The Scottish independence referendum held in September 2014 provoked a public debate of unprecedented intensity and divisiveness in Scotland. Polls indicated a very close outcome and the real possibility that the United Kingdom would be broken up.
By its end, a mood of political crisis had gripped not just Scotland, but the UK as a whole. Coverage of the referendum reflected the view of many in Britain that major change in the structure and political configuration of a leading global power was imminent.
The anxieties, as it turned out, were exaggerated. When the votes were counted 55.3% had chosen “No” to independence, and 44.7% “Yes”. Although this ten-point gap was much larger than pre-poll opinion surveys had indicated – on the weekend before the poll, the Sunday Times, for example, predicted a small lead for the pro-independence camp – the pro-Union side had been leading opinion polls ever since the referendum was called by Alex Salmond in 2011.
In this sense, a “No” outcome was not surprising, even if the scale of the victory was.
Many were surprised, nonetheless. Those who had predicted a much closer outcome, even a “Yes” win, included some of the key media covering the campaign, such as the Sunday Times and the Herald.
These and other established media in Scotland were prominent in reporting the referendum campaign, but in the unique circumstances of a referendum to dissolve an existing, 300-year-old nation (or multi-nation) state, digital media outlets also played a major role.
While the legacy media in print and broadcast channels remain the primary source of news for most people in Scotland as elsewhere, the rise of the internet and networked digital media are steadily eroding their dominance. Audiences for print and broadcast are migrating online, including to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter where news content can be shared, and users can themselves contribute to political debate.
These platforms have become arenas of debate between friends and colleagues (as in Facebook) and also between opposing sides (Twitter), with the latter in particular becoming a space for unbridled, aggressive, often offensive and abusive commentary between rival positions and camps. Terms such as “shil”, “flaming” and “trolling” have become part of everyday language in response to the growing use of social media not merely to share content and debate issues, but to wage virtual war against one’s perceived political opponents and enemies.
The 2014 Scottish referendum can be seen as groundbreaking in the role played by social media, and Twitter in particular. So how did the entrance of these new platforms impact the outcome? Was the unexpectedness of the majority “No” vote related to the fact that the “Yes” campaign was especially active on digital channels? Did the prominence of Facebook and Twitter in the campaign lead to a misleading impression of the popularity of the “Yes” position?
Legacy media and the independence referendum
Scotland’s distinctiveness and sense of identity as a nation within the multi-nation UK is rooted in the presence of distinctively Scottish institutions such as the Church of Scotland, the legal and education systems, and the media. Some of the oldest newspapers in the world were established in Scotland, and have contributed to what is by common agreement a uniquely Scottish public sphere, connected to but separate from that of the UK as a whole.
The devolution settlement of 1998, facilitated by the election of a New Labour government at Westminster, gave constitutional expression to this long-standing political reality.
In addition to the UK-wide media which are available north of the border with England, Scotland as of 2014 supported ten newspapers with “national” – that is, Scotland-wide – reach, such as the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, the Scotsman and Scotland On Sunday, the Herald and Sunday Herald, the West Highland Free Press and Aberdeen Press and Journal. Of these, the first six named above were the dominant outlets in terms of circulation and readership.
Scottish editions of London-based titles such as The Sun and Daily Mail were also prominent. The Murdoch-owned Sun overtook the mass circulation Record in 2006 – an achievement reported at the time as a major turning point in the evolution of the Scottish media.
All of these titles were launched and subsequently prospered within the political framework of the Union of 1707. Until the resurgence of Scottish nationalism as an electoral force after the establishment of the Scottish parliament, all were “pro” unionist, reporting politics and public affairs within a framework which took the UK as a given rather than a contested entity. In other words, while Scotland has had a rich national press ever since the Edinburgh Enlightenment, the main titles have never been nationalist.
This pro-union consensus reflected the views of the Scottish people, who had in three centuries never expressed majority support for independence. Throughout the 20th century, support for full separation from the UK hovered around the 25% mark. After 2007 did that figure began to rise, in what many observers have suggested was a response to the unpopularity of the Labour Party in Westminster, who were blamed for Britain’s active involvement in the Iraq war and for the economic and financial crisis of 2008.
Scottish voters first turned to the SNP in large numbers in 2007, giving the party a narrow mandate to lead the parliament in Edinburgh. Between 2007 and 2011, the SNP led a minority government in partnership with the Greens. The SNP achieved a full majority in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election, upon which basis its leader, Alex Salmond, called the referendum. Only at that point did public support for independence, as opposed to an SNP government in Holyrood, begin to rise significantly above the long-term average.
In this context, a pro-Union consensus among the Scottish media prior to the referendum debate was not evidence of ideological bias so much as an accurate reflection of public opinion as expressed in elections over many decades. The SNP argued otherwise, of course, and in 2005 the weekly Scottish Standard was launched to try to redress the balance in advance of that year’s general election.
With a brief to support the nationalist cause and the SNP, the Scottish Standard never sold more than 12,000 copies of any edition, and closed after seven issues. In the subsequent election, the SNP obtained only 17.7% of the Scottish vote, compared to the combined 78% of unionist parties. Popular support for nationalism at this time simply could not sustain a newspaper.
The SNP’s share of the vote in Scotland began to climb not long after this election. The party won minority power in the Scottish parliamentary election of 2007, with a landslide majority in 2011. However, as the referendum was called, there was still no Scottish newspaper which openly editorialised in support of the SNP’s key policy goal of independence.
And at this point, with the nationalist movement unambiguously elected to run Scotland, claims of a media bias against it acquired greater resonance.
The first newspaper to depart from the Unionist consensus and support a “Yes” vote in the 2014 referendum was the Glasgow-based, US-owned Sunday Herald, which declared its position in an editorial of May 4 that year, nearly five months in advance of the poll. Its daily sister title, the Herald, remained in the Unionist camp, while stressing that its coverage had been and would continue to be “rigorous and impartial” towards both sides.
Of the remaining national Scottish newspapers which expressed a preference, such as the Sunday Post and Scotland On Sunday, all advocated “No” to independence on September 18. In this sense, there was a clear Scottish press bias in favour of the Union given that on the day some 45% of the electorate voted against it.
The broadcast media retained, as they are legally required to do, due impartiality in coverage of the campaign. However, the SNP and many Yes supporters repeatedly accused the BBC of pro-Union bias, citing examples such as the adversarial tone of interviews with SNP leader Alex Salmond conducted by senior BBC journalists Andrew Marr and Nick Robertson.
The BBC was accused of favouring the No campaign in various ways, such as leaks of sensitive information to the No campaign. In June 2014, Yes campaigners protested outside the BBC Scotland offices in Glasgow, and Salmond accused the BBC of bias a few days before the poll.
The BBC’s difficulties in maintaining a public perception of impartiality around independence arose, one can argue, from the very nature of the debate, in which one side, representing a small minority of the total UK population,and less than a majority of Scots, sought the dissolution of the UK. Given that the BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation, and that the referendum was essentially a debate for or against the continued existence of Britain, the question of how the campaign should have been reported was more than usually contentious, and could not have been otherwise.
The BBC serves the UK as a whole, where the majority of the population was undoubtedly against Scottish independence. In that context, would absolute balance as between advocates of Yes and No be necessary for the provision of due impartiality?
For the same reason that the BBC is not balanced as between moderate and extreme Islam, or with respect to nationalist movements in England such as the English Defence League, it may reasonably be argued that the 44.7% of Scottish residents who voted Yes on September 18 – 1,618,000 people, or 2.5% of the UK population – could not have expected the BBC to behave other than it did in the campaign.
Coverage of the pro-independence position was substantial, respectful, and in the main uncontroversial. But the existence of the UK was self-evidently a fact, and the independence campaign an attack on the British state. Could the BBC reasonably have adopted a neutral position in a debate that, had the Yes campaign been victorious, would have meant its end in its current form?
We await a detailed content analysis of the coverage, but the allegations of bias made by the Yes camp are not in themselves reliable evidence that the BBC did not show due impartiality. On the contrary, there is a long history of complaints of bias against the BBC from advocacy groups who feel that their cause has not been adequately represented, and that this is one of the main reasons why others have failed to support them in their cause.
Criticism of the BBC from the SNP during the campaign was widely recognised as an attempt to influence coverage. Several commentators expressed concern that an independent, SNP-led Scotland would seek to impose a dangerous level of pro-nationalist ideological conformity on the media. Calls from SNP supporters for the sacking of BBC journalists judged to be anti-independence conveyed to many an unpleasant sense of what it might be like to live in an SNP-dominated state.
#indyref and the digital media
In the Scottish referendum campaign, social media usage reached levels of visibility and influence never before seen in UK politics, influencing the shape and tone of mainstream coverage and driving campaign tactics in new and unfamiliar ways. For example, 2.6 million tweets about the referendum were sent in the 24-hour period between 7am on September 18 and 7am on the 19th (polling day). Research by scholars at the University of Strathclyde recorded ten million Facebook interactions in the five weeks before the vote.
Clearly, people were engaged in this debate to a degree rarely seen in British politics hitherto, and used social media to articulate their views, share articles they agreed with (or disagreed with), and communicate with others on the issues.
Where Scotland’s print and broadcast media were in the main pro-Union or “impartial” (given that their impartiality has been contested), social media provided space for subjectivity, opinion and overt ideological bias to be expressed. In this campaign, as never before in the UK, social media emerged not merely as a tool of communication, but as a weapon in a political campaign of huge constitutional significance.
Also, the globally networked nature of social media allowed people like this author, denied a vote because not resident in Scotland, to participate in the debate with an immediacy and impact which would not have been possible in the pre-internet age.
The subjectivity of social media also made it a hub for fierce debate, extending at times to abuse of the kind that has often accompanied the rise of nationalism in Europe. JK Rowling was described as a “bitch” by one online outlet after donating money to the No campaign. Many celebrities, Scottish and English, including David Bowie, who declared solidarity with and affection for the Scots and support for the United Kingdom, were attacked online with varying degrees of vitriol. Scots like this author who advocated for No in blog posts and tweets were denounced as traitors to the nationalist cause, undeserving of a voice.
Independence supporters, conversely, were described in some of the more aggressive pro-Union posts as “nazis”. Critics of the BBC’s alleged bias against the Yes camp were compared with Vladimir Putin and the efforts of Russian nationalists to close down dissent. For extremists on both sides, social media provided a platform for a distinctly uncivil dialogue to unfold.
That said, advocates of separatism were by common agreement more active and better organised online, contributing to a political environment in which, as the big day approached, independence came to be seen as a likely outcome of the vote on September 18. The volume of the “cybernats” drowned out what we might call the silent majority of No voters, who revealed themselves only on polling day.
The Scottish independence campaign was a watershed in the growing centrality of social media within democratic politics. While the mainstream media played largely within the rules of the analog era, striving to maintain due impartiality and balance in the case of public service broadcasting, and adopting editorial positions for or against independence in the case of some newspapers (though not all), online and social media provided a platform and arena for a more partisan and polarised debate.
The online dominance of the pro-independence camp did not, however, translate into a majority of Yes votes on the day, suggesting that Twitter and Facebook are not yet (and may never be) powerful enough cultural forces to shift public opinion. They are useful tools for committed activists and opinionated voices of all affiliations, but should not be seen as guides to the views and voting intentions of the larger majority.
This is the English-language version of an article published by Norwegian website Voxpublica on February 6, 2015.