By a Newsnet reporter

Results from an academic study into referendum output on the BBC’s flagship morning news programme Good Morning Scotland has revealed news headlines and interviews skewed in favour of the No campaign.

According to the month long study, referendum coverage was more likely to lead with a story favouring the No campaign than one favouring Yes. The study also found a tendency on the part of interviewers to adopt a more aggressive stance with Yes figures than when interviewing their No campaign counterparts.

The research, which was carried out on behalf of Newsnet Scotland by Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland, covered one month’s output from BBC Scotland’s morning radio programme Good Morning Scotland.

Key findings of the study included:

  • Broadcasts were balanced, in crude numerical terms, but, in every other respect, unfair to the Yes campaign and favouring the Better Together campaign.
  • Broadcasts began too often with bad news for Yes and, too often, featured heavy repetition of such messages over several hours in a manner conducive to unconscious absorption of warnings.
  • Statements, from the Yes perspective, were often reactive while those favouring BT were commonly initiating.
  • Interviewers tended, too often, to adopt aggressive techniques with Yes supporters while only doing so on two occasions with BT supporters.
    There was a selection and use of expert witness of dubious credibility and of evidence from partisan sources, the broadcasts were clearly unfair to the Yes campaign.

The new study followed a similar study carried out over a year which found similar levels of imbalance on the BBC’s flagship TV news programme, Reporting Scotland. Also carried out by Professor Robertson, it found news items on the referendum benefited the anti-independence campaign by a ratio of 2 to 1.

In his reporting based on the study findings, the academic said: “When broadcasts begin too often with bad news for one side this is unfair. Where one side commonly leads off while the other has to react, this is unfair. Where bad news is repeated with high frequency in one broadcast, this is unfair.”

On the tendency of some interviewers to adopt a more aggressive stance when interviewing representatives from the Yes campaign, he added:
“Where interviewers are not consistent in their approaches regarding tone, difficulty or tendency to interrupt, this is unfair. Where witnesses of clear bias or incompetence or where evidence of dubious validity are used to support one side consistently against the other, this is unfair, unprofessional and perhaps corrupt.”

The study broke referendum related coverage down into specific categories such as good news for No/Yes, bad news for No/Yes, interview interruptions and credibility of evidence backing up claims.

It revealed that during the month long study, news bulletins that were perceived to have been negative about Yes occurred on 376 occasions, whilst there was only 147 damaging news about No.

However it found far more positive statements about Yes (306) than No (70). There were also more responses from Yes (283) compared to responses from No (176).

Collating these figures, Yes could be said to have had 736 statements in its favour compared to 622 for no. However Professor Robertson cautioned against assuming this meant more favourable coverage to the Yes campaign.

Highlighting the clear advantage to the No campaign in leading news bulletins he said: “If we add positive statements about Yes to responses from Yes plus negatives about No (736) and compare this total to the total of positive statements about BT and responses from BT plus negatives about no (622) we get a ratio favouring the Yes campaign by 7:6.

“However, this crude measure ignores the fact that many of the positive statements about Yes were reactive and made in response to the quite large number of opening, negative, statements about the Yes campaign (376) while opening negative statements about BT were much fewer (147).

“So, we have a situation where statements favouring Yes are numerous but commonly reactive and overshadowed at times by large numbers of negative statements about Yes positioned ahead of the former.”

Away from the news items and statements from the respective camps, the study also found evidence of a marked difference when interviewing each side in the campaign.

The study found interviewers tended to adopt a more aggressive manner when interviewing Yes figures than with No. There was also a significant increase in the number of interruptions, or attempted interruptions, with Yes interviewees than with their No counterparts.

“A further piece of evidence emerging from these broadcast transcripts which seems clearly to favour BT was the tendency of interviewers and interviewees to interrupt, almost interrupt and to cut in quickly to break flow of statements in support of the Yes campaign. The totals give a ratio of almost exactly 3:1 in favour of BT.”

Citing examples of two interview with Nicola Sturgeon conducted by James Naughtie and Gary Robertson, the academic wrote:

“The most marked case of aggressive interviewing was James Naughtie’s interview of DFM Nicola Sturgeon on 24th, on the subject of pensions and welfare in post-independent Scotland, where Naughtie made seven full interruptions and one failed interruption while Sturgeon attempted only two later in the interview.

“At one point Naughtie delivered four interruptions in close sequence, two questions which flirted with offense rather than professional challenge and a concluding comment which flirted with patronising dismissal.

“Interestingly, Sturgeon’s earlier interview (8th April) with Gary Robertson, responding to George Robertson’s speech on Scotland and NATO, was marked by quite aggressive interviewing too with eight interrupts, attempts or cut-ins for two by Sturgeon.

“The contrast with Naughtie’s very passive interview of former NATO chief Lord George Robertson, also on the 8th, was marked.

“Lord Robertson’s doom-laden predictions were met with no interrupts or quick cut-ins and only the most polite of suggestions that the former’s language was a bit over-the-top. The former’s batting aside of this suggestion and further dramatic claims attracted only a quiet thank you from Naughtie who had travelled to the US for this.”

“Naughtie was to repeat this approach interviewing former (1960/80’s) Pentagon adviser on nuclear weapons strategy, Frank Miller (p32 transcripts file), on April 11th, where the latter’s commitment to mutually assured destruction (MAD) and 1960s cold warrior tough-talking was not challenged at all.”

The academic added: “The repeated treatment of Sturgeon with multiple interruptions and irritable tones is notable and worthy of reflection. No accusation of deliberate discriminatory practice is suggested but this form of aggressive interviewing directed at a confident and articulate woman and not matched with male equivalents such as Lord Robertson or the former Pentagon advisor is unsettling.”

The report cited other examples where BBC interviewers failed to make even the most basic challenges to assertions from pro-Union figures. On the contrary, said Professor Robertson, questions at times appeared to be leading the interviewee in an attempt to “draw more negative information”.

Figures identified with the No campaign were regularly allowed to make lengthy statements without interruption.

Professor Robertson said: “If you add the seven tough interviews of Yes supporters, or evidence-givers, to the four soft interviews of BT supporters and compare these with the two tough interviews of BT supporters you get a 10:2 ratio, which can only be interpreted as a manifestation of some form of underlying bias.”

The academic concluded: “Looking now at the evidence from this study of good Morning Scotland in April 2014, it seems reasonable to conclude that these broadcasts were balanced, in crude numerical terms, but, in every other respect, unfair to the Yes campaign and favouring the Better Together campaign.

“Broadcasts began too often with bad news for Yes and, too often, featured heavy repetition of such messages over several hours in a manner conducive to unconscious absorption of warnings. Interviewers tended, too often, to adopt aggressive techniques with Yes supporters while only doing so on two occasions with BT supporters.

“Finally, in the selection and use of expert witness and evidence of dubious credibility and of evidence from partisan sources, the broadcasts were clearly unfair to the Yes campaign.

“The BBC clearly needs a system of monitoring and balancing of its content to limit the admittedly unavoidable intrusions of bias, to a minimum. It is wrong that research of the kind reported here and earlier, regarding issues of such importance, is required in a full democracy.”


2014-05-24 10:30

Did Prof Robertson do any work on missing news, ie the omission of important news which was good for YES or bad for NO? I feel that that is one of the most important aspects of BBC bias.
Professor Longhair
2014-05-24 17:36

Good point but it’s difficult to do that without critics accusing you of selection bias. A journalist could do it well though.

2014-05-24 10:49

The only way we are going to get balance from the BBC is for it to suspend broadcasting during the official campaign period.
2014-05-24 10:58

The feeling is there that we find ourselves in a game of claim and avoidance. Prof Robertson is scratching away at past events then making academically correct observations, which are tossed into the BBC’s propaganda mincer to produce yet another formulaic anti-independence attack approach and this is destined to keep going ad-nauseum.

What’s needed is for the BBC to be formally called out for making its own version of the news and not merely reporting it. It is institutionally biased in favour of the Union and should not be getting public funding on-demand from Scotland. What a crazy set-up to continue further supporting!

2014-05-24 11:51


2014-05-24 11:04

Just confirms most peoples view of the situation. Can’t this be sent to the Electoral Commision ?
2014-05-24 11:11

Have to say I got with Bringiton and suspend the BBC News service during the campaign period, they are not to be trusted and are certainly biased. Professor Robertson has merely confirmed what we all knew.
2014-05-24 15:26

Quoting hektorsmum:

Have to say I got with Bringiton and suspend the BBC News service during the campaign period

Unfortunately, this would only help the BT agenda of shutting down discussion.


2014-05-24 11:58

Can’t help but once again be reminded that the BBC website doesn’t allow comments on their Scottish Political stories.

Meanwhile every single main story about the English local elections has had comments open.

Dundonian West
2014-05-24 12:18

“You have sat here too long for any good you are doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
H Scott
2014-05-24 12:23

Further evidence that the BBC is biased in its reporting in favour of the Union. Given that only the Sunday Herald is supporting independence, it reinforces the undemocratic influence of the mainstream media in the referendum campaign. The BBC’s credibility is seriously undermined. If it continues this behaviour into the ‘regulated period’, and retains its membership of a CBI that has self-identified as anti-independence, then the democratic credibility of a No vote will also be seriously undermined.
2014-05-24 13:17

So much for bias, but I’d like to see a similar forensic analysis of BBC output concerning honesty and truth.

Does repetition of known smears count as a negative against YES and a positive for Better Together?

Is a robust defence of a YES argument seen as a positive for YES, even when it’s a reply to a negative agenda being set by Better Together?

NOWHERE in the mainstream media is the observer made aware of the comparison between the volume, potency, and diversity of pro-independence arguments and the corresponding dearth of constructive arguments from Better Together.

There are two BIG failures here – first the virtual non-reporting of positive dynamics like the Common Weal, Radical Independence, Labour for Indy, and of course the YES Grassroots activity, and the second failure is ANY objective deconstructive analysis of the complete absence of such dynamics in the NO campaign.

2014-05-24 13:40

Read this morning that BBC will not be renewing Gary Robertson’s contract which expires in August, just before the referendum. He is not best pleased and blames management incompetence.
2014-05-24 19:06

Quoting nmdornoch:

Read this morning that BBC will not be renewing Gary Robertson’s contract which expires in August, just before the referendum. He is not best pleased and blames management incompetence.

Perhaps Mr Robertson is now finding out what it feels to be royaly S#####d by your so-called own people. Shame I dont think.


2014-05-24 16:04

What we really need, is a daily programme which reports analysis like the above. It could also include newsworthy items excluded from GMS and the like. We could call it the *news* . . . oh, wait now…
2014-05-24 16:33

Good evidence, as far as it goes.
As already alluded to, it’s the biased story selection, and the passing over of any news which might be beneficial to the yes campaign, which is the real evidence of bias.
The other problem is, of course, the fact that Newsnet commissioned this research, which allows the BBC to taint it with bias.
However -definitely a step forward – well done!
2014-05-24 16:40

This pattern is repeated across all the mainstream media.

The comments above about any ‘missing’ news makes sense.

Are pro-independence reports or stories being produced at the same level as anti-independence reports?
And if so, are the media simply ignoring them?

It is also up to the YES campaign to set the agenda, not just respond against the constant scaremongering.

It could be harder to make the news because they have pledged to run a positive campaign, and the media just doesn’t generally headline with positive stories.

Maybe a bit more balance is needed from the YES side too. Positives, but also more negative comparisons with staying in the UK.

2014-05-24 17:16

The frustrating thing about all this is that there is no mechanism through which the BBC can be properly held to account by ordinary people, and YES remain completely silent on the issue of media bias, reluctant in the extreme to engage with the problem at all, even when asked directly (remember Swinney in the BBC referendum debate!).

Legal action is theoretically possible, but could be problematic, as well as costly, not to mention the short time-scales until the referendum.

Our only real hope, other than the momentum of public awareness and pressure, is OFCOM during the official period which is now imminent. What does OFCOM monitoring involve, and how do they define bias anyway? Despite their recent warnings I don’t hold out much hope for them in terms of holding the BBC to account.

Will the BBC’s response be constructive, or will it impose another news blackout, whilst sending threatening emails to the researcher and his principal?

Chas PFK
2014-05-24 18:09

I keep calling for International Oversight of this Campaign! OFCOM is a UK Government Organisation as is the The Electoral Commission, the State Broadcaster BBC are the Mouthpiece of the Tories/Labour/ Liberals! Unless we have Independent Oversight, these People will totally destroy Democracy in Britain.

However my greatest disappointment is with the Scottish Government, who have all the Evidence, but seem strangely reluctant to get up on their Hind Legs and kick up Hell, if the BBC is going to continue in this Vein any Yes Representative seeing a set up, should set out their case and walk off the Interview, they should set the rules before they even begin the Interview, and walk off if they are broken. Left with nothing but Unionists spouting their ire, people would just switch off!

2014-05-25 05:08

I mostly agree Chas, but YES must be seen to engage positively with any and all debate. YES wins arguments, and Better Together is already ducking out from debates because they don’t want these debates to happen.

International Observers? 100% behind you.
Lack of Action by our Scottish Government? I agree too, with the important caveat they may know certain things that I don’t. It may be the media is gathering enough rope to hang itself. It is a big beast to bring down, and you may only get one chance.

There is I suppose the loss of face should the Scottish Government ask for observers only to have the request declined, and be humiliated accordingly, but there is the further consideration that anxiety about bias might actually be counter productive. It may be hateful to live with, but ask yourself whether the dire media coverage is making you more or less likely to vote YES? Many others will feel like you do.

2014-05-25 05:28

When you think about it, it was bias masquerading as impartiality which so effectively spiked the CBI’s guns, bias which has compromised one bogus scare story after another, bias which has the BBC squirming on the ropes, and even has the Electoral Commission already raising eyebrows too.

These agencies may not act like they have been damaged, but I don’t think there is any doubt that they have been. As Alex Salmond puts it with is typical slow burning accuracy, they are all holed below the water line.

& History PHD… Ofcom = Regulator = Placebo.


call me dave
2014-05-24 22:02

Here is a bit of good news re: the BT cinema ads.…/…


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