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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Sunday Herald’s death rattle

If you’re looking for words to describe Neil Mackay’s open letter in today’s Sunday Herald, the following list might prove helpful.

self-righteous self-obsessed self-satisfied self-pitying
self-devoted self-indulgent self-flattering self-complacent
self-conceited self-aggrandising self-interested self-involved
self-congratulatory self-seeking self-regarding self-serving

herald-march-300x273The Sunday Herald editor’s attempt to deflect and defuse scathing criticism of his paper’s coverage of the All Under One Banner (AUOB) march in Glasgow last Saturday (5 May) brought to mind the BBC’s established practice of dealing with complaints by the simple expedient of declaring itself innocent – having first appointed itself the ultimate arbiter in all such matters. Mackay goes one better, however, by pronouncing himself and his newspaper, not only guiltless, but impeccable – a splendiferous flowering of all that is purest and brightest in the realm of print media. If his piece had run to another hundred words we might have been obliged to add self-beatification to that list.

Hark at this,

we wish to provide balance, accuracy and fairness. Our coverage last Sunday was an attempt to maintain that tradition.

the Sunday Herald has long tried to provide balance

the Sunday Herald office is staffed with some of the most experienced and talented reporting staff in journalism.

the Sunday Herald prides itself on the accuracy of its journalism and photo-journalism.

the Sunday Herald has impeccable credentials when it comes to our journalism

Was Neil Mackay explaining editorial decisions? Or was he writing his own testimonial?

And what about those editorial decisions? Mackay doesn’t quite manage an apology for the picture which adorned the front page of last Sunday’s edition. Or for the caption which accompanied it. The picture was widely condemned for giving the impression of a British Nationalist counter-demonstration which was (at least?) equal in size to the march. Or, as he puts it in an early instance of his self-serving narrative,

the picture was not representative of the day’s event

Even as he attempts to justify the pejorative image he can’t help slipping into language which reveals the same sleekit dishonesty. The complaint wasn’t that the picture was “not representative” of the event. The complaint was that the picture massively misrepresented the event. It misrepresented the event in ways that should have given any professional journalist pause. It misrepresented the event so completely and so comprehensively that it should have rung alarm bells on sight. It should not have needed to be pointed out. It was so wholly inappropriate as to be like a sharp stick poking the eye of the beholder.

But “the most experienced and talented reporting staff in journalism” were totally blind to the problem with that image. They were unaware. They just didn’t see it. That’s the issue here, Neil! That’s the problem. As the editor, it’s your problem. And you are evidently as oblivious to that problem as you were to the unacceptable nature of the image. It’s about the mindset. It’s about the ethos. If your newspaper was even half as good as you imagine it to be, somebody would have caught that picture before it went to print. But nobody saw it. Or, worse still, somebody may have spotted the problem but felt unable to speak up. What does that say about your “impeccable credentials”, Neil?

Then there’s the caption below the offending image. The caption which compounded the pejorative nature of the picture by claiming that “ugly confrontations marred the event”. The term ‘confrontations’ implies two or more parties. It is reminiscent of British media reports which described the British Nationalist rioting in George Square on the day after the 2014 referendum as “clashes”, suggesting that Yes supporters participated in the violence rather than being the targets of it.

The caption is at least as misleading as the picture. Again, it begs the question as to why “the most experienced and talented reporting staff in journalism” so readily resort to material which does anything but “provide balance, accuracy and fairness”.

It’s a conundrum that Neil Mackay urgently needs to address. If he and his staff are to be credited with the principled professionalism to which he lays claim, than how can this misrepresentation and distortion be anything other than deliberate? How might we simultaneously accept that they are exceptionally good at their jobs and that they make repeated blunders such as have been described? How does Neil Mackay reconcile this grating contradiction?

While he’s about it, perhaps he might try to explain how his claim of “balance, accuracy and fairness” can be compatible with holding the SNP leadership responsible for every word uttered by anybody who so much as hints at even the most tenuous association with the independence campaign, while the likes of Ruth Davidson and Richard Leonard are not similarly held to be accountable for the behaviour of British Nationalist bigots spewing bile on social media and confronting peaceful marchers on the streets with abuse and Nazi salutes.

Warning! The prejudice oozing out of the following paragraph may permanently stain clothing or carpets.

It is also disheartening that SNP figures do not speak out to condemn such distortion of the truth, when they know full well the values and the standards of the Sunday Herald. By maintaining their silence, they are allowing lies to poison the body politic. Staff in this paper have had many conversations with many senior elected figures in the SNP who are as disgusted by the conspiracy theories of the Yes fringe as any right thinking person would be – so we would ask them: when you see your supporters lying and bullying, have the courage to stand up and call them out; failing to do so betrays any claims by the party that it stands up for what is right and fair and decent.

See how that first sentence turns the accusation of distorting the truth back on those who are levelling that charge against the Sunday Herald. See how Mackay assumes authority to speak on behalf of “SNP figures”. See how he makes the SNP guilty by default. See the way the entire independence movement is reduced to a “Yes fringe”. See how he claims the moral high ground of “right thinking people”. See how everybody who dares complain about the very thing he’s doing in this passage are collectively condemned for “lying and bullying”. See how whatever he does is lauded as “right and fair and decent”.

There was a time when journalists could get away with this kind of manipulation. But people are daily growing more aware of trickery which, in any case, isn’t nearly as subtle and clever as the likes of Neil Mackay suppose. Among a more aware and astute readership, such clumsy, clunking rhetoric is likely to have an effect quite opposite to that which is intended.

If it wasn’t already clear just how woefully Neil Mackay has misread the situation, there’s the following,

There seems to be a hatred of journalism – of questioning, of analysis, of nuance, of open debate – at the heart of such sentiment which is truly not good for democracy.

For a start, Neil, it’s not “hatred”. Labelling it as such is just an inept attempt to diminish criticism by portraying it as overly emotive. It’s not hatred. It’s anger. Anger at the media’s failure to adequately serve democracy by providing the questioning, analysis and nuance which contributes to open debate and informed electoral choices.

What Neil Mackay and others plying his dubious trade need to understand is that, however many award ceremonies they organise for themselves, they don’t get to decide when they are doing a satisfactory job. We’ll decide! They don’t get to be the final arbiters of what is good journalism. We do! They don’t get to declare themselves righteous and innocent. They don’t get to stand in judgement of their critics. They don’t get to act with impunity. The consumers of their product have the final say.

You don’t tell us, Neil! We tell you! And you really should have listened.


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Not settling for less

bbc_union_at_any_costIt’s like being promised a new house only to find that what you’re actually getting is a garden shed. Not a top-of-the-range garden shed, but the smallest, cheapest, flimsiest, most low-spec garden shed on the market. It looks great in the brochure. But the one you’re getting isn’t painted. And, if you look closely just below that image in microscopic lettering are the words “Not shown actual size”. The attractive young lady in the bikini pictured gazing up in delighted wonder at the imposing edifice is actually only four foot three inches tall. You feel disappointed. You feel cheated. You feel Scottish.

Even if you don’t fully comprehend all the stuff about budgets and production costs and all the jargon of the TV industry, it’s easy to understand the difference between standard definition (SD) and high definition (HD). Anybody who has a fairly modern TV can appreciate the fact that HD is very much better than SD. For most of us, I suspect, HD is now the standard. It’s what we expect. SD actually stands for sub-standard definition. What the BBC is offering us is sub-standard. That crappy wee garden shed isn’t even made out of real wood.

But there’s more! Belatedly realising that the uppityness of the Jocks has now reached such a level that the ingrates decline to be fobbed-off with factory rejects, the BBC amended its offer. On 14 March 2018, Chris Roswell (Head of Regulation & Economics – a BBC title if ever I heard one) wrote to Ofcom (PDF) advising that the new BBC Scotland channel would only be broadcast in sub-standard definition part of the time. The great news was that the BBC had graciously deigned to provide the quality of picture viewers in Scotland pay for a few hours in the evening. The letter was (not really) signed, yours in anticipation of some grateful forelock-tugging from those pestilential provincials.

It has to be said that Mr Roswell (HoRE) took some of the shine off this grand new offering when he gleefully proclaimed that it didn’t involve spending any more of Scottish licence fee-payers’ money in Scotland. Due to “recent technology changes” the shabby little garden shed could be equipped with the luxury of a fourth wall (part-time only) at no additional cost.

We’re told nothing about the nature of those “technology changes”, and whether they are anything to do with the fact that the HD for the new BBC Scotland channel is being provided by taking it from the children’s channel, CBBC (in Scotland only). Will we, I wonder, be able to truly enjoy that glorious HD knowing it’s been stolen from our own bairns?

Am I the only one struck by the apparent effort the BBC puts into avoiding viewers in Scotland with the services we pay for? It’s almost as in there was something in the corporation’s charter about ensuring Scotland is always relatively worse off. The attitude seems to be that the BBC may grudgingly make some kind of gesture if we make a big enough fuss, but on no account must this amount to anything approximating the kind of public service broadcasting provision a real nation might enjoy.

It’s not about the money. We know that licence fee revenues raised in Scotland are sufficient to pay for a full broadcasting service. It’s as if the service provided by the British state broadcaster is being purposefully curtailed and diminished. It’s as if we are being deliberately short-changed. And not necessarily or entirely for financial reasons.

We swim in a media sea. We are immersed in it. There is no part of our lives that is not touched by the media. We view the world and ourselves through a media lens. Increasingly, we interact with others only through media. Our culture evolves in and is conveyed by the media. Our political discourse conforms to the demands of the media. It is baffling that people scoff at the idea of media studies as a ‘serious’ academic subject when the media looms so massively in all our lives. We live in a world made of media. So it stands to reason that established power will seek to control the media. And to use the media as a means of control.

Whether anyone in the BBC would admit it, or even be aware of it, that is what lies behind the extraordinary effort to detract from broadcasting in Scotland – even as they try to look as if they’re providing shiny new services. The British state requires that Scotland must be less than it might be. Therefore, the media in Scotland must be less than it might be. It is not a question of resources. The BBC’s stranglehold on Scotland’s media is both practical and symbolic. In practical terms, it prevents Scotland from either perceiving or presenting itself in they way we would choose were we permitted to do so. Symbolically, the BBC’s dominance of Scotland’s media represents the supremacy of the British state; while the paucity of the service provided by the BBC reinforces Scotland’s subordinate status within the UK.

Some in Scotland are content to settle for a dilapidated garden shed, so long as it has a Union flag flying above it. Others want the house we’re paying for.


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Strong and stable… suckers!

iscot_promo

The following is an extract from my article in the April edition of iScot Magazine.

There was always something very fishy about the idea of Ruth Davidson as the protector of Scotland’s interests. The Tories’ betrayal of Scotland’s fishing industry reveals just how misplaced was the trust put in Davidson by those in our fishing communities who voted, first to keep Scotland in the UK, then to take the UK out of the European Union. To people outside those communities, this always looked like serial self-harm. To many, it seemed inexplicable that folk who make their living from the sea should continue to put such faith in politicians who had spent three years demonstrating, on an almost daily basis, the extent to which they had misled, deceived and downright lied to the people of Scotland during the first independence referendum.

When it was revealed that the UK Government’s Brexit ‘deal’ with the EU involved the Common Fisheries Policy effectively being retained for nearly two years longer than had been promised, there was no great surprise amongst those who have their finger on the pulse of Scottish politics. While the less well-informed were expressing various degrees of shock and dismay at this blatant breach of trust, the attitude of those more aware of the realities of Scottish politics was nicely summed up by Holyrood magazine editor, Mandy Rhodes,

What was more surprising to me was that fishermen, who so loathed the Common Fisheries Policy, were prepared to put their faith in the same Conservatives that took them into it, to then take them out of it with no equivalent pain. They were expendable then and they are expendable now.

There is evidently a curious psychology at play here. Ms Rhodes is far from alone in being perplexed by the readiness of the fishermen to believe the promises of those who have so frequently and comprehensively shown themselves to be unworthy of anyone’s confidence. How is such behaviour to be explained?

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Killing trust

Anger after Reporting Scotland misrepresents First Minister’s Brexit comments

bbc_union_at_any_costAm I angry about the latest instance of blatant dishonesty from BBC Scotland? Of course I am! Not to be offended by lies is unnatural. And brazen falsehoods are very much worse when they are presented as news reporting by an organisation which purports to be the nation’s public service broadcaster. But, as much as I am outraged by such lies, I am also content that, in its arrogance, the BBC is surely destroying the very authority which makes it such a crucial component of the British state’s propaganda machinery.

That authority is inherited, rather than deserved. It is the fading echo of a time when the BBC enjoyed a thoroughly-earned reputation as the world’s foremost news-gathering organisation. That the BBC is trusted at all today is solely explained by the fact that it was so completely trusted for so much of the history of broadcasting. That trust was so profound, for so long, that it is ingrained in our culture. Confidence in the BBC’s news reporting is almost part of our DNA. It is actually difficult to destroy that kind of trust. But BBC is managing to do so.

Or, to be more accurate, it is being managed to do so. Because the culture of casual dishonesty that allows Reporting Scotland to so gratuitously misrepresent the First Minister’s words is entirely a consequence of incompetent management.

It is the management of a news organisation which is responsible for creating and maintaining the operational ethos. It is management which sets the standard. It is management which is charged with formulating and applying the framework of rules and guidance which keep the organisation true to its purpose. The management at BBC Scotland has failed. It has failed abysmally. It has failed in truly spectacular fashion.

Counterintuitively, this may be a good thing. Were this failure more subtle, there might be some doubt about it. It might be deniable. But the dishonesty has now become so brazen; the lies and distortions so transparent; the propagandising on behalf of the British state so audacious, that it cannot possibly be either dismissed or defended.

The BBC is destroying itself. Although this too will doubtless be blamed on Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.


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