Saturday, May 02, 2009

A Parallel Scotland

It's a nice afternoon, so I'm away to tackle the front garden with a strimmer in an attempt to turn jungle into bowling green. To keep the pot boiling on the blogging front, here's my latest article for the SI, which should be dropping through all good letterboxes soon.

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you live in not so much a parallel universe, but a parallel Scotland. This parallel Scotland is identical to our Scotland in every last detail, except one. In this Scotland, the press and media exhibit an ingrained, subconscious bias towards the SNP and Scottish Independence.

I know it sounds fanciful, but bear with me. Were such an unlikely set of events to take place, just what would media coverage of Scottish politics look like, and what would be the overall effect on the body politic?

In our Scotland, you might have seen the post-budget edition of The Scotsman, where Hamish MacDonnell wrote that: “John Swinney sparked further tension with Westminster yesterday when he claimed 9,000 jobs could be lost in Scotland as a direct result of efficiency savings announced in the Budget.” In a parallel Scotland, it might have read “Alistair Darling sparked further tension with Holyrood yesterday when he dismissed claims that 9,000 Scottish jobs would be lost as a direct result of spending reductions announced in his Budget.”

A bit of a turnaround, no? The same facts are all in there, but the emphasis is changed to give the reader a totally different take on events. Now imagine that you'd tuned into Reporting Scotland the previous evening and heard presenter Jackie Bird prompt Brian Taylor to comment on whether the emerging fuss was all down to Westminster 'picking fights' with Holyrood, rather than as she did, express it t'other way about. Inflammatory stuff, which you imagine would elicit squeals of outrage about media bias from Labour and a barrage of complaints to the BBC and the editor of the title concerned.

Let's take another example. In the week the UK Cabinet decided to meet in Scotland for the first time in 88 years, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Milliband decided to attack the Scottish Government for making clear its willingness to use planning powers to prevent new nuclear power stations being built in Scotland. However, since the constitutional demarcations here could scarcely be clearer, just imagine for a moment that Milliband had been told by all and sundry to 'grow up', and to stop Westminster's 'obsession' with 'picking fights' with the Scottish Government.

Now imagine that the reporting of other post-2007 intra-governmental spats had been portrayed similarly – that Hilary Benn had withdrawn Foot and Mouth compensation for Scotland once there was no prospect of an early election; that the DWP was being petty in refusing to allow Scotland to continue to benefit from local tax benefit following replacement of the council tax with a local income tax; or that Westminster had ridden roughshod over Holyrood in negotiating with Lybia to repatriate prisoners without consulting Scottish Law Officers beforehand (sorry Kirsty – not even I can twist my mind enough to imagine you prosecuting that case with any conviction).

Unthinkable, no? No matter how much truth there might be in these observations, it would be like having editorial policy set by Special Advisers and SNP Press Officers. So why, rather than getting a dispassionate middle view which might encourage people to make up their own minds, do we get lumped with the precise opposite so often?

Even allowing for the adversarial nature of political questioning which often demands the positing of a polar opposite, even if only to be knocked down, there seems to be a leitmotif at work that the SNP picks fights with Westminster. Period. Just as there is with the automatic, lazy assumption that uniquely in the UK, more government spending takes place in Scotland than is raised in taxation and proportionate borrowing..

Let's leave aside the fact that it's not really in the interests of the SNP to allow itself to be portrayed as a wrecking influence. For me, the astonishing thing post-2007 has been how few spats have actually bubbled over in public. Privately, Ministers and Civil Servants at Westminster are pretty complimentary about their Scottish counterparts. Alex Salmond has always been feared and respected in equal measure as both strategist and parliamentarian, while Ministers like John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon and Bruce Crawford have won kudos in Whitehall for their command of their briefs.

So why do we get left with this impression in Scotland that the traffic of aggro flows one way only? The famed 'Scottish Cringe'? The desire to generate interesting copy? Or is it that having been supplicant to the Labour Nomenklatura for so long, the Scottish media is incapable of weaning itself from the teat of Labour's PR machine?

It would be remiss not to point out at this juncture that a few Scottish papers did come out, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, for an SNP led administration in 2007. Just as it would be not to point out that Labour is convinced that BBC Scotland is simply crawling with Nats – you can take from that about the collective state of mind of the Labour party what you will...

No-one forms their political opinions on the basis of the stance of one particular outlet – rather, it's the drip, drip, drip effect over time which has the greatest influence over the susceptible. As such, no-one votes Labour because the Record tells them to, or even votes SNP even because the Sunday Times suggests it might result in more “vigorous and imaginative government.” It's the periods in-between which have the greatest effect.

Returning to our parallel Scotland, the very fact the spin I've given these stories seems so inflammatory is because of the filter through which we're presented with large elements of our news. These filters can be broken – think Labour's past theme that SNP 'sums don't add up' – when self evidently they do. I also think that once Labour is booted out of office in London, that there's likely to be a very big change in the way Scottish politics is reported at home, which might lead to a similar change in how Westminster/Holyrood 'disputes' are portrayed in future.

Some of which might be good for the SNP. Nevertheless, I've no more desire to read an SNP version of Pravda than I have a unionist version, whether that occurs through design or more likely, laziness and a desire not to stand out too far from one's peers. The question remains, though - wouldn't democracy be so much healthier if we achieved balance not through competing extremes, but by having our journos remember that comment is best left to the editorial and the columnists?


subrosa said...

I like this Richard. Back to the garden now!

Anonymous said...

Read this:

It reveals the the utter corruption of the the media by the NULab project. Its racing round the blogs like wildfire.