Political commentators should never be sure of their facts. Being uncertain compels the writer to check statements of fact for accuracy. The instantaneous, instinctive reaction to any statement of fact read or written should be nagging doubt about its veracity and accuracy. It seems obvious that someone seeking to analyse and understand our politics should question everything said by political actors. What may be less evident is that they should include themselves among those political actors. They will surely include other commentators. Why not themselves?
On encountering a statement of fact, the active consumer of mediated messages will always be prompted to ask if it is true. Or how true it is. It doesn’t matter whether they come across said statement in print or pixels or via broadcast media or in their own mind, they must always ask if it is true. This should be a habit so ingrained that it matters not at all how trivial a point it may seem. The question is prompted by the statement. Not by its significance. If you’re careless with the small things then why should anyone have confidence that you are any less careless with the big stuff? The political commentator’s own lack of confidence in their own understanding or recall of the facts is what enables them to produce content which readers can trust.
When Ruth Wishart wrote that Alex Salmond formed Alba Party she made a statement of fact. Had she questioned that statement as she should then she would probably have realised even without any Googling that the statement was not accurate. Alex Salmond did not create Alba. It was established back in February by former television producer Laurie Flynn. To those who maintain that this is nit-picking and hair-splitting I say, that’s the job. Analysis demands that nits be picked and hairs split. For the political commentator there may be small truths, but there are no small lies.
It may be interesting to speculate how different our media would be if they adopted that as their motto. When you claim to be speaking truth unto power, is it not vital that the truth you speak be as impeccable as human fallibility will allow?
We must assume that Ruth Wishart hopes her readers will believe her when she says that only one party offers a credible route to Scottish independence. And when she says that this party is the SNP. Would it be too facetious to suggest that she really should have worked harder to build up her credibility before making such a statement?
Yet, beyond doubt in my book, [the SNP] is the only party offering a credible pathway to independence. So you can be entirely clear sighted about perceived failings, and equally persuaded that to support independence and not support the SNP is a psephological mug’s game.
I’m not saying this is a lie. Only that it is a statement of fact(s) which ought to be questioned. Or ought to have been questioned. In essence, Ruth is saying that the SNP is the only party that those who favour the restoration of Scotland’s independence should vote for. Which is only partly true. And not at all for the reason given. It may truthfully be stated that we must continue to give our electoral support to the SNP – however undeserving we may think the party to now be. But it is simply untrue to say that the SNP is “offering a credible pathway to independence”. And this is by no means a small untruth. It might easily be argued that it is the ‘Big Lie’ of this election campaign.
It would be true to say that the SNP is the only party which could offer a credible route to independence. But it is entirely false to maintain that they are doing so. There is nothing credible about the SNP’s manifesto offering on the constitutional issue. Nicola Sturgeon long since exhausted her personal credibility on independence. It is a quirk of Scottish politics that she has managed to retain her personal popularity even as she betrays Scotland’s cause. It is a quirk that I find rather disquieting. I have no problems with charismatic leaders. But charisma cannot substitute for leadership. The independence movement is woefully lacking leadership. No amount of charisma will compensate for that.
If the notion that the SNP is offering a credible plan for restoring Scotland’s independence is the ‘Big Lie’ of this campaign then it is a lie which is useful to what some would insist is the the party which gives the lie to the bit about the SNP being the “only” party worthy of the support of committed independence activists and voters. It is the SNP’s lack of credibility on the constitutional issue which makes the Alba Party offering appear more believable – or at least more appealing – by comparison. This despite the fact that Alba’s offering is if anything even more bereft of credibility than the SNP’s. Thus allowing the SNP to lay claim to exclusive rights to the votes of independence supporters.
The losers in all of this are, of course, the voters. What chance of making an informed choice when the parties headed by the two most prominent figures in Scottish politics are competing for the lion’s share of the campaign’s ‘Big Lie’?
I am rightly wary of the phrase ‘everybody knows’. If ever there was a statement of fact that demanded rigorous scrutiny it is any statement prefaced by the claim that ‘everybody knows’. In any case, truth is not dependent on the number of people who are aware of it. There is a huge gulf between genuine truth and popular perception. A point that I shall return to in a moment. First, I am going to be so bold as to venture that ‘everybody knows’ we must return the SNP to government in this election. It is a truth so self-evident that it would take an extraordinary feat of intellectual contortion to deny. If you care at all about Scotland then your first priority as you cast your vote must be to do whatever it takes to ensure an SNP win. Not because the SNP is “offering a credible pathway to independence”. They most assuredly are not. But because the alternative is to risk the nightmare scenario in which the British parties retake control of Scotland’s Parliament. If that is not unthinkable then you are not thinking.
The most true part of Ruth Wishart’s statement is when she says that we can be “entirely clear sighted about perceived failings” of the SNP (perceived?) and still be persuaded of the necessity to keep the party in power. It is perfectly possible to be pro-independence and non-SNP. It is totally impossible to be pro-independence and anti-SNP. Even if one is no longer convinced that the SNP is ‘the party of independence’ there is no escaping the fact that an SNP government is essential if there is to be even the possibility of restoring Scotland’s independence. It is deeply to be regretted that this is all independence supporters can vote for in this election. The pitiful best we can hope for is that independence will still be something we can hope for once this election is over.
Credit where it’s due, Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign message is a work of duplicitous genius. She says restoring independence is essential to properly manage recovery from the impact of the pandemic and/or managing recovery from the pandemic is essential to allow independence to be restored. Take your pick! Hear whichever bit of that message accords with your own thinking. Denounce as liars any who say that the other bit is true. All bases covered! We might well describe this message as ‘Sturgeonesque’, it is so characteristic of her. It’s her style.
Alba Party’s message is more ‘Salmondesque’. It is less subtle. Simpler. More direct. More suited to Alex Salmond’s declamatory, bombastic style. Deceptive rather than duplicitous. While Sturgeon is trying to appeal to everyone because she wants to win, Salmond addresses his appeal to a particular part of the independence movement because, knowing he can’t win, he wants to make an impact. The message is that Alba can reinforce Scotland’s cause and force the SNP’s hand. A claim which is plausible rather than credible. It is reasonable to suppose that a vote for Alba reinforces Scotland’s cause. But there is no reason to suppose any amount of electoral success for Alba will bring independence any closer. It is certainly true that Alba MSPs could make a noise in the Scottish Parliament. But only to the extent that procedures allow. And all but certainly not enough to trouble Nicola Sturgeon.
It’s complicated. Truth and lie interweave in both these messages. Fact is mixed with fiction. Reality is subordinate to rhetoric. The form of the message takes precedence over the content. Hear the words! Don’t think about the meaning!
Which brings me back to that gulf between genuine truth and popular perception that I mentioned earlier. Here’s Ruth Wishart again.
Yet let’s be frank here – the mass of the electorate would have been on another channel. The most avid viewers fall into two very predictable categories; party chiefs praying their standard bearer doesn’t suffer from foot in mouth disease, and the amalgamated union of political commentators praying that they do.
She is referring to the televised leaders’ debates which for good or ill are now a feature of every democratic event. With all due respect to Ruth it is hardly an original observation. I’m sure she won’t take it as a slight if I say it takes no great perspicacity to note that “the mass of the electorate” take little interest in the campaign circus. And only slightly more to account for party chiefs and political commentators being the most avid viewers. Although I would add that politics anoraks may pad the audience considerably. For the purposes of this essay, it is the motives and actions of the commentators which are of interest.
It is probably correct to say that both commentators and programme makers come to these TV events hoping for something spectacular. (The term ‘spectacular’ being in danger of buckling under the weight it’s being asked to carry in this context.) Programme makers want good TV. Commentators want good copy. Good TV need not be – and probably isn’t – good political debate. What commentators consider good copy need not be – and probably isn’t – good political analysis. Readers of this blog will likely have seen enough output of the BBC and British press to know exactly what I mean.
I concur with Ruth Wishart on this. But I am wary of what seems to me a rather dismissive tone. I apologise if I’m understanding her wrongly. But I get the sense that Ruth regards these TV leaders’ debates as unimportant because the “mass of the electorate” never watch. I disagree with this assessment. I rarely if ever watch these things. My idea of good political debate and the producers’ idea of good TV are just too different. I do, however, recognise the importance of these election shows. They are important because of the way information circulates. The way it is generated, promulgated, mediated and consumed.
The vast majority of voters may not watch televised debates or interviews or party election broadcasts. They don’t get information from such sources. But it is these events which very largely determine what information does filter through to the large part of the electorate which does not directly engage with the democratic process. To put it far too simply, these events generate ‘news’. They are sources of material for use by the media. Arguably a more important source than the political parties themselves. The stuff put out by the parties is pretty dull. It is commonly edited to within a millimetre of meaninglessness. The juicy stuff comes from the unguarded comment in an interview and the ill-tempered outburst or careless gaffe in the heat of a TV debate.
This material is fed into the maw of the mass media machine. The print and broadcast news services then feed condensed, abbreviated, dumbed-down versions to a bigger audience. The fittest stories survive in the wild. They grow and adapt to their environment circulating in workplace chatter and conversations in the pub or round the dinner table. That is why TV debates and other big-ticket events are significant. Even if the political messages are consumed fresh by very few, they are gobbled or at least nibbled by many more after they’ve been digested by the media. Aye! That is what I’m saying!
This is why it matters that commentators are never sure of the facts as presented to them or retrieved from their own store of knowledge. I don’t know whether erroneously stating that Alex Salmond formed Alba in the wake of the two Sturgeon inquiries does any measurable harm to the party’s election campaign. The truth of this matter may be a very small truth But there are no small lies. The proper functioning of democracy relies on the informed consent of the electorate. The better informed the voters are, the more effective democracy is. It follows that disinformation or misinformation of any kind must be inimical to effective democracy. That is to say, democracy which causes public policy to reflect as accurately as possible the needs, priorities, aspirations, mood and will of the public.
In a properly functioning democracy the information that circulates is as factual and truthful as it can be in a complex and dynamic situation. It is important that the electorate are enabled to make well-informed choices because the messages which inform their choices determines the messages which are fed back around from the governed to the governing. How can we make good voting choices if we have bad information? How can the effect of those voting choices influence public policy in a way that is favourable to us if we are sending the wrong messages to politicians because we’re receiving corrupted messages through the media.
I’m not picking on Ruth Wishart here. It’s just happened to be her column which prompted these thoughts. It isn’t even a plea for more honest journalism. Journalism that is more honest and more journalism that is honest. Such a plea would surely be futile. What I’m trying to convey is that we are all part of the process of circulating information. We are all both consumers and producers of mediated messages. Whether the messages we produce are fed to an audience of millions by TV, or hundreds of thousands, by newspapers and online media, or a few hundred by blogs such as this, we should all beware of our assumptions and preconceptions. Before passing on a message we should ask ourselves if it as true and factual as we can make it. As individuals we can’t expect to change much. But that is even more reason to take every opportunity to inject some truth into our politics.