Some of history’s greatest American journalists are working right now. Exceptional minds with years of experience and an unshakable devotion to reporting the news. But these voices are a small minority now and they don’t stand a chance against the circus when the circus comes to town. They’re over matched. I’m quitting the circus, switching teams. I’m going with the guys who are getting creamed. I’m moved. They still think they can win and I hope they can teach me a thing or two.
From this moment on, we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate. We’re not waiters in a restaurant, serving you the stories you asked for, just the way you like them prepared. Nor are we computers, dispensing only the facts because news is only useful in the context of humanity.
The above is a quote from Aaron Sorkin’s excellent TV show The Newsroom where the main character decides to move away from the tired excuse for journalism that reporting in the US has become in order to usher in News Night 2.0.
As this weekend’s reporting of Scottish Politics testifies, we could do with a bit of the same in this country.
In my own job, as an accountant, there is often pressure to obscure the facts, to downplay bad news and exaggerate the good news. A particularly senior manager once told us to remember that we in Finance should be the single arbiter of the truth, the honest broker and that we should never go native in aligning ourselves with the somewhat murkier business side of our company, those that we face off to that don’t own the reported numbers. I would expect that if there was any other profession out there that should hold the same mindset, it would be journalism.
So it was depressing to read Nicola Sturgeon’s account of the backstory behind the BBC’s news article headlined “EU application would take time” that suggested a difference in opinion between Ireland and the Scottish Government on Scotland’s continued membership of the EU, post-independence. The Irish Minister herself has written to Nicola Sturgeon “concerned that an interview which I conducted with the BBC is being misconstrued” and was of the belief that she “thought that my reply was largely in line with that of the Scottish Government”.
The clear inference to be drawn is that a decision was taken, subconsciously or otherwise, that such alignment between Ireland and the Scottish Government would not be newsworthy and Lucinda Creighton’s quotes would have to be cherry-picked in order to carve out a certain angle, a negative angle, as seems to have been the case.
That the national news organisation should take a foreign Minister’s words “out of context” (according to the Minister herself) should concern us all, but how many people will delve past the headlines and the news stories on the BBC website to know what’s really going on? Not many, sadly. The Scottish public’s news stories are being served to them warm, just the way they like them.
It is, regrettably, a similar story today for the Scotland on Sunday.
The paper has kicked off its “Scotland Decides” series today by inviting Nicola Sturgeon to write an article for the paper on the constitutional question. The front page has the paper’s own take on the arguments being made by the Deputy First Minister and it seems to have fallen back on old tricks once again.
The Scotland on Sunday’s classic ruse is to talk up how balanced it is being when it invites a senior SNP individual to write for it, only to paint the SNP in a negative light with a dubious spin on said article from its all important front page.
That was Stephen Noon’s experience last month when he wrote a wonderful article for the paper about how each Scottish political party could help drive an independent Scotland forwards in their own way and that Stephen wouldn’t be sure who he would vote for in that happy scenario. The SoS’ front page ran with the angle ‘SNP could disband after independence’. This was not at all the message Stephen was looking to get across and his positive arguments were drowned out by a rather hollow debate surrounding the SNP as an entity post-2014.
It was the Deputy First Minister’s turn today with the opening lines of the front page article rather negatively stating that “Voting “No” in the independence referendum would be “a vote for nothing”…, Nicola Sturgeon claims today”.
However, the quote was truncated and missed out the “other than” which is in Nicola’s own article, significantly altering the meaning of what that part of the article was about, that voting No will result in no guaranteed changes to Scotland’s constitutional setup.
This difference changes the meaning from saying (quite reasonably) that a vote for the status quo brings no change to a suggestion that the UK has no value, you are voting for something worthless (which would be unreasonable).
These examples of the questionable objectives and purpose of the Scottish press abound, across the entire gamut of Scottish political reporting, and have become very tiring indeed. This is where I could put in a few petty paragraphs regarding the Scotland on Sunday’s circulation and BBC Scotland’s downwards spiralling budgets, but nobody wins if you go down that road of mutual loathing.
A strong Scotland requires a strong press, which is why I bought copies of both the Sunday Herald and Scotland on Sunday today, but a basic requirement of the Scottish press must surely be that it respects the Scottish Government, whichever party forms it, and treats it with decency and integrity.
We’ll continue to stay a long way from that goal for as long as the circus remains in town.