Podcast: New media, old media, Dublin & Brexit


The media in Scotland, a subject always sure to stir controversy, but one that remains important as Scottish politics demands centre stage attention.

Michael Gray of Common Space & The National
Michael Gray of Common Space & The National

The SNP’s dominance of Holyrood, Brexit, Trump and all the rest of 2016’s political news, means that a diverse, popular, articulate and well resourced media is in great demand; or, it should be.

Instead, the Scottish press continues to struggling with resourcing as the transformation from print to digital continues to be painful.

Meanwhile the broadcast sector remains under intense political scrutiny, as the BBC Royal Charter is renewed and Scotland still waits to find out what that might mean for future TV and radio services north of the Border.

Our regular host Derek Bateman invited journalist Michael Gray, of Common Space and The National, and columnist and producer Maurice Smith into the Newsnet Radio studio to discuss all this and more.

So, is the much reviled “mainstream media” (MSM) actually a “thing” and are people right to attack it so regularly? Does the alternative media provide the antidote? What is the Scottish Parliament’s relationship to the media, and how has it developed over the devolution years?

You can tune in by clicking on the audio file above, via your usual podcast channels including iTunes, or using our RSS feed: http://www.buzzsprout.com/57229.rss

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  1. One of the most dispiriting political discussions I have heard in a long, long time. That three supposedly insightful pro-independence voices could reflect on the British state broadcaster in the terms they do here is shocking.

    We had Derek hand-wringing and apparently incredulous – ‘Why do you think people have got this idea?’ – that people in Scotland have a visceral hatred of the state broadcaster – ‘even extremely well-educated Scots’ exclaims Derek, clearly believing that the educated at least should surely take a more sophisticated view.

    We had Derek asserting yet again, echoed by Maurice ‘I will always defend the BBC as an institution’ Smith, that there is no anti-independence conspiracy at the state broadcaster, both seemingly unaware of Noam Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’, published over a quarter a century ago and a first-term standard text on any respectable media studies course. Of course, there’s no ‘conspiracy’, Derek (and Maurice), there doesn’t need to be, as Chomsky authoritatively demonstrates.

    Then there was Maurice expressing incredulity at someone saying they wouldn’t be watching a documentary because it would be shown by the BBC. (Watching it legally might of course necessitate buying a TV licence.) Maurice positively eulogises for the state broadcaster – ‘as a universal service the BBC does a hell of a good job in a lots of ways’ as if, for example, its nature and music programmes somehow make up for the elephant in the room that is its systemic political bias and debasement of Scottish culture. (Even Sir Tom Devine, no radical, as the knighthood suggests, has called Radio Scotland ‘a national disgrace.’) It is a bit like listening to someone waxing about the fantastic layouts, sub-editing and font selections at Pravda.

    We had Michael expressing sympathy for the poor state broadcaster: ‘It’s difficult… they have to juggle the UK government’s interests, the Scottish government’s interests…’ – a statement that will leave listeners open mouthed in its fundamental failure to grasp how the BBC operates and what its purpose ultimately is.

    There was Maurice talking about ‘cock-up rather than conspiracy’, ‘too many tiers of management’ and ‘stasis in the organisation’, as if the BBC wanted to become what a proper public service broadcaster for Scotland should be, if only they could somehow work through the difficulties. Maurice’s implication was that they were trying honestly to do so.

    We had Michael dusting down the self-serving myth of the Gilligan episode leading to a less independent-minded state broadcaster – as if prior to May 2003, the BBC was a bastion of impartiality and of holding of power courageously to account. Even at the time, to anyone paying attention, that was an Alice-in-Wonderland version of reality, particularly coming close on the heels of the state broadcaster’s relentless cheerleading for the war-mongering British government throughout the months leading up to the illegal invasion of Iraq. (According to German-based Media Tenor, a trifling two per cent of BBC news in the build-up to the Iraq invasion allowed anti-war voices to be heard.)

    We had Maurice raising the prospect of the ‘Scottish Six’ as if that tired old ship hadn’t sailed a long time ago. No discriminating person cares, Maurice; any news programme ultimately controlled from London (which is what it would be) will ultimately serve London. Too little too late doesn’t begin to cover it.

    Derek, I am one of those educated people with a mystifying visceral hatred of the state broadcaster. I feel the way I do because I am aware of its history; of how the BBC was set up when the British establishment saw the organic growth of radio in the USA and recognised the threat that this kind of democratic phenomenon represented to their hegemony; of how ever since then it has been the public address system of the British establishment in probably the most centralised media landscape in what passes for the democratic world.

    I feel the way I do because the state broadcaster – which as former BBC reporter, Paul Mason said, was operating at ‘full propaganda strength’ during the critical final weeks of the independence referendum campaign – was the the decisive factor (as, this documentary, if anything understating its case, shows: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXQYuLUAbyw) in the British state’s thwarting of my country’s attempt to finally normalise its constitutional arrangements and end its colonised status.

    The BBC is, as a former BBC Director General boasted, nothing less than ‘the glue that holds Britain together’, something that is about to be explicitly reflected in its charter.

    That is why, Derek, I and many thousands like me, viscerally hate the state broadcaster.

    I’m all for diversity in the debate about Scotland’s future. But this cosy and complacent discussion was the sound of three commentators who should know better absolutely failing to understand the essence of the British state broadcaster and the central challenge it represents to Scotland gaining its independence. It just shows how far we still have to go.

  2. Superb analysis David.

    The BBC is a defender of the union. It cannot possibly be expected to ever report on Scottish independence fairly and impartially.

  3. Actually I took the discussion to be about the whole BBC, and not BBC News & Current Affairs which seems to be the butt of David’s complaint. And to be honest he may not have enjoyed the tone of the discussion, but personally I find his tone and references to be pretty damn patronising too.
    We deserve a better broadcaster. some of the stuff about the BBC and independence sounds paranoid and does nothing to attract voters in my humble opinion.The way people turn on Derek Bateman for expressing his view is quite remarkable – makes me wonder what kind of independent Scotland they want / expect.

    • Thank you for your concern trolling. Please collect your 30 pieces of silver on the way out.

      Expressing a view is one thing. Defending Der Sturmmer because you had a good time working there and don’t want to admit you were a pawn and your old mates are racist scum is another thing altogether.

    • Thanks for your feedback, John. Sorry you didn’t think much of my contribution – for the record I’m a big fan of your work! To respond to a couple of points you make…

      It wasn’t Derek expressing his opinion per se that prompted me to comment on the podcast but rather the cosy consensus that while it might be cautious and conservative, with a difficult job to do, the BBC essentially has its heart in the right place. If it wasn’t apparent before the independence referendum campaign how the BBC ultimately operates as the public address system for the British establishment (and for many, many people it was), then its performance during that campaign – particularly towards the end when the future of the British state was genuinely in danger – should have removed all doubt. That pro-independence opinion-formers such as Derek, Maurice and Michael continue to view the state broadcaster as essentially a benign force in the face of the evidence from the referendum I find breathtaking.

      I agree with the point you make about attacking the BBC being a potential turn off for voters. As I argued years ago on Newsnet (http://newsnet.scot/archive/the-bbc-isnt-serving-scots-what-can-be-done/), any drive to counter the influence of the state broadcaster – and in the run up to the next referendum I do think this need to be an element of the wider campaign – must be grounded in evidence, underpinned by the sort of forensic research you have been responsible for and which the state broadcaster found so threatening. This is precisely to ensure that exposure of the BBC’s political agenda is credible and can’t be easily dismissed as paranoia. But the starting point is a clear recognition on the pro-independence side of the decisive role the state broadcaster played in preserving the Union in 2014 and of the primary challenge it will represent in the next campaign. The podcast illustrated the distance we still have to travel to reach that point.

      What kind of independent Scotland do I want? I would imagine not that different from you. A normal modern Western European democracy, progressive, diverse and outward-looking. And one where open and informed, and, yes, sometimes radical, robust and passionate discussions about the kind of Scotland people want to see are a common feature on our national airwaves and not largely confined to the comments sections of political websites (however valued these might be).

  4. State Broadcaster? Why? What do we actually need one for these days? There is a whole host of entertainment out there. News? You get it straight from ground zero from the horses mouth so why get it third or forth hand drenched in opinion. You can get news from the whole globe and if you want a ‘British’ view then I trust Ch4 a hell of a lot more than the hallowed BBC. All the BBC does these days is regurgitate the press.

  5. David has hit the nail right on the head. I can hardly stand to listen to any sort of current affairs on the BBC any longer. All you get is slanted propaganda from carefully chosen mouthpieces against Putin, Russia, Assad, Trump (and I am no fan of Trump), the SNP and whatever others are deemed ‘enemies of the sate’ at that particular point. What is even worse is the insultingly obvious way that it is done.

  6. This podcast does not really address the questions it asked itself in the blurb to my mind. There was much rambling and it sounded like the participants were bored by the discussion. Well, if the BBC is so unbiased, then there should not be a problem with bringing in legislation to ensure it remains so, with fines and even jail sentences for particularly bad offenders, of which there are none, of course. I am sure the judiciary will be able to help with any problems in defining the term ‘bias’.

    The UN committee on anti-discrimination published a report this year, a long one, that included putting the blame of rising discrimination and hate crimes in England on to the shoulders of the state party (Westminster government) and the MSM. I cannot imagine why on earth they would think that, or why this report got so little publicity. After all, the BBC would never purposefully display any prejudice or bias, ‘it wisnae me guv, them nasty big newspapers made me say it’.

    Pah. State & publicly funded, with presumably a large legal team, and they don’t understand what they are doing? Pull the other one.

    Does the BBC not have a duty to put forward a considered and balanced view to prevent any kind of mass hysteria, despite what politicians might be saying? We are very very lucky to have a government in Scotland that constantly preaches inclusion, fairness, diversity – and that government certainly did not get any slating in the same UN report – and the media, in this case, just doesn’t mention or debate the ethical rhetoric – because, why? I can think of lots of reasons, but none of them good, and none of them involve the word ‘unbiased’.

  7. Day in day out, week after week, year on year we are fed lies, misinformation and spin by the newspapers and the BBC and It’is the punters lack of sophistication that is to blame?

    The punters are right and the people who work in the so called media are concerned about the contempt shown by the punters for the way they do their jobs. I’m pleased about that.

    Thanks to the three of you for helping keep that fire of anger and contempt burning in me.

  8. Perhaps Derek could have David on his podcast sometime? At least then there would be a genuine debate. For I gave up after the somewhat cozy notion that good men had no responsibilities, other than earning a living. Surprised to see John Robertson on t’other side of the discussion too. Maybe it is just me, but what David had to say was in no way patronising when compared to the content of the podcast.

    I agree with Alan Brown.

  9. Thanks to everyone for your comments. I should reply to some of David’s criticisms of the discussion.
    First of all, I do defend the BBC as an institution. This is a fundamental issue of the debate about the BBC. While many on the Yes side of the Scottish constitutional debate are dismayed at the coverage of Scottish politics by the BBC, in my view far too much of the criticism is aimed at the entire organisation.
    The BBC is a vast institution, employing many thousands of people, and is a key part of Scotland’s (and the UK’s) creative industries. It is responsible for a broad range of TV, and Radio. Some of its critics in Scotland would have the entire BBC closed down, as revenge for its alleged bias against the cause of Scottish independence. So many hundreds of people engaged in TV and radio production completely unconnected to news – and including many independent producers and freelance professionals – would be turfed out, because some don’t like Reporting Scotland, or its radio equivalents? Really?
    I would suggest that it is time that, instead of knee-jerk reactions to things we don’t like about the BBC, or other media, people engage in a more constructive debate about the media that Scotland needs as a current and future democracy. I suggest further that this is NOT a media that should be “controlled” by Parliament, but a healthy, free media that holds governments to account, and provides objective, fair coverage of news and current affairs.
    The answer surely is for an objective media of the type I describe. That is what journalists like me and others who have been on this podcast were trained to do. The alternatives espoused by some critics seem more like propaganda to me. And you can include those proposed billboards in that bracket too.
    The media is under attack worldwide at the moment. A lot of the criticism may be justified, but the fact is journalism remains an important if imperfect asset to democracy. That’s why it’s under attack in Russia, Turkey and the USA right now. That’s why Poles are marching in favour of a free media. It is why Scotland needs a healthy debate about its media, and how we can make it better.
    Finally, yes I am familiar with Chomsky. Very interesting guy, very interesting arguments. But if Manufacturing Consent is “a first-term standard text on any respectable media studies course” as David states, then I hope it is not the only text. We need diversity of opinion, and not just blind regurgitation / re-interpretation of one intellectual case. I am well aware of the arguments about a corporate media and about the whole issue of “consent”, but I have seen Chomsky’s case abused by some followers who will class individual journalists and news items as “biased” when their own assessment of that “bias” is entirely subjective.
    As I said above, the arguments here and elsewhere underline the fact that there is a whole issue of the media in Scotland, including the BBC. But knee-jerk reactions about firing people and scrapping whole organisations do not help. Whatever people think about “bias”, I believe in journalistic objectivity as a response, not bias in the opposite direction. David tells us “I and many thousands like me, viscerally hate the state broadcaster”, which is his right. But that very statement tells me he is very unlikely to approach the BBC debate from an objective viewpoint (as Chomsky himself might prefer).
    All of us need to define better what is right / wrong about the media and journalism, rather than picking on coverage with which we don’t agree and automatically assuming bias. Let the debate continue, but I hope it will do so along less aggressive lines and in a way that seeks consensus about the future of the media. We need it.

    • You say “I suggest further that this is NOT a media that should be “controlled” by Parliament, but a healthy, free media that holds governments to account, and provides objective, fair coverage of news and current affairs”, and I think, exactly,! So why is this NOT happening, why is there not objective, fair coverage of news, and why aren’t governments held to account, or their actions reported in a factual and rational manner? It is not just a case of picking on articles we may not like, it is inaccurate and sensationalist reporting. Reporting on what a newspaper says is NOT news unless it can be backed up by evidence. And so one might come to the conclusion that the media IS “controlled” by Westminster.

      And the point about there being a huge variety of folks working for the BBC, yes, and so why is the output so consistently looking for any negative aspect of SNP policies and actions, the party that forms the Scottish government, and was actually voted into that position, and causes the country a lot less harm than the Westminster government – but meanwhile a wholly neutral tone is consistently maintained for a wholly incompetent unelected Westminster government, one that is causing great harm. Where are the priorities of who should be held to account? ALL of our worker rights and human rights are going to be taken away by Westminster, but every single person working in the BBC does not think that is important enough to investigate? When Theresa May was voted in as PM, we got reports on what kind of shoes she was wearing, not her abysmal prior record as a minister, and the criticism of the Tory government performance after the EU-ref vote was, to be generous, weak.

      And it is not just about support for independence, it is about support for Scotland as it stands, support for a message of equality, diversity and inclusion – whether or not you agree with SNP politics, surely this aspect of their rhetoric can be reported, surely their work to promote mental health and help children in care can be reported, etc etc. There are too many things that the Scottish government report themselves – but it gets no air time and does not come under scrutiny unless a labour/Tory/libdem politician says it is rubbish. And usually they have got it wrong. Why not report that the First Minister is well respected in other countries? You don’t have to agree with it to report it, but if that was what was shown and demonstrated, why wasn’t it reported? Why do Scottish people have to go to foreign newspapers to get any kind of report of a positive nature? One good outcome may be that more people might start to learn other languages.

      You are right in that, when I don’t agree that, say, a SNP event/policy/speech should only involve an interview solely with a labour politian, I do think it is biased – but only because this is what happens constantly, repeated over and over again, with only a small out-of-context sound bite from the relevant SNP politician. This is not biased because I don’t like it, it is biased because of the consistently unfair coverage, and I fail to see where the objectivity is. I have no party or political affiliations, I just want to hear about how politicians are performing, what their views are, what they are doing to improve, or not, the country etc – and this is not what the media gives me, we can watch politicians debate in parliaments and committees now and the few I have watched are not reported fairly by the BBC, who are paid to watch these time-consuming events for us. David Davis’ performance in front of one committee was, well, it displayed his incompetence for the role he was given – not a peep from the media. Very objective.

      How can anyone that keeps an eye on events and looks at original sources not think that there is no corruption? Is EVERYONE in the BBC unable to hear what they say (or notice what they miss out) themselves? If I listen to a radio show where the guest spews bigoted, hate-filled views and the host agrees with her, what am I to think – ‘gosh, I am so glad the presenter is holding that woman to account’ ? I expect better from the BBC. And I believe there is a charter that says they are meant to be better.

      Debate is all very well, but the BBC has to acknowledge something is wrong first. Then it needs to suggest solutions – ‘hoping’ that a new director will improve things is a bit weak. Acknowledging and accepting there is a serious problem, by the BBC, is key. The current controls do not work, so need revised and this needs to be addressed before the BBC can start to claw back any kind of respect – suggest solutions – an independent standards board or something, anything! At the moment it really does look as though the BBC is controlled by Westminster and that there is no objectivity, just telling us over and over again that it’s not true does not help.

    • Thank you for taking the time to respond, Maurice, your comments are much appreciated. You suggest that because I feel very negatively about the BBC I am unlikely to be objective. I hope that is not the case. I don’t think that passion in either direction nullifies the ability to reason; just as I don’t think that your saying you will always defend the BBC as an institution compromises the value of your views.

      You point out that many thousands of people are employed by the state broadcaster in Scotland and that it represents a key element of our creative industries. That is true, although while Scotland accounts for 10% of total license fee income (and theoretically owns a tenth of all BBC assets) only a small fraction of that (around 3% of the total licence fee income) is spent on programme-making in Scotland. So the return in these terms is actually much more modest than one might reasonably expect. I would argue too that the cultural renaissance and political and diplomatic transformation that will take place when Scotland is independent will usher in a massive step change in the role of the media and creative industries that will emphasise how relatively small-scale these industries are at present.

      But even supposing we focus on the jobs that the state broadcaster creates at the moment, it is something of a Faustian pact, is it not, if that institution is actually the central reason for your country remaining a colony and a province rather than by now being a normal independent country? I acknowledge that you don’t agree that BBC pro-Union bias played the decisive role in determining the outcome of the independence referendum or, in fact, that the BBC is politically biased. We’ll have to agree to differ on that.

      You say that journalism remains an important if imperfect asset to democracy and that it should be supported. I would endorse that. But when a broadcaster’s output is essentially propagandistic – as many, including respected journalists, believe the state broadcaster’s is – then that support is forfeited. I too want a healthy, free media that holds government to account, and provides objective, fair coverage of news and current affairs. But from where I am standing the BBC has consistently demonstrated that it is very much not this and cannot be this. Its record-breakingly low levels of trust suggest that more and more people are waking up to that reality.

      If we can’t agree on the issue of political bias in the BBC’s news coverage perhaps we can agree on something else. Two years ago, the majority of people in Scotland under the age of 55 said they wanted the end of the British state. That is seismic, as is the fact that there has been a majority of pro-independence Scottish parliamentarians at Holyrood for over half a decade and that now a massive majority of Scotland’s MPs at Westminster are pro-independence. We live in an incredibly exciting and dynamic time for Scotland, with the future of our country very much up in the air, there to be mapped out, argued over. The referendum campaign revealed a great appetite for discussion and exchange of ideas on the part of people on each side of the debate and on neither.

      Where is this new reality reflected on the BBC in Scotland? Where are the open, wide-ranging, informed, stimulating, blue-sky debates on our ‘national broadcaster’ about the kind of Scotland people want to see? Why are we having this discussion in the comments section of a political website, following a podcast on that website, a podcast that will be heard by a couple of thousand people? The state broadcaster is perfectly happy to devote gargantuan amounts of time every week to music and to programmes discussing Scottish football in microscopic detail (ironically, given that the game in Scotland has never been less interesting). Why don’t we have suitably qualified people on TV and radio in Scotland spending at least the same amount of time each week as that devoted to chat about the future of the Old Firm discussing the future of the country (politics, yes, but also culture and media and urban planning and land use and international links and a whole lot else, with international comparisons and lessons a key part of the conversation)? It wouldn’t be particularly difficult or expensive to facilitate. It is exactly what a public service broadcaster should be doing.

      From my point of view the reason that this doesn’t happen and won’t happen is that it would help to give us ideas above our station, build cultural confidence in Scotland, further weaken the cultural cringe. That would very much run counter to the interests of the British state, interests that the state broadcaster, as its charter will soon explicitly acknowledge, is ultimately there to protect.

      Finally, you say you want a constructive debate, a consensus about the future of the media, that all of us need to define better what is right / wrong about the media. I don’t have any issue with that inclusive approach. But it sits very awkwardly, does it not, with the fact that media in the UK is probably the most ruthlessly centralised of any country in the world outside of totalitarian regimes? Scotland – not a small country but actually one with a mid-ranking sized population in global terms – is not even allowed its own half-hour international TV news programme after many years of discussions about this, let alone its own national channel. Broadcasting is and will be to the last day of the Union a ‘reserved matter’ and painful experience indicates that, despite any consensus we might settle upon in Scotland, we’ll continue to get the TV and radio we’re given. And that what we’ll be given will continue to be, in Sir Tom Devine’s words, ‘a disgrace.’

  10. Maurice,

    Thanks for replying below the line. That suggests that you care enough about your audience to at least see the opposite point of view. Which I would like to attempt to address.

    I, independently, do not think the BBC is the neutral, nor independent broadcaster that you choose to believe it is. I came to that conclusion, not because of it’s fantastic danceathons, nature progammes , nor indeed it’s tennis coverage. I came to that conclusion based merely on it’s frankly dreck news coverage. If a major media player cannot get it’s news coverage even half way right, then it deserves all the opprobrium that it gets.

    What is wrong with the media these days is that it publishes opinion pieces from clearly biased sources without any form of criticism. It has become a whore to the PR industry. In essence it would publish, without critical comment, anything at all.

    It has now got to the ridiculous stage that comments, below the line, are meant to make up, and do, for the lack of journalism above it.

    As a live example we could wonder at the ‘British Values’ which is reported without criticism by journalists and gets smacked down by the general public. The general public has, as a general rule, higher standards than journalists.

    Frankly, your trade needs to go back to it’s roots and stop thinking that apologising for oligarchs is in any way convincing.

  11. Thanks Douglas. I welcome the debate but I do feel these are sweeping generalisations (and I’ve never apologised for any oligarch in my life!) Presumably you base all this on specific instances but to say that is all the media all the time would be incorrect.
    The BBC employs more than 20,000 people and many more are suppliers. I believe somewhere between 20-25% of staff are in BBC News. I don’t watch Strictly and all its similar shows but I do watch a lot of documentaries, science and natural history for example. And I listen to Radios 4 and 6 a lot. These are high quality programmes, and of a far higher standard than the services available in many other countries.To win an argument about the media, the BBC and indeed everything, surely you have to make a case and build support around it?

    • Thanks again for doing the decent thing by way of engagement. Frankly that is a tad unusual and to be welcomed.

      You say that the BBC employs around 20,000 people. And around 5r000 are in ‘News’?

      I surrender the quality of non political television, and presumably radio too, though I don’t tend to listen. I think in these areas, documentaries, strictly, and science they are possibly world leaders. It does not allow them to escape the essential obligation to cleave towards a single state. Which is what they do. It is as clear as you like that the BBC see’s it’s mandate as encompassing a United Kingdom. To the extent of allowing publicity that is anent the Scottish Government to be made available without any journalism whatsoever. It is that lack of professionalism that frankly irritates me.

      I am not particularly clever. If even I can see through this con trick, you have a lot to justify. Our Mr Bateman is perhaps surprisingly absent from this discussion. The arrogance of the media elite perhaps?

      You know what? There is better debate going on below the line than above it. Thank you for entering into it. Respect.

  12. maurice,

    Perhaps you would care to debate David and I on Mr Bateman’s ‘channel’. It seems only fair that the otherwise silent Mr Bateman makes himself available, unless, of course he is only interested in the drama. Which would be pretty typical of you journalists.

    You will have the advantage, as I have never met David.


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