Bad News for Media Impartiality Hopes*

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  By Jimmy Kerr
 
Now that the Scottish Referendum campaign has entered the official campaigning period, it might, given the strict regulations that cover elections in the UK, seem reasonable to expect media coverage to even out and become more balanced. 
 
However, if anyone thinks that we are about to see an end to the relentless slew of distortions, half truths, outright lies and sheer poison that pours out of the British media, all directed at stopping Scotland pursuing a greater degree of autonomy, then they are mistaken.

  By Jimmy Kerr
 
Now that the Scottish Referendum campaign has entered the official campaigning period, it might, given the strict regulations that cover elections in the UK, seem reasonable to expect media coverage to even out and become more balanced. 
 
However, if anyone thinks that we are about to see an end to the relentless slew of distortions, half truths, outright lies and sheer poison that pours out of the British media, all directed at stopping Scotland pursuing a greater degree of autonomy, then they are mistaken.

If we know anything of the UK’s powerful media institutions, it is that they will stop at nothing when the interests of the UK are perceived to be under threat. Of course I am using the term “interests of the UK” in the sense of what Chomsky calls the technical meaning, where UK Interests means the interests of the UK’s rich and powerful elites.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbVhz5SUmtw

Time and again, when the UK has experienced any political upheaval and the media are called upon to take a side, they choose the side of the rich and powerful, albeit with some notable cases of dissent.  Just one case in point is the coverage given to trade unions and strikes.

Glasgow University’s Media Group, in what is now a classic text in media studies, looked at television coverage of the 1984/85 miners’ strike and found that when participants were asked to describe what was happening, based on the reports, negative portrayals of miners were reproduced, clearly showing the pernicious effect of bias in the media.  We also know from our current experience the vitriol that is spat out at effective trade union leaders, like the treatment of the late Bob Crow, whose belief in social housing, that is the fact that he chose to live in a Council House, was often, along with his wages, used as a weapon against him with pretty similar treatment dished out to other “Union Barons” such as Len McLuskey and Mark Serwotka.

If we look at other issues, such as the economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the situation in Palestine, then what we see in Britain, as in the United States, is a convergence of the views of media institutions, the UK Government and corporate interests again with a notable, but minor collective voice of dissent, which is tolerated, until it become dangerous, at which point civil liberties begin to be attacked, which is the grand narrative of the Edward Snowden revelations.

What is interesting about the Scottish independence movement is the difference between how it sees itself and how it sees itself portrayed. The movement, although often called Scottish nationalism, which causes great anxiety amongst us leftists, is in essence a democracy movement, with remarkably little tolerance for any kind of ethnic nationalism or volkish sentiments.  What is happening now is that possibly for the first time, large numbers of people in our country are beginning to see that convergence of views and how that powerful gravitational force ends up affecting the output of individual media organisations.

The problem is that although we in the independence movement can readily perceive biases, just like those on “the other end of the club” as Chomsky once put it, the media institutions are blind as to how they function, just like the house negro in southern slave states was blind to his complicity in slavery they remain stubbornly ignorant of their role in our system of power.

This is why we end up in a situation where a quietly respected academic, Professor John Robertson of the University of Paisley, who committed the grave sin of exposing media bias, found himself the subject of an unprecedented and withering assault by the BBC, the subject of complaints to his faculty Dean and hauled before a Scottish Parliamentary enquiry.  This is why websites like Spinwatch and Medialens exist and why Chomsky remains the world’s best known public intellectual.

The problem for the well meaning Electoral Commission and rules surrounding elections is that media institutions can adhere to the rules without having to relinquish any of their biases.  One newspaper editor in the UK summed up how they are able to do this when he followed the seemingly extraordinary claim that his paper doesn’t report the news with the assertion that they merely report what is being said.

Broadcasters, who are subject to far tighter regulation than the print media cannot be seen to take an editorial line, but find all kinds of interesting ways of appearing to be impartial while all the time delivering the news in a rigid ideological framework.  One of these methods was hilariously exposed by John Oliver on the Daily Show recently, but Chomsly has cited others such as the apparently innocent device of concision, the need to be brief for television, nice if you don’t have to explain anything, not so handy if you need five hours to burst through established beliefs and received wisdom.

There are however, two apparently strange things about the media bias surrounding the Scottish independence movement.  The first is what exactly the Scottish media institutions get out of being against Scottish independence, although this might be explained by looking at media ownership.

Much harder to account for is the unwillingness of the Scottish Government and the SNP to address media biases in any meaningful way.  The blueprint for Scottish independence, Scotland’s Future, produced by the Scottish Government indicates that in an independent Scotland local production, access to television channels and costs to the public are the three main priorities for action when it comes to the media.

Impartiality is mentioned, once in a single line that says the newly created Scottish Broadcasting Service, which is essentially BBC Scotland, will be “independent of Government, impartial in its editorial view and given freedom of production”.  According to the blueprint there is no biases in the BBC that need addressed far less in the rest of broadcasting, the print media and digital media.

This is quite frankly astonishing, given the level of animosity shown by the mainstream media towards independence and could conceivably be taken as an invitation by institutions, particularly Scottish organisations, who would after all be free of Electoral Commission and other regulator’s rules in the event of independence to ratchet-up their anti-independence rhetoric during the official campaign.  

*Bad News was the title of the Glasgow University Media Group book that features the famous Miners’ Strike research