I wholeheartedly agree with the editorial in The National which insists that the coming UK general election must be about independence rather than Brexit or the Tories or Boris Johnson. Across the UK, the British media will undoubtedly seek to ensure that Brexit is the main issue. Here in Scotland, we must combat that narrative in every way that we can. It will not be easy. The fact that I have already mentioned the very things I urge people to avoid talking about shows how tricky it can be. But the effort must be made. And it is an effort that must be led by the SNP.
The National sensibly states that “we would never argue that an election should be a single-issue plebiscite”. It really isn’t possible to make an election serve as a referendum. The two are fundamentally different democratic exercises. But it is certainly possible to make a particular issue the main focus of an election. In fact, political parties do it all the time. During election campaigns, they either try to focus on the policy areas where they reckon they are strong, or on the policy areas where opponents are thought to be particularly weak. They will seek to control the media narrative accordingly. And, for the most part, they succeed.
Generally speaking, the media will work from the press releases put out by the main parties. That is a big part of how the main parties get to be the main parties and remain so. The media want words and pictures. The public want controversy and spectacle – and maybe a little bit of information and analysis. The parties want to influence public opinion. So the parties feed carefully crafted messages to the media in the hope that these will be conveyed in the way that they want and that they will have the desired effect. The media play along because they get the stuff that fills their pages and airtime and, importantly, because they want to keep their contacts in high places.
The result of all this is that the main (British) parties and the mainstream (British) media have it all pretty much stitched up between/among them. If the main parties want to talk about education, here in Scotland we get flooded with talk of England’s education system and England’s education policies despite the fact that it is quite irrelevant to us. If it’s Day 3, 9 or 15 of the campaign, it must be defence. If it’s Friday, the parties are priming the media with topics for the politics shows on Sunday. It’s all very thoroughly worked out. And it’s all extremely London-centric. The periphery – Scotland, Wales, The North etc. – are allocated a small portion of time and attention when badly-briefed ‘big hitters’ from the main parties are sent on flying visits to the provinces where they lecture the natives on what’s good for them before scurrying back to London on the first available shuttle.
The most obvious exception to all of this tightly organised and professionally stage-managed performance is ‘The Personality of The Moment!’. The media likes to spice up the dull stuff by featuring the antics of someone from the zanier fringes of British politics. They’re rather spoilt for choice at the moment. But Nigel Farage is a good example. As was Nick Griffin. Boris Johnson has also filled that role and continues to do so despite being the British Prime Minister. You can always tell who is ‘The Personality of The Moment!’ because they do endless photo-ops and appear on the BBC Question Time panel every week.
Mostly, the job of ‘The Personality Of The Moment!’ is to provide titillation. They have to be ridiculous or outrageous or offensive or, as in the case of Boris Johnson, all of the above. They are the seasoning in the bland dish of politics coverage.
Occasionally, however, the media will pick on someone to be ‘Queen For A Day!’. Which is a bit of a misnomer because they don’t have to be female, or gay, and it’s usually for a bit more than a day. The title of ‘Queen For A Day!’ goes to whichever talentless but photogenic and moderately eloquent individual the media have decided to elevate to a position of some nominal significance by means of endless exposure and exclusively positive coverage. If you are already thinking of Ruth Davidson, don’t consider yourself especially clever, everybody was!
That’s what we’re up against. It’s not all of what we’re up against. But it gives a pretty good flavour. How do we get Scotland’s constitutional issue front and centre when the British political elite would rather be waterboarded than go near the issue and the media already have a sufficient and reliable supply of material, so isn’t interested in trivial matters such as… well… anything that’s not in a press release from one of the main parties?
I can tell you what we don’t do! We don’t put out Tweets such as the following!
Seeing lots of chat this morning about tactical voting to maximise Remain vote. @theSNP is the challenger in every Tory held seat in Scotland. So if you want to stop Brexit and remove Boris Johnson, #VoteSNP is the only way to do it. #GE19— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) October 30, 2019
Notice how independence is not mentioned at all. Notice what is mentioned: “Remain”, “Tory”, “Brexit” and “Boris Johnson”. Never mind that the claims made about, for example, removing Boris Johnson are, shall we say, optimistic, at best. Why talk about these things at all? Especially when some effort has also gone into leaving out any mention of the one thing that the election is supposed to be about.
The only way we can even begin to counter the weight of the British mainstream media is by assiduously avoiding the things the British parties have primed their media partners to push on the public; while at the same time turning every comment, exchange or discussion to the topic of independence – or related matters.
Make independence and the ending of the Union the only thing you talk about or write about or think about. Shoehorn everything into the context of Scotland’s constitutional claim. Don’t share or comment on any online material without first asking yourself whether it serves your purposes, or theirs. Never use hashtags that relate to anything other than the SNP or the independence campaign. Always use the hashtags that do relate to the SNP or the independence campaign.
Whatever a newspaper story is about, if you can’t turn it to the subject of independence or electing SNP candidates, ignore it. Active disdain can be a very powerful tool on social media, where nothing exists if it doesn’t get noticed.
Where you must refer to online material that is evidently part of the tie-in between the media and the British parties, use archived pages or screenshots. If you don’t know how to do that, ask! There are people in the Yes movement who relish any opportunity to share their expertise.
Stop whining about media bias! It won’t make any difference and just makes independence activists look like pathetic victims.
Support the media that supports Scotland’s cause. But The National. Donate to Broadcasting Scotland. Subscribe to iScot Magazine. Convey my apologies to all the deserving people and organisations out there that I haven’t mentioned.
I’m sure you’re getting the idea. But you may be wondering how effective this strategy might be. To which I would respond by saying that it is bound to be more effective than doing nothing. Bear in mind that the Yes movement is huge. And it dominates social media and alternative media. If we act together, we are a formidable force. Do not underestimate our power.
Don’t follow Nicola Sturgeon’s example. Focus! Let’s make a UK general election campaign relevant to Scotland for a change.
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