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Advice Paper

February 2014
BBC Trust Consultation on draft guidelines for the coverage
of the referendum on independence for Scotland
Submission from the Royal Society of Edinburgh
1 The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) welcomes
the opportunity to comment upon the BBCTrust
Service Reviewon the BBCDraft Referendum
Guidelines. We recognise the central importance
of the BBCin the fabric of news coverage in the
UK, especially in viewof its duty to deliver its
output in a balanced and informative manner.
The RSEwould be prepared to elaborate on any
of the points raised in this submission, and to
meet with representatives of the Trust, if the
Trust so wishes.
2 The draft guidelines for the BBCs coverage
of the Referendumacknowledge the importance
of providing broad and impartial coverage of the
referendumdebate. This includes ensuring that a
balance of views fromeach of the two campaigns,
Yes Scotland and Better Together, is presented.
Delivering balanced coverage is likely to be
challenging given the diverse range of political
views incorporated within the Better Together
campaign. The guidelines set out for achieving
this balance will therefore be extremely important,
as will strong oversight of BBCoutput. While the
Yes campaign is a relatively coordinated campaign,
based largely on one political party, Better
Together is constituted fromseveral politically
diverse parties within the UK. This exacerbates
the challenge of providing balanced coverage.
3 In the run up to the Referendum, the Better
Together campaign is likely to want to give
information and to stimulate discussion around
what devolution will look like after 2014, if
Scotland remains within the UK. This will be
important to many voters but is an area in which
parties associated with the Better Together
campaign are likely to present diverse views and
opinions. The BBCwill need to ensure that this
range of views is covered, without being seen to
give unduly higher coverage of the Better Together
campaign. Differentiating Better Together from
the parties that have come together to formit will
be important and, in terms of the maintenance of
balance, challenging. This will require very strong
oversight fromthe BBCTrust. As we observed in
our earlier submission on News and Current
Affairs, the BBCalso needs to be prepared for
there to be intense pressure on balanced coverage
fromboth sides of the debate. This is likely to be
at least as intense as in a General Election, and
perhaps even more so.
4 The BBCshould also consider its relationship with
and treatment of the Scottish Government in the
lead up to the Referendum, as during this period
the Scottish Government will be a campaigner in
the Referendumdebate.
5 Ensuring informed and impartial coverage of the
Referendumdebate will require very strong and
very well-informed leadership within the BBC.
Without such strong leadership by BBCScotland
there is a risk that this responsibility will pass by
default to London. That would not be the correct
approach for the Referendumcoverage; and would
be seen in Scotland as wholly inappropriate. There
needs to be an approach to coverage of the
Referendumwhich fully understands, fromvarious
different angles, the Scottish perspective. There is
need for input fromthe Trust, probably via the
Scottish representative on the Trust backed up by
robust and well-informed advice, to ensure that
coverage of the Referendumdebate is delivered
with sufficient understanding of the environment
in Scotland. The Audience Council for Scotland
should also be active in helping to ensure balanced
and appropriate coverage.
Advice Paper (Royal Society of Edinburgh) ISSN2040-2694
Advice Paper 1 14
6 Achieving balanced, well-informed and relevant
coverage of the Referendumand related issues
will be extremely important, both in Scotland and
in the rest of the UK. It will call for excellent,
insightful and analytic journalismwith access to a
wide variety of expertise. This requires there to be
a strong infrastructure of journalists, backed up by
a robust systemof oversight. For example, the
RSEis concerned that the detailed analysis by the
BBCof the Scottish referendumdebate on both
sides has not yet been as analytical and critical
as it needs to be. As indicated in our earlier
submission, for at least the period of the
referendumdebate the RSEwould suggest that
the Trust examines the journalistic capacity
available to BBCScotland and the BBCgenerally,
to cover this pivotal constitutional issue.
7 On the issue of governance, we would reiterate the
suggestion made in our earlier submission, that
the Trust considers establishing an editorial
guidance and reviewpanel for Scotland, to oversee
the output on the referendumand to ensure
critical analysis of the main options. Such a panel
would also function as the arbiter of complaints
about lack of balance in the Corporations
coverage of the referendumcampaign.
Relevant coverageintheNations
8 The debate on and outcome of the referendumin
Scotland will have implications for all of the UK, so
there is a need for that to be reflected in UK-wide
contributions to the BBCs output. Voices fromall
parts of the UKneed to be heard as part of the
constitutional debate. This requires there to be a
strong infrastructure of journalists fromthe
Nations and Regions to provide voices from
England, Northern Ireland and Wales, as well as
Scotland, on the possible break-up of the UK.
9 As we observed in our earlier submission, there
has been a decline in the number of specialist
correspondents in the devolved nations and
regions of the UK, and it is the opinion of the RSE
that specialist correspondents will represent
a priority resource in delivering well-informed and
relevant coverage of the range of views on
Scotlands constitutional future. The Referendum
on Scotlands future is a matter of the highest
significance for the whole of the UK, and the BBC
Trust has a responsibility to ensure that the
resources and funds are available to provide high
quality coverage across the UK. The number
of highly expert journalists and regional
correspondents will need to be increased in
order to deliver this.
10 The Referendumelectorate will include those
aged 16 and 17, who may not engage with news
and media in the traditional ways. One of the main
issues that the Trust may wish to consider,
therefore, is howeffective the BBCis in building
and maintaining a young audience, given that
many young people access their information
online or through social media. Coverage of
referendumissues must cater adequately for
this younger demographic.
11 Informed and analytic coverage of the
forthcoming referendumon Scotlands
constitutional future is crucial, and providing
informed and impartial output represents a large
challenge for the BBC. In light of this, and other
developments mentioned within this paper, the
RSEviews this consultation as extremely timely
and important. Should the BBCTrust wish to
speak with anyone at the RSEabout this
submission, please contact BristowMuldoon, 01312402787.
Additional Information
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is Scotlands
National Academy. It is an independent body with a
multidisciplinary fellowship of men and women
of international standing which makes it uniquely
placed to offer informed, independent comment on
matters of national interest.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotlands National
Academy, is Scottish Charity No. SC000470