Writing Off Scotland

Press Bias in the Scottish Independence Referendum



Published on 6 Oct 2014

WRITING OFF SCOTLAND explores the research of Dr David Patrick into press bias during the independence campaign. Carried out over Scotland's most politically important year in centuries, the study's findings are a shocking indictment of the role of the UK press in the independence debate. We all know newspapers take political positions but, uniquely for a western democracy, the entire press industry united against independence in an intense systematic propaganda campaign to save the union. In the film, Dr Patrick discusses the framing of the referendum and how front pages, editorial and commentary are used to get key messages across, the lack of media coverage for the research, strange BBC experience and how the Independence debate has damaged public trust in our press.

When headlines from front pages, editorials and comment pieces were analysed for evidence of Pro-Union/Pro-Independence framing, it was discovered that whilst 976 (61.8%) headlines showed no obvious bias towards either side, those headlines which did display some form of bias showed that for every headline which framed Scottish independence positively, there were 4.3 articles which were against independence.

When the main body of the text was analysed in depth, 763 (48.4%) were neutral in their coverage, with those remaining articles showing evidence of clear bias weighted 3-to-1 in favour of a pro-Union/anti-Independence position.

Indeed, when looking at both front-page headlines and their accompanying articles, it is discovered that there is not a single title which framed the debate in Pro-Union terms less often than they framed the debate with a pro-Independence bias.

Expressed in a different manner, only 6% of headlines could be interpreted as pro-Independence, in comparison with 47.1% which framed the debate in favour of a pro-Union position. Whilst it an almost identical proportion (46.8%) of headlines showed no obvious bias towards either side, it remains the case that an individual walking past a newsstand in the period analysed would be presented to a pro-Union headline almost half the time.

A total of 386 editorials were produced in the six months analysed, the most prolific in this regard being The Daily Express (69) and The Daily Mail (65), though it is worth noting that neither of these titles contained a single editorial which could be constructed as being pro-Independence (or anti-Union).
Coincidentally, the two titles which published the fewest editorials related to independence – The Daily Telegraph (10) and The Times (13) – also did not contain any editorials which were pro-Independence.

In total, 822 such pieces were produced by the eight selected titles across the six months analysed. Taken as a whole, 412 were neutral, with 180 (21.9%) being pro-Independence and 330 (40.1%) being pro-Union.

For example, whilst The Sun printed a similar number of comment articles which demonstrated a pro-Union (24) or pro-independence bias (20) – with exactly 50% (44) being quantified as neutral – numerical distinctions within each title showed more evident variation. The Daily Express, for example, out of a total of 101 comment pieces produced only 3 (2.9%) that could be regarded as pro-Independence, whilst publishing 60 (59.4%) which demonstrated clear bias towards a pro-Union stance.

Across the entire project, the headlines of various front-page, editorial and comment pieces contained 362 occasions where an individual was named. Of these 362, a remarkable 207 were in reference to First Minister, Alex Salmond – accounting for 57.2% of all occasions where someone’s name was in the headline of the article.

This was more prominent in some titles than in others, with The Herald (the title which did this the least) citing the FM in 33.3% of all headlines that contained a name; compared to 88.9% in The Daily Express and 76% in the Daily Telegraph.

The second most-cited individual in this respect was David Cameron who, being mentioned in 38 titles, accounted for 10.5% of all names used; whilst Nicola Sturgeon (8) and Alistair Darling (7) – respective leaders of the “Yes Scotland” and “Better Together” campaigns – together only managed inclusion in 4.14% of headlines.

Whilst a fair degree of press focus showed no sign of ideological (constitutional) bias, those articles which did frame the debate in terms favourable to either position showed a clear proportional weighting to the pro-Union side. With the exception of The Sun, this was more apparent in those titles whose main readership is in the rest of the UK, with some showing a level of bias (particularly in editorial and comment pieces) that arguably amounted to a campaign.

Another key finding of this research was the observation that Alex Salmond’s name was used in more than 55% of headlines that contained a person’s name. Given his position as First Minister and his integral role within the “Yes” campaign, his inclusion in a number of headlines is hardly surprising; however, a focus on Alex Salmond to the degree highlighted here demonstrates a continuance of the oft-mentioned belief that a vote for independence was a vote for the First Minister, and by extension the SNP.

Dr David Patrick, University Free State South Africa.


Twitter Contact: @DrDavidPatrick


Filmed on 02/10/14 HD1920x1080p Running Time 22.35