The manipulators

Predictably, there were some Yes supporters who couldn’t resist signalling their glee at the prospect of several hundred people and their families facing uncertainty in the weeks before Christmas.

If, like me, you have learned to question absolutely everything conveyed by the media, you will have read Kevin McKenna’s assertion in The National and wondered if it was true. You will have wondered if there actually any Yes supporters indulging in public displays of unseemly schadenfreude at the prospective misfortune of Scotsman employees and their families.

If, like me, you have learned to distrust such claims unless backed up with persuasive evidence or authoritative argument, you will be wondering why Mr McKenna has neglected to provide even a single example to illustrate the behaviour to which he refers. After all, he must have witnessed this behaviour. He would hardly claim that Yes supporters were “signalling their glee” at the possibility of people suffering the Dickensian Yuletide he evokes unless he had actually seen at least one or two instances of such contemptible conduct. He wouldn’t expect us to take this serious allegation on trust. Would he?

If, like me, you have learned that certain terms can have a particular significance when deployed by journalists, you will have realised that prefacing this claim with the word ‘predictably’ is intended to strongly imply a truth so obvious that the reader would be a fool to doubt it. Or, if not a fool, then certainly someone outside the priesthood of journalism and so denied their privileged access to truth. Which amounts to the same thing as being a fool, I suppose.

Journalists are manipulators. They manipulate information. They manipulate language. They manipulate perception. Ultimately, they manipulate people. This is entirely unsurprising and quite uncontroversial. After all, journalists work, for the most part, in an industry devoted to manipulation of people’s perceptions. Manipulation is a function of control. Control is a function of power. Power must be made manifest. Manipulators gotta manipulate. They can’t help themselves. Crucially, they don’t get paid unless they can demonstrate their ability to manipulate. And you’re only as good as your most recent bit of manipulation.

This doesn’t necessarily make journalists bad people. Everybody has to make a living. And it very much depends on what power is being served by those manipulative skills. Or, rather, how we perceive the power that is so served.

Perhaps, like me, you begin to see the problem.

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Conspiracy as an emergent property of organisations

The following is adapted from an article titled Unconscious bias
which was originally published by Indyref2 on 15 August 2016.

bbc_north_britainWhen assessing the BBC’s coverage of Scottish politics and the now undeniable bias in favour of the British establishment it would be a mistake to think in terms of a formal conspiracy. If you’re imagining a cabal of managers, producers, directors, journalists and presenters secretly conniving together to do down the SNP and the independence movement, you are entertaining a fantasy. There is no organised plot. Nor is there any need for such a thing. What, with hindsight, has all the appearance of having been carefully contrived is, in fact, no more than the incidental outcome of an ‘organic’ process with no purpose or direction.

Just as ‘misreporting’ may be indistinguishable from deliberate dishonesty, so what looks like a conspiracy may be only a mirage. It may be no more than the impression left on history by lots of unconnected, or only loosely connected, events. It may be a pattern without a plan. It may be conspiracy as an emergent property of an organisation which, not being effectively managed towards its true purpose, tends towards the dominant agenda within its own structures.

All that is required for the appearance of conspiracy to emerge is that there should be a sufficient number of people; with a sufficient amount of influence; and a sufficient commonality of interest.

This is what has happened in the BBC. And most particularly in BBC Scotland. It is not wholly accurate to say that either is institutionally biased; although the BBC is undoubtedly the broadcasting arm of the British establishment and can be expected to behave accordingly. It would be more apt to describe BBC Scotland as organisationally, or structurally, biased. Over time, a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing process has led to the organisation being populated with people drawn from, or with intimate connections to, a Scottish political establishment that was, for a formative period of decades, the almost exclusive province of British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). BBC Scotland is stuffed with people who still regard what they like to call “Scottish Labour” as rightfully the dominant force in Scottish politics. Many are inclined to treat it as if it still is. They genuinely see nothing wrong in packing every studio panel with BLiS worthies because they cannot accept how irrelevant the pretendy wee party has become.

The inevitable corollary to this collective and largely unconscious (or unthinking?) pro-British/pro-union/pro-BLiS bias is antipathy to the SNP. After all, the SNP has not only supplanted BLiS as the primary force in Scottish party politics, but also represents a threat to the British state, which the BBC is institutionally inclined to regard as the ‘natural order’.

Obviously, this is a problem. For the public service broadcaster to have succumbed to organisational bias is a very serious issue for the functioning of democracy in Scotland. But in order to properly address a problem it is first necessary to understand it. To think in terms of conspiratorial plotting is to miss the point. This is a management problem. Or, more precisely, a problem of management failure.

I have no background in broadcasting. But the basics of good management are pretty much universal. They apply to every organisation. And it is glaringly obvious to me that BBC management has failed abysmally. I firmly believe that the BBC is institutionally sound. Moreover, I regard it as a crucial bastion of public service broadcasting. I have to recognise, however, that the BBC is in danger of being delivered into the hands of those who, for political or commercial motives or both, would see it destroyed. It is being betrayed by a generalised failure of management.

It’s unlikely that there are any high-level meetings of BBC executives at which a propaganda strategy against Scotland’s independence movement is discussed and formulated. It is improbable that instructions go out from senior managers to be acted upon by the lower echelons. It’s actually worse than that. BBC management have, by their incompetence, permitted the development of an environment – an ethos – in which these things, quite literally, just happen.

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Long live the Queen!

ruth_davidsonThe British media in Scotland aren’t always negative. We are accustomed to a daily diet of unremitting gloom, doom and despair served up by journalists who have made a career of portraying Scotland as a country made entirely from dreich held together by dour. All is crisis and chaos. Unless it’s catastrophe and collapse. If the nominally Scottish media are analogous to a window through which Scotland both observes itself and puts itself on display to the world, then the typical  hack spends their days smearing the glass with excrement and bile.

Apparently, there is only one good thing about Scotland. One palely gleaming pearl of hope in the mire of misery. One reason for journalists to exercise the muscles of positiveness which would otherwise surely atrophy. One thing in all of Scotland about which they can wax enthusiastic. Ruth Davidson!

And why not? Why shouldn’t they lionise her? She is, after all, a creature of the media’s creation. A Frankenstein’s monster made from photo-opportunities and vacuous pronouncements stitched together with spin. It is the media who have elevated Davidson to the status of Queen of the BritNats. It is only the constant and vigilant protection of the media which allows her to continue pretending to a status that she could never hope to earn on her own.

The British state needed a ‘personality’ to be the face of the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project in Scotland. The British political elite required a leader for hard-line Unionists to rally around. The narrative of British propaganda demanded someone who could be portrayed as a heroic blend of Boudicca, Churchill and Thatcher  – with a dash of Molly Weir. Someone to play the role of bold defender of the Union standing with her finger in the dyke holding back the tide of democratic dissent threatening the settled order.

Ruth Davidson got the part by default; British Labour in Scotland being unable to field a candidate who might survive internal party strife long enough to serve the British state’s purposes. That potential for a certain longevity was pretty much the only thing Davidson had going for her. The rest had to be constructed. She had to be given a make-over. She was shoved in one end of the British media sausage-making machine a third-rate party place-filler with no discernible talent. She emerged the same bag of fatuous hypocrisy and unabashed dishonesty, but now bulked with the breadcrumbs of interchangeable stock positions; artificially coloured with off-the-shelf charisma; seasoned with carefully controlled controversy; and enclosed in a protective skin that lends her the deceptive sheen of a serious politician whilst concealing the unappetising insipidness of the content.

But the Queen of the BritNats sits on a rickety throne. Her crown is on a shoogly peg. The pedestal upon which she has been raised must be constantly steadied and shored up. The British political establishment has invested too much in Ruth Davidson to let her fall. No matter how often or how badly she succumbs to arrogant stupidity, she must be protected. Her every clumsy stumble has to be presented as deft politicking. Each ill-thought utterance has to be imbued with gravitas. The contradictions and inconsistencies must be spun as intellectual complexity.

So it is that we get headlines such as ‘Ruth Davidson throws down gauntlet to May on immigration, NHS and tax‘ above cloyingly sycophantic articles written by journalists more accustomed to churning out dire pieces in the ‘Scotland is a hellhole’ genre. The purpose here is to present Davidson as a significant actor in Scottish and British politics. Someone who matters. Someone who has influence. Someone who can get things done. Someone who can be effective. Someone capable of bringing about change.

And it is all completely, utterly, ludicrously false!

Ruth Davidson is not a significant actor. She has no power. She has no authority, She can do nothing of any import whatsoever.

It’s all a sham. It would require a massive injection of substance to qualify as smoke and mirrors. It is a deception. Yet another confidence trick being played on the people of Scotland by the British establishment. The lectures and speeches and stage-managed public events and strictly controlled TV appearances, are all just theatre. None of what you see and hear is real. None of it matters.

The idiom of throwing down a gauntlet suggests a serious challenge. We are supposed to believe that Davidson is standing up to her generally reviled boss. We are supposed to be duped into thinking of Davidson as an effective shield against the worst excesses and ineptitude of the British government. Essentially, we are supposed to see Davidson as either – or both – an alternative to Theresa May and to Nicola Sturgeon. She is either Prime Minister-in-waiting or First Minister-in-waiting depending on the demands and expediences of the moment.

She is neither! But that won’t deter the British media. So long as Ruth Davidson remains a useful tool of the British establishment, they will continue to treat this commonest of commoners like political royalty.

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An alien force

bbc_union_at_any_costWE REJECT CRITICISM

That could be BBC Scotland’s strapline. It could almost be their mission statement. It certainly reflects the British state broadcaster’s smugly complacent attitude to criticism, as will be testified by anyone who has experienced the corporation’s arrogantly dismissive attitude to complaints.

All of which is reminiscent of the current debate about the accountability of the media and journalists’ insistence that they are not answerable to any external authority, least of all the consumers of their product. Just as the principle of press freedom is used a stick with which to beat any who criticise journalists, so the principle of the independence of public service broadcasting has been fashioned into a shield to deflect criticism of broadcasters.

This is what happens. All institutions created by and for fallible humans are bound to be imperfect. Organisations will tend to evolve to serve their own existence and convenience rather than the purpose for which they were founded. Professional groups will tend to become self-serving elites more concerned with the preservation of their status than with adherence to codes. That’s just the way people are. That’s just human nature.

Against this tendency to corruption are set such things as effective management, state regulation and market forces. We hope and intend that the managers of organisations will keep them focused on their purpose. We hope and intend that state regulation will prevent abuses. We hope and intend that consumer power will serve as a corrective to failures elsewhere.

But what happens when incompetent management is allowed to persist because they have become accountable only to themselves? What happens when a lack of political will saps regulation of its power? What happens when organisations are shielded from both public opinion and consumer power either by corporate wealth or the funding system which is meant to ensure their independence from political and commercial interests?

What happens is that we get the inadequacy and imbalance which characterises the media in Scotland today. We get a public service broadcaster which is woefully unfit for Scotland’s purpose. We get newspapers that simply don’t relate to Scotland.

We get media which are impervious to criticism and incapable of change.

We get British media lurking in Scotland like an alien force.

It is impossible to neglect the parallel with the British political parties squatting in the Scottish Parliament like a cuckoo in the nest of our democracy.

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Freedom from the press

mediaThere is a curious contradiction in Carolyn Leckie’s argument. On the one hand, she appears to recognise that the British mainstream media is inherently biased in favour of the British establishment of which it is a part. On the other, she urges us to “get across our arguments in a clear, friendly factual, positive way” using the same mainstream media. Either she doesn’t understand that fundamental aim of Scotland’s independence cause is to break the British state, or she doesn’t understand that the fundamental purpose of the British media is the preservation very structures of power, privilege and patronage which the independence movement opposes.

In one breath Carolyn seems to be saying that we should just accept the fact that the British media is not inclined to give the independence movement a fair hearing and an honest representation. In the next, she seems to be hoping that they will do just that if only we’re nice to them and present our case in a manner so devoid of assertiveness and passion that even a delicate creature such as Sunday Herald editor Neil Mackay won’t feel he’s being pressured – or attacked.

If Carolyn Leckie is saying that “attacking” the British media is futile, then I would probably agree with her. It is pointless to expect that the independence cause will be treated by the British establishment as anything other than the threat that it is. But this misses the point. It’s not about whether we should attack the media, but whether the media should be exempt from attack.

And for ‘attack’ here we should read ‘criticism’. Terms such as ‘attack’ and ‘hatred’ are labels which the media attach to criticism in order to divert from and avoid answering that criticism. To whatever extent it my be fair to characterise some of the criticism of the media as aggressive, that doesn’t alter the fact that much – perhaps most – of that criticism is perfectly reasonable and justifiable. By focusing exclusively on the aggression, journalists distract attention from the reasonable and justifiable points and, not at all incidentally, present themselves as victims.

It’s a question of accountability. Journalists such as Neil Mackay insist that they are a special category and should only be accountable to a professional code which, unfortunately, all too many journalist seem all too willing to disregard or flout. Others, myself included, maintain that journalists merely provide a service and produce a product and that, like anyone else who offers a service or product, they are ultimately answerable to the consumer.

With something that looks worryingly akin to complacency, Carolyn points out that,

The state-controlled media did not stop apartheid being overthrown in South Africa. Nor did Pravda prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While this is true at a woefully superficial level, it fails to acknowledge that the media were an important part of the apparatus by which these oppressive regimes were maintained for decades. It fails to recognise that breaking the media’s grip on people’s minds was an important – perhaps crucial – part of the process which ended apartheid and brought down the Soviet Union. Would anything have changed, or changed so soon or so quickly, if the version of reality promulgated by establishment media was not challenged?

The pious wee lecture with which Carolyn Leckie ends her piece is irritatingly familiar. A small but growing part of my “righteous anger” is reserved for those who suggest I’m not entitled to my righteous anger. I reserve the right to be significantly irked by the insinuation that it is those challenging the media who fear debate and dialogue when it is others – not least some journalists – who are seeking to shut down debate and discourage dialogue.

The clue is in the words, Carolyn. Righteous anger! There are things that should provoke us to anger. There are things to which we should strenuously object. There are things which must be protested loudly and opposed vigorously. And each of us must do so in the manner which we deem appropriate. Each of us should express our anger as we see fit, limited only by what is legally permissible . Only the causes of righteous anger benefit from our response to it being constrained by an etiquette authored by the objects of our righteous anger.

Challenging and criticising the media is essential to a healthy democracy and a necessary part of any political struggle. Journalists do not get to declare themselves an elite immune from public scrutiny. Notwithstanding the spluttering outrage of some journalists at the very idea, the media will be answerable to the consumers of its messages.

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The death of truth

Just thought I’d drop this into the current discussion about the condition of media and journalism in Scotland and elsewhere. It’s an extract from an article titled The death of truth which first appeared in the March 2017 issue of iScot Magazine.

Isn’t there an irony – delicious or distasteful according to personal taste – in the fact that the propagators of fake news are elevating themselves to the status of noble heroes defending their right to propagate fake news against a politically-motivated onslaught that deploys fake news as one of its principal weapons?

For all this, there remains a sense that there is something different about the present morass, as compared with previous morasses. This, it seems to me, is not adequately captured by anything in the currently fashionable journalistic lexicon. Not ‘fake news’. Not ‘post-truth’. Not even ‘anti-truth’ – which, I confess, was the term for which I first reached when seeking to pin down a concept that I found rather elusive.

While researching the term, I encountered some interesting comments from an Indian blogger going by the name, Factorator. Interesting, not least for the fact that they were writing about Indian politics – demonstrating that the phenomena under discussion are by no means exclusive to the West. I am taking the liberty of quoting at length.

Can deliberate and selective subversion of facts, irrespective of the frequency of their occurrence or the severity of their impact, lead to establishing a narrative contrary to reality? Is post-truth actually ‘forced-truth’?

But here’s the real deal. Picture a situation where lies about one side are ceaselessly repeated and inconvenient facts about the other are diligently suppressed. Can this be the potential force-multiplier that opens up a vast, permanent chasm between reality and perception? Can it create an artificial, alternate version of contemporary events suited to the interests of a cartel?

As an observer of Scottish politics and, in particular, the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence, these two paragraphs resonated like some planet-sized bell. I have never read a better description of the British state’s anti-independence propaganda campaign. It could be the mission statement for Better Together/Project Fear.

It also serves as a very adequate summary of a situation that goes well beyond Scotland’s politics and Scotland’s borders. At minimum, it captions US and UK politics with disturbing accuracy.

And yet, I’m still left with this nagging feeling that there is something more. It seems not enough to say that truth is being supplanted. That it is being overwhelmed by a “narrative contrary to reality”. For all its vivid persuasiveness, the concept of a “vast, permanent chasm between reality and perception” is wanting. Possibly because it leaves reality distanced, but intact. And the sense I get is, not of truth being set-aside or distorted or obscured, but of truth being demolished. Obliterated. Eradicated.

Neither ‘post-truth’ nor ‘anti-truth’ do justice to what is going on. We need a new word to refer to the destruction of truth. A word that conveys the uncreation of reality. A word that speaks of the death of truth. The killing of truth. The murder of truth.

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