Posts Tagged media

Jumping into bed with the Swedes

Shetland's hybrid Scots-Scandinavian flag

Shetland: Already halfway there

There have, in the past week, been a few noteworthy articles regarding the Scandinavian shadow which looms large over the issue of Scottish independence, as well as the future and makeup of Scotland’s economy, welfare system and society more generally.

Now I write this as somebody who knows a fair deal more about Scandinavia than most, for both personal and professional reasons.  A colleague of mine in the Greens remarked that the next Scottish Green manifesto should just be called ‘Scandinavian Nirvana’, such is the appetite in the party for increased welfare, greater social freedoms, gender equality and local democracy. I wholeheartedly agree.

Which brings me to something said by Blair McDougall in a BBC interview on the independence referendum. He accuses his opposite number in the Yes campaign, the significantly more articulate and less hackish Blair Jenkins, of wanting ‘57 per cent tax like in Norway’. There are indeed people in Norway paying that much tax, but these kind of people are not the salt of the earth working men and women which McDougall thinks will be crushed by the weight of Kaiser Salmond’s iron taxation, if he did indeed have such plans.

Then there was a report in The Economist which made the odd logical step of collating the radical reforms by centre-right governments in Sweden and formerly in Denmark with the high living standards and safe economies of the Nordic countries. As the Swedish journalist Katrin Kielos noted, there is an awful schizophrenia about the new craze for the Nordic centre-right, in that it assumes that being Scandinavian is a virtue in itself and argues that the path forward for these secure and durable systems is to follow a more British or American model . It is a trend which wishes to dine on the fruits of the Scandinavian countries’ labour whilst seeking to undermine it at its foundations.

The whole thing is illustrative of the fact that there is a huge amount of ignorance about the way in which Scandinavian society functions, and that this ignorance can be used to significant political advantage. It is also debatable to what extent it is even appropriate to address the Nordic countries as a single unit. There are however certain things which underpin  ‘the Scandinavian model’ which Scotland would have to adopt were it to develop in such a direction.

The first is a strict ethos of universalism. Not all services are free in Sweden or its neighbours, but notable by its absence is the incredibly British notion of selective assistance. Britain seems to implicitly accept that there should be huge gaps in income between different levels of society, and that one of the roles of public welfare is to alleviate this. It is a mode of thinking which the New Labour project perfected with its targeted alleviation, support for bright pupils from state schools and university access bursaries, without ever tackling the structural causes of poverty and discrimination.

Secondly, the way in which Scandinavian trade unions work is different to the British model. The nostalgia for the 1970s which pervades much of Britain’s left ignores the fact that old British models of trade-unionism were what allowed public support for the radical reforms of the 1980s. The systems of collective bargaining employed in Sweden and relatively high levels of unionisation amongst what might be termed normal people means that it is both destigmatised and can claim to represent large portions of the population.  This system has come under attack from centre-right governments in recent years but has survived relatively intact. The Scandinavian countries do not have a legal minimum wage, but they do have an effective minimum wage proportionally higher than Scotland, leading to a reduction in income inequality before the tax system has even played its redistributive  role.

And once tax is collected, where does it go? Not into benefits as they might be normally understood, but rather into the provision of universal services.  Childcare, incredibly well funded education systems, transport and infrastructure and healthcare.  The biggest challenge to Scotland is whether it is possible to transfer to this type of system given the appalling disparity evident in the country and present. It is in the interests of every Scottish woman to vote for a scenario which will provide the funding and structures for them to work and live on the same terms as men (and from a male feminist perspective, in men’s interest too).

Now to return to Blair McDougall and his mythical 57 per cent tax rate, I would say that it would only become an issue when you earn as much money as a senior press adviser or an MP.  Having large tax reserves means that in times of crisis governments are able to effectively deal with them, unlike the British model of medium taxation on an out of control financial system without any thought as to the after effects.

So to be realistic, adopting a Scandinavian social model would involve higher rates of tax, but it would also involve higher wages and better public services. In real terms incomes might well be higher, or at least remain static whilst providing for higher levels of public investment.

The whole thing is also dependent on a grand narrative. People vote for things because they believe in their viability, and the Scandinavian system is underpinned by a notion of functional redistribution different from the dominant discourse in Britain, and even in Scotland. It isn’t about smashing the rich or shooting bankers at dawn, but rather about building a cohesive society which works in the interest of all. As Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg says, “to create we must share, and to share we must create.”

David Leask’s excellent ‘As Others See Us’ column in the Herald, in which a group of Norwegians were asked for their opinion on independence, was revealing. The lack of interest in Scotland’s constitutional future was unsurprising – I frequently find myself explaining to Swedes the ins and outs of the independence movement – as Scotland is not politically visible. The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter  recently published a feature on Europe’s contemporary independence movements which mentioned Scotland in the same breath as the Northern League in Italy and Flemish separatism in Belgium, entirely ignoring the broadly leftist motivations found in the majority of pro-independence groups and parties in Scotland. The challenge will be to explicitly build the construction of a sustainable and humane welfare state into the Scottish cultural narrative at home and abroad.

Neither would we or should we transform Scotland into Scandinavia overnight. When talking with a good friend of mine about how I hoped to live in a Scotland where I felt the state and society treated me and any potential wife/partner equally she smiled wryly and wished me good luck, with some justification. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try. I answered that to combine the best aspects of Scotland and Sweden would create something beautiful, but that it would require the type of radical social change not seen since the 1960s. It would be a national project which larger countries would be entirely incapable of, but which might just work in Scotland. Scandinavia might be a fluid concept with many faces, but the values which it ostensibly represents are what we should really be aiming for. Both financially and morally, we cannot afford not to.

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Beware the worms lurking in cans!

Can WormsIt seems that in the absence of anything meaningful to offer the populace, and despite being given a kicking of the first order at the polls, Scottish Labour has decided that it’s groundhog day.

Carping, sniping, empty posturing. That’s what the people rejected, so we’ll give them more of the same.

How else do you explain the shitstorm its elected representatives have been trying to generate in the last few weeks? First, with tongue firmly not in its cheek, it demanded to know just how close the SNP and Alex Salmond had got to Rupert Murdoch and his News International empire in Scotland. In an extremely linear approach which would keep no person out of jail, Paul Martin determined that because the Scottish Sun had supported the SNP in the last election, ergo this was damning evidence of the SNP being in Murdoch’s pockets.

So the Scottish Government duly publishes a full list not only of First Ministerial contacts with the media since 2007 but those of key Cabinet members AND copies of correspondence between Eck and Rupe. The latter ain’t pretty and caused many toes to curl in discomfort. Yes, the First Minister might have been really, really trying to portray himself as the global media mogul’s equal and really, really trying to persuade Murdoch to become a Caledonian champion. But frankly if there had been anything to hide, the goverment would have hidden it.

But like much of its interventions in the last year, Labour might well have scored an own goal. Disclosure of Labour leaders’ contacts with the media has been asked for and… we’re still waiting. Oh why are we waiting? What’s so hard about pulling together a list of all the meetings, lunches, receptions, letters etc exchanged between the Scottish Labour leadership – Iain Gray, Wendy Alexander in opposition and Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish during their time as First Minister – and Scottish media representatives? The longer they take, the worse it looks, even if there is nothing untoward at all. But they started it.

But the real can of worms opened up by Scottish Labour recently involves the insinuation that the SNP Government offered Brian Souter honours for political donations. They haven’t actually come out and said it, but the inference is of cash for honours on our ain doorstep. Siller for hallions no less.

A whole webpage has been set up over at Scottish Labour’s website – the Souter files, powered exclusively with righteous indignation, over-wrought hyperbole, and rank hypocrisy and inaccuracy. Cathy Jamieson MP suggests that “The First Minister and his party must look seriously at the relationship they have developed with wealthy individuals handing them large sums of cash. The public will rightly be asking what’s next on Mr Souter’s shopping list and waiting for the First Minister to deliver.”

Individuals plural. Who exactly? Apart from Souter’s admittedly eye-watering donation in 2011, other donations to the SNP were five figure sums, the vast majority of its donations far, far lower. The SNP does not have that many supporters with deep pockets: Souter’s donation was matched by hundreds more, much smaller ones by members and supporters. The only person who out-donated Brian Souter was the late Edwin Morgan through a bequest in his will. What’s that? Nothing nasty to say about the Makar appointed by a Labour First Minister? Oh.

Apparently, Souter’s donation(s) are why the SNP has not re-regulated bus provision in Scotland. I acknowledge – it’s a policy that makes sense and it should be done. But then again, I don’t recall Labour-LibDem Scottish Executives, in power for double the time the SNP has been, rushing to re-regulate. Indeed, in four years of opposition, I don’t recall Labour making this a big issue and pushing for it to happen. How curious.

So let’s overturn the can and see what comes wriggling out. What’s this? A number of individuals – all of them wealthy, some of them longstanding Labour supporters or who have donated to the Labour party and bestowed honours while Labour was the lead partner in the Scottish Executive and Ministers were involved in nominating people for honours.

Moir Lockhead is one such, Willie Haughey is another, as is Duncan Bannatyne and Tom Hunter. All of them distinguished businessmen in their own right, who have also made huge charitable contributions during their lifetime. These are the reasons their honours were bestowed but following Scottish Labour’s current logic, all were given awards at the time they were active supporters and/or donors to the Labour party. Though historic, the worms in its can are far more juicy than the ones in the SNP’s.

Frankly, the Scottish public doesn’t give a damn. It holds all politicians and political parties in equally low esteem. Labour might think it is landing blows on the SNP but all such activity achieves is to confirm what people think of all parties, its ain included. In May the people spoke loud and clear – the SNP was the party they liked better or at least, disliked least. Given the current electoral mood, Labour will continue to come off second best if it persists in pursuing this kind of puerile politics. Making the road back to electoral credibility a whole lot harder.

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Where has all the good news gone?

NewsstandIt’s been a bad week for bad news.

Ninety editorial jobs going at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail is a body blow to one of Scotland’s greatest newspaper institutions and will have struck terror into the hearts of every journalist in the land.

The scale of the losses, almost halving the editorial team and diminishing the whole staff by over a third, is breathtaking: every single one represents a human tragedy for the families involved.  No, they are not the first and won’t be the last people ever to lose their jobs but where are the alternatives?  Finding work in a diminishing media pond in Scotland will be tough.  Yet colleges and universities keep on churning out journalism and media studies graduates.  Hmm.

The attempt by the Trinity Media Group to spin this as good news is contemptuous.  Yes, there is an inevitability about the impact of advancing technology.  Online content systems reduce the need for scribblers and editors but – and I realise I’m stating the bleedin’ obvious here – they don’t seek out the news, research a good story, create a splash.  The more rationalisation in the Scottish press, the more ubiquitous and uniform copy we get as holes in pages are filled by agency releases.

I can’t help thinking – though of course I may be wide of the mark – that the Daily Record/Sunday Mail’s reduced circulation in recent years is more of an excuse rather than a cogent reason for these job losses.  The problems at Trinity Media Group are much more profound.  Bringing the largely standalone operation in Scotland under the Trinity wing and standardising it as a Trinity publication with shared content and features might make financial sense to the parent company but threatens to kill off Scotland’s national tabloid newspaper.

Charles McGhee opines eloquently about the impact of big proprietorial, often international businesses.  His article, and indeed allmediascotland’s leader on the issue, are excellent.  Others, of course, have used the bad news to have a pop, largely from their metropolitan boltholes, pointing out the many faultlines in the Scottish press environment and product.

I might even agree a little, believing firmly as I do, that the essential components of a flourishing press are to be free and fair, bold  and imaginative, not thirled to the political preferences nor personal foibles of owners and editors.

But the reasons for the decline of the national newspaper in Scotland are multifarious and complex.  For a whole host of reasons, people are buying fewer newspapers and that says as much about us, as a nation, as it does about the quality of the offering.

I will confess to reading the Daily Record/Sunday Mail only occasionally but I am a rare burd, being an avid newspapers and new magazine purchaser and reader.  I acknowledge and agree that there is a place in our world for tabloid newspapers and they have an existing and potential market and purpose.  How dull we would be if we all had the same tastes and views: newspapers should reflect and meet all the needs and interests of a population and its society.

Moreover, bloggers co-exist with media outlets and practitioners.  The media play a vital role at the heart of our communities and society, acting as the hub of a wheel that ensures information, news and comment reaches audiences.  Bloggers may like to think they are the new kids on the block, bypassing the media through modern technology to reach audiences directly but frankly that is delusionary.  The future might be social but our paltry viewing figures cannot hope to compete with the ability of mainstream media to reach mass audiences.  In fact, those that have become celebrity bloggers owe thanks to MSM professionals for their stardom:  many now have successful media careers as a result.

There is also a desperate irony behind the reason for my absence from these shores when the bad news broke.  The European Parliament office in the UK has been trying for years to interest journalists to do the visit I was on and find out more about writing news stories on Parliament business.  Few had the time or inclination to do so and often, the editorial line in the UK media, almost uniformly, is a negative one when it comes to European matters.  The Directorate-General for Communications has turned to citizen bloggers as a way of trying to influence the news agenda, neatly pointing up some of the embedded weaknesses in our current media set-up.

Ultimately, we need a vibrant, healthy media if we want a vibrant, healthy democracy.  To shine a light – as the Daily Record has done so effectively in years’ past – to expose, to praise, to promote and to defeat, to shame, to change.  If anyone doubts the power and role of the media in a free society, go check out PEN and Amnesty International.  Or just google *campaigns to free journalists*.

If ever there was a time to play a nationalist media card, this was it.  Scotland needs a diverse media mix in rude health.  It needs smaller ownership, not bigger, and more homegrown products to succeed.  More powers over all media regulation – to create an enabling framework – and full fiscal powers to create a tax regime that allows the flourishing of talent and creativity, and protects the very good products that we still have.  Two very recent examples include the Sunday Herald’s expose of the reach of organised crime gang culture into our lives and Scotland on Sunday’s partnership with Wikileaks.  As a nation, we punch above our media weight in so many ways.  But we can do more and better.

So, go on, cyber nats, do your worst.  Enough gloating about the job losses – very unedifying and immature by the way.  Don’t focus on the Daily Record’s current political slant as the source of all its ills – you’ll be wrong by the way – but put your invective to good use for once.

The thing about standing up for Scotland is that we stand up for all of it.  And it’s time to stand up for Scotland’s press.

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Timing is everything

Knowing when to pick a fight is one of the first rules in politics and you’d think Scotland’s esteemed political press pack might have learned that by now.

Since First Minister Questions on Thursday – the first of the new Parliament – commentators, have been lining up to lambast the performance *of Holyrood’s new and first female Presiding Officer and lament the possibility of a supposed elected dictatorship, caused by the First Minister apparently grandstanding, speechifying and generally, failing to answer questions put to him.

Well, haud the front page.  Tell me, when did we ever have a Question Time here or in that other place down there that actually involved a proper discourse of issues and questions and answers?

In particular, the Scotsman has ramped up the volume with a lengthy piece liberally sprinkled with comment from Hugh Henry and michty me, a leader column!

Is there nothing happening slightly more portentous and deserving of such weighty treatment?  Actually no, at least not in the Holyrood bubble.  And if the vacuum created by easing itself back into parliamentary politics is enabling mischief-making political correspondents to go away and puff up stories, thereby creating bad press for the SNP Government, then it only has itself to blame.

But to start questioning the ability or appropriateness of Tricia Marwick for the role of Presiding Officer after only one performance is precipitate and indicative of one of the pack’s less fragrant inclinations.

A good manager doesn’t roll into her first meeting and park her tanks on people’s lawns.  No, she watches behaviours unfold and takes notes.  If necessary, she has a quiet, informal word behind the scenes and suggests helpful ways of improving performance.  If that doesn’t work, then she picks her moment to stamp her authority on the miscreants.  The best way of doing this of course is to deflate the behaviour with humour – something Betty Boothroyd was particularly good at as Speaker of the House of Commons.

But if necessary, she does it by clamping down hard.  The point is though she does it when it’s important to do so.

Was there anything at the first First Minister’s Question Time of any real import?  No.  Was there any point in her picking a fight with the First Minister?  No.

A point sadly missing from certain correspondents’ demolition job on her abilities, though at least Hugh Henry MSP has the good grace to acknowledge that there is a settling-in period for people in new positions.

Scotland’s political press pack has form here when it comes to its treatment of women politicians.  I don’t recall David Steele, George Reid or Alex Fergusson getting a doing after their initial performances convening Holyrood setpieces. Rightly, they were taken to task further down the line when, with a bit of experience under their belt, they were seen to be messing up.

But then they were blokes and entitled to a honeymoon period.  Not something ever readily afforded to women politicians.

The first female Ministers during devolution got similar rough treatment.  Sarah Boyack, in particular, was pilloried for being the bicycling Transport Minister with a nasty undercurrent suggesting she was not up to the job.  Wendy Alexander contended throughout her career with a focus on her personality traits rather than her abilities.  But worst of all, was the doing Susan Deacon got on the front page of the Daily Record at the height of the section 2a furore when she was “outed” as an unmarried mother and questions were raised – seriously – about her fitness then to be in charge of the welfare of the nation’s children.

In chamber sketches, other women MSPs found themselves caricatured: Karen Gillon’s Tizer habit, Karen Whitefield – and others’ – weight and voice, Nicola Sturgeon’s being a nippy sweetie (until she effectively lanced this pejorative handle by giving journalists sweeties at a press conference).

Did male Ministers or MSPs come in for such attention? Dinnae be daft.  Except perhaps for Jack McConnell’s fashion kilt faux pas at Tartan Week, few men in our Parliament have come under such scrutiny or had their performance linked subtly or otherwise to their gender or personality.

It would be nice to think that like everyone else, the political press pack has matured since the early, heady days of devolution. On the evidence of some of Friday’s sketches and weekend follow up *in-depth* analysis, it seems not.

But while they might not yet have learned the wisdom of knowing when to pick a fight, I’m quietly confident that Holyrood’s Presiding Officer will know exactly when to do so.  Not just with the First Minister but with the serried ranks of political correspondents.

*the link is only to a search list for the Times Scotland – for those of you who wish to go behind the paywall


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Election round up: the media battle

How does the saying go?  A picture is worth a thousand words and elections are no different.  The uninitiated might think the battle is for copy and content but no.  One big, fat visual is enough to make even the most grumpy campaign co-ordinator smile.  For a moment anyhow.

So, two and a bit weeks in, a slew of manifesto launches later, who is winning this particular battle?

Never thought I’d be saying this but STV vs the Beeb?  No contest.  Hats off to Matt Roper, the digital content geek at STV -  the commercial channel has wiped the floor with the one what we pay for.  And frankly, have a right to expect better from.

STVstole a march with the first televised leaders’ debate and a live blog facility.  Its offering includes news, news round ups, live streaming, a postcode searchable facility for your constituency and region, profiles of them and the candidates, blogs and analysis, a twitter stream for all candidates, its pack of reporters assigned a party each, a polling panel, innovative programming and of course, Bernard Ponsonby overseeing proceedings.

What does BBC Scotland offer?  A shoestring in comparison.  No dedicated election space or heading.  A bog standard round up page that scrolls the oldest first (even the burd knows that is a big no-no).  There is, though, an impressively designed candidate map with postcode search facility.  And of course, Brian’s Blog (Taylor in case you were wondering), though it’s not been updated since Wednesday. Tsk, tsk.  It is all a bit, well bitty and half hearted.

The fact remains, though, that newspapers and what they print during the campaign will play a big role in informing the voting public, even if they are no longer the influencers they once were.  Looking at this week through the papers’ pictures provides some clues about who they will all be backing and urging their readers to back.

It’s unlikely that the Record will spring a surprise on us this election by transferring its traditional allegiance from Labour.  The Tories’ manifesto launch got a whole page (with an image of Annabel looking like she was about to eat the thing), the Lib Dems a paltry half page with a bigger photie of Iain Gray than Tavish Scott, and Labour a full two pages, complete with graphics, analysis and one or two well place pics of the leader.  Everyday this week (I think  – funnily enough, I’m not an habitual Record reader) Iain Gray’s fizzog featured somewhere, though Nicola Sturgeon also scored a few.  If Record readers still can’t recognise Mr Gray at the end of the campaign, it won’t be for its trying.

The Sun appears to be moving towards backing the SNP if its current coverage and slant is any indicator. Some nice pics of Salmond, highly positive coverage, a couple of front page exclusives, all adding up to what seems like a successful wooing.  A result in any party’s book.

Of the two Scottish broadsheets, the Scotsman is playing it most canny.  Pretty fair, proportionate coverage so far for all the parties and a share of the images.  Plenty action shots which they all like: how refreshing that someone is playing nicely.  The Herald – well, if they don’t come out for Labour I’m going to be a curry and a tenner down.  The Tories got a nice pic of Annabel (with a bizarre rainbow background) and damning headlines for their manifesto launch, but by far and away the best image of Iain Gray this week appeared in Thursday’s edition to coincide with his party’s manifesto launch.

The SNP, of course, tried to steal Labour’s thunder with Brian Cox’s endorsement of the SNP in this election.  Did it work?  Sort of.  A great big splash and clever headline on the front page of the Sun on the morning of Labour’s manifesto launch ensured coverage spilling over into the broadcast news headlines and into other newspapers the following day.

They did the same to the Lib Dems, with the endorsement of Salmond for FM from retiring MSP John Farquhar Munro.  They needn’t have bothered – no one was up for covering it much anyway.  Yesterday’s people would appear to be the view of the meeja, which tells us a lot.

In terms of news management, the SNP is playing a blinder, though its Scottish Futures Fund launch did fall a bit flat, when such an initiative deserved much more coverage.  Its experience tells, not least because they have veteran media man Kevin Pringle at the helm.  But they should be careful on two counts.  Playing dirty can always backfire, especially when the other parties have time to prepare to counter the SNP’s manifesto launch this coming Tuesday.  Moreover, the problem with blizzarding is that news – and pictures, as happened this week – can get lost in the whiteout.

But of course, the images that dominated the week are the ones that Iain Gray will want to forget.  Whoever is advising him on media management deserves a dressing down.  Or locked in a cupboard until it’s all over and replaced with some more experienced heavyweights.

There’s a Goldilocks effect at play right now.  The SNP?  Too much.  Labour?  Too little.  The media with its low boredom threshhold and attention span needs to be fed just the right amount of stories and images to sate its appetite.  Otherwise, incidents like the one in Glasgow Central station end up dominating the headlines.

Does Labour’s PR fail mark a downward turning point as some journalists and commentators are suggesting?  Nah.  A bad media day dents the morale of the party concerned and provides a filip for the opposition.  Such incidents provide a day’s news, and while they might entertain the masses for a moment, they do not actually influence the outcome of elections.  Anyone remember Jennifer’s ear?

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