By mrpattersonsir on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
The Better Together campaign has effectively won the Scottish independence referendum: aside from the 'wounded still to be bayoneted'. That was the claim made by Glasgow Labour MP Ian Davidson late last year. Nobody denies that politics can get bare-knuckle at times, but even by the standards of the bitter struggle over independence, that jaw-dropping statement has resonated in the campaign ever since.
Mr Davidson certainly intended to provoke the Yes campaign, but for many close to the issues north of the border, it wasn’t the arrogance of the prediction that was most astonishing. Instead, it was the fact that the use of such a violent analogy could be made, by the chair of the Westminster Scottish Affairs Select Committee, with so little attention from the mainstream press.
What would happen, they ask, if Angus Robertson or Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP drop a similar clanger? Rightly so, the fury would be deafening. But the comment was made by a Scottish Labour stalwart who is the embodiment of New Labour unionism, and it fell under the news radar.
For many, this example encapsulates the double standards deployed by the traditional media in Scotland where not one daily newspaper has broken ranks to give editorial support to the Yes campaign (the only mainstream paper to give some indication that it may support the Yes camp in the future is the Sunday Herald).
When the Bank of England Governor Mark Carney made his speech last month on the Scottish Government’s proposals for a currency union, the mainstream papers fell over themselves to find the negative spin. Headlines were packed with ‘warnings’ and ‘risks’. Even the BBC said a stinkbomb had been lobbed into Edinburgh. The Herald screamed: ‘Carney: sharing sterling between iScotland and rUK could lead to Eurozone-style crises’. You’d think only the Sun or the Mail would resort to haggis and bagpipe metaphors in their coverage, but on the same day both the Guardian’s Steve Bell and the Independent’s Dave Brown sketched a disappointed Alex Salmond - in a kilt.
In fact, Alex Salmond wasn’t disappointed. George Osborne has since made his political opposition to currency union clear, but there’s no doubt that Mark Carney said such a union was technically feasible. He did describe the hazards and fiscal constraints that would exist for a future independent Scotland, but his message was that a currency union was workable. That put him squarely at odds with Chancellor George Osborne – not the Scottish Government.
So far, the campaign is littered with examples like this. The BP boss who thinks independence will lead to ‘uncertainties’ is front-page news. But when Supermodel Eunice Olumide declares her support for Yes or when the boss of global investment company Aberdeen Asset Management says he’s relaxed about independence - news editors look elsewhere.
While the papers are slammed for emphasis and spin - they have no obligation to be impartial. Not surprisingly therefore, it is the BBC that is drawing most of the ire of those who believe journalism is failing the independence debate.
In January, a year-long study by the University of the West of Scotland found that both the BBC and the STV in Scotland were favouring the ‘No’ campaign in their evening TV news output. The study, which looked at 730 hours of TV news coverage, found that 272 news items broadcast by the BBC favoured ‘No’ compared to just 171 favourable to ‘Yes’. Other forms of significant bias were also described in the study.
The fall-out has been extraordinary. The BBC wrote to the lead researcher of the study, Dr John Robertson, and copied its comments to the University Principal. Dr Robertson replied and said the BBC’s behaviour was "close to bullying of the kind we might expect in a less democratic country". Derek Bateman (until recently one of BBC’s front-line political journalists) then waded into the stramash and accused the BBC of first trying to hide the research and then of mounting a campaign of intimidation against the author.
Last year, in the face of furious complaints, the BBC tried to defend the selection of a Question Time panel hosted in Edinburgh that included Nigel Farage of UKIP and George Galloway of Respect – when neither party has any elected representatives in Scotland. But, not only is the tone and balance of the coverage being attacked, the factual reporting is also under fire. Last month the BBC was censured by the BBC Trust for wrongly suggesting that Ireland’s European Affairs Minister believed that an independent Scotland would be forced outside the EU, although the Trust found there was no intention to mislead. The Minister herself said her words had been "misconstrued".
The respected Herald columnist Ian Bell questions whether it is actually possible for the BBC to be impartial: "Editorial guidelines and declarations of impartiality are poor defences for a state broadcaster faced with mass dissent from the state. The corporation is explicitly British in title and attitude. In its more romantic moments, it likes to regard itself, indeed, as a cornerstone of Britishness, the embodiment of national unity."
Woven into the growing concern about BBC bias and London influence is the debate about financial control. Scotland has secured some devolved political power, but the BBC will not cede autonomy to BBC Scotland. All the licence fee revenue raised in Scotland is sent south and a fraction sent back north to pay for local output – an arrangement that is increasingly difficult to defend. As a growing number of public figures slam the BBC for its bias (author and artist Alasdair Gray was the latest) a vocal Campaign for Balanced Broadcasting in Scotland is turning up the heat. BBC Scotland’s credibility is in a tailspin.Scotland has transformed itself since devolution, but in many ways Scotland’s traditional media has stagnatedColin Meek
Scotland has transformed itself since devolution, but in many ways Scotland’s traditional media has stagnated. Remarkably, not one of the truly national daily papers sold in Scotland is owned north of the border. Even those based in Scotland are owned in England or the US – including the Scotsman and the Herald. When viewed in that context, there is little surprise that none of them support the Yes campaign. Nobody can argue that is good for democracy.
Some would argue that much of the Scottish daily coverage of the independence debate has been comically biased. But the dull, predictable and uninformed nature of the content is just as serious. Earlier this month, the Financial Times published a series on the Scottish referendum issue called If Scotland Goes. Even though it was aimed primarily at an English business audience, its balance and decisive eye for the key fault-lines in the status quo are striking.
Two articles in the series stand out. The first is the allegation that the Ministry of Defence is putting pressure on defence companies to speak out about potential job losses and disruption if Scotland votes Yes. It is not surprising that there is anxiety about the referendum within the defence industry – clearly expressed in the article. But the FT also quotes one executive describing the "deft use of the dark arts" by the Ministry to put pressure on businesses to go public and the Scottish Government is given space to give a reaction.
The other is an analysis of the economic case for independence. The piece demolishes (again) the persistent myth that Scotland is somehow subsidised by the UK Treasury. It finds that Scotland would be in the top 20 countries globally in terms of GDP per head, would be one of the world’s top 35 exporters and an independent Scotland could expect to start with healthier state finances that the rest of the UK. But the piece isn’t about painting the grass greener. The analysis also finds that the ageing population and long-term oil output decline would challenge the fiscal health of the country. The analysis is balanced, informative, beautifully presented with infographics and context.Remarkably, not one of the truly national daily papers sold in Scotland is owned north of the borderColin Meek
In short – the FT series does well what the traditional press in Scotland does so badly. The FT is not afraid of printing objective facts and news analysis that may support the case for independence. Those stories are simply part of its own objective approach where there’s still some journalistic effort made to separate news from comment.
There are, of course, exceptions to the blandness of the coverage in Scotland. Most of the papers still find room for exceptional expert opinion and analysis in the comment pages. The Sundays too, make room for the long-form and innovative. But Poll after poll shows that the Scottish electorate want more objective information and debate, but the Scottish press as a whole, including the BBC, seems incapable of producing the balanced, strong, news-led analysis that the FT finds effortless.
Part two, to follow soon, will look at Scotland's online media.
Colin Meek is a freelance journalist, media trainer and research consultant based in Scotland. He is also consulting editor to Journalism.co.uk where he was founding editor of the site's news channel - dot.journalism.