Nicola Sturgeon criticises BBC indyref coverage

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said there was 'significant imbalance'  in the BBC's indyref coverage. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said there was 'significant imbalance' in the BBC's indyref coverage. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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NICOLA Sturgeon has accused the BBC of letting down viewers with some of its coverage on the independence referendum, saying it had failed to create a level playing field and ensure its journalists were properly up to speed on the debate.

The First Minister said the broadcaster had regularly failed to properly reflect both sides of the argument - due to a lack of scrutiny of the case for the status quo.

And she said some viewers in Scotland were left with the impression that some journalists who travelled north to cover the campaign were “not being entirely impartial.”

Ms Sturgeon said she did not believe there was “institutional bias” in the BBC’s referendum output and said it had “some of the finest political journalists in the land”, especially in Scotland.

But, speaking at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, she said there had often been a “significant imbalance in how the consequences of a Yes or No vote were scrutinised.” She said although it was appropriate for the Yes campaign to be the more scrutinised of the two, the consequences of voting No “were not really analysed at all.”

Ms Sturgeon praised BBC political editor Nick Robinson for admitting mistakes in a controversial report over a confrontation with her predecessor Alex Salmond and said their notorious “spat” was now in the past. But Ms Sturgeon said she wanted the BBC to honestly reflect on flaws with its referendum coverage and what she described as regular “lapses” which had undermined the effort and integrity of staff working on coverage of the campaign.

She claimed there were a number of occasions when the BBC’s coverage “lapsed from the objective output the referendum deserved into what could seem partial and, at times, pejorative.”

Making her first significant comments on the BBC’s referendum coverage, Ms Sturgeon said: “Let me be clear. I am not saying there was institutional bias in the BBC’s referendum output.

“However, there were occasions when its coverage - through oversight, apparent ignorance of the detail of an issue or as a result of simply following the agenda of openly partisan print media - lapsed from the objective output the referendum deserved into what could seem partial and, at times, pejorative.

“The referendum was at its heart a choice of two different futures for Scotland - to become independent or stay in the UK. Both had consequences. But there often seemed to be a significant imbalance in how those two futures - and the consequences that would flow from either Yes or No - were scrutinised.

“Independence was heavily analysed - and rightly so. In fact, given that independence was the change option, I’d accept that it was appropriate for it to be the more scrutinised of the two propositions. But the status quo and the consequences of voting No were not really analysed at all.”

Ms Sturgeon said that “more often than not” the attack on the case for independence led news coverage, claiming: “The sense of overall balance would have been enhanced if news reports had more often been led by critical analysis of the status quo.”

Ms Sturgeon said that when some network BBC journalists came into the campaign “very late on” and reported on issues that had been discussed in detail in Scotland for months, they sounded “less than fully informed.”

She added: “By last summer voters in Scotland had a very detailed understanding of many of the big issues in the debate. To some people, a journalist not appearing to be fully informed can sound like a journalist not being entirely impartial.

“I don’t say any of this simply to rake over old ground, but instead to try to offer some rational explanation for why so many people felt so unhappy with how the referendum was covered and so that we can all move forward.

“Of course, the easy thing for broadcasters to do would be to dismiss the complaints and the protests as intolerance of a free media or of opposing opinions.

“But I think it (the BBC) needs to recognise some of those complaints were well-founded. The frustration many felt was not borne out of a misplaced desire to control the media, but from a genuine concern that the playing field didn’t always feel even.

“So even if they don’t agree with my analysis, I hope that the broadcast media, and given its unique status in our national life, the BBC in particular, will reflect on that, seek to understand it and respond to it.

A BBC spokesman said: “As we said at the time, we believe our coverage of the referendum was rigorously impartial and in line with our guidelines on fairness and impartiality.”