Scotland’s public sphere, not the BBC, is the real problem

IMG_4907 Today, thousands of pro-independence activists gathered outside of the BBC in Glasgow in order to protest against bias in the state-run broadcaster.

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.

No shock, no awe

If Kinnick Wins-stThe establishment’s campaign to undermine a Yes vote got properly underway last week: every day a new banker or corporate boss was wheeled out to say we’d all be impoverished by a Yes. The media as a mass appeared not to be familiar with the phrase “vested interests”: each new corporate attempt to stifle Yes voters was regurgitated undigested onto our screens and newspapers. If Scotland votes Yes we’ll face massive job losses, or at least that’s the spin, as our nukes and our banks vanish overnight, then the border guards will keep us out of England. Today it got ramped up again. We’ll face a full economic depression, said one bank. Only a zombie apocalypse awaits us.

It started to ring a bell with me. It’s the exact same election campaign that the exact same establishment used to run against Labour before Blair took over. The same threats, just with added border guards. Capital flight has been cited for decades to intimidate people against change, and if it doesn’t work, it occasionally gets used if the vested interests see no other way to avoid change. No wonder Salmond felt obliged to suggest the SNP would cut corporation tax: presumably he optimistically thought it might diminish this phase of their efforts.

Pre-Blair, of course, Labour were the closest thing the establishment had to a credible threat. And so they got monstered over and over again. The arguments of those doing very well out of Thatcherism, thank you, were presented as objective economic facts. Every ad hominem attack they could muster, they did. There was no pretence of fairness or neutrality. It’s achingly familiar. We’re just waiting for celebs to threaten to leave Scotland.

But now Labour’s threat to those interests has evaporated. They’re a party intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. They privatised whatever they could, gave sacks of cash away to corporate donors through PFI, began letting the markets into the NHS, and all because those corporate donations helped make up for a hollowed-out party membership. The party of Keir Hardie became the party of Lord Sainsbury. Alistair Darling, the No campaign’s figurehead, explained to Scots that the NHS was safe in Westminster hands having himself accepted money from the private companies taking apart the NHS. Blair did such a good job of reshaping the Labour Party in the Tories’ image that he got the Sun’s endorsement in 1997. They’d been an attempt at the solution. But by then they were an almost indistinguishable part of the problem.

But now, much to the establishment’s surprise, there appears not only to be some sort of vote in Scotland, but it could in fact lead to a rejection of the entire Westminster-establishment-elite edifice. And who knows, if the Scots successfully reject it, how long before the rest of the UK might do so too? No wonder they’ve dusted off the Defeat Change playbook from the 1980s. The grid is almost unchanged: although the threat is deeper this time, because Westminster itself faces a loss of territory and power in a way it didn’t with a hypothetical Labour win in 1992. Pre-Blair Labour parties used potentially to be transitory change. Independence is permanent change. No wonder Labour have allied themselves with the Tories, with the bankers, with the corporate chief execs. The occasional stint of Westminster rule, provided they don’t change too much, is the accommodation they’ve made with the establishment.

I should say that 1992 was the last time I’d have defined myself as a Labour voter, although they’ve had the odd second or third preference off me since. Back then I was voting with the Labour leadership as the best hope of change, rejecting the threats from the bankers and from the establishment. In this referendum, I’m voting against the Labour leadership but again for the best hope of change. Those threats meant nothing to me then, and they mean nothing to me now.

As the referendum dawns, what new conversations will break?

A guest post today, looking beyond the indyref, from Shonagh McEwan, former head of research for the Green MSPs. Thanks Shonagh!

yougovScotland is nearly there. The polls are suggesting a narrow result, but in whose favour we will have to wait just a wee bit longer. After a long campaign, really long, the people of Scotland will at least waken to the result soon.  Who’s counting the sleeps? Who, in the most active quarters of the campaign, is even getting any sleep?

I’ve voted (yes, by the way). And so my attention has started to turn to the next stage in Scotland’s journey. Regardless of whether win, lose, draw, extra time or golden goal (I can’t stand penalty shoot outs, so I won’t go there), I seek assurances from our politicians over how they will handle the challenges we, the electorate, will set them on September the 18th.

Whatever the outcome, I know what I want to see.  I need positive leadership, and respect and compassion shown towards the voters.  We need to grow from the result, and move forwards, without petty or negative politics scuppering this.

So how confident am I of this happening?  Well, it seems a fairly well-supported observation, even from the most politically-neutral commentators, that there has been a positive campaign from Yes, and negative campaign from No. The pollsters say the public agree (pic above). Those choices were made, and strategies selected, by the respective campaign groups and that’s what the electorate has been deluged with. So, if the Yes campaign gets the most votes, does that mean we’ll see sour grapes? Will project fear turn into project damage? An attitude of ‘you’ve made your bed, now you’ll have to lie in it’, we’ll not be helping make it easy for you?  If the No campaign gets the most votes, will we see tired, dejected attitudes turn into resentment and blame, ‘well, if you’d only voted for independence…’?

I noticed Alex Salmond providing an open and welcome hand to Alistair Darling at the end of the last televised BBC debate.  Be part of a constructive aftermath with me, Salmond suggested. Darling’s eyebrows raised. A hint of a wry smile given. You can kind of see how tempting it would have been for Darling, after such an adversarial debate, to bring both thumbs to his temples, wave his fingers and childishly blow a raspberry back.  The more recent STV debate, after what was a very different style of debating, questioning and discussing, ended with a rather different mood.  A good question from the audience near the end of the debate asked about the ‘what next’, and panellist members Ruth Davidson and Patrick Harvie both answered constructively and positively in turn.  I want Scotland to flourish whatever the result, said Davidson, refusing to be drawn into doom and gloom. We have to accept the decision of the electorate and work for the best, was the commitment from Harvie.

That’s what we need to hear.  And I am hopeful that is, indeed, what we will get.  If there is ever a time in a country’s history that requires skillful and positive leadership, it’s in the days, weeks and months following the referendum result.  And that responsibility is not just about politicians, it’s about us all.  So many people have given their time, energy and passion to this debate whether they are voting yes or no.  These discussions have been across the dinner table, on living room couches, in the pub, the town hall, at the school gates, street stalls, twitter feeds – you name it, the referendum debate has permeated every nook and cranny of the country.

That’s partly what gives me hope, because these conversations have been overwhelmingly considered and respectful. Yet it is also why part of me is a little anxious – because virtually no-one has escaped this dynamic and changing political climate, it is of even greater importance that the next steps this country takes are taken sensitively and compassionately.  We will all be affected.

I’m also hopeful because it’s been done before. The Scottish Conservatives, for example, campaigned against devolution, but were constructive in building a new Scottish Parliament and devolution process following the yes vote. Admittedly, it was an overwhelming result, but my point is that project fear does not need to become project damage, it can become project pragmatic.  And of course Yes campaigners, need not be dejected, all is not lost. That is because the vote result in itself does not end the matter. It is another beginning.

Different political conversatons will need to emerge. A new pathway will need to be crafted either way.  This is not about breaking up relationships, but setting them on a new course.  As a country, Scotland has evolved and changed.  It’s these dynamic relationships that will continue to evolve.  And as long as we’re given the space to grow, we will not fail to meet any challenges that we are set.

This will require a new kind of politics. It’s exciting. It’s fresh. Scotland has great people, with many talents and politicians are also capable of moving us forward, whatever the result.  As a resident of this country, I want to, need to, hear nothing more than my political leaders pledge to be constructive, fair and respectful.  Decisions will have to be taken. Boldness will be required. But that doesn’t mean we lose sight of being sensitive to one another.

So come on politicians.  Get some sleep after the result. Then up your game and move this country forward compassionately and maturely.  Let’s hear you say it.




Strange times

There’s a lot I find odd about the referendum. I hate giving up Saturday mornings for it. And the Saturday afternoons. And Sunday mornings. And Sunday afternoons. And Wednesday evenings. And Tuesday evenings. I haven’t yet gotten to the point of giving up Friday nights to canvassing (one divorce might be considered unfortunate, a second by 35 would surely be beyond careless) but I have been known to entertain guests while simultaneously preparing canvass packs for the morning shift.

But giving up my time is only one part of this. What I hate more, and find very odd, about the referendum is the way that it has upended normally comfortably familiar political relationships and antagonisms and divided allies while uniting foes. I have an abiding dislike of the Tories tempered with a grudging respect for the some of the more intellectual, if increasingly rare and often perhaps overly patrician, ones but like most in the Labour party find it deeply uncomfortable to be on the same side of the debate as them. Never mind the bloody janus faced Lib Dems1.

I can’t imagine what it must be like for the Greens though. Defending a policy platform they don’t agree with that includes the “settled will” of the Scottish people on a currency union but post-2016 policy choices on corporation tax cuts and reducing air passenger duty to encourage more flights must be very odd. Never mind promoting the strength of an independent Scottish economy based on oil and financial services which, even if we retained the latter, would encourage pro-cyclical monetary policy even with a floating Scottish currency.

Vote Green in 2016 for big booms and deep busts inextricably linked to the oil price is a platform unlikely to win them a majority of MSPs, even if they do stand enough candidates for that to be a possibility.

Sorry James and Dom (and Jef and…) but you’re campaigning for the white paper and the low tax, fossil fuel dependent monarchy it endorses.

Strange times indeed.

[1] And, by the way, to those of you who voted Lib Dem because Labour wasn’t left wing enough for you: we warned you this would happen.

Could the ‘Missing Million’ Swing It to Yes?

Apologies to What Scotland Thinks for ripping off borrowing their title for this

This post is not about the ‘missing million’ voters, who are largely Labour No voters who we spend a lot of our time trying to motivate to turn out so any help with that is welcome, instead it’s the missing millions the Weirs have given the SNP and which remain unspent.

Their donations to Yes Scotland have bankrolled poster campaigns, tabards and so on however their equally large donations to the SNP have been less obvious. Yes Scotland newspapers which bore an SNP imprint and had soft focus puff pieces on Nicola Sturgeon’s nuptials to the publisher aside, it seems the SNP have largely kept their finance back.

Given the narrowing in the polls1 should we expect to see the SNP’s financial clout deployed in order to push over the line? It’s very late in the game to effectively spend that much money, unless perhaps it’s on the huge call centre operations that they used in 2011.

It seems more likely that, despite what their treasurer said at their 2013 conference, the SNP are keeping something in reserve for 2016. Might they have kept too much back anticipating that by this point in the game they would be too far behind.

Could the SNPs fiscal conservatism lose them the referendum?

[1] There is no room for complacency