Political Campaigning for Dummies #1

Since it appeared in The National on Thursday 14 February, Andrew Wilson’s latest column has provoked a considerable amount of comment. It is safe to say that almost all of this comment has been highly critical. All of those which I’ve seen express various degrees of outrage at one of our First Minister’s advisers urging the ‘softest possible form of Scottish independence’. None of those that I’ve seen show any evidence that the individual commenting on Andrew’s article has taken the trouble to read it first.

The fact is that the words ‘softest possible form of Scottish independence’ do not appear anywhere in the piece. What Andrew actually says, after some discussion of aspects of the Sustainable Growth Commission’s report, is,

In the parlance of Brexit, we offer the softest of possible changes to the current arrangements, not the hardest.

Andrew Wilson: Next Scottish White Paper will learn from 2014 – and from Brexit

He is talking about changes to particular arrangements in the period immediately after independence. Using the “parlance of Brexit” may have been an unfortunate choice of rhetorical device, but it is no more than that – a rhetorical device. What he is saying is that the transition to independence should take the least disruptive course rather than the most disruptive. A statement which is only controversial if one is committed to maximising tumult and turbulence in the early years of Scotland’s restored independence. Or, to put it another way, you’d have to be some kind of nutter to be outraged by what Andrew Wilson actually said.

There is much to criticise in Andrew’s article. For example, his claim that the “first and most striking lesson” that the independence campaign might take from the Brexit fiasco is that we need “a prospectus and a rigorous plan”. He would say that, wouldn’t he? Given that he’s in the business of developing that prospectus and that plan.

Fortunately, Andrew is not – so far as I am aware – involved in planning the campaign which will take us to independence. The prospectus and plan to which he refers are really just attempts to explain. And, as Ronald Regan observed in one of his lucid moments, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing!”.

The “first and most striking lesson” to be taken from the Brexit mess is that a political campaign needs a comprehensible and unambiguous objective. That aim must also be deliverable. But first and foremost it must be absolutely clear what the campaign’s purpose is. You can’t even begin to formulate a prospectus and plan unless and until you establish what it is that the campaign aims to achieve.

That the Leave campaign failed in this regard is evident from the fact that much, if not all, of the early debate concerned the meaning of Brexit. A debate which was not in any sense resolved by Theresa May explaining that “Brexit means Brexit”. It is a measure of the laminar shallowness of this remark that, had you entertained an idea of Brexit as a sugar-coated dung beetle, May’s ‘explanation’ would have done absolutely nothing to disabuse you of this notion.

I hate to remind you. But Theresa May is the British Prime Minister and the person in charge of taking the UK out of the EU. A fact which makes the idea of Brexit as a sugar-coated dung beetle seem sensible and credible by comparison.

Having taken a lesson from the Leave campaign’s abysmal failure to precisely define its aim, how might the Yes movement do better. It’s safe to assume that most people would say the objective is the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But, as we discovered during the 2014 referendum campaign, the concept of independence is open to almost endless interpretation. The Yes movement spent pretty much the entire campaign trying to explain what independence means; what independence is. There were almost as many different explanations as there were people doing the explaining. Every one of those explanations invited demands for further explanation from an anti-independence campaign intent on sowing doubt and confusion. And every one of those demands drew the Yes campaign into further attempt to explain.

If it’s true that “when you’re explaining, you’re losing”, then the Yes campaign was losing big-style.

What is required is a tighter ‘mission statement’. One that states exactly what it is that is the end being pursued by the campaign. That is where #DissolveTheUnion comes in. It serves admirably as that comprehensible and unambiguous objective. There is no ‘flavour’ of independence which does not require the dissolution of the Union which is the antithesis of independence. The fundamental and essential aim of the independence cause is to bring an end to the Union. The break it. To consign it to the history from which it emerged and to which it remains incorrigibly bound.

The other lesson for today is not to trust the British media. It is remarkable that this lesson has yet to be learned by so many in the Yes movement. Of all people, you’d think those who are part of the campaign which is most commonly the target British media dishonesty would be familiar enough with the methods used to manipulate perceptions to avoid being taken in. But evidently, this is not so.

As has been pointed out, the words which caused offence did not appear in Andrew Wilson’s column. So, where did they come from? They came from headlines such as the one pictured from The Herald. People should know by now that the headline does not provide an indication of what the story below it is about. The headline tells you what the author and/or the publication want you to think the story is about. The headline is the first thrust in the process of manipulating the reader’s perception of the story. It plants the seed of deception which will then be fed by the standfirst and watered by the next few paragraphs. The default assumption when looking at any political story in the British media is that the headline is a lie.

There are abundant clues to tell the active consumer of media messages that they are being fed lies. There’s the fact that it’s The Herald, for a start. Then there’s the by-line. Tom Gordon is arguably the British media’s most adept exponent of anti-Scottish spin. He has played a major role in creating a genre of stories portraying Scotland as a dystopia where all is calamity and failure – unless it’s catastrophe and collapse. Having helped create the ‘Scotland as Hell-hole’ genre, Tom Gordon has very much made it his own. Tales of dysfunction and disaster in NHS Scotland are his speciality. Misrepresenting someone associated with the SNP is something Gordon does while roosting upside-down in his cave.

The ‘single quotes’ are another giveaway. They pretty much always tell the reader that what’s enclosed has owes its origins to the professionally fervid imagination of some mercenary hack. In the instance under discussion, the ‘single quotes’ scream out that the words within them were not actually spoken or written. Or, at least, they do for the minimally astute consumer of the British media’s output. Which clearly doesn’t include those denouncing Andrew Wilson for something he didn’t say.

Surely one of the most basic lessons to be learned by anyone hoping to be part of a political campaign is that your shouldn’t embrace your opponents’ propaganda. And you sure as hell shouldn’t promulgate that propaganda by parroting it all over social media. If, as a campaign activist, you are saying the same things as the opposition campaign, you are in desperate need of shutting the f*** up and applying such wit as you possess to reflecting on your behaviour.


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Scotland the disappeared!

I came across something the other day which some of you may find interesting. You’ll recall the fuss there was about the British government document(s) regarding Brexit which pointedly failed to mention Scotland. Then, last November there was that Andy Critchlow article in the Telegraph titled ‘North Sea oil can still be the bargaining chip we need‘, which also omitted any reference to Scotland.

I’ve stumbled upon another one!

It’s an article in The Guardian called ‘Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before. Can the police catch up?’. Written by Alex Perry and based on an interview with National Crime Agency boss Lynne Owens, it too manages to discuss at great length the issue of organised crime “in the UK” without once mentioning Scotland. There are lots of references to ‘Britain’ and ‘UK’ as well as a couple of mentions of ‘England & Wales’. But not so much as a hint that Scotland even exists. Which is extremely odd given one of the main themes of the article.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking this is just another ill-informed, under-educated, narrow-minded, shallow-thinking, London-based hack exhibiting all the dumb parochialism we’ve come to expect from that hapless breed. You might quite reasonable suppose the fool guilty of no more than the usual conflating of England with UK. But there’s evidently more too it than that. Because the article repeatedly touches on the topic of how “fragmented” the police service is in England and Wales. Here’s an example.

An ancient and fragmented structure of 43 English and Welsh county forces, some of which date back 190 years, had left Britain with little to no “capability to respond” to modern, global criminals.

Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before. Can the police catch up?

This is one of several similar comments based on what appears to be a matter of particular concern to Lynne Owens. So, given that this “fragmented” structure is such a major focus of the article, how do we explain the absence of any reference to the sole example in the UK of a unified police service – Police Scotland? How is it possible for a professional journalist to so totally miss something so relevant to what he is writing about.

Especially given other similar instances, it is increasingly difficult to avoid concluding that the omission is deliberate. Scotland is being ‘disappeared’.


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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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The cornered beast

back_in_boxAbout a month ago I warned that the British political establishment was in the process of ramping up its propaganda campaign against the SNP administration (see below). This wasn’t exactly a bold prediction. As all but the most passive consumers of British media output in Scotland will be aware, Project Fear did not stop after the 2014 referendum. The British state’s campaign of lies, distortion, smears and denigration has become an incessant, ubiquitous background hum to Scottish politics. But it became apparent some weeks ago that the effort to weaken the Scottish Government, delegitimise the Scottish Parliament and undermine confidence in Scotland’s public services was being intensified.

I do not intend to discuss what many will regard as the most obvious evidence of the renewed vigour with which the British political elite is now pursuing those regarded as a threat to the integrity of the British state. The allegations against Alex Salmond are extremely serious, suspiciously timely and dubious for a number of reasons. Suffice it to say that this may be one occasion when the supposed offences turn out to be the least of the story once the whole of that story is told. I would add only that the gluttonous glee with which British politicians and commentators have descended on the affair (see Alex Massie* for a sickening example) betokens their frenzied eagerness to find – or fashion – any stick with which to beat the hated SNP.

Signs of this frenzy are all around us. Just the other day, once respected newspaper The Scotsman carried a story under the headline Call for SNP to investigate Yes groups on Facebook. The piece was a transparently obvious attempt to exploit the ongoing controversy over social media content and to contrive a link between the SNP and current candidate for demonisation, Iran, by way of some questionable Facebook page purporting to support the Yes campaign.

The article is instantly recognisable as a rather clumsy bit of propaganda. Although the fact that the ‘source’ is Murdo Fraser suggests that the failure to distinguish between the SNP and the Yes movement may be a matter of genuine ignorance. It is surpassing easy to believe that Mr Fraser might be dumbly unaware that the SNP has absolutely no authority to “investigate” the Yes movement.

Whether born of knowing malice or just plain stupidity, this is a smear story. It should be treated with appropriate contempt.

As should the latest bit of madness from The Herald‘s David Leask. The gloriously demented headline invites us to Meet the McBots: how Scottish cyber activists try to game Twitter. We are then taken on a mercifully short meander through the garishly surreal fun-house of David Leask’s imagination.

The story revolves around a conspiracy theory conjured by some ‘expert’ with links to some Nato think-tank. According to his ‘research’, the “cyber activists” of the headline – pro-independence Twitter users to the rest of us – have been creating “McBots”, or artificial automated accounts, in order to “game” social media algorithms and get a particular hashtag trending.

attacks_on_snpThe hashtag in question is #DissolveTheUnion. I am familiar with it because, to the best of my knowledge, I am its author. I started using the hashtag some time ago to signify support for the idea of a more assertive approach to the process of restoring Scotland’s independence. Obviously, it has nothing whatever to do with the allegations against Alex Salmond. Although it will be unsurprising to anybody who is even vaguely aware of what is going on in Scottish politics that there is a considerable overlap between the people seeking a sense of urgency in the independence campaign and those commenting on a story involving the man who is regarded as a leading figure in that campaign.

Along come’s Mr Occam with his razor and poor Leasky’s latest bit of daftness is left in shreds on the floor of his comfortably upholstered accommodations. To whatever extent the hashtag #DissolveTheUnion may have trended on Twitter, this can most readily – not to mention rationally – be explained by the sheer number of Yes supporters using it in their perfectly legitimate Twitter accounts.

Expect more such nonsense. And much worse. The British state is a cornered beast. It is very much more dangerous than might be supposed from looking at the puny efforts of David Leask and Murdo Fraser.


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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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Media wars

Wings Over ScotlandThe stuff about the BBC targeting accounts “irrespective of the political views of the infringing YouTube channels” is obvious drivel. But if it’s true that they act on complaints then it would be interesting to know whether the actions against Stu Campbell and Peter Curran were prompted by specific complaints. And even more interesting to discover the source of those complaints.

There is no doubt that the British political elite is seriously concerned about the Yes movement’s continuing dominance in alternative media. A dominance which may even be increasing as production standards improve and as patterns of media consumption change. New technologies are coming online; technical and presentational skills are being developed; funding streams are becoming more reliable, all as the audience for alternative news, analysis and commentary is growing.

As alternative media outlets get better, they get more authoritative. They carry more weight – even as trust in traditional media plummets.

No wonder the British establishment is worried. The old media have long been both its armour and its armoury. They have been the shield protecting the chosen from scrutiny and guilty from accountability. They have been they sword wielded against any who presume to challenge established power. That armour is corroded and cracked. That sword is dull and damaged. The old media simply isn’t as effective as it once was. And the skills required to repair it have been lost to the ravages of corporate ‘rationalisation’.

Power being relative, it stands to reason that, lacking the means to recover the potency of its own propaganda machine, the British establishment will have no choice but to try and diminish the influence of alternative media. The attacks on Stu Campbell and Peter Curran should be viewed in the light of the British state’s imperative to control the flow of information and maintain it’s capacity for manipulating public perceptions.

Shutting down the Wings Over Scotland and Moridura YouTube channels is just the British establishment testing its strength. Once a process is verified and precedents are established, more will follow. As the old media forces falter and fall to the new media guerrillas, the British state mobilises a mercenary army of lawyers.


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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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