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London papers rally for Scotland ‘no’ vote

Surprised by a poll suggesting Scots will vote for independence, mainstream UK media up their pleas for preserving the union

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

British newspapers may not be known for shows of restraint – but their alarm over a recent Scottish independence poll was palpable.

In just eight days’ time, Scots will vote in a historic referendum over whether to split from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Opinion polls had until last Sunday shown that the ‘no’ vote – those against independence – was in the majority.

But a YouGov poll commissioned by The Sunday Times this week found that the ‘yes’ camp is for the first time in the lead – albeit narrowly, by just 51 points to 49.

The shock poll was met with an equally shocked reaction in the next day’s national newspapers, most of which are based in London and back the union.

‘Ten days to save the Union,’ blared the front page of The Telegraph, known as a right-leaning title. Even The Independent, a more liberal paper, carried a near-identical headline.

Other London-based newspapers played the royal card, with the Daily Mirror’s emotive ‘Don’t let me be last Queen of Scotland,’ and the Daily Mail running with ‘Queen’s fear over break up of Britain.’

The Mail ran an accompanying editorial entitled “Ten days to save our great union,” in which it declared that to dissolve the union would “be a tragedy.” The Mirror, meanwhile, said it is “time to get serious and fight to preserve what we hold dear and the Queen values so highly.”

Newspapers based in Scotland are also largely pro-union, especially those linked to London titles. But in May, the prominent Scottish newspaper The Sunday Herald became the first to publicly back the ‘yes’ campaign. There is speculation that Rupert Murdoch’s The Scottish Sun newspaper may also publicly back a vote for independence on September 18.

‘Startled’ response

But in London, as newspaper columnists from across the political spectrum rallied to call for the preservation of the union, it became obvious that editors had been caught by surprise by the YouGov poll.

Professor George Brock, Head of Journalism at City University London, said that newspapers had been “startled” by the prospect of Scotland voting for independence.

“It’s the first time they’ve had to take seriously the possibility of a ‘yes’ vote,” he said. “I think they’ve been taken by surprise for the same reason as everyone else has. The ‘no’ vote had seemed to be in the lead for some time.”

Brock said that the readership of most London-based national newspapers is highly concentrated in the South East of England, with a “distinct ceiling” on the number of copies sold in Scotland.

This has an impact on their editorial, he said. “Not only do the papers listen to what the politicians say in Westminster, they are also South East-England focused in their outlook.”

Calls of bias

But others – especially those campaigning for independence – see a more blatant bias in some of the mainstream media’s coverage of the Scottish referendum.

Shabbar Jaffri, Scottish National Party Councillor for Greater Pollok area of Glasgow, agrees that the media was largely taken by surprise by the YouGov poll.

Jaffri’s party, the SNP, is leading the drive for an independent Scotland – something he is confident will be achieved despite the bias he sees in the national media.

“The establishment isn’t happy that for the first time we’re actually leading in the polls,” he said. “Most of the press and media has shown a bias against the ‘yes’ campaign, especially the BBC.”

Unlike national newspapers, many of which openly express a political stance in their leader columns, British TV-news broadcasters are supposed to be impartial.

But Jaffri says that broadcasters such as the BBC have shown bias against Scottish independence by – for example – giving more time to ‘no’ campaigners in its coverage.

BBC under fire

It is not the first time the BBC has faced allegations of bias in its reporting of the independence debate. In June, protesters rallied outsider the broadcaster’s headquarters in Glasgow, Scotland, over alleged imbalances in its reporting.

Some campaigners point to the fact that the BBC stands to lose a massive chunk of license fees should Scotland vote for independence. It has been proposed that BBC Scotland be replaced by a new Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS) should the ‘yes’ vote win.

The corporation refused to comment on what may happen should Scotland vote for independence, but vigorously defended its impartiality.

“We will not enter into any public or private discussions about the future or the shape and nature of our services after the referendum until that referendum has taken place. To do so might compromise perceptions of the impartiality and balance of our coverage,” a BBC spokesperson told Al Arabiya News. “We reject claims of bias in our reporting of the referendum in our output. Our coverage of this major story continues to be covered according to our editorial guidelines on fairness and balance.”

‘Demonization’

Academic John Robertson, Professor in Media Politics at the University of the West of Scotland, begs to differ.

He has conducted two studies on media portrayals of the independence vote, one in 2013 and the other last April – and found the BBC’s coverage to be skewed in favor of the union.

“I found bias in some of its more obvious forms,” he said. One example of this was a report in which the BBC reported on residents’ fears that there would be border guards between Scotland and England, something Robertson said was covered in an unbalanced way.

Robertson – who’s claims are strongly disputed by the BBC – said that several media outlets have conflated the entire ‘yes’ campaign with one man – the SNP leader Alex Salmond. Mainstream media have “demonized” Salmond – but has not focused on one personality with the ‘no’ campaign.

“They’ve tried to make a fool of him and conflating that with the whole of the ‘yes’ campaign,” Robertson said.

“In my opinion, the BBC in particular and all top journalists in the media are all part of the elite, who went to the same schools, the same universities.”

Counterclaims of bias

But ‘no’ campaigners also see bias in the UK media over coverage of the Scottish referendum.

Hanzala Malik, a member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow, said Scottish newspapers have been printing false claims made by the ‘yes’ campaign. He did not single out any particular title in his criticism.

“What’s happening in Scotland is that the media has repeated statements made by the ‘yes’ campaign knowing that they are incorrect,” he said. “The media really needs to be honest in its reporting.”

Malik said that he is taking the YouGov survey “with a pinch of salt.” He pointed to an independence referendum over Quebec in 1995, in which the ‘yes’ vote was polling as well ahead – but which was eventually defeated.

“We have quite a substantial number of people who haven’t made up their minds,” he said of the vote in Scotland.

London-centric


Yet the media reaction to the Scottish referendum is a perfect example of why many Scots are voting for independence, other commentators said.

Yvonne Ridley, a journalist and political analyst, said that the London-based press – especially that focused on the Parliament at Westminster – has “no idea” what is going on in the north of the UK.

“The journalists living in the Westminster bubble have even less idea of what the voters are thinking than the politicians they are writing about,” she said. “This is one of the bones of contention of the ‘yes’ campaign – that everything is London-centric.”

Ridley rose to fame in 2001, when she was captured by the Taliban having entered Afghanistan disguised in a burka while working for the Sunday Express. She converted to Islam after her release and is a strong supporter of an independent Scotland, where she moved two-and-a-half years ago.

Many of what Ridley calls the “crusty old columnists” in the printed media have become irrelevant in the internet age, she said.

“The power of the printed media, certainly in the UK, is diminishing… People are switching off from the [mainstream] media because it is either out of touch or has an agenda that is not favourable for the ‘yes’ vote.”

She attributed the unionist stance of many London-based newspapers to a fear of the unknown and “a resentment that the union will split up.”

There may also be a commercial aspect to some attitudes towards the referendum, Ridley added.

“They’re thinking, ‘screw the Scottish referendum, what does it mean for us?’… The BBC is one of the biggest that would be affected – all the TV-license money that would go,” she said.

“Although it says it is impartial, the yes campaign doesn’t think the BBC is being impartial at all… There’s a feeling that it’s slanted in favor of the ‘no’ vote.” The BBC has denied such claims.

‘Tartan clichés’

Other ‘yes’ campaigners say that the London-based media has not given the Scottish referendum the attention it deserves.

The mainstream London media had “very rarely reported on Scotland in the depth it deserved,” said Humza Yousaf, a member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow, and member of the ‘yes’ campaign.

He added that much of the mainstream media’s coverage of Scotland is based on “every single tartan cliché” going.

But on-the-ground campaigning – rather than the press – will be what decides the outcome of the referendum, Yousaf asserted.

“We always knew the mainstream media would be hostile towards us,” he said. “I think this will be won not by the broadsheet papers or by the tabloids, but on the doorsteps, by pounding the doorsteps – the old-fashioned way.”