Indyref2 – The subtle signs of ‘impartiality’

It seems certain that there will indeed be a second referendum on Scottish independence.  The debate now centres on timing.

Unionist parties want to put a second ballot off until after the UK has left the European Union, taking Scotland with it.

Independence parties want a ballot to be held at a time when the Brexit deal is pretty clear but before the UK is completely out.

Assuming the Scottish Parliament votes as expected and the Scottish Government has its mandate for a Section 30 request then we will have a stand-off, given that the UK Government is expected to reject a Section 30 request.

How that will play out in the coming months may determine whether support for independence rises or falls.

That’s where the media come into play.  For media, read BBC.  For the BBC … read ‘impartiality’.

The BBC isn’t always blatantly biased against independence or the SNP.  Indeed most of the pro-Union output is far more subtle than that.

One of the more identifiable examples of this subtlety includes seeking comment from all political parties at Holyrood on a constitutional issue.  Although there are more independence supporting MSPs at Holyrood, there are more Union supporting parties.  This means a pro-indy majority becomes a pro-Union majority when a constitutional issue airs on radio or TV.  Three Unionists will get to speak against only two from Indy.

Another subtle example includes the describing of the Scottish Government as the ‘SNP Government’.  This of course has the effect of denying the SNP led administration the democratically earned status bestowed on it by the electorate.  The administration is diminished in stature.  It is presented instead as a mere appendage of the SNP, and thus is denied its rightful status and with it its democratic authority, even mandate.  Is it deliberate?  Who knows, but it does go on.

Sarah Smith

We are beginning to see this in reporting of the debate on whether to mandate the Scottish Government to request a Section 30 order from the UK Government.  This is presented more and more as something the SNP, just the SNP, is pushing for.  Below is a clip which features the BBC’s Scotland correspondent Sarah Smith doing just that.


The motion MSPs will be voting on is not an SNP motion.  Technically it has been tabled by the First Minister.  It won’t be the SNP that is arguing it has a cast-iron mandate, it will be the Scottish Government arguing that it has a cast-iron mandate to speak on behalf of the Scottish Parliament.

“With the support of the Scottish Greens the SNP will almost certainly win the vote […] the SNP will argue that once the Scottish Parliament has voted it has a cast iron mandate for another referendum.”

It may appear insignificant semantics but it is crucial in how this issue is presented to the Scottish people.  How would such a motion be presented had it been the UK Prime Minister who tabled it?

Well we can answer that by looking at the BBC’s reporting of a motion on Syria that was tabled by then PM David Cameron.

You can see from the BBC headlines that Cameron’s motion was described as a UK Government motion.

The Scottish Parliament will debate the motion next Tuesday after being delayed due to the attack that took place in Westminster.  It has placed the issue of independence front and centre of Scottish politics once again.

If, as expected, the Section 30 motion carries, then the debate becomes one not of Nicola Sturgeon [or the SNP] against Ruth Davidson, Kezia Dugdale and Willie Rennie, but of the Scottish Government against the UK Government.  That is how it ought to presented from that moment onwards.  I will be watching with interest.

Glenn Campbell

The reason for the Section 30 debate is of course Brexit, and the triggering of Article 50, which leads me into another subtle tactic I’ve seen employed by the BBC from time to time.  The playing down of a justifiable grievance the Scottish Government may express.

The most famous of attempt to play down such a grievance occurred back in 2007 when the then fledgling SNP led administration learned of a deal between Tony Blair’s Labour led administration at Westminster and Colonel Gadhafi.  The ‘deal in the desert’ spawned a now infamous interview of First Minister Alex Salmond by the BBC’s Kirsty Wark.  The interview can be seen here.

A far more subtle example of this downplaying of a justifiable grievance appeared on the day the UK Government announced its intention to trigger Article 50 on March 29th.  It very quickly emerged the Scottish Government had not been told of this prior to its announcement.  The First Minister issued a statement condemning the failure to communicate the information through appropriate channels prior to it being made public.

A justifiable irritation clearly.  However listen to BBC Scotland reporter Glenn Campbell as he reports on the complaint from the Scottish Government.


According to Campbell the announcement “can’t really have come as much of a surprise” because “everybody knew” it was coming.  Campbell repeated the line on that evening’s Reporting Scotland.

The inference listeners and viewers are supposed to take is of course that the Scottish Government is merely manufacturing another grievance.  This is very subtle, but classic propaganda.

Mervyn King

On the evening before the Scottish Parliament began debating the Section 30 motion an article appeared on the BBC Scotland website.

The article, ‘Scotland ‘could be independent’ says King’ relayed part of an interview given by former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King on the UK wide Newsnight programme.

Whilst the headline appeared benign, the article content certainly was not.  The article began rather positively if viewed from a pro-independence stance by proclaiming King felt fears over currency were unfounded.

Why was it news now?  Well the truth was it wasn’t news.  King had made just this statement almost exactly one year before when interviewed on STV as you can see below.

What was actually being punted by the BBC wasn’t a year old story about currency but additional comments made by King during his Newsnight interview.  These comments were not complimentary to independence and contained several of the old canards used by Unionists during the first indyref campaign including deficit, borrowing and public spending.

I posted a tweet in which I predicted the interview would be turned into an IndyBad item by BBC Scotland.

I was correct.  The interview turned up the very next morning on Radio Scotland replete with King’s warnings over the deficit, borrowing and public spending.


It appeared again the following day when GMS covered a report from the Fraser of Allander Institute.


The clip above features BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor Douglas Fraser who ensured that another Unionist canard ‘damaging uncertainty’ was prominent.  Fraser was covering a report from the Fraser of Allander Institute which was peppered with the phrase both in terms of Brexit and another indyref.

The bizarre thing is that the first independence referendum resulted in no evidence of damage to the Scottish economy.  Indeed in June 2014, just 100 days out from the referendum itself, a new report showed that inward investment in Scotland had reached a 16 year high – creating more than 4,000 jobs.

The Ernst & Young Attractiveness Survey confirmed that Scotland had attracted 82 foreign direct investment (FDI) projects in 2013 – an 8 per cent increase on 2012 – and that Scotland continued to be the top location for foreign investment in the UK outside London.

The myth of ‘damaging uncertainty’ had been introduced into the first indyref in 2011 when then UK Chancellor George Osborne brought it up in an interview on Newsnight Scotland.  Osborne’s claims were never backed up with evidence, but the myth became embedded nevertheless.


Why did the Fraser of Allander Institute make reference to indyref uncertainty when they knew there was no evidence of any such negative uncertainty in the lead-up to September 2014?  Who knows, but what we do know is that it found its way into a BBC Scotland news broadcasts in March 2017.



Academic Pundits

The Mervyn King clip turned up again when Good Morning Scotland broadcast a discussion about the aforementioned Fraser of Allander report.  Two ‘impartial’ academic pundits, Professor John McLaren and Dr. Angus Armstrong were interviewed on the programme.


John McLaren is a familiar name amongst pro-independence circles.  The former member of the now defunct CPPR was a regular on BBC Scotland programmes during the first referendum campaign.  His contributions are perhaps better described as ‘complimentary’ to the pro-Union case.

John McLaren worked as a researcher for the Labour Party for a year leading up to the first election (1999) of the new Scottish Parliament, being subsequently appointed as a Special Adviser by Donald Dewar, and then by Henry McLeish, for the period up to 2001.

He was a member of the Labour Party from 2000 to 2005.  In 2006 Mr McLaren was hired by the Labour Party on a consultancy basis to undertake work leading up to the 2007 election.  Mr McLaren’s CPPR colleague, Jo Armstrong, was an adviser to Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell.

Angus Armstrong isn’t so well known but according to this article put himself forward as a candidate for Labour in Edinburgh South West in 2015.  Prior to that he had featured in key indyref issues.  In March 2014 Armstrong described George Osborne’s threat to refuse a currency union with a newly independent Scotland as “entirely rational”.

Armstrong suggested that Scotland could not rely on getting the same low interest rates on its debt as the UK.  The academic said Holyrood would suffer from more budget volatility, due to the oil price. He also claimed an independent Scotland would have to pay a higher interest rate on borrowing.

Below is an example of Armstrong in action.

Angus Armstrong was Head of Macroeconomic Analysis at HM Treasury from mid 2004 until he joined the National Institute of Economic and Social Research as Director of Macroeconomic Research in September 2011.  He was also a House Of Lords special adviser on Scottish independence [Thanks to Wings over Scotland for that info].

In terms of the independence debate, the polite thing to say about Angus Armstrong is that he is every bit as impartial as John McLaren.


Impartiality, like beauty, is in the eye [or ear] of the beholder.  The examples I have listed above are of course examples of broadcasts I’d argue were not impartial.  You of course may disagree.


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2 thoughts on “Indyref2 – The subtle signs of ‘impartiality’

  1. Bibbit

    The second Independence Referendum campaign will run simultaneously as the Brexit negotiations.

    The British Nationalists, including the BBC’s Smith, Campbell etc., can’t broadcast simultaneouly to Scotland,

    ‘Come, rest your weary wallets on our strong and certain shoulders’

    whilst the pound is crashing, banks & big business leave, and the NHS collapses when EU staff leave.

    Apart from that dystopian chasm whcih was not there last time, remember too that Scotland will also have a more sympathetic 48% ‘Remainers’ onside which I think will have serious, beneficial consequences for the Independence support and how the UK news is broadcast.

    Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

  2. twathater

    Having watched most of your last video I was struck by how simplistic James and Margaret Cuthbertson attempted to make their responses and answers, yet Armstrong waffled and stuttered when attempting to undermine and confuse the Cuthbertson responses. I find it unbelievable that when the unionists are attempting to rubbish Scotland’s economy that the SNP SG don’t proffer or enlist the Cuthbersons , (who are after all true academic economists) not dug food salesmen, to disassemble and disprove what the majority of people know , that the figures touted by Yoons are unreliable .

    And when Gray tried to put words into James Cuthbertsons mouth by accusing him of touting tax increases for the oil industry he was deftly put in his place .
    I know this video was shot pre 2014 ref but it shows nothing has changed, Scotland is still too wee , too poor ,and too stupid according to Gray and company

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