Media-watch: the Scottish referendum


With ten days to go and an opinion poll showing the Yes vote ahead of the No vote for the first time, it’s a good opportunity to look at how the newspapers are covering the referendum campaign.

What has actually happened?

An opinion poll carried out as part of a larger survey by YouGov for the Sunday Times asking “Should Scotland be an independent country?” gave the following results:

Yes: 47%

No: 45%

Will not vote: 1%

Don’t know: 6%

Excluding the ‘will not vote’ and ‘don’t know’ options, this gives:

Yes: 51%

No: 49%

It is the latter set of figures the media is referring to when it describes the “two-point lead” of the Yes vote.

What do the papers say?

The Financial Times highlights the economic impact of pro-independence momentum, stating that sterling has fallen to its lowest value against both the US dollar and the Euro in the past ten months. This underlines concerns that a Yes vote would lead to economic instability.

The Guardian also leads on the drop on in the value of the pound, and is quick to tie George Osbourne’s proposals for greater powers to be devolved to Scotland in the event of a No vote to fear that the momentum is with the Yes camp, as they were “promised within hours of publication of the shock poll result on Sunday”.

The Independent pairs its article on the drop of the pound with a description that the 51% Yes poll is a “shock”. It contrasts the two-point lead with the twenty-two-point lead previously enjoyed by the No campaign, and calls the promise of increased powers a “frantic fight back from supporters of the union”.

The BBC focuses on the Better Together campaign being put on the back foot, picking up on Alex Salmond’s allegation that the timetable for greater powers promised this week is a “panicky measure”.

The Daily Mail take a royalist line, linking the poll results to the “fears” of the Queen that Scotland will leave the union. (This ties in nicely with their coverage of the announcement that Kate and William are expecting their second baby…)

Reading between the lines

All of the papers have united in seeing this opinion poll as hugely significant, showing the Yes campaign has more momentum behind it and making the 18th September vote too close to call.

But there are many mitigating factors.

The sample size (1,084 Scottish adults) was fairly small, so the 2% equates to 22 people (well, 21.68 people, but that’s a weird image).

The opinion poll was carried out between 2nd and 5th September, when Alistair Darling’s woeful performance in the second televised debate was still fresh in people’s minds. (In a separate question carried out as part of the same survey, Alistair Darling scored 62% in the “do not trust” stakes, so expect a new face to appear at the front of the campaign.)

In the 1995 Quebec independence referendum, the opinion poll held closest to the vote showed the Yes campaign with a 6% lead, but in the actual referendum the No vote won by a slim majority. People give their free time to carry out opinion polls, and an impassioned Yes voter is more likely to take the time to do so, perhaps giving an inbuilt bias. (It depends whether No voters are equally impassioned; given that the Scottish slogan is “No, thanks”, I’m guessing not.)

So it makes a great story, but a two-point lead in a poll with a small sample size taken shortly after the Better Together campaign’s biggest PR blow does not give reason to think of Yes as the more likely outcome.

What would point to a Yes vote is if the momentum continues through the next ten days, with opinion polls consistently showing a more significant lead. Watch this space.


4 thoughts on “Media-watch: the Scottish referendum

  1. Yes, I suppose it was bound to be a divisive issue but it’s a shame the rhetoric has been so negative and socially whether you’re Yes or No is a huge issue. That’s why I think if a potential voter is only very slightly leaning one way or the other, they’re more likely to hide away on the 18th for fear of making the wrong decision and having to defend it. That said, there have been predictions of an 80%-plus turnout, which would definitely prove me wrong!


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