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Thursday, 5 April 2012

A tsunami of misinformation–polarised politics, journalists and the media

On the same day as the Bradford by-election results were announced – a landslide victory for George Galloway over his Labour opponent, winning by 10,140 votes, overturning a Labour majority of 5,763, with 56% share of the total vote – Paul Routledge, political correspondent of the Daily Mirror headed his column

Imran races to victory

By the time you read this, Imran Hussain will have been declared Labour MP

At 10.30 pm on the same evening, Routledge said -

“Well, I got the Bradford by-election wrong … but so did the voters.”

A case of very sour grapes, Paul?

A look at Paul Routledge's biography on Wikipedia may or may not go some way to explaining this spectacularly wrong piece of political journalism.

Of course, we’ve had this kind of objective political reporting in Scotland for many years now, and SNP supporters have developed at the very least a healthy scepticism over the objective political reporting of the Daily Record, The Scotsman, The Herald, The Sunday Post and Scotland on Sunday over the last decade. That is not to say that things haven’t changed a bit of late, nor do I fail to recognise that a tiny number of Scottish journalists have been consistently fair and objective, while not pretending to be unaligned in their sympathies or their judgements.

I have stated my position on journalists many times. I don’t expect ‘balance’, i.e. giving equal space to two sides of an argument – or moral equivalence - where there is egregious imbalance in the facts. I did not expect balance when reporters entered Auschwitz: I do not expect flat-earthers to be given the same space and air time as cosmologists: I do not expect creationism to be treated as an equivalent scientific theory to evolutionary theory: I do not expect balance when innocent civilians – men, women and children are being murdered in the streets, whether by a middle eastern dictator or a Western Coalition of the Willing.

And so to today in Scotland …


Sherlock Holmes referred to the case of The Giant Rat of Sumatra, and now we have The Giant Rats of the Referendum Consultations, both of them becoming smellier by the day.

The focus today in The Scotsman is the smaller of the two rats, The UK Consultation, with extravagant claims being made about its outcome, based on 3000 responses.

I am deeply uneasy about consultations such as these, although I have up till recently loyally supported the SNP Government’s consultation, on the very shaky basis of my consultation is bigger than yours yah-boo cries to Michael Moore and his UK consultation.

The Three Arse Cheeks (in George Galloway’s new phrase for Labour, LibDems and Tory parties in Westminster) of the Unionist Coalition of Opposition to the Independence of Scotland were clearly going to claim to know the mind of the Scottish People, and since the old silent majority rubbish, beloved by unionists - especially Tories - had played out its usefulness, the silent majority had to be allowed to squeak in an approved line pretty damn quick before the Wicked Wizard of the North, Alex Salmond, had his evil way with the referendum timing and the formulation and number of the questions.

So let’s scan the front page and the headlines in today’s Scotsman, guardians of the spirit and traditions of fearless factual reporting, the voice of the nation, i.e. the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (Whatever made you think the nation would be Scotland? Silly boy!)

Scots ‘to be asked one referendum question’

Scottish Secretary says straight vote on independence his ‘highest priority’

“Independence is different from devolution” Michael Moore

Two questions into one ballot paper don’t go, says Moore

Tunnock’s view on referendum doesn’t taste so sweet for Alex

The front page story, continued on to page 4,  is by Tom Peterkin, Scottish political editor. Alas, Tom doesn’t appear to rate a Wikipedia entry like Paul Routledge, and I can’t find a biography. A Google search under his name does turn up a lot of critical comments about his journalism, but the both the Scotsman and Tom will probably dismiss as them as cybernats.

In a total, including the Tunnocks’s piece, of over 1000 words, Peterkin gives about 80 words to Bruce Crawford MSP, the Parliamentary business secretary. In contrast, quotes from Michael Moore, Scottish Secretary abound in the article. There are a couple of paragraphs of speculation about the First Minister of Scotland’s position on the second question.

There is also a nice little table showing the results of the consultation, with impressively high percentage response in favour of those things Michael Moore, the UK and the Scotsman are also mainly in favour of.

The Peterkin piece closes with a paragraph that is intensely revealing, with an unfortunate choice of words that unintentionally gets to the heart of the real reason for the implacable opposition of the UK and the Three Arse Cheeks Parties – “the coalition parties” - to the independence of Scotland.

Some in the coalition parties have suggested that a UK-imposed referendum could be the ‘nuclear option’ if it is felt that the Scottish Government is taking too long to go ahead with two questions.”

Michael Moore is the MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, and in the 2010 General Election, he retained his seat with an increased share of the vote. In that election, the LibDems experienced what proved to be a very temporary love affair with the electorate. Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk is typically LibDem country. Michael Moore succeeded Danny Alexander as Secretary of State for Scotland: both owe their position quite simply to the uncomfortable realities of Coalition for the Tories, (the Tories didn’t win the 2010 election – Labour lost it) otherwise Scotland would have had David Mundel. For that, and that alone, we may be grateful to Michael Moore.

Since then the LibDems under Nick Clegg have comprehensively betrayed the electorate, their supporters, the students and the poor and vulnerable by propping up the most illiberal Government of recent times. The LibDems were all but extinguished in the Scottish election of 2011, Tavish Scott resigned as leader, and, were there a general election tomorrow, the LibDems in the UK would face a similar fate. Even the electors of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk  might re-examine their reflex LibDem voting patterns.

But this man is given a major platform by the Scotsman and by Tom Peterkin, and the Scottish Government, re-elected for a second term with a massive, unprecedented mandate to govern and hold an independence referendum, is given token and dismissive coverage.

The 3000 response, unverified, un-monitored UK referendum is given uncritical, highly selective coverage, coverage that ignores the block response of the Labour Party: 740 out of the 2,857 responses to the UK Government’s referendum consultation were the identical text from the Labour Party website. (Unless of course, you listen to John Curtice – see below)

Page 5 presents some quotes under the headline -

Hopes and fears, optimism and suspicion – people speak their minds

‘People’ turn out to be five organisations, one group of academics, two individual academics, an email from a member of the public, and Maitland Mackie of Mackie’s ice cream fame.

The five organisations I am fairly certain did not poll their members or employees to formulate their view: the joint submission from academics at the University of Edinburgh presumably did: Maitland Mackie may have sought the views of “70 staff and 500 cows work[ing] in a 'sky to scoop”  design chain”: the email from the member of the public represented a view expressed by only 4% of the 3000 respondents – that non-residents Scots should have a vote in the referendum – was presumably included because it closely accords with the view of The Three Arse and the Scotsman.

On the day after the 2014 referendum on Scotland’s independence, I entertain the hope that Tom Peterkin and the Scotsman receive jointly the Paul Routledge/Daily Mirror Award for spectacularly failing to predict the outcome of a vote.


There is however some balancing sanity in this total of three pages of less than objective reporting – a piece by Professor John Curtice on page 5.

John Curtice, a man whom I admire, takes a lot of stick from the kind of SNP supporters who also believe that the BBC collectively is the Great Satan, engaged in a conspiracy to frustrate the independence of Scotland. The reason for this is that he deals with numbers, with facts, and it takes a bit of effort and at least baseline numeracy and perhaps familiarity with the basis of sampling and polling opinion to come to grips with his arguments.

(As I write these words, I know that they will be closely followed by comments in the usual vein. I will publish these, providing they are not actually defamatory – as they often are – but I have given up trying to reason with with them, and have said all I intend to on that score. For those who are desperate to have confirmation of their views, they may find a more sympathetic home on Newsnet Scotland.)

I will not attempt to summarise John Curtice’s considered and precise analysis – it must be read carefully and digested. So which government is right on the big question?

It will, sadly, be promptly dismissed by some nationalists because its critique includes the Scottish Government consultation, and that kind of nationalist critic blanks off everything positive in their resentment at any objective criticism of the SNP.

Well, I support completely everything John Curtice says, I believe he is objective, a fine example of what expert analysis and criticism should be about, and I thank him for his formidable contribution over many years to Scottish life and politics and to my understanding of both.

And, no – I have never met John Curtice in my life, and have no connection whatsoever with him, except maybe a shared concern for Scotland, for truth and for factual accuracy.

And grudgingly, I thank the Scotsman for allowing him space to bring a breath of cold, fresh air to today’s coverage of the UK Referendum Consultation – and consultations … And there is a smidgeon of objectivity in their leader  on page 26.


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