Facts, leaks and speculation: Just who fears debate?


  By G.A.Ponsonby
Much gnashing of teeth and anger has been aimed at the BBC over its reporting, or lack of, of the latest GERS report.
GERS is the annual ‘state of the Scottish economy’ publication that seeks to provide, as accurately as is possible, an indication of Scotland’s relative economic performance using official government figures and statistics. 

  By G.A.Ponsonby
Much gnashing of teeth and anger has been aimed at the BBC over its reporting, or lack of, of the latest GERS report.
GERS is the annual ‘state of the Scottish economy’ publication that seeks to provide, as accurately as is possible, an indication of Scotland’s relative economic performance using official government figures and statistics. 

Originally a tool introduced by the Conservative government in order to ‘prove’ Scotland was subsidised, it has been corrected to remove anomolies such as allocating to England revenue generated by Scotch whisky and to include all Scottish resources, including oil.

The latest GERS report had its effect watered down as a result of coverage afforded a press release from Better Together which purported to show secret cuts to public spending and pensions, being considered by the Scottish government.

The anger at the poor quality reporting was justified and there’s no point going over what is now almost beyond dispute regarding the emergence at BBC Scotland of a hard core pro-Union cell who appear to have been tasked with undermining the Yes campaign.  STV’s excuse [they were at it as well] is that they were probably just lazily following the rest of the Scottish media and didn’t want to appear out of line.

The more interesting aspect to the whole episode though, as always these days, seems to have been missed by everyone which is the deliberate attempt by those opposed to independence to prevent indisputable fact from entering the Great Debate.

Thus far the exchanges between the Yes and No camps have been dominated by scare and rebuttal.  Notwithstanding the triple-A blow to the Better Together claims on the economy, the debate has been dominated by politicking.

On defence, the EU and the economy, the anti-independence camp has delivered a never ending stream of negative claims which the pro-independence team has attempted to bat away.  It hasn’t affected the polls by much, although there is some evidence of a small erosion of the No vote.

However, occasionally something enters the debate that is beyond dispute – like the aforementioned downgrading of the UK credit rating, it cannot be denied, it is simply there.  It adds to the overall picture and can lend credibility to – or remove it from – key arguments being made by one or other of the constitutional protagonists.

Following the loss of triple-A, the GERS report gave us another such moment.  The figures aren’t perfect, but beyond dispute is that as things stand, Scotland is in far better fiscal shape than the rest of the UK.  According to this latest report, Scotland subsidises the rest to the tune of £824 per person in Scotland.  Indeed the latest report is part of an emerging picture of a long term trend of north to south subsidy – we hand over more than we get back.

Now, this year’s report was anticipated by both sides.  It was widely expected that the latest GERS figures would indeed show that the fiscal health of Scotland remained more robust than that of the rest of the UK.

However the decision of the Better Together campaign to publish, on the same day, a heavily redacted version of a leaked Scottish government document revealed something rather telling.  Those opposed to independence wanted to prevent the GERS report from dominating the news.

Most political analysts were aware that Better Together were playing a political game – the tactic was to prevent the Yes campaign from gaining an advantage from GERS.  But what seems to have escaped the attention of everyone is that Better Together were actively trying to prevent valuable information from reaching the electorate.  The No campaign was actively seeking to prevent debate not encourage it.

The GERS report was a means of informing ordinary Scots on the health of their nation, and indeed the effectiveness of their own hard work.  It gave an indication of their contribution into the UK pot and offered a counter to claims uttered by many commentators that they are subsidised.

It was positive about today’s Scotland and the fact that Better Together couldn’t embrace the positive news, but wanted it suppressed, was rather telling. 

It has long been the argument that Unionists deliberately perpetuate a myth that Scots are subsidised, incapable and lack the werewithall to run their own affairs.  Scottish Unionist MPs, particularly Labour MPs, benefit from a Scottish electorate devoid of confidence and prepared to accept that they need ‘protecting’ from the big bad world.  Ignorance, at least among the electorate, is indeed bliss if you happen to be a Scottish Unionist MP.

Rather than engage in honest debate over their own nation’s ability to stand proudly as strong, hard-working and valuable contributors to the UK, the anti-independence campaign sought to close down that debate. 

Some of the claims that piggy backed on the leaked report were complete fabrication of the worst order.  The media actually reported the No campaign’s interpretation of the official report instead of the contents of the report itself.  Analysis, what little there was, was restricted to familiar pundits known for their links to the Scottish Labour party.

Better Together could have taken the line that yes, Scotland does indeed contribute more but that this proved how well the Union worked.  But they instead chose the negative option of trying to divert attention from GERS by introducing smear and partisan interpretation of a document that is one year out of date.

Indeed, they could have waited until the GERS report had been published and digested before revealing their own counter document which did deserve to be reported on and analysed.  However in throwing it into the mix when they did, Better Together revealed themselves to be frightened of debating either the GERS figures or their own claims.

That both the BBC and STV entertained this obvious spoiler tactic from the No campaign was disappointing.  That BBC Scotland’s Douglas Fraser thought that mixing up GERS, with Unionist smear and think tank speculation in a two minute Reporting Scotland item says more about Mr Fraser than it does anything else.

The emergence of the usual suspects in the shape of the Fraser of Allander Institute and the CPPR, who yet again showed themselves more than capable of portraying Scotland as a backward country incapable of dealing with the ‘volatility’ of oil and gas, was predictable.

Both organisations have very clear links to Scottish Labour and by extension fundamental Unionism, so what they say on the economy can be taken with a pinch of salt.  Again they steered discussion away from Scotland’s known fiscal health [fact] and onto their own ‘we canny dae it’ version of independence doom [speculation].

It’s interesting that every year Scotland shows itself as a strong country ready and able to make the most of its resources, these same people emerge to tell us that things will be bad in a couple of years.

It’s pretty much what we’ve been saying for the past two years,” said John McLaren to the Sunday Times newspaper, of the leaked paper. “Swinney and Salmond know that these are the issues. The embarrassment is that in public they have kept to a different script. The surprise is that they have commissioned a document that is as stark as this in showing what their real thinking is, given the risk that it could get out at some point.”

“Before 2016-7, Scotland is expected to have a smaller deficit as a share of GDP than the UK,” the leaked document apparently states. 

So, even according to Better Together claims, up until 2015-6 Scotland will be in better shape than the rest of the UK. However, this is one year later than that claimed by the CPPR which puts the crossover year at 2014-5.

John McLaren has, what is called ‘form’ in his appraisal of Scottish government policy.  In November 2011, McLaren and the CPPR were exposed as having used ‘double accounting’ after claims of an £849 million increase in Scottish business rates were headlined by the Scottish media.

The CPPR were taken to task again last year after making false claims regarding agreement on oil forecasts that underpinned a report it published that said (again) that the UK would be in better fiscal shape after 2014/2015 than Scotland.

In December Newsnet Scotland revealed that its claim of “broad agreement” with Professor Alex Kemp for its claims on oil prices was questioned by Professor Kemp who pointed out that the OBR, on which the CPPR had relied, had cherry picked the most pessimistic oil price predictions from different sources in order to come to an apocalyptic conclusion on future oil revenue.

The truth is that neither Better Together, the CPPR nor indeed any Unionist dominated organisation wants an honest debate on Scotland’s future.  Anything that suggests one might be about to happen, and that might actually confirm Scotland is indeed a very capable and wealthy country, is stamped on by these people.

They are readily aided and abetted in this by a media dominated by Unionist leaning figures who, after setting the narrative in their newspapers, are then provided a platform to back up one another’s claims on BBC Scotland.  Derek Bateman’s ‘Headlines’ show on Sunday had Unionist leaning journalist Hamish MacDonnell claim bizarrely that the leak had provided some sort of clarification to the claims made in the GERS report.

MacDonell repeated one of the lies from the Better Together list of claims relating to the leaked report – that the Scottish government was planning to cut defence spending in Scotland.  MacDonell knows full well that Scotland’s ‘invoice’ from Westminster attributes £3.5bn to Scottish defence but that only £2bn is actualy spent here.  The Scottish government proposed upping that spend to £2.5bn.  Increasing spend whilst reducing the bill.

Writing in the Sunday Herald, Iain MacWhirter says: “The press coverage was over the top, economically illiterate and rather childish. But you don’t get to choose the press and this is the same media that will be covering the independence campaign next year

However it isn’t the press that is the problem, but the broadcast media without whose help the coverage would not have been so over the top.  MacWhirter is correct though in that it is this media machine will be the one providing coverage of the independence debate and the main reason that movements are slowly building that demand at the very least balance and honesty.

This short termism approach by the No campaign and its helpers – win the referendum at all costs – is dangerous and there are already signs of a growing frustration at what is being perceived as a move away from honest reporting and analysis and a tendency towards a propagandist style of news manipulation.

We have already seen the reputations of two BBC Scotland reporters take a hit after the decision was taken by bosses at Pacific Quay to lure unsuspecting EU Foreign Ministers into answering questions that were then used in order to undermine the Yes campaign.  Three Euro Officials have been misrepresented in the process and two have issued official rebuttals of the BBC’s interpretation of their words – the word will spread and the BBC’s reputation will suffer.

A No vote in 2014 will be respected.  However at what cost if a significant body of people believe that the pro-independence argument has been deliberately marginalised by a small but influential elite?