THE BBC has “no solution” to the impartiality problem posed by the difference between English and Scottish politics, an in-depth report into the broadcaster has said.

The “thematic review” into the BBC’s economics coverage highlighted how the “centre line” of English politics, where the Tories won a landslide victory in the 2019 election, is to the right of the centre line in Scottish politics, where the party has not triumphed in a Westminster election since the 1950s.

It quoted a BBC insider as asking: “Aren’t [English broadcasters] immediately starting from a position that licence fee payers in Scotland might regard as not purely straight-down-the-middle impartial?”

Commissioned by the corporation’s board, the report said that impartiality would come under the “most strain” with the question: Should BBC Scotland be aligned with the Scottish centre line, and therefore somewhat in opposition to England?

After posing the question, the authors quoted a BBC insider as saying they had to be “wary” not to “end up in a Westminster bad, Scotland good scenario”.

The report added: “We doubt any of this will be news to the BBC. Unsurprisingly, we’ve no solution either.”

An SNP source told The National that the insider quote was “deeply concerning and reveals a view from inside the BBC focused on protecting Westminster”.

The National: Sir Andrew Dilnot

The review was conducted by broadcasters and economics experts Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot (above), who interviewed stakeholders both within and outwith the corporation as well as audiences across the UK.

The pair noted more than once that Scottish audiences were a “general exception” to a rule, valid for audiences elsewhere in the UK, which said that people “struggled to assess the impartiality of [economics] coverage because they couldn’t fully make sense of the subject matter”.

Outlining the Scottish exception, they said: “In Scotland, audiences were more sensitive to the subject matter, more likely to map it to the Scottish political landscape, more likely to raise impartiality concerns. For some, this was related to their views about independence and the economic and fiscal implications.”

One editor said he’d heard a Radio 4 interviewer refer to ‘little Scotland’

Going into more detail in a section looking at “nations”, the report says that audience perceptions of impartiality can often hinge on a single word.

It states: “Arguments about ‘subsidy’ have bite because they reflect the larger debate about the fiscal prospects for an independent Scotland. We’re not about to try to settle that, just to observe how much hangs on a word here or there, or on tone. For example, one editor said he’d heard a Radio 4 interviewer refer to ‘little Scotland’.”

They then quote a BBC insider as saying: “A lot of people in Scotland who were in favour of independence would see that as immediate evidence: ‘That’s exactly what I thought the BBC was like. I knew it.’”

READ MORE: Majority of Scots say BBC doing a bad job reporting impact of Brexit

An external interviewee quoted in the report said the BBC was leaning into “accusation-based journalism”, where political parties saw their claims reported, and then the government’s rebuttal reported, rather than the broadcaster focusing on the substance of the issue.

An SNP spokesperson said they welcomed the “thematic review that outlines areas where the BBC must do better when it comes to impartiality”.

“It recognises that the political spectrum is very different north of the Border and that the BBC struggles to reflect the fact there is a different political ‘centre-line’ in Scotland,” they added.

Other key points from the report

Writing for Google

Elsewhere in the review, another BBC insider raised concerns that the corporation was writing news not about what people “ought to know about”, but “based on what people are searching for on Google”.

The insider went on: “It used to be that there were lots of thrusting young journalists in the BBC who wanted to do kind of popular journalism, and there were a few kind of wise heads who were like, ‘Yeah, no, fine. But listen, let’s make sure we also do this.’ And my gut is that those wise heads are not there or not vocal at the moment.”

Lack of understanding

In the summary of its main findings, the report’s authors said that they thought “too many journalists lack understanding of basic economics or lack confidence reporting it”.

The conclusion was that some issues were therefore treated as black and white, rather than “contested and contestable”. Examples of these highlighted included debt – which the report said some BBC journalists think “instinctively … is simply bad, full stop” – and cuts to taxes.

The report states: “Too often, it’s not clear from a report that fiscal policy decisions are also political choices; they’re not inevitable, it’s just that governments like to present them that way.

“The language of necessity takes subtle forms; if the BBC adopts it, it can sound perilously close to policy endorsement.”

'Striking' neglect

The report said that “broad interests” of people who do not stand out in the political landscape can often be ignored by the BBC.

“The taxpaying interests of people on low incomes and whole areas of the UK where incomes tend to be low are a striking example of this neglect,” it said.

The report authors said the BBC “fails” the test of broad impartiality in failing to represent the interests of these people.


Blastland and Dilnot said they had noted the BBC had an “occasional temptation to hype” in the same way as other news outlets, something they said was an impartiality issue.

The report authors suggested the BBC had published “breathless stories or headlines that seem to chase excitement by slanting data or evidence”.

They add: “In particular, journalists could be less willing to take political hype at its word. Politicians like saying their latest act or thought is a big deal. BBC journalists should not buy it just because it seems to make a better story.”

Towards a solution

The review’s authors suggested that the BBC should focus less on what politicians are saying and instead give greater freedom and agency to experts.

They said: “We think it might help to give non-political specialists and programmes more agency to decide what’s important, and to see this as a stronger obligation.”

This would also help to address the issue, raised by one BBC insider, that “there are very few BBC presenters who will be brave enough to frame questions to a politician that aren’t essentially articulating the views of another politician”.

The report adds: “We’re not proposing to ignore the centre of power (remembering there are several); we’re saying the centre can itself lack broad impartiality so, if that’s your benchmark, so will you.

READ MORE: Experts: BBC must re-evaluate impartiality approach to regain trust

“It can be highly selective, and what should the BBC do about that? What this review tries to add is the difference made by a broader definition of impartiality between different interests, in addition to the balance between the front benches.”

In its response to the review, the BBC board said: “We note that the reviewers found widespread appreciation for BBC coverage of tax, public spending, debt and borrowing and they conclude that they did not find evidence of political bias in this output.

“However, they also concluded that significant interests and perspectives in these areas could be better served by BBC output and the review as a whole provides clear indications for how we can improve editorial standards and audience impact as a result.

“We have asked the director general and his executive team to address the issues presented in this review and to return to the next Editorial Guidelines and Standards Committee of the Board (EGSC) with a proposed action plan.”