’ll win the vote!

2014-03-03 00:34

There is actually a free print-it-yourself leaflet available for pro-YES streetwork.

Email yes_no_leaflet AT mentioning “Leaflet” in the subject line – and you’ll receive a copy of the file for printing. The informal leaflet is suitable for handing out on the pavement (works well in town centres) or popping through letterboxes.

willie boy
2014-02-27 03:05

Oh and if you don’t think state media is a weapon of war, then read Brigadier General Sir Frank Kitson.

Indeed Kitson who masterminded Britain’s monitoring of political movements seeking indepence not only recommended control of the media, as a weapon of control, but the use of the courts too.

The BBC is only a part of the way the UK operates and there is more in the locker.
2014-02-28 09:39

I’ve had it with the BBC…my subscription is now cancelled

Excellent article
2014-03-02 17:38

An item on BBC Broadcasting on BBC’s Politics Show earlier today.

A female commentator (Liberal) seemed to believe that the BBC Headquarters, Glasgow (Pacific Quay) is a BBC ‘asset’ – ie. ‘belongs’ to the BBC.

As far as I’m aware it’s not – “BBC SELLS NEW HQ BEFORE EVEN MOVING IN”.…/…

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