BROADCASTERS have been warned they could be fined or have their licences suspended for showing bias in the independence referendum.
Regulator Ofcom has told television and radio stations they will be censured if they fail to display impartiality in the run-up to the poll in September.
The watchdog said it breaches of the broadcasting code would be considered “serious” and could lead to sanctions.
It has issued a warning notice to broadcasters this week ahead of the official start of the referendum campaign on May 30.
Ofcom said: “On 18 September 2014, the Scottish Independence Referendum will be held within Scotland.
“Ofcom reminds all broadcasters that great care needs to be taken when broadcasting programming relating to the referendum.
“In particular, broadcasters should ensure that they comply with Section Five (Due Impartiality) and Section Six (Elections and Referendums) of the Code, as well as the prohibition of political advertising contained in section 321 of the Communications Act 2003.
“The rules in Section Six apply during the ‘referendum period’ which will commence on 30 May 2014.
“Ofcom will consider any breach arising from referendum-related programming to be potentially serious, and will consider taking regulatory action, as appropriate, in such cases, including considering the imposition of a statutory sanction.”
Earlier this year, an academic study carried out into news reporting by the BBC and ITV about the referendum found that the coverage was damaging to the Yes campaign.
The research, which dealt with referendum campaign reporting in the period from September 2012 to September 2013, was headed by John Robertson of the West of Scotland university.
It contended that “the mainstream TV coverage of the first year of the independence referendum campaigns has not been fair or balanced... Taken together, we have evidence of coverage which seems likely to have damaged the Yes campaign.”
The BBC hit back by claiming the report was full of inaccuracies and said “there is no evidence whatsoever” to justify its conclusion.
Labour peer George Foulkes has raised complaints that BBC and STV have broadcast documentaries in support of independence. The broadcasters rejected the claims.
And in March BBC presenter Andrew Marr was accused of bias during an interview with First Minister Alex Salmond after he said it would be “quite hard” for a separate Scotland to join the European Union.
Earlier this year, Ofcom ruled that the UK Independence Party(UKip) should be treated as a major party in England and Wales by broadcasters covering this year’s European elections.
But Ukip’s limited support in Scotland means it will not have to be treated as a major party by broadcasters north of the Border or in news coverage focusing solely on Scottish constituencies.