BBC Scotland’s Leaders’ Debate was flooded with complaints of anti-independence and anti-Nicola Sturgeon bias, official figures reveal.

Hundreds of unhappy Scottish viewers wrote to the broadcaster saying the programme, aired live last month, was slanted in favour of the three pro-Union parties and their leaders.

Apart from the BBC's significant focus on the Duke of Edinburgh’s death and programmes relating to his passing, the Glasgow-made election show, hosted by Scotland editor Sarah Smith, received most complaints by the BBC across the UK of any broadcast during the monitoring period fropm March 29 to April 11.

Figures collated by the BBC reveal that 277 complaints were received about the programme broadcast on BBC One on March 30.

READ MORE: BBC flooded with complaints about Sarah Smith’s Alex Salmond report

The BBC News Special on the Duke of Edinburgh's death on April 9 received 433 complaints reltating to a reference to 'Indian bride' in what was regarded as a negative obituary to the Prince.

A News Special on the Duke the following day received 119 complaints saying it was inappropriate to comment over the 41 gun salute. The same day 130 complaints were made that the presenters on BBC One's Breakfast were not dressed appropriately to mark the Queen's husband's passing.

The near blanket coverage and interruption to scheduling received more than 118,000 complaints.

The BBC said: "Between 29 March – 11 April 2021, BBC Audience Services (Stage 1) received a total of 110,053 complaints about programmes. 118,711 complaints in total were received at Stage 1.

"The higher than usual level of correspondence this fortnight was driven by reaction to the amount of coverage given to the death of the Duke of Edinburgh which accounted for 104,010 complaints during this period. At time of publication the overall total was 109,741."

In Scotland, the BBC's Leaders' Debate saw the First Minister and Greens' co-leader Lorna Slater, on the independence side, took on three Unionist party leaders: Douglas Ross from the Scottish Tories, Anas Sarwar from Scottish Labour and Willie Rennie from the Scottish LibDems.

Earlier this month, The National revealed that a Unionist man was among the virtual audience on the election programme and a previous political show.

READ MORE: BBC faces questions after anti-indy man appears in two audiences in five weeks

David appeared on Debate Night on February 24 to criticise the Scottish Government’s lockdown easing, before telling the Leaders’ Debate audience his opposition to independence. Three consecutive questions in the first half hour focused on the timing of an independence referendum.

Smith went to the virtual audience, with members asking:

  • “Nicola Sturgeon said to us she is focused on Covid, and all that goes with it, if that’s the case how did she find time to put an independence bill through Parliament?”
  • “Back in November 2020, Nicola Sturgeon was pushing for another independence referendum so is the focus really on a Covid recovery, or is your focus on a referendum?”
  • “I’d just like to ask why can’t we actually get through the pandemic instead of just focusing on another referendum?”

Later, David, who had appeared on Debate Night just a few weeks prior, said: “Wouldn’t it be better, just imagine how much we could accomplish, if we all came together – if we targeted the hospitals with the money that would otherwise be spent on setting up an independent Scotland, the billions that would be spent, targeting the faults in education, targeting the faults that we’ve got in the hospitals and social care, mental health, as other panellists and other people have said. Why do we have to look forward to go back to the old ways?”

Journalist Lesley Riddoch also accused the programme of anti-independence bias. Writing in The National: “It was biased and unacceptable for the BBC to select three questions one after the other that were essentially hostile to independence. 25 years presenting programmes like this for several broadcasters offer certain insights. Of course, producers know the likely tilt of questions before they are asked. It’s part of the vetting process that must happen to guarantee audience balance – something demanded of broadcasters by law, once an election campaign is underway.

​READ MORE: Leaders' Debate audience member takes on 'branch office' Unionist parties

“Presenter Sarah Smith also let Douglas Ross talk over everyone – his louder male voice and presumptuous ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ manner are very hard for anyone to interrupt – especially female leaders – so men like him have to be managed by presenters not allowed to drone on and on.”

A BBC Scotland spokesman said: “Leaders’ Debates inevitably elicit strong views but we reject completely any suggestion of bias. Throughout the debate we ensured that each of the party leaders was given a fair and appropriate amount of time to make their case. We always place the highest value on due impartiality and accuracy, and we apply these principles to our reporting of all issues with rigorous editorial standards applied across all of our output.”