Shona Craven is an exceptional journalist. By which I mean that she is an exception to the less than illustrious norm. Her work is always thoughtful and more often than not thought-provoking. When she writes in defence of newspapers, I take good account of what she says. Even when one of those newspapers is The Sun. I cannot disagree with her central point that society needs newspapers. And that we need those newspapers to represent the greatest possible diversity of perspectives. Indeed, it is Scotland’s tragedy that we do not enjoy this diversity. I am sure newspapers in general would be better respected in Scotland if they more honestly served to reflect and represent Scotland. The real Scotland, that is, and not the grotesque caricature presented by the British Nationalist-supporting press.
This diversity of viewpoints is essential because the alternative is that some viewpoints are excluded. Censorship is not only the redaction of texts. Censorship takes more forms than just the blue pencil. Arguably more pernicious than formal censorship is that which operates informally as a product of power. Not the words that are blacked out, but the words that never appear because they would offend established power. We can only have confidence that this insidious form of censorship doesn’t prevail if we can see that every conceivable viewpoint is being aired. We can only trust the press if, alongside those which honestly serve to represent and reflect Scotland, there are newspapers which print stuff we strongly disapprove of and express views we absolutely disagree with.
Scotland’s problem is not hard-line Unionist media per se, but its preponderance. It is the lack of balance which is undermining the relationship between society and newspapers in Scotland. It is the massive imbalance which makes that relationship such an unhealthy one. It is not – or shouldn’t be – that individual newspapers take an editorial line which is antithetic and even anathema to around half of Scotland’s population, but that the content which reflects this editorial line is so little challenged. The National tries hard and does well to provide some balance. But, in a sense, this makes matters worse as apologists for the status quo can use the the existence of The National to refute claims of an unacceptable imbalance. But just as censorship need not be formal to qualify as such, so it doesn’t have to be complete to be effective censorship. Censorship needn’t only be an absolute prohibition or exclusion of particular material. It is also a form of censorship when the public’s access to certain perspectives is significantly impaired.
An aside on the matter of censorship. Shona says,
I have yet to see anyone suggest it would have been better if her transgressions had simply gone unreported.
I’m pretty sure I did. Or, at least, I suggested the argument could be made that if a situation is such as to invite fair comparisons with wartime and involve measures that tread not lightly on human rights, then it might reasonably be held that these measures should involve restrictions on reporting such as would be considered an affront to democracy under normal circumstances. I am not making that argument. I am not aware that anyone is outside the confines of discreet and confidential ministerial briefings. But we would be wise to consider the possibility that there may come a point at which censorship of this kind is proposed by the British government. That is all.
Where I take issue with Shona Craven is, not in her vindication of newspapers, but when this appears to shade into a generalised defence of journalists. I say “appears” because it rather depends on the extent to which one perceives that she treats the terms ‘journalism’ and ‘journalists’ as synonyms. There is a tendency, unsurprisingly most prevalent among journalists, to draw an equivalence between journalism and journalists which is utterly false and gracelessly self-serving. Journalism is a noble profession, ergo journalists are noble professionals. Aye right! The former could be totally accurate and the latter completely wrong. Journalism being a noble profession is not a necessary and sufficient condition for the nobleness of journalists as a class. Equally, individual journalists being ignoble does not make it impossible to regard journalism as a noble profession. To make a case for journalism is not to make a case for journalists.
The fact is that journalists are people and, therefore, as flawed and fucked-up as anybody else. Their training as journalists, often combined with some innate ability, gives them a certain set of skills. It is how those skills are used that is the basis on which we should judge them. It cannot sensibly be denied that some journalists use their skills for purposes which can quite reasonably be regarded as far from noble. I could, but for obvious reasons won’t, name several individuals who provide examples of journalists applying their skills in a less than noble manner for a less than worthy cause.
Do I really have to name names for people to know what I’m talking about? Are there not already enough blogs and social media threads and BTL comments describing and deploring examples of the ‘Scotland-as-hellhole’ genre of so-called journalism. Journalism which is not just ignoble and unworthy and distasteful but at its worst downright dishonest? Is there anyone in this country who is unaware of NHS Scotland being a particular target of this brand of journalism? Haven’t we all seen daily stories which present an image of Scotland which is derogatory and untrue? In what possible way can such journalism be said to be reflecting and projecting an even vaguely accurate account of our nation?
When journalists come to serve an editorial line which requires them, not merely to slant a story in a particular way, but to compromise truth and professional principles in doing so, can what they are doing still be called journalism? If so, I am thankful not to be a journalist.
Shona Craven herself is not averse to a bit of spin. Note how she would have us consider the hounding of Catherine Calderwood in the same category as asking questions about “PPE for frontline workers, testing for the virus and for the associated antibodies, and the likely duration of lockdown”. Would that as much journalistic energy was expended on the asking of pertinent and awkward questions as was put into celebrity scalp-hunting. And no mention of the highly dubious ‘journalism’ that is devoted to denigrating Scotland’s health service and generally portraying Scotland as a ‘failed state’.
The complaint is not that newspapers print stuff with which we disagree. That is a straw man. The complaint is that newspapers print stuff which is horribly distorted and/or patently false. That they do this purposefully. That they do this for political purposes. Purposes that cannot be other than contrary to the interests of Scotland and her people given that those purposes require dishonest propaganda.
I’m sorry, Shona, but you cannot ask people to support newspapers which treat them, their country and its institutions with malicious contempt. You cannot reasonably ask people to pay money to perpetuate a gross imbalance which is a blight on our nation and our democracy. You say that if media companies fail there will be dark days ahead. For Scotland, the dark days are here. They’ve been here for many years.
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