By Chris Rumbles
The BBC is to provide its journalists with specific guidelines to adhere to in covering the Scottish independence referendum.
All of the BBC’s output will be expected to meet the criteria, which has been approved by the BBC Trust, during the 16 weeks leading up to September 18.

Included in the 13-page rulebook is a set of ‘Mandatory Issues’ that detail, among other things, that the BBC’s Chief Adviser in Politics, Ric Bailey, must give approval to interviews, polling and, in some cases, content before they are produced and broadcast.

Other mandatory issues are not running voter intent polls during the 16 week period and not focusing on referendum issues on polling day.

The ‘Referendum Guidelines’ are freely available to view on the BBC website and in the document it is said the corporation ‘can expect to be held to account for their implementation during the campaign’.  In October 2013 the BBC Trust issued a call for public submissions on how the organisation should report on the referendum.

On the subject of attaining ‘broad balance’ the guidelines state: “Due impartiality is not necessarily achieved by the application of a simple mathematical formula or a stopwatch, but the objective-in a referendum with two alternatives-must be to achieve proper balance between the two sides.

“However, referendums are seldom fought purely on the basis of just two opposing standpoints-on each side, where there is a range of views or perspectives, that should be reflected appropriately during the campaign.”

Achieving a broad balance in media coverage of the independence campaign has been a major issue already this year.  The publication of University of the West of Scotland Media Professor John Robertson’s study on the first year of BBC and STV coverage of the referendum, resulted in the BBC sending what Prof Robertson described as ‘insulting’ emails to the UWS principal.

Entitled ‘Fairness in the First Year’, Prof Roberston’s analysis of 620 hours of news coverage across the BBC and STV from September 2012-September 2013 led to the conclusion that both broadcasters ‘feature a preponderance of anti-independence statements’.  Prof Robertson did, however, find that the BBC’s coverage was slightly more imbalanced in favour of the ‘No’ campaign by a ratio of 3:2.

Prof Robertson appeared as a witness on Tuesday’s meeting of the Education and Culture Committee at the Scottish Parliament to take evidence on broadcasting in Scotland along with representatives from BBC Scotland.

During the meeting the academic, who said he was supportive of Scottish independence but was not a nationalist, condemned the behaviour of the BBC who, he said, had suppressed the dissemination of his research.  In his opening statement Prof Robertson also criticised the silence of almost all Scotland’s mainstream media and academics on his research saying that together it was tantamount to ‘thought-control in a democracy’.

One of the most important findings of the research, according to Prof Robertson, was the prevalence of ‘bad-news’:

“They (audience) are much more likely to believe bad-news stories, so beginning with bad-news stories about the economy, job losses and so on has a disproportionate influence.

“There was a tendency for ‘Reporting Scotland’ especially to begin with bad-news stories more often than other channels.”

Among BBC Scotland’s four representatives at the committee meeting was Director of BBC Scotland Ken MacQuarrie who rejected the findings of Prof Robertson’s research.

He said: “The evidence it presents does not support the contentions it makes.  Its conclusions are based largely on flawed analysis or occasionally intuitive guesswork.  It is not a piece of analysis based on empirical research, as it claims to be, but rather a highly subjective and selective assessment of our news coverage.”

Commenting on the broadcaster’s handling of the referendum, former BBC presenter and now blogger Derek Bateman has said the ‘bias row’ would leave a ‘taint’ over BBC Scotland’s reputation.

On the around 50 members of temporary BBC Scotland staff who are running the organisation’s referendum unit, Mr Bateman wrote of current staff views on management at BBC Scotland: “They know who cut the budgets and sacked their colleagues and damaged morale and made quality journalism that much harder.

“In sport it’s called losing the dressing-room.”

The broadcaster is coming under increasing pressure in Scotland over what many believe is an institutional bias in favour of the Union, and against independence.  In January this year BBC Scotland was found to have misled viewers on the issue of Scotland’s EU membership after a Yes vote when a Reporting Scotland item misrepresented the views of Ireland’s then European Minister Lucinda Creighton.

The BBC Trust found the item, broadcast over a year ago, had breached editorial guidelines on accuracy.  Despite the reporter responsible for the broadcast – Raymond Buchanan – resigning from the corporation, there has been no apology or acknowledgement issued by BBC Scotland management.

This week both Professor John Robertson and BBC Scotland management appeared before Holyrood’s Culture Committee to give evidence on news coverage of the independence referendum.

Professor John Robertson gives evidence

BBC Scotland management defend the corporation


2014-03-15 10:05

The BBC already has guidelines in its own document, Quality First, and that didn’t do much good.
Simply putting up a new set with the word Referendum on it isn’t going to change much.
The bias and misrepresentati  on was just that, not some misunderstandin  g of how the Referendum should be presented in the news.
2014-03-15 10:28

Despite all the fine words from the BBC Trust the fact is that it is a pillar of the British Establishment and so I expect that it will continue to be business as usual at the BBC.
2014-03-15 10:32

And will their complaints procedure be fast tracked? or will complaints take until after the referendum is over to process? I am not hopeful on that count.

The performance of the managers at Holyrood showed they are not afraid of it, they know it has no powers and after a No vote will still have no powers over them.

So there is no sanction stopping them from being biased.
2014-03-15 10:40

“However, referendums are seldom fought purely on the basis of just two opposing standpoints-on each side, where there is a range of views or perspectives, that should be reflected appropriately during the campaign.”

I’m taking bets that doesn’t mean a platform for the Greens, SSP, the Common Weal and Lesley Riddoch to put their case for an independent Scotland, but instead tacit approval for 3:1 stacked panels in debates. In fairness, it is difficult when the ruling UK Government is little more than a pressure group in Scotland, but isn’t the crux of independence?

Let’s also run a stopwatch on how long it takes the BBC to personalise the debate and declare Independence is the Alex Salmond show.
2014-03-15 11:01

The BBC in putting up these guidelines that won’t be implemented until MAY 30th is actually an admission that they haven’t been impartial or balanced otherwise there would be no need for guidelines! even then the BBC are putting in get out clauses in the guidelines
e.g ‘ news judgements continue to drive editorial decision making in news based programmes’ it’s a sleekit way of trying to look impartial but not actually be and the reason for a 13 page document is because they know most people won’t read it! also the BBC say’s that ‘BBC outposts aren’t directed at a Scottish audience’ that sounds like a get out clause that because the BBC are ignorant of the facts like the recently Ian Mcklellan interview that if the BBC stay ignorant it can away with it. I suspect the guidelines are nothing more than a sham to fool the Scottish people and a weapon that the unionsts will use when the ignorance (or pretend ignorance) shines through!
2014-03-15 13:26

For all the BBC’s manifest partiality, that’s not so. It’s simply the beginning of “regulated campaigning” as agreed with the Electoral Commission.

Will they be impartial? No
Will they be less partial than usual? Probably

What it demonstrates is superb timing by the SG setting polling day as 18 September, which sets the regulated period 16 weeks before.

30 May is precisely one week after the European election results are known, following polling day on 22 May.

That gives time for UKIP’s results to sink in. Even if UKIP don’t do as well as expected, the blue tories will be the main beneficiaries, so the EU exit message will be strong.

Later means dilution of that message.

Earlier clashes with regulated period of the Euro election, with all 4 “main” UK parties including UKIP having rights on “fair” representation and the SNP having it for BBC Scotland only.

Perfect timing!

2014-03-15 11:03

The BBC will ignore this as they ignore all reasoned argument.

Who does the Trust consist of anyway?
Dundonian West
2014-03-15 13:19

The BBC exists to serve the public, and its mission is to inform, educate and entertain.
The BBC Trust is the governing body of the BBC, and it’s task is to ensure the BBC delivers that mission.

The Trust is led by the Chairman the noble Baron Patten of Putney, and consists of 12 Trustees.
The Trustee for Scotland is William (Bill) Matthews.

2014-03-15 13:26

I’m sure we’ll still get No voters posing as undecideds on panels, vox pops, phone-ins etc to get around all these “guidelines” and ‘proper’ balance of 60-40 will be maintained.

Where are the sanctions?
2014-03-15 14:00

In short hand and as Breeks states, this document (clearly in knee jerk response to the West of Scotland University study), is a blatant and cynical attempt to maintain the 3:1 bias in favour of the unionist side.

We expect no less any more.
2014-03-15 14:26

Wew had FOUR years of biased news reporting prior to 2011. Salmond and the Scottish Government were under constant attack
The normal news bulletins consisted of Labour Party press releases presented as
original BBC researched “news”
Nothing will change. Perhaps, neither will the result!
2014-03-15 16:44

“Commenting on the broadcaster’s handling of the referendum, former BBC presenter and now blogger Derek Bateman has said the ‘bias row’ would leave a ‘taint’ over BBC Scotland’s reputation.

Small price to pay, to influence result of referendum. Westmonster will be pleased!
Ian bell thought the BBC’s repututation would be trashed by the end of the campaign.
2014-03-15 19:53

We know what BBC Scotland think of us.

Headlines to be Axed:…/…


Now it appears that the only BBC Radio Scotland outlet to offer a palliative to this, Sunday morning’s ‘Headlines’ programme with Ken MacDonald, is to be shut down in May. Our source informs us it is “too off message for Auntie”. Given that the show regularly gives space to look at media sources outside the predictable mainstream print circuit, it’s a real blow to Scottish political discourse.

Dundonian West
2014-03-16 11:19

“Scottish democracy deserves better from our public broadcaster.”
Concluding sentence of Mike Small’s piece at:-…/…

call me dave
2014-03-15 19:54

I see that the BBC are taking the Radio ‘Headlines’ programme of the air on Sunday mornings to ensure no untoward bias during the lead up to the referendum.

Aye right!

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