Andrew Learmonth says it’s going to be hard for the “middle ground of voters” not to have a strong opinion on the constitutional issue. One might have thought events of the last ten years would have made it well nigh impossible for anybody but the terminally apathetic and disengaged to avoid developing a very strong opinion on the matter. To whatever extent they haven’t, this needs to be explained.
The forces acting on public opinion can be distilled down to just two – mass media and campaigns. Mass media includes advertising and peer pressure – because the vast majority of the peers doing the pressuring will have defaulted to the mass media version in the absence of a campaign. Campaigns include anything that is intended to alter the default version of public opinion.
Most people don’t care very much about most things. The people who try to care about everything are in institutions right beside the people who care about absolutely nothing. Pick any single topic and you’ll find that only a relatively small part of the populace has a strong view on it one way or another. It looms large in the worldview of the people at either end of the interest gradient and leaves the rest in various degrees of apathy.
Apathy is not too strong a term. Not if we include those who aren’t even aware of the issue on the grounds that they are too apathetic to make themselves aware. The interest gradient is not a regular graduation in either direction from moderate interest. The middle of the spectrum is alienation. Interest only begins to rise towards the extremes. Or, to put it another way, interest drops off very rapidly. Most of the spectrum is apathy.
The crucial thing is the point of engagement. On one side of the point of engagement, there is potentially increasing interest. On the other is a precipitous plunge into apathy.
Mass media caters to that vast middle range either side of alienation and up to the point of engagement. That’s why it’s called ‘mass’ media. It stands to reason, therefore, that mass media has a vested interest in making and keeping that middle range as large as possible. The purpose of mass media is not, as some might suppose, to deliver the client’s message to the audience, but to deliver the audience to the client so that it can be given whatever message is deemed to serve the client’s present purpose and/or objectives. This is not only true in respect of commercial messages. It is just as true with regard to political messages – using the term ‘political’ in its widest sense.
(For grammar mavens concerned about number agreement, ‘mass media’ is one of those terms which can be either singular or plural. Like ‘sheep’, ironically.)
The purpose of a campaign is to drag people to the point of engagement – then hold their interest long enough to effect some change. In this, the campaign is in direct competition with mass media which is all about keeping the audience in that zone where they are most susceptible to manipulation. Mass media manipulates public perceptions so as to make people manipulable so that mass media can… You get the picture. This being so, campaigns must also manipulate perceptions in order to get the audience – or a large enough part of it – to the point of engagement.
If people are not engaged and do not have strong(ish) opinions about an issue it is because there has been no campaign that sufficiently engages them.
Mass media serves established power. The British media are part of the British establishment. To the extent that they are discrete entities, both have the same interest in a malleable mass audience. If the British mass media is doing its job – which it must or it wouldn’t be mass media – then most people in Scotland won’t have a strong opinion about the constitutional issue. Or, to put it another way, if people don’t have strong views on the constitutional issue it’s because the independence movement has failed to mount a sufficiently effective campaign.
It’s no good complaining that the British media are too strong. Few, if any, campaigns can affect the mass media. You can’t make the British media weaker. You can only make your campaign stronger – more effective.
The question, then, is how. How can the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence be made more effective? Answers on a postcard – which should be sent straight to the recycling bin. Because the most influential parts of the independence movement won’t even consider the question, never mind the answers. The ‘thinking’ is that they don’t have to make the effort to get people to engage with the constitutional issue, that will happen because of what the British political elite does. Because of the appalling contempt with which the British political elite treats Scotland. Eventually, people will get angry enough to do something about it.
No! They won’t! People will only get angry if somebody makes them get angry. Their fallback state is not anger. It’s some degree of apathy. Listing outrages while insisting we all remain ‘calm and reasonable in the face of them is not going to make people angry. Unless it’s anger directed at those listing the outrages and insisting we must adhere to an etiquette defined by those who are committing the outrages.
The behaviour of the British government and British media and British political parties during and since the 2014 independence referendum should have been more than enough to provoke the ire of a big chunk of that middle ground. But it hasn’t. It hasn’t because the independence campaign has been woefully ineffective at weaponising that behaviour.
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