Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Bias in the Scottish media

If the media in this country is to be believed, an independent Scotland will be a friendless, incompetent, struggling nation with a pot full of useless oil.

The referendum on Scottish independence will ultimately decide the future of the Union, and whether or not Scotland will become an independent nation.

As this is Scotland’s biggest political decision in 300 years, the press coverage has been extensive and sometimes excessive.

The campaign for an independent Scotland was launched on May 25 2012 by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its leader Alex Salmond. This gave the opposing campaigns - the Yes campaign and Better Together – approximately 28 months to battle it out to win the votes of the Scottish public.

Many people already know how they will vote. But there are still a large number of people who are undecided. These people often get placed into the category of a ‘No’ vote, but I will go into that in more detail later.

Those who are still undecided will rely on the media to inform them and expect the portrayed facts to be balanced, whether in the newspapers they read, or the news programmes they watch.

That being the case, the points that the media put across to the public should be factually accurate and presented in a way that allows people to make their own decision.

But is this happening?

The media will play a vital role in this referendum yet they are often accused of not being impartial.

A recent example of this can be found in the newspaper, The Scotsman.

On Monday 3 June, their front page has the headline, “80% of young Scots snub independence”. When you read the story, it states that only 60% are actually opposed to Scotland leaving the UK, and 20% are undecided. The word ‘snub’ used in the headline is therefore inaccurate and used to suggest that those 20% indeterminate voters are voting no.  Is this fair and balanced?

Political editor of the Scottish Sun newspaper, Andrew Nicoll, believes newspapers publish these polls to ‘flatter their readers.’

“People buy newspapers to see themselves reflected. In some cases this is blatant bias and I don't think it’s a coincidence that the people writing the most virulent stuff are not Scottish.

“Some people make no secret of the fact that they have a mission and, if that's what they get paid to do, then that's their job. I have a rather more old fashioned view of the role of a journalist, so until I'm told to do something else, I will try to tread a middle path, pointing out failures on both sides.”

Nicoll also feels the media isn’t playing all that much of a role in the campaign just now, in reference to those undecided voters.

“Nobody is listening. People who have not yet made an unshakeable decision won't give it a thought for another year. If a killer argument has been deployed, so far I haven't seen it. The main theme in the whole thing so far is that, whether by accident or design, the SNP government has found itself in a position whereby SNP policy = independence = SNP policy and the gaps in SNP policy, their lack of homework, have been allowed to undermine the idea of independence.”

Another criticism of the media coverage in newspapers and the BBC is the use of the word ‘warn’, or ‘warning’.

When used to describe someone else's statement or comment, it implies that the person speaking agrees with it.

The BBC often, when describing someone’s opinion, uses the word “warning.”

There have been several occasion on the BBC where the words “Scottish independence” and “Warning” go together. Here are a few examples to back up that point.

“Scottish independence: Pension shortfall warning"
“UK Treasury warning that an SNP plan for a currency union after independence”
“Scottish independence: Warning over ‘weakened military’”
“Scottish independence: ‘Havoc’ warning from pensions firm”
“Scottish independence: Luxembourg warns against ‘going separate ways’”
“Scottish independence: Barroso warning  on EU membership”
“Scottish independence: Michael Moore issues warning over vote question”
“Scottish independence: ‘Border checks’ warning from home secretary”

You get the point. Is this tactical scaremongering from the BBC?

By contrast, however, it’s almost impossible find a BBC headline that positively promotes independence. You will look in vain for headlines that say “Yes campaign says independent Scotland will be eighth richest country in the world” or “Official GERS report shows Scotland’s public finances much healthier than those of the UK”. Such headlines, it seems, do not exist. Reporting Scotland is rarely, if ever led by a positive story about independence, but it is often led by negative ones.

David Ross, a representative from Better Together doesn’t buy this and believes the coverage thus far has been “fair and balanced.”

“I strongly disagree that there has been a pro-Union bias in the newspapers. In the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, which was only two years ago, the SNP received endorsements from seven Scottish newspapers. Below is an extract from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre's briefing on the 2011 election to illustrate this point.”

"In the 2011 election, however, the SNP was backed by the Sun, the News of the World, the Scotsman, the Scotland on Sunday, the Sunday Herald and the Scottish Sunday Express. The highest profile newspaper intervention during the campaign came from the Sun which, in a reversal of its position in 2007, endorsed the SNP on 19 April."

Ross also disagrees with Andrew Nicoll’s assessment of the importance of the media in the campaigns.

“The media will have a crucial role in the referendum as it remains the principal means of communicating with voters, along with traditional outlets such as newspapers, TV and radio. There will also be an important role for social media (Twitter, Facebook etc.) particularly in relation to younger voters.”

How do the people who are reading and listening to these stories feel? They are the individuals who are relying on the media in this country to give a fair representation of what a Yes or No vote would entail for Scotland.

Student Collin Teasdale, 25, believes people need to make their own decision, and not rely on the media.

“There is a bias, but that’s always going to happen. Newspapers always put their own spin on things and make sure the story becomes more newsworthy. It’s a big decision so we need to read about it ourselves. I’m not sure many people will, mind you.”

Boots employee, Kayley Melville, 20, does agree there is a bias, but it benefits the Yes campaign.

“There is a bias in the Scottish media with the "Braveheart effect.” The media won’t make much of a difference to me. We are fine the way we are just now.”

Painter and decorator, Kevin Kelly, 52, worries that he isn’t being told the whole truth as he relies heavily on the media to inform him.

“I work most of the day and the only time I get to myself is spent with my family or watching TV, I don’t have the time to look deep into the issues. I watch the news and read the papers, but if they’re not being totally honest, then that does concern me.”

The media will continue to have a big say in the referendum, right up until 2014. There are Facebook pages and marches set up to try and combat the apparent bias shown, but whether or not that will be successful is up for debate. The people who have a bigger say in this decision are the voters. If they are pro-active and they get out to encourage and inspire others to make their own decision, then that will have a greater effect than the media ever will.

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