They regularly appear on our TV screens, some produce reports that end up setting the news agenda and others tell us what the most important issues are. Occasionally someone will simply say they are concerned over an undefined ‘uncertainty’.
Pundits, business leaders and academics feature heavily in the Scottish media. Their views on independence carry great weight as they set the news agenda and influence our thinking. Some are disposable “here today and gone tomorrow” figures, whilst others almost seem to be scheduled into our news output, appearing as regularly as the programme presenters themselves.
Removed from the confines of the traditional media machine however, a coyness appears which manifests itself in a remarkable unwillingness to engage.
Last week the hitherto unknown and unremarked Head of BP, Bob Dudley, decided to do his bit for the beleaguered No campaign by insisting Britain was great and should stay together. No sooner had Dudley uttered his views than they were turned into headlines and anti-independence soundbites by supporters of the Union.
But the BP Chief’s keenness to express his views on Scotland’s future wasn’t shared by BP itself.
Last week, on the day Dudley’s comments were making news headlines, Newsnet Scotland contacted the company press office to ask a few obvious questions; Was Bob expressing BP’s corporate view?, we asked. Two other questions sought to clarify BP’s stance on the EU and currency should Scotland become independent.
We asked if BP backed a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK and if the company supported calls for the Westminster Government to approach the EU in order to seek clarification on the membership of an independent Scotland.
The questions were no-brainers really and given Dudley’s initial comments had been broadcast into homes across Scotland and had clearly influenced the independence debate, it seemed reasonable to assume BP would clarify the company’s stance on the two debate areas.
But we came across a reluctance to go beyond the politically partisan, yet vacuous, comments from Dudley.
One email and three telephone calls to the press office were made. Despite receiving promises each time our researcher called, we have yet to receive any clarification from BP on where the company stands on the two issues its Chief Executive claimed were causing him serious concern.
The silence from BP is mirrored by other figures and bodies who have become synonymous with the independence debate and who are regularly heard and seen giving their views on the referendum and its ‘key’ issues.
One of these bodies is the Centre for Public Policy for Regions (CPPR), an academic research group based in the University of Glasgow. Its two members are Professor Jo Armstrong and Professor John McLaren.
The CPPR regularly publishes reports on the economy of Scotland which almost always receive headline coverage from the media in Scotland. The CPPR is a favourite of BBC Scotland to which it sends its publications and its two academic members regularly feature on news and current affairs programmes broadcast by the BBC.
CPPR reports, it’s fair to say, are usually slanted in a manner which challenges Scottish Government claims regarding the fiscal health of a newly independent Scotland. Oil has featured heavily in its most recent publications which have been influenced by figures published by the OBR, a body created by UK Chancellor George Osborne.
In December last year Newsnet Scotland engaged in a dialogue with one of the academics at the CPPR. John McLaren was initially responsive when we contacted him to obtain a report which was featuring on the BBC but that had not yet been published on the CPPR website.
However the academic’s co-operative mood quickly changed after we published an article based on the report.
Responding to our article, professor McLaren wrote:
“CPPR are happy to engage with all parties to aid an understanding of the key issues around the Scottish economy.
However, we note that the article on Newsnet by Martin Kelly over the weekend contained a number of inaccuracies, which makes it difficult for us to see the value of us having any further meaningful dialogue.”
What had caused this change of heart so quickly? Professor McLaren challenged claims in the article that the CPPR had links to the Scottish Labour Party.
“The first para of your story states ‘An academic think tank, which has links to the Labour party, has launched another attack on independence…’
For the record, CPPR has no links with the Labour Party, past or present. I did have a past link, as you discuss later in some detail, although without mentioning my civil service past or that I no longer have any political links.
Jo Armstrong has had no connections with any political party. Her advice to the First Minister was given as a senior civil servant within the Scottish Executive. Moreover, Glasgow University would not allow us to provide briefings that were in any way politically aligned.
Equally, we at CPPR have never attacked independence, as we are neutral on the issue. What we do is assess the claims and counter claims of various political statements made on the issues of economics and public finance.
At times this has meant criticising Scottish Government’s claims and at other times it has meant criticising UK coalition Government claims, which have also been reported in the media.
I hope this clarification is useful and with it in mind, we would be happy to assist you in specific points of clarification on our work in the future.”
So they were neutral on independence and challenged the view expressed in the article that the CPPR had ‘links’ to the Labour party.
Prior to the email stating the CPPR would engage in no further meaningful dialogue, we did in fact get some.
We had asked Professor McLaren why neither he nor his colleague had published research into the economic consequences of a No vote, specifically the ending of the Barnett Formula which calculates the amount of money Scotland receives from Westminster.
The reason for our question was that the CPPR’s latest report had assumed that the funding mechanism would remain in place.
“The CPPR appear to assume that the Barnett System will remain should Scotland vote No. The likelihood (if statements from pro-Union parties are to be believed) is that Barnett will be scrapped or altered significantly – which some have claimed will result in a net loss to Scotland of £4bn.
Is it the view of the CPPR that Labour and the Conservatives (if either win the next UK election) will NOT alter, or indeed scrap Barnett?”
The academic replied:
“We have no firm view on what might happen to Barnett but do acknowledge that it might change and that this might negatively impact on Scotland. We discussed this briefly in the original document that yesterday’s release was an update of, see page 20 and the recommendation on page 21 in the attached document.”
He later added:
“Any decision over Barnett would be a political decision. Currently we have no basis on which to assume an alternative Barnett related change.”
That was the last meaningful reply from the CPPR.
Professor Mclaren’s claim that there is no basis to assume a Barnett related change is of course challenged by comments from members of each of the pro-Union parties, including Labour. Indeed calls for Barnett to be scrapped go back almost 14 years.
Last week however we tried to resurrect our Barnett Formula exchanges when we were alerted to comments made by Professor McLaren’s colleague Professor Jo Armstrong. The comment was made in a debate held on January 29th, the day the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney visited.
Asked about the Barnett Formula post a No vote, the CPPR member said:
“I definitely think it’s up for change, there’s no doubt about that.”
This was a very different view expressed by her colleague in December. Indeed Professor Armstrong went on to make clear that in her view Scots may in fact have to accept paying in more to the UK Treasury but getting back less, in order, she argued, to compensate for the declining revenue from the North Sea over the long term.
Had the views of the two CPPR members both changed or was there now a split between McLaren and Armstrong as to the future of the Barnett formula?
On February 5th last week we asked Professor McLaren:
“Can you confirm if the CPPR view is now that Barnett will definitely change or do you disagree with your colleague?”
As yet we have received no reply. One of the most high profile, and influential, academic groups of the independence debate has gone quiet on a key issue of that same debate.
Another uncharacteristic show of reluctance to engage came from the man who has turned referendum punditry into a one-man industry.
Last week Newsnet Scotland approached the British Polling Council asking if they would be interested in critiquing a survey question that had been posed by the Better Together campaign and that had resulted in the usual massive coverage in the Scottish media.
The question, contained in a survey carried out in December last year, was based on the SNP’s plans for revolutionary childcare in an independent Scotland.
Better Together had asked:
When Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government launched their White Paper on independence one of the main reasons they offered for voting to become independent from the United Kingdom was that childcare could be improved. However, Alex Salmond is already responsible for provision of childcare which is devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
Which of the following best reflects your view?
- Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government should use the powers they already have to deliver better childcare.
- Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government need Scottish voters to vote for independence in the referendum before they can deliver better childcare.
- Don’t know.
The survey results were used by the Scottish media in order to suggest that voters believed the Scottish Government already had the power and resources to fund their revolutionary childcare proposals now, before independence.
Secretary of the BPC, Nick Moon declined our request to critique the question and explained – very politely – that the BPC do not “have any role as an arbiter of survey quality”.
This was fair enough. However the President of the BPC is one Professor John Curtice. Most people will recognise Professor Curtice given that he appears almost weekly on the BBC, pontificating on various aspects of the referendum with respect to polling.
We responded by inviting Professor Curtice to critique the survey question in a personal capacity and offered to pay any fee his work might command. Thus far we have yet to receive a reply.
Critiquing survey questions posed by one or other side in the referendum debate is something Professor Curtice has carried out before. In August last year the academic was scathing of a survey question posed by pro-independence site Wings Over Scotland.
Criticising the wording, he called it “a rather complicated question” that had “potential for confusion”.
The Wings Over Scotland poll was the first so-called crowdfunded poll to be carried out in this campaign. It caught the pro-Union media by surprise and rather than report its findings, which appeared to show increased support for a Yes vote, the media machine tried to undermine the poll by criticising the questions and suggesting the company (Panelbase) had been infiltrated by Yes activists.
Our attempts at moving Professor Curtice and the CPPR out of their comfort zones and onto terrain which might in fact produce more balance, has thus far proven fruitless. They are overcome with coyness when invited to look at referendum issues from a perspective that challenges the agenda being set by the pro-Union media machine.
In the last conversation we had with oil giant BP, a member of their press team told our researcher that the company was currently “mulling over” how to respond to our questions. This isn’t surprising, for if the company is honest then it will have to issue answers that are less than helpfull to the No campaign if it wants to minimise the impact on business of a Yes vote and also obtain clarification on the EU issue.
The fear of course of the No campaign and its media supporters is that BP will publicly come out in support of a currency union and back calls for the Westminster Government to approach the EU. It’s this fear that has led to a bizarre lack of interest on the part of our media to seek clarity from BP on its corporate view regarding the two issues.
Will BP respond to our enquiry? Time will tell.
Will the CPPR confound our expectations and publish a report looking into the consequences of a No vote and the removal of Barnett, which one of its members appears to back? Time will tell.
Will Professor Curtice live up to the slogan that adorns the website ‘What Scotland Thinks’, which describes the site as a, “Non-partisan information on attitudes to how Scotland should be governed”, and accept our offer to critique the Better Together survey question? Time will tell.