Bias by omission is the hardest thing to prove objectively. On any issue we can look at how many negative stories are selected by comparison with positive ones, to detect an imbalance favouring one side or the other. We can look within stories for the balance there and we can look at the language used. Most important we can look at the evidence used in terms of its reliability. For years now we have confidently shown a lack of balance, disadvantaging the SNP, the Scottish Government and the agencies it is responsible for such as the NHS and, of course, the wider Yes movement. This sort of bias can be argued to be mostly semi-conscious or habitual with no conspiratorial element.
However, many have bemoaned what they see as a more explicit, agenda-driven bias, in a failure to report stories which might cast a favourable light on the above groups. Bias by omission is far more difficult to prove. Broadcasters, in particular, with limited time, can always say that other stories seemed more important, more newsworthy. These are, of course, highly subjective assessments making criticism of them subjective too.
It is only when we can observe and report a series of omissions which together share the same central feature, that they would enhance the independence movement, the SNP or the SG that we can claim a wider trend. In the last few weeks we’ve had five remarkable omissions from Reporting Scotland:
- The First Minister has been in Germany promoting Scottish trade and cultural links at a time when they are threatened by Brexit.
- Seven-time grand slam winner Jamie Murray has spoken out on the unfair funding of tennis in Scotland.
- Glasgow alcohol deaths have fallen by 21.5% with calls for a UK-wide rollout of minimum pricing.
- Birmingham University research has revealed that migrants and their children feel more welcome and safer in Scotland than in other parts of the UK.
- NHS Scotland’s IVF service has been 100% successful for 5 years with wider benefits for women’s mental health.
To my knowledge, the alcohol deaths story made it to the BBC website, the tennis story made it to STV, and the migrants story made it to the Guardian.
Readers will know of more cases, I’m sure.
How does this happen?
Here is how Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann explained the emerging of a dominant way of thinking and behaving which she applied to Nazi Germany and later to the US, in the 1970s:
‘Spiral of silence is the term meant to refer to the tendency of people to remain silent when they feel that their views are in opposition to the majority view on a subject. The theory posits that they remain silent for a few reasons:
- Fear of isolation when the group or public realizes that the individual has a divergent opinion from the status quo.
- Fear of reprisal or more extreme isolation, in the sense that voicing said opinion might lead to a negative consequence beyond that of mere isolation (loss of a job, status, etc.)
For this theory to be plausible it relies on the idea that in a given situation we all possess a sort of intuitive way of knowing what the prevailing opinion happens to be.’ (masscommtheory.com)
Applying this to BBC Scotland staff doesn’t mean that they are always consciously biased against independence though they, especially the senior and managerial staff, may be so. When Glen Campbell was caught on screen tearing up an SNP leaflet, we got a wee glimpse. Rather, I’m saying that it’s mostly unconscious predispositions nudging them toward choices which favour the Union. Noam Chomsky though often accused on being a conspiracy theorist, by those who had failed to understand him, was saying essentially the same when he talked about how consent is manufactured. Stepping back onto the thin ice of a Nazi analogy, Sir Professor Kershaw’s notion of ‘Working toward the Fuhrer’, can be added to this dark way of explaining bias. Reminding us that Hitler gave few direct commands but, rather, by his speeches, set the parameters for the behaviour of those below him in the Nazi system, to please him. Here’s how Kershaw puts it:
‘Everyone who has the opportunity to observe it knows that the Fuhrer can hardly dictate from above everything which he intends to realise sooner or later. On the contrary, up till now everyone with a post in the new Germany has worked best when he has, so to speak, worked towards the Fuhrer. Very often and in many spheres it has been the case—in previous years as well—that individuals have simply waited for orders and instructions. Unfortunately, the same will be true in the future; but in fact it is the duty of everybody to try to work towards the Fuhrer along the lines he would wish. Anyone who makes mistakes will notice it soon enough. But anyone who really works towards the Fuhrer along his lines and towards his goal will certainly both now and in the future one day have the finest reward in the form of the sudden legal confirmation of his work.’ (wikipedia.org)
Try reading that but substituting the words ‘Head of News’ for ‘Fuhrer’ and ‘reporter’ for ‘his’, ‘everyone’ or ‘everybody’.
What do you think? Again testing the German ice, think about the wall-to-wall, Union-flag-bedecked coverage of the Olympics in 2012 and 2016. See anything?
Here’s the image I see. Imagine inside the mind of a BBC reporter or a junior editor. See little stories on paper, some favouring independence, some favouring the Union, falling downward in a spiral. Some are caught by the unconscious mind and others fall into the silence below. The unconscious mind programed by years of Unionist education, Unionist socialisation in the mainstream media and the words of current senior staff, catches mostly the pro-Union stories and reports them as representing the world, outside their minds even though they more accurately represent the world within their minds.
So, BBC Scotland staff are not Nazis. Well maybe one. You can name him below in a comment if you like. I couldn’t possibly comment. Trying to survive inside an hierarchical power-based system, they’re just like citizens under Nazism.