Groupthink and the Scottish media


  By Paul Kavanagh
There was an interesting interview with Scottish journalist Iain MacWhirter published on Sunday in the Basque newspaper Deia. In the interview, Iain talks about the decision taken by the Sunday Herald to support independence, and explains that if there is a No vote, a distinctive Scottish media has no future.
The Scottish press is overwhelmingly owned by commercial interests outside Scotland, and if there is a no vote, Iain fears that Scotland’s media lose any claim to being a national media and will continue its descent into becoming a tartan branch of the English regional press.

Talking about the role of the Scottish media in the referendum campaign, Iain described it as groupthink. Scottish journalists and Scottish Unionist politicians inhabit the same small world, all have the same world-view which they characterise as reality. This leads to heavily biased coverage of the referendum, coverage which the Scottish media is convinced is neutral and even-handed. Severin Carrell of the Guardian’s quaint and charming belief that he’s a neutral player in the referendum is a case in point.

There was a perfect example of such groupthink displayed on the BBC’s Scottish Sunday Politics Show, when journalist Kirsty Scott made the jaw-dropping assertion that it was unreasonable for Alicsammin’s press officer to point out to the press that ordinary mum and carer Clare Lally was in fact a member of the Labour shadow cabinet.

If I had only known that being a full time carer exempts you from all and any scrutiny or criticism, I’d currently be resting louchely on a chaise longue, dressed in an embroidered smoking jacket, waving a cigarette holder and dispensing bon mots, while Torcuil Crichton did all the housework wearing nothing but a gold spangled thong and Alan Cochrane in arseless leather chaps fetched my slippers. Bend over Alan, you’ve been a very naughty boy.

And Kirsty Scott could do something useful with herself, like taking an evening class in plumbing and waste management. She clearly doesn’t believe that her job involves investigating the claims made by political parties or the private companies involved in health and care provision, so she’s obviously underemployed. At least if she learns plumbing she’ll be able to do something constructive to help flush out the sewer of Scottish journalism in which she works.

Kirsty has previous involvement in journalism about carers’ issues, in 2011 she wrote a puff piece for the Guardian bigging up a subsidiary of a private equity company, Care UK, which has a number of local authority contracts to provide care services. Care UK has benefited immensely from the creeping privatisation of health and social care services introduced by Labour and enthusiastically promoted by the Tories.

But all is not as rosy in the private equity care garden as Kirsty would have us believe. In 2010 Care UK were subject of controversy after it came to light that they had been making sizeable donations to the private office of Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley – who then went on to introduce more back door privatisation in the English NHS.

The previous year, 2009, Care UK was also in the news after losing a number of contracts with local authorities in England following a series of complaints about inadequacies in the company’s service provision. Not that Kirsty thought to mention any of this in her hagiographic Guardian article a year later. Her Guardian puff piece piece was rightly met with outrage in carers’ blogs and forums.

So it seems that Iain MacWhirter’s fears that Scottish mainstream journalism risks descending into an amateurish occupation filled with folk writing puff pieces for private companies have already come to pass. Since her Guardian piece was published, Care UK have gone on to attract yet more government money, courtesy of the Tories’ creeping privatisation, and have come under fire for their tax-avoidance strategies.

PatLallyInlawGate has attracted considerable interest amongst Scotland’s carers. You can’t talk about a “Caring Community” though, because none of us can get out of the hoose long enough to commune with one another over tea, scones, and sympathy. But I have managed to talk to some other carers and care assistants about the events of the past week. While, as fellow carers, more than anyone else we understand, appreciate, and respect what Clare does as a carer, no one I’ve spoken to has been impressed by her response to the online abuse she received.

The attempts to blame Alicsammin’s press guy for nasty online comments made by random punters are unconvincing and clearly politically motivated, as was Clare’s refusal to accept the man’s apology. Refusing to accept the apology was undignified, and that was the point at which Clare lost the moral high ground in the eyes of many of Scotland’s carers. But it’s also obvious that had she accepted the apology, the story would have died – and that’s not in the interests of the Labour party or the Scottish media groupthink.

It is interesting to contrast this episode to a similar episode during the General Election campaign of 1992, the War of Jennifer’s Ear. In an election broadcast, Labour made a big play of the story of a young girl who had waited a year for a simple operation for an ear condition. But it turned out that Labour was misrepresenting the issues.

In the brouhaha which resulted, the original question of health care was lost and the media focused on an investigation of Labour’s attempts to use a vulnerable person as a political tool to misrepresent and manipulate the narrative of an election campaign. Labour went on to lose the following election and we got another five years of Tory government.

In the War of Clare’s In-Laws, the media is not talking about carers and carers’ needs – they’re talking about an entirely mythical orchestrated campaign of online abuse from evil cybernats and its supposedly unique role in the Scottish referendum campaign. And we’re being told by Scottish journalists that it’s unreasonable to investigate Labour’s attempts to use a vulnerable person as a political tool to misrepresent and manipulate the narrative of the referendum campaign.

We live in a country where private companies take profits from the funding provided for care provision, then use some of that money to donate to politicians who promote greater private sector involvement.

Meanwhile Scotland’s journalists write puff pieces about the companies and praise the creeping destruction of a comprehensive state system of care provision, while condemning attempts to investigate the claims made by politicians about carers’ issues. It’s the ordinary carers and cared-for who suffer the consequences. And no one speaks up for us, except the demonised cybernats. You want a reason for independence? There’s one right there.

Labour will go on to lose the Scottish referendum campaign. The Scottish media has already lost it.

Courtesy of Paul Kavanagh and Wee Ginger Dug