How do you debate with ignorance and lies?


  By a Newsnet reporter
This weekend former US President Bill Clinton visited Edinburgh.  Asked in a Question and Answer session for his views on the Scottish independence debate, Mr Clinton urged both sides to engage respectfully and not “tear the place apart”.
Refreshingly, the former US President resisted the urge to back one side over the other, but did say that whatever the result, Scotland would be a better place regardless of the which side wins the referendum – but only if we have an honest debate.

Mr Clinton’s remarks were honest and well intentioned, but just what chance is there of any honesty in this historic debate over Scotland’s future when BBC Scotland can’t even show a full unedited sentence from a former US President?

On the Sunday Politics Show, Andrew Kerr introduced a clip of Mr Clinton taking part in the session.

The clip showed Mr Clinton saying the following: “It’s very important that there be an honest effort to list the consequences…”

However the clip faded out before Mr Clinton had finished his sentence, missing was this part of Mr Clinton’s remark, “…of this vote one way or the other.”

The full sentence that BBC Scotland couldn’t even broadcast was:

“It’s very important that there be an honest effort to list the consequences of this vote one way or the other.”

The BBC clip made it appear as though the former US President was saying the consequences of independence needed to be listed.  However, as can be seen from the full sentence, he was actually calling for the consequences of a No vote to be clarified as well.

Whether it was the intention of the BBC to mislead we’ll never know, but for the sake of three seconds worth of video footage, all doubt would have been removed.

Here is Bill Clinton’s full answer which is on BBC online

Clinton was absolutely correct of course, the debate requires honesty and a degree of respect and engagement from both sides otherwise we risk tarnishing the whole process and leaving behind a very bitter legacy.  It’s actually something the Scottish Government has been trying to do ever since the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement – with little success.

Ignorance and lies

This weekend Better Together has been displaying either breathtaking ignorance or a woeful disregard for the truth by repeating claims put out by the UK government.

On Saturday the UK coalition published a list of 200 bodies it claimed a newly independent Scotland would have to replicate at a cost of billions.  Embarrassingly for the No campaign, the list included bodies that Scotland already has and even some that the UK government are planning to scrap.

The claims were repeated, as they always are, by the entire Scottish media despite them not even being new, for the story was a rehash of an identical claim made by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition back in February.

Yes Scotland has been making hay by highlighting the gaffes contained in the list in a series of tweets.  Thus far though the blunders haven’t managed to generate the same kind of coverage as the initial claims.

Misinformation such as this is typical of the official anti-independence campaign which is still claiming Scotland benefits from the UK’s Triple-A credit rating, despite the rating having been lost months ago.

But worse than lazily repeating false claims made by the UK coalition is the publication by Better Together of allegations they know to be lies.

In April this year, in a clumsy attempt at diverting attention from a controversial donation given to Better Together by the CEO of a company which has links to a war criminal, the No campaign issued statements and published an article alleging the campaign HQ in Glasgow was attacked almost daily by SNP activists.

In the article which can still be seen on the Better Together blog, it says:

“And our campaign HQ comes under attack with almost daily attempts of sabotage from SNP activists.”

Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall claimed there was a coordinated campaign orchestrated by Alex Salmond and the people at the top of the Yes Scotland campaign.

However, when pressed by Newsnet Scotland to provide evidence of the alleged attacks on the HQ, Better Together Director of Communications Rob Shorthouse could list only telephone calls and ‘mail’. 

In a long list of ‘evidence’, most of which had nothing whatsoever to do with the HQ attack claim, there were two examples:

  • Better Together receives mail on a daily basis accusing staff working on the campaign of being ‘traitors.’
  • Phone calls are taken at the campaign office – again on a daily basis – abusing the staff member who happens to pick up the phone

In short, there never were “almost daily attacks” of “sabotage” on the Glasgow HQ of Better Together, nor was there any evidence that SNP activists or Yes campaign officials were engaged in or were coordinating such attacks as alleged by Blair McDougall.  The story was concocted nonsense.

Lies built on lies

Indeed, one of the examples cited as evidence of a dirty tricks campaign being waged by senior figures within the SNP and Yes Scotland was an article written by pro-Union columnist Alan Cochrane, which itself was a tissue of invention and misrepresentation.

Entitled ‘Nats’ ferocious attacks on press show their desperation’, Cochrane’s piece centred on a now infamous episode involving BBC Scotland and Irish Foreign Minister Lucinda Creighton.

The article began – “DOWN in the depths of the Natbunker, things are getting desperate, really desperate as they survey the harsh reality that their great project – to smash the United Kingdom

What had irked Mr Cochrane was a complaint from the Irish Minister that an interview she gave to BBC Scotland reporter Raymond Buchanan had been misconstrued.

Speaking on the Sunday Politics Show in January, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “I think it’s unfortunate for the BBC that a minister from another government has stated that the BBC has misconstrued her position.”

Factually accurate from Hyslop who very clearly did not herself accuse the BBC of having misconstrued the Irish Minister’s words, but merely described Lucinda Creighton’s own accusation as unfortunate.

However, this is how Alan Cochrane described Fiona Hyslop’s appearance:

“But when she tried, on the Politics Show, to blame the BBC for misconstruing what the Irish minister had said about the difficulties an independent Scotland would face in getting into the European Union as an applicant, she provided proof positive that she’s not really up to the job.”

Cochrane added:

“Ms Hyslop’s lame-brained assault on the BBC yesterday, which by implication questioned the honesty of Raymond Buchanan, the reporter who had interviewed the Irish minister…”

So, in order to back up false claims of attacks on the Better Together HQ, Director of Communications Rob Shorthouse actually cited an article which itself misrepresented an interview in order to make more spurious claims.

The Lucinda Creighton episode is still winging its way through the BBC complaints process, the BBC Trust having last week been asked to step in after the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit failed to respond after six weeks.

Bill Clinton admitted he knew little of the independence debate currently raging in Scotland.  More’s the pity for if he knew the extent of the deliberate lies and misinformation being peddled by the No campaign and some of their media allies, he may have had a lot more to say.

It’s fine to cast doubt on claims being made by your opponent, just as it is acceptable to highlight what you see as risks should people opt to vote Yes.  What is unacceptable is the routine misinformation that is finding its way into newspapers and broadcasts.

Almost as bad is the reluctance on the part of our media to take the No campaign to task when these falsehoods are exposed for what they are.  And therein lies the key to the debate which is currently flailing around in mud flung by Better Together.

It is impossible to debate with an opponent who views the truth as collateral damage and who knows that few will take it to task regardless of how outrageous its claims are.

Bill Clinton’s wise words will have no effect on the anti-independence campaign.

For more on the Lucinda Creighton story click on the links below: