When People Talk About Media Bias, What Do They Mean? What is the Evidence?

Update: at the end, and in comments, I am collating examples of the use of ‘devo max’ to describe the offer of more devolved powers for Scotland during the referendum debate.

“We had issues from time to time, but I don’t myself that we faced a systemic bias if you like, that there was some corporate intent to disadvantage the Yes campaign” (Blair Jenkins, interviewed on STV)

Allegations of media bias became a big feature of the Scottish independence campaign, with some Yes supporters adamant that the BBC was biased against them, and perturbed that only one newspaper (the Sunday Herald) came out in favour of independence. This argument was rehearsed mostly on social media, but spilled out into some protests outside the BBC studio in Glasgow, and in some academic work by John Robertson which sought to measure systematic bias in media coverage (there is also some work on left/right wing media bias, which could tie in with the debate in Scotland).

The academic work mostly received attention from the Yes side, and its author spoke at one of the BBC demos, but was dismissed by the BBC (which criticised his research) and many other commentators, largely because the author was pro-Yes and the line between evidence and advocacy became more blurry than we are perhaps used to. This is a shame, because this episode could prompt us to think about the meaning of bias and, in particular, how much is based on choice.

To begin with, let’s examine this topic at a very abstract level, to identify how much choice goes into information bias. The most general argument can be broken down as follows:

  1. There is an almost-infinite amount of information out there, and we must decide what information to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to, and what to ignore. In other words, all information gathering is biased in some way, and the process involves some element of choice. We all do it and are all biased in that general sense.
  2. As soon as we make that choice, it sets us down a particular path. Focusing on one kind of information leads to choices that reinforce the original focus. Think, for example, about an academic choosing initially to study politics, then Scottish politics, then devolution, then aspects of the referendum. Some of it may be based initially on semi-accidental circumstances (e.g. a work opportunity, a funding opportunity) and a degree of choice (about, for example, what aspects of the debate to follow). Whatever the mix of choice and opportunity, that person’s initial choices influence their subsequent focus: on what issues to describe, and how to do so, and what to ignore. It involves an element of bias, about what to focus on and how to present the information. Academics, like other people, develop ‘standard operating procedures’ to allow them to gather information systematically and present it in an acceptable way. Their biases – of focus and method, what to become knowledgeable about, and on what topics to know little about – become, to a large extent, systematic. Some of those procedures are considered ‘scientific’ – which largely means systematic (according to the principles or standards of scientific professions) rather than impartial or unbiased.
  3. The same goes for media organisations. They get into routines which govern how they choose issues to study and how they gather information (which sources they use, and which people they speak to). Some of it involves conscious decisions, and some of it becomes habitual. When people get into such routines, they may begin to examine and portray issues in a particular way. Their biases become systematic, and their particular biases may not be about choosing explicitly to favour some people and stick it to others.

So far, so general. The tricky part is to separate this broad source of often-implicit bias from the allegations of explicit and specific bias to support one campaign and undermine another.

For me, the most interesting side to that discussion of bias relates to the issues that media organisations choose to highlight. Each story becomes a political choice, because to focus on one story means to crowd out the others. One chooses what to prioritise and what to ignore.

This argument holds even when media organisations appear to approach these stories in a sort-of unbiased way. They may, for example, bring on an equal number of Yes/ No supporters to discuss the issue, and call it impartial reporting. Yet, the discussion is already not-impartial because those people are talking about one issue at the expense of the rest.

So, for example, every story about not sharing the pound (and the phrase ‘plan B’), struggling to join the EU, or uncertainty over pensions, was already likely to be a victory for the No side before anyone from Yes/ No uttered a word. Similarly, a focus on the inadequacy of Westminster politics would generally become fertile territory for the Yes campaign (while issues such as the NHS were more up for grabs).

In that sense, to gauge one kind of media bias, perhaps all you have to do is identify which topics receive the most attention among individual media organisations.

Or, you might look out for the idea that the current devolved settlement represents normality, and that independence, as the major change, should be the case to prove. This type of consideration would sit on top of John Roberston’s focus on the more obvious signs of bias in relation to, for example, the personalisation of issues (usually in relation to Alex Salmond).

But the question that remains is: what should we do with the information?

During the campaign, I found myself concluding that such reports of bias seem quite intuitive: that a British Broadcasting Corporation (and other UK based media) would see the world through a British lens, and seek to interrogate the issues on that basis. So, for example, the currency issue would be at or near the top of the list because this issue, more than the NHS in Scotland, affects people across the UK. Perhaps the BBC might also focus on Salmond because few other politicians are known outside Scotland and he has, for a long time, been the figurehead for the push for Scottish independence, and remained the focus of attention for his competitors (indeed, for some time, and on the 2007 Scottish Parliament ballot paper, Salmond was put forward by the SNP as its figurehead).

My dull initial conclusion is that I look forward to the peer review and publication of studies on bias in an academic journal (rather than in a Yes-friendly outlet) – as a process that moves us on from an instant reaction to the results, during an intense period of Scottish politics, to a more considered evaluation of the data, in a more dispassionate way than afforded to us during the heat of the campaign.

However, of course, this is a cop-out, because the political process is still going on, and the media coverage is still playing its part – with the potential to contribute to a sense of grievance among people who rely on a small number of media sources to get their information.

Devo Max

Currently, the best example is the issue of ‘devo max’. My argument is that devo-max is not possible and was never on offer by the leaders of UK parties in ‘The Vow’ (I say this in my own dull way here, and it is edited-and-headlined-for-most-effect here). However, other people have said that devo max was on offer, well before the campaign period (which I challenged here), and during the most intense period of debate. Some of these claims of devo-max were made by No enthusiasts and some by journalists – including Jackie Bird, who used the term when interviewing Alistair Darling, and was not contradicted by Alistair Darling:

So, even though devo max was not on offer, it is possible for some people to get the impression that it was. This is a problem on which serious media sources, or at least those organisations keen to maintain an image of balance, may reflect. Most are keen – and rightly so – to turn complex issues into very simple statements and phrases, and to condense long debates into short and manageable soundbites, but it should not come at the expense of clarity. It should not contribute too much to a sense of grievance that is already high.

Final note: is there more evidence out there?

I’d like to get a better sense of how many times these ‘devo max’ claims were made during the campaign. If you have well-documented examples (web links to video clips, online and newspaper stories – not vague allegations), please could you pass them on to me? I will then collate them at the end of this post. I could also do the same for ‘home rule’ and ‘federalism’, but these terms seem, to me, to be even vaguer.

Update. Some examples based on the comments so far (these are stories I have read or listened to):

Bear in mind the element of self selection here. This list does not give an overall sense of the tone and substance of reports in the round. For all I know, these outlets presented nuanced reports the rest of the time (and, for example, in the case of the BBC, there is a mix of shorthand and nuance).

The Newspapers

The Independent 15.9.14 Scottish Independence: What is devo-max? “Put simply, devo-max – also known as maximum devolution – would give Holyrood the power over most reserved matters, except defence and foreign affairs. All the three main pro-union parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – have pledged to offer a version of devo-max if Scotland votes no in Thursday’s referendum”.

The Guardian 16.9.14 The Guardian view on the devo max pledge “Published on the front of the Daily Record, and thus aimed prominently and squarely at the traditional Labour voters who make up a lot of the Record’s readership, “the vow” reiterated that extensive new “devo max” powers for the Scottish parliament would follow hard on from a no vote on Thursday”.

The Financial Times (Nick Butler 14.9.14 Is devo max the answer for Scotland or the next problem?):Devolution max — the home rule option endorsed by the three UK party leaders — could just encourage Scots to vote No next Thursday” is followed by a discussion of how ill-advised the offer of more powers is and, in a way that suggests devo max is used as a shorthand for more powers, “The final shape of devo max would not be known until there was a new government in Westminster next June”. Also note that the FT’s devo max link is to a story by the BBC, which does not make the same mistake. On the contrary, its last section ‘Is this Devo Max?’ quotes Alex Salmond: “George Osborne and David Cameron, their one red line issue in setting up this referendum was not to allow Devo Max on the ballot paper, so to actually produce something which is far short of that, which is weak and insipid and has already been discounted by the Scottish people, is a sign of the total disintegration of the No campaign.”

The Daily Record article (9.9.14 Independence referendum: Voters not convinced by No camp’s last-gasp Devo-Max proposals ) gives the impression that many people came to think of ‘The Vow’, coupled with Gordon Brown’s intervention, as the proposal of devo max.

This Herald article (2.6.14 U-turn as Tory leader unveils devo-max plan) only uses devo max in the title, which perhaps says more about the fact that journalists don’t write their own titles.

The Scotsman (3.10.14 JK Rowling urges Labour to clarify DevoMax offer) really talks about someone hoping for devo max, not it being offered.

The TV Coverage

Robert Peston uses the phrase ‘devo max’, but he describes it (45 seconds in) as ‘the ugly shorthand for giving it [the Scottish Parliament] more power’ (BBC 9.9.14 Scottish independence: How would ‘devo max’ affect economy?)

Debi Edward (2.6.14 Scottish Conservatives deliver their Devo Max plans for a no vote) makes the same argument for ITV: “Devo Max is a snappy (ish) way of describing further devolution (more powers for the Scottish Parliament) and in polls it proves more popular that a Yes vote or a vote for status quo”.

Anushka Asthana for Sky (8.9.14 Scotland ‘Devo Max’ Deal A Win-Win For Salmond) perhaps adds to the confusion by stating: “The nationalists say that it is too little, too late. But still, arguably a form of devo max [my underline] is very much on the table for those who vote no. And that leaves SNP leader Alex Salmond in a win-win situation. This is a man who described devo-max as a “very attractive” idea back in 2012″.

The Politicians

ITV (14.9.14 Lord Steel: “Devo-max now on ballot paper“) has a clip of David Steel (former LD leader and former Scottish Parliament Presiding Officer) accompanied by the text: “The former leader of the Liberal Party says the so-called devo-max option is now effectively on the ballot paper for the referendum. Lord David Steel, who lives in Selkirk, says voting no would effectively be a vote for full fiscal powers in Scotland”. I don’t know how it played on TV, but the same web page has this qualification: “But the Yes campaign say the Unionist Parties’ aren’t offering anything remotely like devo-max, which they say would be Scotland controlling everything except defence and foreign affairs”.

Gordon Brown’s speech (in comment by hoppinghaggis below) suggests that the plan he outlines is proposed by the Labour Party (not the government). It talks about getting as close to federalism as you can in an asymmetrical UK (where England has 80+% of the population), and effectively offering Keir Hardie’s idea of Home Rule  – a statement criticised by the Yes campaign, but both sides are really speculating about what Hardie would want now. The next best thing is to know what George Buchanan proposed when introducing ‘Scottish Home Rule’ in his Home Rule Bill in 1924: “it proposes to set up a Scottish Parliament with fairly large powers, controlling everything except the Post Office, the Excise and Customs, the Army and Navy, and foreign affairs”.

John Prescott describes (in hoppinghaggis list below) “a revolution of devolution”, but he is talking about more devolution across the UK, prompted by further devolution in Scotland (the Youtube video is called ‘Prescott backs devo max for all’, but I don’t hear him use that phrase).

George Galloway (representing the No side on a TV debate) described ‘super devo max’, but much hinges on how seriously people take George Galloway.

See also:

Sky News’ post-vote story (19.9.14 Devo Max: What New Powers Can Scotland Have?) is relatively nuanced, discussing ‘quasi’ devo max and qualifying the meaning of devo max: “David Cameron has pledged new powers for Scotland that some have said amount to Devo Max. However, it’s not quite as clear cut as that. What is Devo Max? Scottish Parliament basically gets power over everything – apart from defence and foreign affairs. Maximum devolution. Is that on offer? No it’s not, although some say David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have come close to that” (while a different story, again by Anushka Asthana (19.9.14 Scotland Vote Not A Total Disaster For Salmond)  describes “a version of Devo Max”).


Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

15 responses to “When People Talk About Media Bias, What Do They Mean? What is the Evidence?

  1. On the 9th of September 3 reporters/presenters used the phrase Devo Max within 5 minutes. I tweeted them at the time, no response. https://twitter.com/G4rve/status/509406423978369024

  2. Sorry, meant to say it was on the main Channel 4 evening news.

  3. A peer-reviewed study of #indyref coverage would surely be welcomed by broadcasters, NUJ and Society of Editors.

  4. Hello Paul

    I’d say the phrase was used a fair bit in the last few weeks of the campaign. Like you, I think it was used incorrectly.

    At best this was just lazy shorthand (even by supposedly reputable outlets as below) but a more cynical view would be that this was a deliberate tactic… Darling madd no effort to disown the term.

    There were several articles published in UK-wide newspapers during what you called the most ‘intense period’ of the campaign. I recall a few friends of mine from down south sent these on that week e.g.



    In terms of media more likely (!) to influence the debate up here, the Beeb was at it as well, although it had the decency to put the phrase in inverted commas:


    ITV quoted the venerable Lord Steele on it:


    The Record used it a few times in headlines, even pejoratively:


  5. BusyBee

    Hi, some very balanced comments on media bias made here.

    I would add there is the issue of squeezed budgets and reduced staffing in news rooms which sometimes results in an over reliance on Press Statements and comments from the media officers of the interested parties. In the context of the Scottish independence debate I felt this meant that the narrative was being driven by political parties and only belatedly were voices outside of mainstream political machines and official campaigns invited to take part. That could be due to stretched news teams, or the press’s traditional reliance on looking to political parties for the news on politics. Even the televised “Question Time” style audience participation debates still placed the politicians (and sometimes business people) as the authoritative figure. For me, there just did not seem enough rounded debate from academics or coverage of grassroots campaigns.

    Another related point made elsewhere by others is that by structuring the debate around the political parties, journalistic efforts to avoid bias meant gaining comments from the main political parties on both sides. As there were more mainstream parties arguing for the No vote, this meant at times a somewhat lopsided affair, particularly on radio news and debates.

    Lastly, generally in the media, especially televised news programmes there is a tendancy to polarise the discussion into two almost confrontational opposites. This not only makes for a very poor discussion but sets both “sides” up as adversaries to the detriment of advancing understanding. One funny example of this was Channel 4’s advert for the Irvine Welsh and Martin Amis debate that used images more akin to a boxing match than two authors answering questions about their view on the referendum.

    It would be good to see more academic work on the media coverage should that be forthcoming.

  6. Kevin McIntyre

    The BBC gave Gordon Brown (a back bench MP with no power to deliver anything) nearly an hours worth of prime time coverage a few days before the referendum and allowed him to make promises to the Scottish people he had no power to give them. He was allowed to do this without challenge and no Yes supporting politician or campaigner was given the right of reply during the broadcast. The BBC did not cover any speeches from many prominent Yes politicians or campaigners with anything like the same length of coverage. It staggered belief that the BBC allowed what was effectively a party political broadcast to air. In contrast the hundreds of Yes campaign meetings that took place almost every night for well over a year got pretty much no coverage at all from the BBC in all that time. There was plenty of opportunity to cover events, speeches and campaign meetings but it simply didn’t happen.

  7. George

    Perception is all. In his Loanhead speech on BBC, Gordon Brown claimed to have the agreement of all parties, and said that civil servants were working on the details.

  8. BusyBee

    Devo-max became banal shorthand for further powers. e,g:
    Transcripts from Sky news interviews. Interviewer Dermot Murnaghan (DM) on several occasions refers to offer as Devo-max:

    07-09-14 with Gordon Brown. Quotation marks used “‘Devo-max’ offering” http://skynews.skypressoffice.co.uk/newstranscripts/murnaghan-70914-interview-gordon-brown-former-prime-minister

    07.09.14 with John Swinny, DM refers to “so-called devo-max” once and “devo-max” twice:

    14.09.14: with Mingus Campbell, DM refers to Brown’s offer as “substantial devo-max”:

  9. “Or, you might look out for the idea that the current devolved settlement represents normality, and that independence, as the major change, should be the case to prove.”

    Even that’s a political viewpoint. 190+ independent countries in the world suggests to me that independence is pretty normal, yet the way Yes was challenged on some things, you would think no country had ever become independent from another before. The whole “unanswered questions” shtick that the media was absolutely complicit in often required people to suspend any knowledge of the world outside the UK’s shores – sometimes even pretending not to know that the UK already shares a border with another country. I found that very odd, and would really have expected competent journalists to bring up such things.

    But more to the point, with such an important decision, the idea that there was a “normal” option that didn’t need to be scrutinised as much really shouldn’t have been entertained by the media. People should have been given the arguments for and against both sides, and the fact they weren’t is the biggest failure by the media – they didn’t allow for a fully-informed debate, leading it to become one-sided.

  10. Pingback: 3 reasons why devo max won’t happen | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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