THE ESSENCE OF IT
THE CURRAN INTERVIEW
PROFESSOR TOM DEVINE
THE ESSENCE OF IT
THE CURRAN INTERVIEW
PROFESSOR TOM DEVINE
I would have liked to title this blog I Was a Teenage Cybernat – just like the ‘B’ movies of the 1970s – but I wasn’t, because I wasn’t a nationalist back then and there was no cyberspace outside of science fiction.
But now I must acknowledge the fact – I am what I am – a nationalist who uses cyberspace to try and get the independence message across. These days just about everyone under forty-five is a cyber-something-or-other, together with an increasing percentage of the older population.
The term is used pejoratively, like separatist, to beg the question, i.e. try to induce a conclusion without advancing any evidence. It is an attempt to stereotype a group, a class – rather like racist terminology.
It has been used in many ways, but rather spectacularly this week to justify the use of racist terminology on Twitter – a kind of double whammy.
The Ian Smart Affair doesn’t have the memorable theme song of The Thomas Crown Affair, nor the charismatic, glamorous leading man (if it had, it would be The Wind Turbines that upset the Nimbys) but it has Byzantine twists and turns to the plot that would have stretched the credibility of a Hollywood scriptwriter, with unlikely critics, allies, heroes, heroines and villains. The stellar cast included a Scottish Labour Lord and former First Minister of Scotland, a radio phone-in host, the indomitable – and anonymous - Gordon of Dundee, a host of powerful women, a quite a few spear carriers like myself – bit players in the drama – and mighty BBC.
Since the protagonist is a lawyer, well-connected and a past President of the Law Society of Scotland, I must choose my words carefully in describing the events that followed a tweet by Ian Smart. I don’t intend to go over the tweet and the ones that followed it – they’re all a matter of record – other than to say Ian Smart’s intention appeared to be to suggest that attacks by fellow Scots on two ethnic groups - members of the Scottish Polish and Pakistani community - would follow if an independent Scotland did not prosper economically.
This tweet was picked up by a number of late evening tweeters, including myself, who after initial horrified astonishment, tried to persuade Ian Smart to delete the offending words, something he was patently not prepared to do at that point.
What followed over subsequent days served to highlight the complexities of the great independence debate, and in particular, differences of opinion on how those committed to independence should react to the Smart tweets. I would identify three main strands in this – those who felt that it was a significant event and must be countered forcefully, those who felt that it should be ignored so as not to frighten the horses, and voices from Women for Independence who felt that acrimonious exchanges that were predominantly – but not exclusively – male (there was talk of testosterone in the air!) served as a turn-off to the female demographic among the Scottish electorate, a group that is vital to a YES vote.
(The little that’s left of my testosterone was pumping as best it could, and I was – and am – firmly in the counter forcefully brigade.)
By any normal journalistic standards, this was a story, and a story with legs. But normal journalistic standards rarely prevail in the pre-independence Scottish media, and I and others feared the worst. It was pretty evident that a dilemma existed for the Better Together media, or at least those embedded within in it in various roles ranging from proprietors through producers and editors to media presenters and journalists, namely, that the villains in cyberspace were firmly cast as nationalists – independence supporters – the cybernats – and Unionist Central Casting would be reluctant to induct a prominent member of the No Campaign into the plot as a villain. Quite simply, it didn’t fit the script …
So, fending off as best I could suggestions and mini-attacks from what I had thought of as my own side, I waited for the media. In one sense, I was pleasantly surprised!
Four newspapers carried the story – on 7th May, the Scottish Sun, the Scottish Express and eventually today the Herald and The Scotsman. Last night, Scotland Tonight carried the item in a discussion between Ian Smart and Natalie McGarry. Most bizarrely, Call Kaye carried the item inadvertently, to the evident horror of Kaye Adams, thanks to the formidable Gordon of Dundee, a caller who intended to do what he thought he had been invited on air to do – talk about the implications of prominent figures in Scottish Society behaving badly.
Kaye Adams, who has been presenting her BBC phone-in programme five days a week for many years, and is a presumably a weel-kent frequenter of BBC studios, said she didn’t know Ian Smart - a prominent lawyer, former President of the Scottish Law Society, Labour activist and frequent presence on BBC programmes such as Newsnight Scotland.
BBC Scotland, astonishingly to me, but all too predictably to its many critics, appears to have considered the story as either being beneath its notice, or beyond the pale for some other reason. I could, of course, have missed some vital news item of discussion …
Another journalists’ strike at Pacific Quay, with claims about the workload and of bullying. I may add that if such pressures were not enough, hard-pressed journalists have also had to endure a torrent of abuse on alternative media and by email, not least from deeply misguided independence supporters.
I am a supporter of the BBC, albeit a critic of specific instances of superficiality or lack of balance in political coverage. I support them because the BBC has been a central feature of my entire life since the early 1940s and I owe it a debt I can never repay, least of all by the licence fee which, for me, would be cheap at ten times the price. Without BBC news, current affairs, music, comedy, drama, culture and popular entertainment my intellectual life – indeed my life – would have been immeasurably poorer. As deprived child in Glasgow, there were four lifelines to the life of the mind for me – my radio, which meant effectively the BBC, the free public libraries and museums, cheap, quality newspapers and the wonderful soapbox orators of the Glasgow Barras market. That world - the world of media - has now changed almost out of recognition, yet in spite of the new electronic media and channels of communication (which I have kept up with and utilise) the BBC is still central for me. BBC Four and the Parliament channel alone are superb examples of what a great public service broadcaster can do, what it can be.
However, my respect and gratitude are given to the programme makers, not to the governing body and senior managers of the BBC, who are responsible for much of what is undeniably wrong with it. The BBC produces quality output through its programme makers, its presenters, its journalists, its creatives despite the managers and governing body, not because of them. A generation ago, Dennis Potter, one of the glories of BBC drama, a dying man, supping from a flask of liquid morphine, excoriated the managers of the BBC in the era of Birtism – in his 1993 Croaking Daleks speech in Edinburgh. All that he criticised then is still present today: all that he forecast then is coming to pass now.
So I don’t support the BBC that engages in the gadarene pursuit of ratings, the BBC that pays megabucks to celebrity entertainers and presenters, the BBC that allows its most senior echelons to behave like kings of the universe, with salaries and perks to match, while they drain the life blood of resources from the front end people who keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed. I don’t support the faceless placemen and women who infest the higher governance of the BBC, drawn from the incestuous pool of the ‘great and the good’, remote from the lives and concerns of ordinary mortals. I don’t support the higher management in thrall to the insidious influences of shadowy, powerful interest groups, whether they be governmental, commercial, religious or political.
I also have nothing but contempt for the BBC that allowed Jimmy Savile to survive and prey on the young and vulnerable, and which tolerates behaviour from some of its ‘stars’ that is beneath the contempt of any thinking viewer. I despise the metropolitan laziness that draws its panellists on political programmes from the same rolodex of the usual suspects, complacently networking over London dinner tables.
I question the deeply reverential style adopted by the BBC when covering organised religion or the monarchy – a deferential mode of acceptance and support for institutions that are irrelevant to large swathes of the population, institutions that should be reported on objectively and questioned where appropriate.
Most of all, I question the competence of the present generation of managers to manage – to apply best modern managerial practices and techniques to the management of people in a time of budget cuts and resource pressure. I question the professionalism of my own discipline, Human Resources, as it appears to an outsider to be practised within the BBC, notably BBC Scotland at the moment, but I recognise the possibility – ever-present for HR departments – that they too are the victims of an oppressive management culture, incompetent in the management of change.
I unequivocally support the BBC trades unions on fighting for the security, dignity and respect owed to their members – the people who are the true heart of the BBC.
Tomorrow, Venus will cross the face of the Sun. No, it’s not a Page Three girl on the front page of a tabloid, it’s The Transit of Venus, an astronomical event which last occurred in 2004 but won’t occur again until 2117. It happens when Venus, the Earth and the Sun are in alignment.
The independence referendum in the autumn of 2014 will be the last for a long time, but no one can predict when, if ever, another such event will occur if Scotland votes NO. A large number of things will have to be in alignment if Scotland is to achieve its independence, and the Scotsman newspaper is doing its best to ensure that they are not, in fact, its aim is to ensure a total – and permanent – eclipse of the aspirations of Scots who want their country to be independent by permanently keeping a dead moon, the UK, between Scotland and the light of global freedom.
However, as is their way, they do occasionally give a place to a commentator who has something useful to say about the Great Debate. Today it is Lesley Riddoch on the BBC, specifically BBC Scotland. It is well worth a read, and you can read it here.
In her trenchant analysis, Lesley makes a point that has been close to my heart, one that I have made many times, about the narrow pool – and narrow geographical radius from Pacific Quay - from which BBC Scotland lazily draws its commentators.
“... the Beeb’s own narrow selection of TV guests reinforces the impression that intelligent opinion is held only by the hyper-opinionated metropolitan few.
“... current affairs relies on a small number of conveniently located commentators who hop nightly between the Pacific Quay studios of the BBC and STV. Does no-one outside the chattering classes or the Central Belt have a view on our constitutional future?”
The main reason I suspect is that BBC Scotland only makes up its mind very late in the day to invite a commentator or panellist - often at short notice on the day of transmission - and defaults to the easy option of drawing from the Glasgow media types’ dormitories, e.g. Glasgow central and the West End. Extreme parochialism and crony networks have always been a feature of BBC Scotland in my lifetime, although there are brave and hardy – some might say foolhardy – journalists and producers who try to break down this stultifying pattern.
A regular contributor to the independence debate in the Scotsman is Brian Monteith. His right to such a regular platform rests on the fact that he is ‘on message’ in totally opposing independence, and his democratic claim to this rests on the fact that he is policy director of a right-wing think tank funded by a rich individual, Robert Kilgour.
The Scotsman give the URL of ThinkScotland as ThinkScotland.com
I have news for them – this domain is for sale – I quote whois.com as follows -
This domain name (THINKSCOTLAND.COM) without content is available for sale by its owner through Sedo's Domain Marketplace.
Best get it right, guys – it’s thinkscotland.org
Here’s what I’ve said about them in the past The New Right in Scotland
Brian is full of advice for the NO Campaign today – read him here Unionists for Scotland not a contradiction
He at least gave me one laugh -
“Secondly, and most importantly of all, these are swing voters; they are currently counted in the unionists’ No pile but if they move to the Nationalists’ Yes pile, they have the effect of not just adding to the Yes vote but subtracting from the No.” BRIAN MONTEITH
Fancy that! If someone who planned to vote NO votes YES, it adds one vote to the YES’s and subtracts one vote from the NO’s. What an insight! I never thought of that! That level of deep psephological understanding warrants at least a CBE, maybe even a knighthood.
But Brian also made a kind of Freudian slip, and brightened my morning no end with this phrase -
“... the result would be the break-up of the United Kingdom and the birth of a new democratic, sovereign Scotland.” BRIAN MONTEITH
The birth of a new, democratic, sovereign Scotland
I like that, Brian!
Last Sunday’s Big Debate on BBC1 was unsatisfactory from a number of perspectives: I’ve posted it in full on YouTube in two parts, and viewers will draw their own conclusions. It exhibited the structural problems that beset all such debate formats, on BBC, on STV and on Sky, so rather than analyse this particular one, I’ll try for generic comment covering all that I have seen.
POLITICAL DEBATES IN A DEMOCRACY
Before television, political debate was simpler – in America, politicians went on the stump, and in Britain on the husting. Both referred to the platform mounted by the speaker or speakers to address voters, which could quite literally be a tree stump, but more often was a specially erected platform in a public place, or even the platform in a village hall. A humbler version was the soapbox, whether at Hyde Park or the Glesca Barras. (My political awareness from childhood was honed by listening to the wonderful Barras soapbox orators in the 1940s)
Sometimes there was only one speaker, with one political viewpoint, sometimes there were multiple speakers with different viewpoints. There was occasionally a chairman of sorts for the multiple speakers versions, who had the unenviable job of trying to maintain order, often backed up by the polis in case he failed. Sometimes there were stewards to deal with the unruly hecklers who were invariably present.
Scotland - Dundee specifically - may lay claim to originating the term, which comes from the jute trade hecklers who teased and combed out the flax. A heckler performs a similar role, by interrupting, by raising embarrassing points, by puncturing pomposity and exposing humbug, by departing from the agenda, and often by abuse and taunts in a deliberate attempt to disconcert the speaker. A good heckler teases out the truth. Disruptive hecklers obscure the truth and inhibit free debate. Political extremists use heckling to destroy democratic debate, and right-wing hecklers move quickly to violence, as history shows all too clearly. So heckling is a mixed blessing – sometimes vital in a free democracy, sometime inimical to that very democracy.
Politics has many similarities to advocacy in a court of law – the law, the facts and the rules of procedure matter vitally, but so does charisma and the ability to appeal directly to the emotions as well as the intellect. An electorate – or a jury – may assimilate the arguments and understand the law, but the force of the argument depends in significant part on the style and personality of the person delivering the argument and citing the law. And in both situations, the jury or the electorate may choose to ignore the facts and the law and deliver a verdict based on emotion or gut feel – call it what you will.
Why do we permit this as a society? Because the law is a process that does not always deliver justice, and emotions and deeply felt convictions are sometimes not shifted by facts. Both the law and political argument in the United Kingdom are adversarial in nature: both sides claim to be in possession of immutable, incontrovertible facts, both sides – or in politics, multiple sides – produce experts of unimpeachable authority who in effect call each other idiots, if not outright liars. Of course, there are real facts, objective truths in there somewhere, but we only perceive them through distorting prisms of personal belief and experience, and through competing interpretations of these very facts by people with an axe to grind.
In law, a judge considers, then decides, although sometimes constrained by a jury’s contrary decision. In politics, the ultimate judge is the collective voice of the electorate.
The electorate are not all of the people, however, they are only some of the people: many have no franchise, usually because the law so dictates, but on occasion because they have spurned their right to vote because they distrust the system under which it is granted. In certain situations, therefore, the voice of the people overwhelms the voice of a manipulated electorate, and their voice is heard by other means.
If the opposition is weak, even though large in numbers, the protest movement is simply ignored, e.g. the Iraq War. Otherwise this leads inevitably to one of four outcomes – reform of the electoral system, overthrow of the government by revolution, or suppression of the protest movement, and perhaps the complete suspension of democratic rights.
So political debate has always mattered, because the alternative are not attractive. But the old concept of politicians on the stump and the hustings changed for ever with the advent of television and the Nixon-Kennedy debate over half a century ago. This new medium and this seminal debate revolutionised US politics and political debate, and had an incalculable impact.
But it has taken the UK all of that fifty years to really catch up with the American model of political debate, and the 2010 general election campaign and the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections were the first real television debates based on the American model. There had of course been extensive television coverage of politics and politicians and other televised forums where politicians debated, sometimes with an audience present, but they had tended to be focused on a narrow range of issues.
The 2010 debates overnight transformed the fortunes of the LibDems and put them into coalition government almost totally because of Clegg’s performance in the final debate, aided by the post-debate poll on ‘winners and losers’ of the debate. The subsequent disastrous impact of coalition on Clegg and the LibDems perhaps points up inherent weaknesses of electoral success thus gained.
How much the televised debates contributed to the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011 can never be accurately determined, but they must have contributed in some measure.
THE STRUCTURE OF DEBATES
The first question that must be asked on television debates is Who decides the structure and format?
I don’t know the answer to that, anymore than I know the answer to related questions that follow. What I do know is that the process must be more transparent than it has been, more open to scrutiny, that there must be more consultation and involvement and a wider range of views sought than has been to date.
The other questions I would like answered – I realise the answers may already be there waiting for me somewhere on a TV company’s website or elsewhere and I just haven’t found them – are: -
How is the party representation chosen by the television companies involved, i.e. the political parties to be given a place?
For example, in last Sunday’s debate, who decided on one Green, one Labour, one SNP, one Tory? Who decided that the LibDems didn’t warrant a representative, or the Scottish Socialists? Was the decision based on the number of representatives in Holyrood? On the number who voted for these parties at the last Holyrood election? Did the UK status of the parties – very different say, in the case of the Tories and LibDems – come into play?
Who decided that the Greens and the Tories be represented by their Scottish party leaders and Labour and the SNP by their deputy leaders? Was it the BBC or the parties themselves? Does one Green or Tory leader equate in status terms to one Labour or SNP deputy leader?
What input do the parties themselves have to the decisions made, if any?
AUDIENCE SELECTION AND QUESTIONS
Similar questions arise in relation to the selection of the audience. The BBC did invite members of the public to apply for tickets and stated that a balanced audience reflecting the range of political views would be selected from the applications. But how is this determined? Do they take the word of those applying as to their affiliation? Were there sex and age criteria?
Audience members are invited to submit written questions – how is the choice made from those submitted, since more are submitted than can be asked? How is the choice made on the basis of spontaneous, hands-up questions by the presenter/moderator?
(I can only offer personal experience from attending a regional Question Time at Meadowbank Stadium many years ago. I received a phone call following my application, and I was asked what issues were important to me. I was not asked to specify my political affiliation. Before the show, audience members had to submit several written questions. How the choice was made, and what criteria were applied is unknown to me.)
THE FORMAT OF THE SHOW
Just what criteria determine the format of the show itself are not clear. Is it an attempt to reproduce a husting – a political meeting in a hall, with all the potential rough and tumble that the real thing involves? Is it an attempt to create a structured debate, with controls of time and content – and behaviour – applied by the moderator?
How is the balance found between informative, structured debate and the excitement of spontaneity that a traditional husting might provide – that spark, the unexpected questions, the revealing answer, the passion? What makes for good television viewing may make for poor voter information, but too much control can inhibit true debate. These are the challenges that face television producers and presenters in news debates between the parties, but with an audience, the unexpected quotient goes up radically.
If the format is too loose, it may make for good television but poor debate, and leave serious voters frustrated that issues were not examined and key arguments either not presented or buried in cross talk and abuse.
Critical timing decisions are involved. How long should the overall debate be? Too long, and the viewers may get bored, and the practical limitations of television schedules obviously create constraints.
What should the debate theme(s) be and how many topic headings should be covered in the time available? How much time should each speaker be given to reply? Should the time allotted to speakers relate to the size of their party’s representation in the Parliament, or to their voting strength in the last election – or none of these? How rigorously should the guillotine on speakers be applied by the moderator? How much time should be allocated to spontaneous contributions by audience members?
SOME THOUGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
What I have to say here represents my frustrations with some of the political debates, all of which were present in last Sunday’s BBC debate. These frustrations may not be shared by others, and even if they are, they may have different ideas.
Scottish television news channels and political programmes have found seemingly endless time to discuss the financial affairs of Rangers Football Club. Newsnight Scotland seems to have been temporarily – one hopes – to have turned into Newsnight Rangers, and other slots have been devoted to this hopefully not endless saga.
Could the future of Scotland as a nation – which will also significantly determine the futures of England, Wales and Northern Ireland – be given at least equivalent time in total to the future of a football club?
Either the one hour slots need to be increased in frequency, or longer time given to each programme, dependent on topic reach.
The skills of a television interviewer do not necessarily embrace the skills required of a debate moderator. Television channels understandably want an experienced political journalist with a familiar face, but across all the debates that have been held, this has proved – at least from my perspective – only partially successful.
Radical thought though it may be, a moderator does not necessarily require political understanding, but only the skills necessary to authoritatively control a debate within rules. It is the politicians and the audience that must be heard in a debate, and prompts and context interventions are not required from a moderator.
Since I have dragged a football comparison in above, let be say that a football referee has to understand the game and its rules, and have the capacity to apply the rules scrupulously fairly, with sanctions if necessary. He is not required as a coach to offer useful suggestions as to how the game should be played. I see no reason why this should not apply in debate moderation.
I noted above that in adversarial politics and the law, all sides will find experts to argue contrary interpretations and offer conflicting ‘facts’.
Since each political party cannot supply its own experts without cluttering the programme, I suggest that for key topics, the political parties must by consensus choose a single expert to offer an opinion on facts at pivotal junctures.
If, as may well be likely, the parties can reach no consensus, then there should be no experts, and the programme moderators should open proceedings by announcing this fact, and the names of the experts considered and rejected. An intelligent electorate – and Scotland does have an intelligent electorate - will draw its own conclusion from this failure.
STUDIO AUDIENCE REACTION AND APPLAUSE
Studio audience reaction at the moment is confined to applause, and since this cannot usefully be analysed except by volume and the infamous clapometer, other methods should be used. For a least twenty years now, audience voting remote control devices have been available, subject to an immediate count. A simple YES, NO choice could be offered at suitable points in the debate, giving a much more accurate idea of how the audience reacted to key points and propositions, with instant display of results.
Some pre-submitted questions are chosen and others are rejected by the programme makers. A list of all questions submitted and the criteria for selection/rejection should be made available after the programme to all those present and be available online soon after.
LIVE QUESTIONS/REACTION FROM THE AUDIENCE
The practice of inviting live responses from the audience, a staple feature of BBC’s Question Time, and on balance well managed by them, does not in my view work well on live TV debates. Although the selection is random by the moderator/presenter, it does leave the way open for deliberate planted question by party hacks placed in the audience for that purpose, and there have been some egregious examples of this recently (my perception).
In my view, little would be lost and much gained by this practice being abandoned. It is a feature of live hustings but has little useful place in studio debates. One gain would be of that crucial commodity, time for debate.
CROSS TALK AND INTERRUPTIONS
No talking over a speaker should be permitted by the moderator – the parliamentary procedure of asking the speaker to give way should be observed, and the discretion of the person who has the floor should be respected.
SEATING ARRANGEMENTS FOR SPEAKERS
There should be a speaker’s lectern – there would very definitely have been one in a live husting, and the television debate should observe this. The politician speaking should be up front and addressing the audience, not looking to the side at others. Alternatively, all the speakers should be standing at individual lecterns, as in the Parliamentary debates of 2010.
I grew up with the BBC. My earliest memories are of the BBC in 1939 in the lead-up to war. I didn’t understand the significance of what the announcers were saying, but I saw the tension and sensed the apprehension among my older male relatives. The BBC was my ear on the world and in the 1950s it became my window on the world. I am one of a declining minority of the population who heard William Joyce – Lord Haw Haw – live, and felt the chill at that braying voice saying “Germany calling, Germany calling”. My instinct is to defend the BBC, because it was the voice of freedom in a world infected by fascism.
Since becoming a nationalist, then a blogger and a YouTube clip poster, radio and television news broadcasts have become very important to me, and with this has come a highly-developed sensitivity to balance and bias in the media. In this period, I have to say that had I, or any Scottish voter, never mind any nationalist, relied on the Scottish or the UK press to get an idea of what was going on in Scottish politics, then the SNP governments would never have been elected, no matter how hard they campaigned on the doorsteps – their voice, and vitally, the image of their people and politicians would have been either completely absent or presented pejoratively.
It was television news and current affairs programmes that made the SNP what it is today, and the BBC, with all its failings, was in my view the major contributor to that, albeit sometimes in spite of themselves. Its nationalists critics – and by God, have they bent my ear – would never have been aware of most of the issues they were addressing without the BBC, their target. (Of course this was not true of party activists and insiders.)
Without the Politics Show Scotland, Newsnight Scotland, the weekly broadcast of FMQs, Channel 81 coverage, and, yes, the UK-level programmes like The Daily Politics, Newsnight, and Question Time, the Scottish National Party would not have had many of its best moments, its peak exposure, Alex Salmond would not have become the national and international figure he has become, nor in my view, I repeat, would the SNP have been elected to government.
Had the nationalist movement been reliant on NewsnetScotland and the army of bloggers like me, it would not remotely have been enough. The online community, vital though they are to our democracy and freedom of expression, would have had only marginal impact of they had not had the televised media to react to, to clip, to deride, to criticise, to comment on. And capable though many online commentators are, few, if any, can match the professionalism and the resources that professional journalists and commentators can bring to the debate.
But I have not been an uncritical defender of the BBC, or any media outlet, and anyone who thinks this should really take the trouble to trawl through my output over the last few years. I can say that I would have had no existence as a blogger, commentator or YouTube poster without the mainstream media. The relationship, whether I or anyone else likes it or not, is a symbiotic one.
But it has got harder and harder to ignore the blatant bias in the print media, the insidious practice of unionist propaganda by partisan headline in factual news items while a pretence at objectivity is maintained – one might say buried – in the main body of text. The Scotsman has become notorious in this regard. The Herald, often guilty of it, seems to be emerging into a period of relative objectivity, with periodic lapses.
The focus of much of the inchoate rage of some nationalists has been Newsnight Scotland, and I have to say they have sometimes deserved it. Their position is unenviable in the schedules, with 20 minutes after the big budget Newsnight. I’ll say no more on that, because it has been covered comprehensively and effectively by Pete Martin, creative director of the Gate Worldwide in the Scotsman today in his article STV’s new contender has BBC on the ropes. Pete Martin article – Scotsman
He is referring to Scotland Tonight, with John Mackay as frontman, scheduled at 10.30 p.m. Last night, the juxtaposition and content of these two programmes pointed up, as nothing has previously done, what has gone wrong with Newsnight Scotland recently.
Leaving aside the fact that the global finance system appears to be approaching meltdown, the EU is in crisis, and the spectacularly incompetent UK Coalition government has no idea where to position itself in this maelstrom, the big story for Scotland yesterday was the ‘confidential’ advice given by Cititgroup, an international banking giant, to its investment clients which found its way at remarkable speed on to the media and into PMQs in Westminster, to avoid investment in renewable technology in Scotland while “the uncertainty created by the referendum” – a line that could not have been bettered by an uber-unionist – continued.
A correspondent yesterday, Joe Boyle, offered me this analysis of David Cameron’s delight, as he seized upon this, an analysis that I cannot better -
Joe Boyle (by email)
“It may also interest you to know that David Cameron is possibly the only head of state of the UK parliament to ever suggest ( in or out of the Parliament) that it is a bad idea for investors to invest in a part of the British Isles. Not even at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland was such a suggestion ever proposed. In fact this may well be a world first for Mr Cameron..... so potentially Guinness Book of records stuff”
This statement was instantly picked up by all the news media, and uncritically reported in news bulletins from lunchtime onwards. The SNP’s response was frankly, underwhelming. In fairness, they were flat-footed initially by this bolt from the blue, and simply pointed out that the knowledge of the referendum had not deterred investment up to this point. But there could be little doubt that it was damaging – the unionist pack clearly thought so, and I for one felt that the recent SNP stance on negative stories, of lofty disdain and “we don’t do negative – keep your eyes uplifted to the shining future ..” might be a bit inadequate to cope with this.
So I dug a bit on Citigroup, relying on memory and significantly on Wikipedia – always a risky course – and banged up a hasty blog early in the evening in the slight hope of influencing the late night media programmes Scotland Tonight and Newsnight Scotland. I realised that this was almost certainly futile, since the programmes were probably being recorded at that moment, but I retained a touching faith in powerful, albeit regional broadcasters, well-resourced, to shift gear rapidly in the face of breaking stories.
This faith was partly vindicated by Scotland Tonight and utterly betrayed by Newsnight Scotland.
Scotland Tonight led with the Citigroup story and had a former Scottish power supremo pitted against Fergus Ewing, the relevant SNP minister. Fergus Ewing was as unimpressive as the earlier SNP responses, seemed unprepared factually, and both he and Scotland Tonight did not see fit to address the elephant in the room – the facts about Citigroup, its monumental failures, losses, bailouts by the US government, strange relationships with powerful regulatory officials in the US government, etc. Something of an open goal for Fergus Ewing, the SNP and a great story hook for any journalist worthy of the name, one would have thought. But no – not a whisper.
But at least Scotland Tonight covered the story. Newsnight Scotland seemed to have suffered an attack of amnesia about that second word in its programme title – Scotland. Instead, it chose to do its own little derivative coverage of the big European crisis, a story already covered in depth and highly professionally across the entire UK and international media all day, and by Newsnight just before Gordon Brewer launched in to his Ladybird Book of the European financial crisis.
He had chosen to aid him in this little copycat venture three arch unionists – Bill Jamieson, John McFall and Alf Young. Of the Scottish Government, a government recently elected with a massive majority and a firm mandate, not a sign, nor of anyone that could put the European story in the crucial context of Scotland at this pivotal point in its history. Of the Citigroup/renewable investment story – not a dicky bird.
This programme, by omission and by cack-handed selection of topic and panel members was, last night, an embarrassment to the BBC as a public service broadcaster, to Scottish democracy, and frankly to journalistic values.
I’m finding it hard to defend BBC Scotland today …
I hate to ask that question, because the BBC has been an invaluable part of my life since I was a child, and my first instinct is to spring to its defence when it is attacked, as it always has been, on many fronts and for many reasons.
The BBC is a unique institution, and is recognised as such throughout the world. It has been a vital channel of communication, information and hope for occupied and oppressed countries across the globe throughout its long history, as well as being a major engine of culture.
But from its monopoly status in certain aspects of its operations, through regular accusations of bias and partiality - from just about every interest group imaginable - to complaints about the allegedly excessive salaries and perks of its senior management, the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, is a target.
It has been variously accused of being
biased towards libertarianism
too bold in its programming
not bold enough
nationalistic and jingoistic
not patriotic enough
of concealing the realities of war
of being too open about the realities of war
The list goes on and on. It is accused of being a slave to balance in reporting, and yet is regularly accused of lack of balance. It is at one and the same time apparently anodyne yet radical in its style.
The BBC could reasonable respond – and does - that the mutually contradictory range of criticisms levelled at it are demonstration enough of its objectivity and lack of bias.
It has a major foe, potentially its nemesis - the Murdoch organisation, a force for evil in the world if ever there was one in my book, masquerading as free and fearless populist press, responding to the wishes of the people as shown through sales, with the unspeakable Fox News as its model for keeping the ‘free’ world informed. The Murdoch Press believes that the BBC is monopolistic, and hold this belief without any sense of irony.
So I instinctively spring to the BBC’s defence, an aged Don Quixote, saucepan on head, stumbling forward on Rosinante, but with no Sancho Panza to offer moral support. Hands off the Beeb!
I am reluctantly forced to conclude that there is something which, if not yet rotten in the state of BBC Scotland, is giving off a highly dubious aroma.
I am torn between recognising that it is virtually the only medium to offer any real coverage to the SNP among the biased media of Scotland, to regularly feeling that the coverage contains a distinct bias towards the unionist case.
There is perhaps some reason to expect a kind of metropolitan myopia from the BBC at Broadcasting House in recognising the aspirations of a very large segment of the Scottish electorate to secure the independence of their country, and towards the political party that embodies that viewpoint, the Scottish National Party, even though it is the current choice of the Scottish people and forms the Government in a devolved Parliament.
Buried in the heart of London, within easy reach of Westminster and the politicians and civil servants who govern the UK, they are a part of the Westminster village, and absorb its values by a process of osmosis almost. Scotland only occasionally intrudes into their consciousness sufficiently to warrant real attention. And it is, after all, the British Broadcasting Corporation, but it is not the UK Broadcasting Corporation – the UKBC!
But there is no such excuse from number 40 Pacific Quay in the great Scottish city of Glasgow, a mere forty miles or so away from Holyrood. Yet any objective observer could only conclude that, in the lead-up to the 2007 election and in the three and a bit years since, there have been many instances where the SNP has not been given a fair throw of the dice, and the niggling suspicion that the dice are loaded and the game is not being played according to Hoyle lingers.
I take heart from the fact that Brian Taylor, a fine journalist who exhibits high journalistic standards at all times, and whose objectivity has never been called in to question by any reasonable person, is BBC Scotland’s Chief Political Reporter. But Brian is one man.
Joan McAlpine, a highly professional journalist herself -- a columnist with The Scotsman, has explored this criticism vigorously in an article today on her blog, Go, Lassie, Go .
She does not avoid coming to grips with specifics, naming BBC Scotland reporters and commentators and exploring aspect of their backgrounds and affiliations that might raise questions in the minds of a reasonable observer.
Now no one is suggesting, least of all Joan, who herself is a prominent SNP supporter and a candidate for a seat in Holyrood at the next election, that reporters do not have a right to political opinions and affiliations. What she argues for is a level playing field, and that political affiliations do not intrude into the objectivity of salaried journalists in a public broadcaster like the BBC.
So, BBC Scotland – sit up and take notice! There is a growing sense of disquiet among many nationalists, and among fair-minded democrats who are not nationalist supporters, but who value the freedom of the press and media, that while there may not yet be something rotten in the state of Pacific Quay, it is time to get the fridge thermometer out and check …