How right or wrong they are is debatable – bias is often confused with media organisations being under-resourced or needing to satisfy commercial constraints. What it does reveal though is a larger problem – people in Scotland do not have a great deal of trust in the media.
It works both ways too. I recently interviewed a pro-UK activist for an article I was writing who complained of the partisan approach of the Sunday Herald, the only newspaper to openly declare for the Yes side in the referendum campaign. I have also been called a Yes hack, though my only involvement in the Yes campaign has been playing in a charity football match to raise money for Motor Neurone Disease at their request.
This isn’t helped by some aspects of the media that insist on sorting people into one of two camps, the result being that a very well-known and competent Scottish journalist has recently found themselves cold-shouldered by broadcasters as they did not slot neatly into the demands of five minute vox pops.
The campaign has also seen a growth in a particular kind of anti-journalistic campaigning. For too long Scottish journalism got by on the ‘succulent lamb’ approach typified by the financial scandals involving Rangers football club. Journalists were given a ready supply of stories and were not encouraged to ask questions. Events such as the phone-hacking scandal and tabloid culture have also made the general public highly suspicious of journalists. When talking to a Yes activist in the south of Scotland, he was reluctant to let me record him before knowing exactly what my article was about and having been reassured that I wouldn’t stitch him up.
One of the shorthands of the referendum is MSM – mainstream media. MSM has become a term of abuse almost, and in some cases there are immediately resistant readings by large sections of the population to anything published in the traditional press. The other side of this is the alternative media, typified by more professional undertakings such as Bella Caledonia and the experimental Referendum TV, but also by glorified blogs such as Wings over Scotland.
Often marketing themselves as citizen media, alternative media usually crowdfunds itself for short periods and attempts to counter perceived bias. In many cases such projects provide much needed diversity to the media landscape, and Bella Caledonia for example have a track record of publishing well-written and interesting articles on all aspects of Scotland by some fairly notable writers and experts. What they can never do is attempt to be media organisations that can carry serious weight in a way that newspapers and TV broadcasters do. Between the BBC and this internet fringe there remains very little of substance.
Scotland’s conventional newspapers are severely limited in their ability to fully cover important issues, relying on wire stories, externally produced content and increasingly thin advertising margins. The people marching outside of Pacific Quay in Glasgow may feel wronged, but they should realise that they’re not the only ones being failed by Scotland’s media. There is a public space that needs to be claimed, and we’ll need an entirely new model of public service journalism to do so. Watch this space.