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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The BBC won’t change

Good to see the SNP taking a more robust position on the British media. It won’t make any difference, of course. The BBC is part of the British establishment. It is the voice of the ruling elite. It would be folly to imagine that voice might serve anything other than the interests of the ruling elite.

Even if there is an Ofcom investigation, and even if the BBC is found to have breached any law, regulation or code of conduct, it will not change. Even if it is ruled that the BBC has been wilfully dishonest, it will not change. It will not change because it cannot change. It cannot change because it is part of the British establishment. The BBC can change only if and to the extent that the British establishment changes.

Right now, the entire British state is in full defensive mode. Other, perhaps, than in time of war, the British establishment has never been more resistant to change. At such times, the tendency is to look backwards. To cling to the past. To hold to a standard based on a mythical golden age. Any more realistic standard is just too much of a challenge. The British establishment is not going to change. So the British media are not going to change.

In truth, the fundamental nature of the British state has not changed in more than three centuries. There has been no revolution such as is required to destroy and replace the ruling elite. All that has changed are the methods by which that ruling elite maintains its structures of power, privilege and patronage. And even that boils down to the one thing – manipulation. The British establishment has grown more efficient at manipulating people. It has improved the apparatus by which public perceptions are managed. The British propaganda machine is second to none. And better than most because it has had such a long period of uninterrupted development serving the same purpose. Serving the same ruling elite.

This machinery of manipulation is now so deeply entrenched and woven into British society as to have become all but invisible and undetectable. The disinformation, distortion and dishonesty of the British media tend not to be seen as such by those who identify as British because it is so much part of the culture in which they have been embedded all their lives and generation after generation.

Even those who operate this machinery of manipulation are not necessarily fully aware that what they are doing is propaganda. It is entirely possible that the people responsible for BBC Question Time genuinely believe they are doing an excellent job. They believe they are presenting the truth because they have never questioned the truth they are presenting. They have never learned to question it. Their capacity for questioning has been excised. The manipulators are effective because they themselves are products of the machinery of manipulation.

The BBC will not change. The British media will not change. Only we can change. People can recover the capacity to question. They can become aware of the machinery of manipulation and its methods. And, being aware, they can be resistant to its effects. They may even break the machinery.

So, it’s good that Keith Brown is publicly denouncing the BBC. Not because it will bring about change in the corporation, but because it may prompt a few more people to question the version of the truth that is being fed to them.


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Loose lips

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh devotes much of her column in The National today to a valiant attempt to repair some of the damage done by her colleagues who apparently thought it a good idea to follow up the stirring event in Glasgow on Saturday with a stunningly ill-considered attack on the Yes movement’s online activists in The Herald the following morning. Acknowledging that “pro-indy bloggers do great work” may go some way to placating those who were understandably perplexed and offended to learn from Neil Mackay that the SNP had declared “war on the cybernats”.

Mackay’s “exclusive” rehashing a stale gobbet of Unionist propaganda was laced with quotes from a trio of SNP worthies from which the former editor who oversaw the demise of the Sunday Herald was able select the words which would help him spin some shallow, lurid sensationalism from a tired, trite trope. Angus Robertson, Alyn Smith MEP and Stewart McDonald MP were reported as referring to online Yes activists using terms such as “cowards”, “creepy”, “snarling”, “vicious”, “nasty” and “vile”. Hard-hitting stuff.

Could these “leading figures” in the SNP be talking about the same people Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh later praised for doing “great work”? Well, of course not! Not according to Stewart McDonald, at any rate. Apparently, when he said what he is reported as saying, he didn’t mean to offend any of the people who were offended.

The thing is, Stewart, when you loose a salvo from a blunderbuss hoping for the effect of a sniper rifle, you are almost inevitably going to be obliged to then spend an inordinate amount of time and effort picking pellets from the posteriors of those who would be your friends and allies.

Stewart McDonald, too, takes to the pages of The National to proclaim that The Herald’s “”awful ‘cybernat’ headline pissed me off“. He seems genuinely taken aback to find that the thoughtful, measured comments which he could swear were what he fed in, came out after ‘processing’ by Mackay sounding more like the demented ranting of a thoroughly lubricated pub pundit.

Mr McDonald seems like a decent sort of person. I understand him to be a very effective MP who does excellent work for party, nation and cause. To the best of my knowledge he has expressed no ambition to abandon this work in favour of pursuing the office of Speaker of the House of Commons. For which he is to be applauded. But his evident naivety in dealing with the media is cause for concern.

The pressing issue for @NicolaSturgeon as party leader is that alarm bells didn’t ring in the minds of leading figures in the SNP immediately on receiving a call from somebody like Neil Mackay.— Peter A Bell #DissolveTheUnion (@BerthanPete) May 6, 2019

As I commented on Twitter a couple of days ago, it simply isn’t acceptable that senior figures in the SNP should be so lacking in circumspection when dealing with journalists. It is a failing which, as party leader, Nicola Sturgeon really must address as a matter of urgency. Frankly, it beggars belief that experienced politicians should be unaware of the ways in which the media manipulates information. This was not some cunning trap laid by Neil Mackay. It was one of the oldest tricks in the book. And yet these three traipsed into it like children gaily following the Pied Piper into the chasm.

Perhaps Nicola could start by passing on to all her colleagues Kevin McKenna’s message to Angus Robertson, Stewart McDonald and Alyn Smith.


Leave the Unionist propaganda to your opponents. Re-double your efforts on doing what we pay you for: fighting hard for the communities and the lives that have been destroyed by your political foes. Don’t pretend to be upset at the uncouth and uncivilised language of the cybernats. Instead, when you’re sharing cocktails in all your kilted finery at your next £100-a-head dinner you could try using some of it on the bankers and industrialists you’re all fond of meeting and who are guilty of much, much more than a few obstreperous cybernats.


My message to the SNP on ‘cybernats’: Stop perpetuating a Unionist myth

That seems like a good way to introduce a crash course in dealing with the media. And perhaps those who qualify as “leading figures in the SNP” will indulge me if I presume to offer a bit of advice specific to the situation in which that particular trio found themselves.

When the phone rings at some odd hour when you might be expected to have at least partly unwound after a hard day of politicking and you answer to be greeted by a journalist who informs you in slightly breathless tones that he is about to submit a piece on [hot topic] and asking if you would like to comment, BEWARE!

The sensible thing to do in that situation is to offer to submit a written statement by email within the hour. If the hack insists this would be too late for inclusion, politely end the exchange and hang up. You won’t get your name in the paper. But neither will you get yourself in the shit.


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