Your masters’ voice

When will people realise that the BBC is a British institution and that it can only behave accordingly. The BBC is the British state broadcasting to Scotland. It doesn’t matter where its operations are located, it can never be Scottish. It can only be British and therefore it can only treat Scotland with disdain and contempt. Anything that is British must take precedence over everything that is Scottish.

Read the statement made by a BBC spokesperson. They genuinely cannot conceive of how it can possibly be wrong to give what is happening in England-as-Britain priority over what is relevant to Scotland. The fact that doing so risked causing confusion which might even lead to people dying is of absolutely no consequence. The only criterion is the degree of Britishness involved.

Even if you strip away all of the politics, what the BBC did was wrong in terms of basic good news broadcasting practice. But that too counts for nothing when the BBC assigns values to news. The content isn’t even considered. The assessment never gets past the fact that one is British and one is Scottish. Some primal instinct set unreachably deep in the lizard-brain of the organisation compels the BBC’s Britishness. It cannot be other than it is.

Which is not to say that the BBC as an institution cannot or should not be a model for public service broadcasting that is Scottish. Appending the word ‘Scotland’ to ‘BBC’ does not make the BBC Scottish any more than appending the word ‘Mars’ would make it Martian. Public service broadcasting that is truly Scottish is Scotland holding up a mirror to itself and telling the world how we would like to be seen. It is us talking among ourselves about ourselves and our perspectives on Scotland and the rest of the world. And it is us talking to the rest of the world from our perspective.

BBC Scotland is the British state transmitting TO Scotland. It is the British establishment talking AT Scotland. And it has but one message. Its purpose is to constantly remind us that British is best. That we are not important. That we are not respected because those who accept that they are less cannot be due respect.

However refined the delivery may be, the BBC is the voice of an imperial force addressing annexed territory.



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Dipped in Brit

Scots budget underspend will help fight virus carers ‘not coping’

The above headline in The National fair got my vital juices flowing this morning. The term ‘budget underspend’ is kind of a trigger for me. What it triggers is not exactly anger but intense frustrated irritation. The sort of thing that makes you clench your fists and half scream half growl through gritted teeth. I don’t know how to write that sound. The scream would be ‘aaarrrgh!’. The growl would be ‘grrr’. So I suppose noise I’m talking about would be something like ‘grrraaarrrghgrr’. But I’m not writing that. It may sort of convey what I’m trying to describe, but it looks ugly on the page. And it causes my spellchecker to start writing her resingation leter. Anyway! You know what I mean!

Where was I?

Oh yes! Language! Language matters. Language matters a lot. I don’t mean language as in English or Hindi. Obviously, if I was writing this in Hindi few of you would be able to read it. And I’d be off to the hospital with a suspected stroke. No! It’s not just which language you use, but how you use the language you use. The terms you choose. The context. The semantics and the pragmatics and the semiotics and all that stuff. (How do you spot a linguist? They all have lots of tics!) Stuff we don’t concern ourselves with as we communicate with each other. Things that we are all expert in without necessarily knowing the ‘proper’ words for them. It’s knowing the ‘proper’ words that separates the ‘experts’ from the rest of us. Things that professional communicators are supposed to know something about even if not enough to make it into the category of ‘expert’.

Journalists are professional communicators. They mediate messages. They are one of the main links between us and ‘out there’. The world. Journalists are trained how to use language. Which starts with learning how language is used. If you are aware of the way people express their thoughts then you can describe and explain the world in terms that people will best understand. There’s more to it, of course. A lot goes into a journalist’s training. They have to learn about the way print, broadcast and online media function at a technical level and how they operate as businesses and how to avoid buying your round in the pub and probably a couple of other things.

Training is important. Journalism is a profession with very stringent ethical standards and a powerful commitment to public service. I think it was Paul “Scalphunter” Hutcheon who told me that. Or maybe it was Tom “Hellhole Scotland” Gordon.

To be a lot more fair than most journalist seem to manage, they’re not all like that. There are a few who actually take at least a bit seriously at least some of that stuff about professional standards and public service. I’d even be prepared to accept that the bulk of them start out that way. They genuinely believe that they are setting out on a mission to speak uncomfortably disruptive truth unto power on behalf of the many. But something happens to them along the way. At some point they find themselves speaking appropriately mediated truth unto the powerless on behalf of the few.

A formalised understanding of how people express their thoughts not only makes it possible to describe the world accurately in a way that people understand, it also makes it possible to have people understand the world inaccurately by the way it is described. Journalists are not just messengers. They are mediators. They process messages for onward transmission in a form that serves the intended purpose of the author. They manipulate messages. They make their living from manipulating messages on behalf of others. The others being whoever is prepared to pay them. Or whoever they choose to seek/accept payment from out of a closed group defined by the ability to pay to have messages manipulated. The powerful. Even if only relatively.

In the main, journalists work for established power. They may do so as indirectly as is required to ease any residual conscience. But most journalists by far work for established power. They manipulate messages on behalf on established power. They manipulate truth for the benefit of those whose interests are best served by ensuring that truth is never spoken unto the powerless.

They don’t necessary lie outright. There is rarely any need. People can be deceived in many ways just by the way language is used. A mediated – manipulated – message may contain nothing that is untrue. It may contain only verifiable facts. And still it can deceive. The information can be filtered. The facts can be purposefully selected or omitted. The components parts of the message can be ordered in a particular way either for emphasis or to ‘adjust’ their perceived importance or relevance. Or to make it either more likely or less likely that selected parts of the message are received. All of this is related to language and its use. It’s not just the words chosen.

But words matter too. Especially the words in the headline and standfirst – the bit right at the beginning and usually in bold. The former is almost bound to be read. The latter is likely to be read if the headline succeeds in seizing the attention of the reader. (Something similar is true for viewers and listeners whose attention may be captured using different means.) Words matter. Words matter if they are read – if the message is received. Words also matter even if they are not read. Because the words used by the media tend to become the currency of public discourse. To a very significant extent, the media defines the terms of debate. Journalists take the language we use for our purposes and return to us the same language, but formed for other purposes. The purposes of those who own the media and/or pay the journalists. To a very significant extent, this returned – mediated, manipulated – language then comes to be the language which informs public discourse. You see where this is going? You see how it works?

Language itself creates and recreates the contexts in which language is used. But the tendency must always be for the language to favour or at least shield established power. Without exercising any direct ‘Orwellian’ control, the system works in favour of the powerful. In a very real sense, we all end up doing the same. To the extent that we use the language favoured by the powerful, we favour the powerful. We help to make that language and all its purposefully attached associations and connotations a defining part of the social and political environment. We do for free what journalists get paid to do. We probably don’t do it as effectively as they do. But there’s more of us. Each of us need only do a little bit even in the most half-arsed way and the aggregate has a major effect on that social and political environment.

It’s a self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing process. It would be to the general advantage of those in the sub-basements of the structures of power, privilege and patronage which serve the few at perpetual cost to the many if the cycle was broken. Why hasn’t it been broken? Good question! So glad you’re still here to ask it more than 1200 words in.

The simple answer is that the cycle hasn’t been broken because it’s a self-perpetuation and self-reinforcing process. The advantage of this being true is almost certainly going to be outweighed by it being judged unhelpful – perhaps facetious. As if I would ever!

We need an explanation which is at least sightly better lest readers get to 1300 words only to feel cheated.

Remember the headline I began with? If so, well done you! I had to scroll back to the top of the page to remind myself. Remember the fuss I made about the language? Specifically the term “budget underspend”? What was all that about? And how does it relate to all that other stuff?

What the term “budget underspend” refers to is a fiscal phenomenon more usually called a ‘budget surplus’. In fact, it is always called a budget surplus. With only very rare exceptions. I’ll venture that the only exception anybody reading this is aware of is when the budget surplus in question is the Scottish Government’s budget surplus. What’s the difference, you ask? Aren’t ‘underspend’ and ‘surplus’ just different words for the same thing?

Again! Good question! Maybe even better than the one I remarked on earlier. My answer is that maybe they could be different words for the same thing, but in the context they definitely are not. In the context, ‘underspend’ implies something unplanned. A failure to meet set spending levels. A failure to effectively manage the budget. Even a failure to properly fund essential public services. All negative associations and connotations. All associations deployed through the media by those whose purpose is to undermine the Scottish Government, the SNP administration, the Scottish Parliament and all of Scotland’s democratic institutions.

Now you’re asking the best question of them all. Given the foregoing, what the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] is that word doing in a headline on the pages of The National? Why is a newspaper which is explicitly in favour of the restoration of Scotland’s independence and broadly supportive of the SNP administration using such language? Why do they use a word which would be more at home in one of those British Daily Express headlines breathlessly ‘informing’ us that the Scottish public are FURIOUS about something. Commonly something the Scottish public is largely unaware of or all but totally uninterested in. In this case, the fact that the Scottish Government has a budget surplus such as it always has because it is required to by law. Well, they couldn’t possibly (almost wrote ‘credibly’! Hah!) suggest that anybody might be FURIOUS about a budget surplus, could they? The term ‘budget surplus’ has entirely positive connotations. It’s the pursuit of a budget surplus and all the pursuant benefits which is used to rationalise the British state’s austerity economics. It has to be a good thing. And we don’t say good things about the uppity Jocks if we’re a journalist whose mortgage payments won’t be met just dodging rounds in the pub.

In Scotland, a budget surplus is unexceptional. It is unremarkable. It is commonplace. Everybody who cares about such things knows about it and doesn’t care. Call it an ‘underspend’, however, and the propaganda potential becomes significant. So that is what journalists in the service of the British state do.

But Roxanne Sorooshian – whose byline appears under the headline for which she may or may not be responsible – isn’t one of that disreputable breed, is she? She’s a Deputy Editor at The National! What the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] is going on? Isn’t it obvious? She must be a mole planted by the British Security Service to disrupt the independence campaign. I have it from a reliable source in a very fetching tinfoil Trilby.

Or it’s simple carelessness. But that doesn’t seem like a satisfactory explanation either. After all, it’s always called a ‘budget surplus’. It’s “budget underspend” that’s the unusual term. If it was a case of inattention then you’d expect there to be a default to the most common term. The default would be ‘budget surplus’. It’s where you’d go if you were on autopilot. Using the pejorative terminology must be intentional.

Well, yes! If you mean intentional in the sense of non-accidental. But not if you mean it in these sense of (invariably malign) intent. A better term might be ‘unwitting’.

What this demonstrates is the extent to which the heavily propaganda-laden language of the British state has permeated and tainted Scotland’s media environment. It must be effectively impossible to train as a journalist without getting the stuff on your hands and up your nose and in your hair. Every journalist comes dipped in Brit. So maybe we should cut The National some slack.

But I’m not going to. Because language matters. The National Is a great asset to the independence movement. It has the potential to be a great asset to Scotland. It could be the catalyst for a whole new Scottish media environment. But not so long as it remains contaminated by the British media culture. Not until it is rid of any tendency to call a surplus an overspend.



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Non-conforming

I don’t usually share content from this site. Partly because that content to date has amounted to little more than variations on Ben Wray’s constant theme that the Scottish Government is getting it wrong whatever they do. Which, as one of the voters who nonetheless persist in electing the SNP, I find slightly insulting. Also, I have a policy – admittedly adhered to only sporadically – of not publicising political commentary sites which do not allow comments. Such outlets tend to be come a megaphone for the unchallenged and (effectively) unchallengeable views of some individual or clique promoting a narrow political agenda. I haven’t forgotten Open Space and what was done to that by people who considered themselves above question or scrutiny.

This article starts off in much the usual vein. It only gets out of the rut to drift towards a sweeping, self-serving apologia for the kind of self-styled journalists I’ve just been referring to. I have made my views on this matter very clear. To the credit of the author, he doesn’t stray too far into that territory and actually makes some fair points about media ownership and finances and the problems with support that takes the form of government largesse. I quote the final paragraph.

The answer is not for government to prop-up the owners of a broken newspaper model, but to treat the need for challenging, non-conformist journalism – free of malign corporate and state influence – like the cultural necessity it is. At the end of the day though, we can’t expect governments to support non-conformity; that’s almost a contradiction in terms. The non-conformists have to start the fire themselves.

Free to Rebel?

I suspect I fall into the category of “non-conformist” as well as I do into the category of offended SNP voter. And I’m left to assume that by “start the fire” Ben Wray​ means start the flow of cash. I don’t think so, Ben. I, and I would hazard most of my fellow “non-conformists”, am not so readily induced to spend my money indiscriminately supporting those who appoint themselves to the category of ‘journalists’. There are journalists and there are journalists. I will happily support the noble profession of journalism. But I am disgustedly aware that what is practised by all too many who claim membership of that profession fails abysmally to accord with any objective definition of journalism.

Ben Wray makes the point that there is a danger government support will be used as a lever to ‘influence’ the media. I wonder if that is any worse than the excessive economic and political influences that already exits. But to the extent that this is a problem it is simply addressed by making it state support rather than government support. I’m assuming Mr Wray and others will appreciate the difference.

As well as the source he also raises the matter of the destination of state, government or any other financial support. As he says, it’s not acceptable that ‘grants’ be transformed instantly and as if by magic into ‘profits’. What Ben Wray fails to recognise is that to active, discerning consumers of media product such as myself it is just as unacceptable that my money should go to those I consider undeserving. I am happy to support journalism. I will not pay for anti-Scottish propaganda. I will not reward ‘journalists’ who prostitute themselves to established power. As I wrote in response to a more explicit apologia by Shona Craven,

… 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.

Dark days

But I don’t want to leave myself open to charges of negativity. The absence of a suggested alternative does not diminish or discredit the above comments. Indeed, the insistence on such an alternative is commonly used to divert from such criticisms. It is always appropriate to consider alternatives. It is not always wise to be led into debating anything but the suggestion being criticised. So! How about a truly “non-conformist” solution? Or, at least, the bare bones of one. It is all too easy to start digging down into ever finer detail on these things – if one is the kind of person who doesn’t stop thinking when they get to the first bit that they like. I have in mind a solution (I use the term loosely and with due humility) which is not only particularly pertinent in present circumstances but which may actually be facilitated by those circumstances. Maybe even necessitated by them.

Suppose we have some form of universal basic income. Suppose all journalists become freelance. Suppose the media companies become the market for the journalists’ product which they then aggregate and sell on to the public. Suppose journalists were, in effect, selling their product directly to the public but with sufficient state funding to be independent of the media aggregators. Suppose consumers could also support individual journalists through donations.

Suppose, instead of trying to eliminate market forces, we harness those forces for a social purpose.

Suppose you use your imagination to follow that through to the virtuous cycle which I am am persuaded is a real possibility.



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Dark days

Do all newspapers deserve to survive?

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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The National interest

Along with Thursday 18 September 2014, Monday 24 November that same year is one of those dates which are significant enough to have lodged in my increasingly unreliable memory. It is the day The National launched in a nation still thrumming with the democratic power that was so tragically squandered.

The National’s masthead proudly declared it to be,

THE NEWSPAPER THAT SUPPORTS AN INDEPENDENT SCOTLAND

It still does. It still is. It remains the only newspaper that speaks for an aspiration shared by around half of Scotland’s people. The aspiration to restore Scotland’s independence. The hope and determination to free Scotland from an imposed political union contrived over three centuries ago for the purpose of subordinating this nation and its sovereign people to the will and the interests of an emerging imperialist British state. It still is such a political union. It still does what it was designed to do. It remains an insufferable blight on Scotland.

I was recently reminded of the editorial in that first edition of The National. Written by the newspaper’s founding editor, Richard Walker, it included the following

During the referendum campaign, it became clear that there is a democratic deficit in terms of the Scottish media. The raison d’etre of the National is to redress the balance and cogently to argue the case for independence.

More than five years later, the democratic deficit in terms of the Scottish media is, if anything, greater than it was then. Unquestionably, there is an even greater need now for a newspaper which supports Scotland’s cause. We need The National. Scotland needs The National.

And now The National needs us. If we wish to have a national newspaper that is truly Scottish in its outlook; a newspaper that offers an alternative to the view from inside the British media bubble; a newspaper that presents the news from a Scottish perspective, then we must ensure that The National survives the current difficulties. Because, if The National fails it is extremely unlikely that there will ever be such a newspaper again. We will never again have a newspaper that supports Scottish independence.

Even if you are sometimes irritated by the way The National covers a topic; even if you occasionally disagree with the line taken on a particular issue; even if The National tends to fall somewhat short of your own ideal for a Scottish newspaper, you have to support The National because without it there is no hope of ever achieving that ideal. It is not, in any case, the job of The National to pander to some purist notion of of Scotland’s cause. The National exists, as Richard Walker said in that first edition, to redress as far as one newspaper can the appalling imbalance in the media in Scotland. Anything which does this to any degree is doing a great service to both the independence movement and the Scottish nation.

It is through its media that a nation presents itself to the world. But a nation also sees itself through its media. If what Scotland sees of itself through the distorting lens of the British media is what Scotland believes itself to be, then Scotland is a nation impoverished and inadequate and unworthy in every way. The National matters, not because it lets us see ourselves as others see us, but because it allows us at least a glimpse of what we really are – and what we might be. To lose The National now would be like losing ones sight again a few years after having it restored.

The National needs you to take out a digital subscription. That is all. I can personally testify to the quality of The National’s digital edition. Even in normal times when it’s possible to pop down to the shop to buy a copy, it’s great to have that digital edition there on your phone, tablet or computer first thing in the morning. I still get the hard copy whenever possible. Or rather my wife does. The digital edition can either replace or augment the traditional newspaper. It is a good thing!

This is the bit where I’m supposed to give you all that pish about how I know times are hard and people are struggling and blah! blah! blah! I won’t! I decline to be so condescending. If you are in such dire financial straits as to be unable to afford a digital subscription to The National then it’s for sure you don’t need me to tell you. Nor do I imagine you place much value on my sympathy; or any value at all on threadbare platitudes. My plea is to anyone who can possibly manage it, even at some tolerable personal sacrifice, to help preserve something which is more than just a newspaper. More than just the light by which we see through the murk of British Nationalist propaganda. More than just the true mirror in which we see our nation reflected.

More than all of this, The National is a token of our self-respect in a Union which allows us none. It is a symbol of the defiance which has for centuries has held out against efforts to subsume Scotland into initially an imperialist ‘Greater England’ and latterly an equally alien right-wing British state. It is the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland.



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Who cares?

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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Wishful thinking

I read Nicola Sturgeon’s Tweet yesterday in which she wonders, with evident scepticism, whether the British media might subject Boris Johnson’s position on a new independence referendum to “serious scrutiny”, and into my head popped that Lerner and Loewe song from the musical My Fair Lady in which the heroine of the piece reflects wistfully on the simple things that would make her life perfect. In my head, and totally without the aid of Spotify or any other music streaming service, I could hear Julie Andrews singing “Wouldn’t it be loverly!” in an accent betokening origins well outside artillery range of Bow Bells.

If memory serves, Eliza Doolittle eventually realised her heart’s desire for a comfy chair, a coal fire and a secure supply of confectionery. I fear Nicola Sturgeon may be asking for far too much if she hopes the British media might ask awkward questions of British politicians. Particularly in the matter of the Union and Scotland’s status within the UK, the British media defer totally to the British establishment. There is more chance of a porcine fly-past to mark Donald Trump’s Nobel Peace Prize than of the British media subjecting Boris Johnson’s stand against a new independence referendum to any serious examination. It’s just not what they do.

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Why don’t they do it? Why don’t they interrogate Boris Johnson about the democratic legitimacy of denying Scotland’s right of self determination? After all, it would make great theatre, wouldn’t it? Putting the British Prime Minister on the spot would surely get the kind of unrehearsed reaction that tends to go viral on social media. So, why does this so rarely happen?

The simple explanation – and, therefore, the explanation likely to be the least satisfying – is ‘bias’. That the British media is, generally, pro-Union is doubtless the case. But this is both unsurprising and inadequate to explain why media professionals don’t do what they might be expected to do. It doesn’t explain why journalists so consistently fail to follow journalistic instincts. It doesn’t explain why they so rarely ask the obvious questions. It doesn’t explain why they almost never succumb to the urge to create a spectacle. Is that not the business they’re in?

I’m sure many (most?) journalists would insist that they are not in the business of creating spectacle. I am confident they’d insist that their profession is the noble one of informing the public; discovering and disseminating the facts; speaking truth unto power, or whatever. But that only leaves us wondering why so little of this noble professionalism (or professional nobility?) manifests itself when these champions of the public’s right to know confront British politicians who take highly dubious positions with regard to Scotland’s right of self-determination.

We know what the role of political journalism is supposed to be. Ideally, it contributes to the electorate’s capacity to make informed choices. By providing accurate information and insightful analysis, political journalists help to ensure that political power is, as far as possible, exercised only with the informed consent of the people.

Aye, right! I hear you scoff. And with considerable justification. With exceptions notable for their rarity as much as for their integrity, political journalists are now regarded, less as a resource which interprets political messages for the purpose of improving public understanding, and more as a conduit by which the powerful insinuate their messages into the public consciousness.

There is no one simple explanation as to why interviewers don’t challenge the likes of Boris Johnson when they talk about ‘not allowing’ the people of Scotland to have a referendum. Or when they spout patent nonsense such as the stuff about a ‘once in a generation’ event. High on that list of explanations is the likelihood that it just doesn’t occur to the interviewer, or their bosses, to question any of this. It’s not so much that they are purposefully letting Johnson off the hook, as the fact that they are not even aware that there is a hook.

There is a famous incident in which TV political pundit Andrew Marr says to Noam Chomsky, “Do you think I’m censoring myself now?” and Chomsky retorts, “No, you don’t need to. Otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair.”

The journalists who get to a position where they have access to senior politicians only get to that position after a career spent immersed in exactly the same culture as those senior politicians. These journalists may not be ideologically aligned with the politicians they interview, but they think alike in ways that run far deeper than political philosophies which are, in any case, only superficially different. Whether they are on the left or on the right they are on a spectrum entirely confined within a shared space of Britishness. A space defined by common perspectives and attitudes which transcend mere political roles. And mere roles within the same British establishment.

The cosy consensus of Westminster-centric British political journalism sits comfortably with the cosy consensus of Westminster-centric British politics. Comfortably enough that it simply doesn’t occur to British political journalists to question an established order in which Westminster is superior in all regards and at all times.

In major news gathering and disseminating organisations such as the BBC, there are people whose role it is to ensure that the awkward questions do get asked. Managers whose task it is to prevent the people at the sharp end falling into bad habits. In any large organisation, the most important thing senior managers have to do is prevent the organisation coming to serve itself rather than the purpose for which it was created. But news and current affairs media in the UK are dominated by organisations where the management has failed in this regard. These organisations’ relationship with news has altered dramatically.

It used to be that news was ‘out there’ waiting to be found. Or, at the very least, waiting to fetched. The role of the news organisation was to go out and get the news. Collect it, if it was just there to be collected. Uncover it, if it was being concealed. Hunt it down, if it was elusive. The job involved bringing news into the organisation so that it could be processed – mediated – for presentation to the public in a comprehensible form.

Now, to a disturbing extent, these organisation have changed from being the mediators of news to being assembly plants for propaganda. News is no longer harvested from the world by highly skilled people. Parcels of pre-processed news are delivered to the news organisation for assembly, packaging and onward transmission to the masses in as unmediated a form as possible. Print and broadcast news and current affairs is no longer created from ingredients like a fine meal, it is bolted together from pre-formed components. The highly skilled people no longer work for the news organisations. They work for the organisations which supply the pre-formed components.

Attributing the grotesquely distorted news and current affairs coverage we get in Scotland to ‘bias’ doesn’t describe the situation at all. In relation to individual journalists, the term ‘bias’ implies a tendency to favour one perspective over another. It can hardly be described as bias if the people involved aren’t even meaningfully aware that there is more than one perspective. Even if they are aware of other perspectives – or the possibility of other perspectives – the journalist can only work with the material they are given. And they are at the public-facing end of a production line which only outputs the news which can be put together using the components supplied.

Asking a journalist to scrutinise Boris Johnson’s position on a new independence referendum may go beyond mere wishful thinking. It may be an impossible dream. Which reminds of of another song.



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Jackal journalism!

Amidst all this knee-jerking, virtue-signalling and high-minded posturing, the individual at the centre of the matter appears to be escaping any kind of scrutiny. That individual is, not Eva Bolander, but Paul Hutcheon – lately self-styled ace investigative reporter for The Herald and now, apparently, base gossip-columnist for the Daily Record. The important issue here is not Eva Bolander’s perfectly legitimate use of an allowance deemed necessary by the Scottish Parliament, but the malicious and misleading manner in which it was reported.

Eva Bolander did nothing wrong. She is entirely blameless and completely innocent. And yet she now finds herself the target of a vicious witch-hunt. Why? And just as pertinently, why is the instigator of this undeserved harassment allowed to sit in a corner preening himself with pride in his accomplishments as a malignant mischief-maker; glorying in his power to wreak havoc on the lives of guiltless people; smirking and sniggering in the knowledge that, however recklessly and maliciously he wields this power, he does so with impunity.

This is jackal-journalism at its most debased. It is bullying at its most cowardly. It is vile. It is a blight on our media and our politics and our society.

I will not allow myself to be manipulated by the sleekit worm-tongues whose sport is poisoning the public consciousness against whatever unfortunate they consider easy prey. I know who is the real villain of the piece. And, unlike those who count him a colleague and find that reason enough to shield him from criticism, I am prepared to denounce Paul Hutcheon’s thoroughly reprehensible conduct.



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Quality matters

A simple spelling mistake can undermine the credibility of an infographic.

Credibility is a fragile thing. When somebody makes the assertion that “there are far more people in Scotland who aren’t on social media than are” they really should ensure they’ve got their facts right. Particularly if they are claiming to represent a group of ‘professionals’. And especially is they are asking Yes supporters to dip into their pockets yet again.

The most recent statistics discovered by a quick search are a few years old and for the UK as a whole. They indicate that the share of monthly active social network users was 58.38% of the population in 2015. It seems safe to assume that level of social media usage in Scotland was not massively lower than in the whole UK; and that social media has not declined in the past four years. So the assertion that “far more” people aren’t using social media than are is starting to look a bit dubious.

Bear in mind that I found this information after the most cursory of searches. Surely anyone making such a bold claim about a statistical fact would be expected to put somewhat greater effort into ensuring veracity and accuracy.

This is not a criticism of the idea itself, of course. Although, knowing the author of the article in the Sunday National as I do, my expectation must be that it will be portrayed as such. In fact, I think a multi-media informational campaign is an excellent idea – if it is properly executed. That is a crucial caveat.

People have certain expectations of what a ‘proper’ media presentation looks and sounds like. Fail to meet those expectations and your presentation is likely to be dismissed as an amateurish effort or, even worse, be turned against your campaign using mockery. I have had people argue that media presentations produced by or on behalf of the Yes movement should look a bit rough and ready so as to differentiate them from the ‘big boys’. While this may have been to some extent true in the early days of the 2014 campaign, it most assuredly is not so now. Even during that campaign there were those who recognised the importance of a professional approach.

If they are to have any hope of being effective, media presentations must match audience expectations in terms of production values. The Yes movement has come a long way in this regard. One need only look at the work being done by the likes of Broadcasting Scotland and Phantom Power to see how much progress has been made. The bar has been raised. Anybody entering this market must be able to clear that bar. If they are asking for cash, they better be able to demonstrate that they are at least making an effort to clear that bar.

The early indications for ‘It’s Time Scotland’ have not been great. In private communication with a representative of this group I offered what I considered to be constructive criticism and helpful suggestions. The manner in which these were rejected left me with the distinct impression that honing and perfecting the media presentation was not a priority. I’ll put it no more strongly than that.

The Yes movement is phenomenally generous. But there has to be a limit. It is important that resources go where they will be most effectively used. A great idea and boundless enthusiasm simply aren’t enough without an uncompromising commitment to quality. It’s what people expect.



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Barbara from Wiltshire says!

I’m not sure what is newsworthy about a caller on a BBC programme being abysmally ignorant about and offensively condescending towards Scotland. The broadcasting arm of the British state does precisely what one would expect of it. Barbara from Wiltshire thinks and speaks exactly as one would expect of somebody whose opinions are informed entirely by the British media. And Nicky Campbell is just as shallow and vacuous as he needs to be in order to serve as the voice of the British establishment – and keep his job.

It would be great if Campbell were more like James O’Brien (LBC). His conversation with Barbara from Wiltshire might then have gone rather differently. He might, for example, have pointed out to the woefully ill-informed – or wilfully misinformed? – that it is not just Nicola Sturgeon “spouting she wants Scotland to be independent” but around half the people of Scotland. He might have pointed out that Nicola Sturgeon was only doing what she was elected to do. He might have pointed out that what her father fought for was democracy; and that denying the people of Scotland the right of self-determination is hardly in keeping with democratic principles.

It would be gratifying if Barbara from Wiltshire were better informed. It would be great if she were aware of a world other than that presented to her by the mainstream British media. It would be wonderful if she retained that precious spark of human intellect that inspires us to question dominant narratives; and a glimmer of that human spirit which provokes us to challenge established power.

But none of this is going to happen. Because the broadcasting arm of the British state does precisely what it is supposed to do. Because the British media are the voice of the British establishment. Because the narratives which serve established power are, not just dominant, but overwhelming.

The media should be the community of communities which constitute the nation talking amongst themselves. We just don’t have that in Scotland. With few exceptions – The National being the most prominent – we do not have newspapers which report and present and analyse and explain and discuss current affairs and major issues from a Scottish perspective. We have newspapers which are little more than propaganda sheets for an increasingly shrill and aggressive British Nationalist ideology.

We don’t have broadcasting in Scotland by Scotland for Scotland; we have broadcasting at Scotland by the British establishment for the established power of the British state.

Scotland is not as it should be as much because of the cultural anomaly of the media as due to the constitutional anomaly of the Union. Scotland is less than it might be, not only because we are denied the political powers that we need in order to pursue our aspirations, but also because we lack the means to create and communicate and criticise and recast an idea of ourselves.

Both these anomalies must be rectified as a matter of urgency.



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