If we want a mature and balanced debate then we will need to demand one


By a Newsnet reporter

Last Wednesday the news in Scotland was dominated by yet another baseless claim from a Unionist leaning commentator.

Iain Duncan Smith became the latest Unionist politician to claim that an independent Scotland would be unable to sustain the services those living in Scotland currently ‘enjoy’ through being part of the Union.

By a Newsnet reporter

Last Wednesday the news in Scotland was dominated by yet another baseless claim from a Unionist leaning commentator.

Iain Duncan Smith became the latest Unionist politician to claim that an independent Scotland would be unable to sustain the services those living in Scotland currently ‘enjoy’ through being part of the Union.

According to Duncan Smith, the day after independence, swingeing cuts would be needed in order to pay welfare benefits to Scots already in receipt of such payments.

The claim coincided with a meeting between the London government and the Edinburgh team on the process that will underpin the 2014 independence referendum.  It became the latest piece of rhetorical sludge that is fast smearing the independence debate canvas.

This latest piece of verbal graffiti was, as ever, seized on by the Scottish media, who are fast proving incapable of delivering the kind of debate the nation deserves.  As usual, BBC Scotland was in the thick of it with its radio, TV and online arms splashing with Duncan Smith’s words.

This nonsense is now swamping Scotland’s electorate; most of whom are already wallowing in a sea of media inspired ignorance.  That the Scottish Labour party leapt on this latest “too poor” insult from a Conservative Minister evidences the sheer desperation that is fast becoming the signature of the Tory led Better Together campaign.

Duncan Smith’s baseless nonsense followed a politically motivated move from Labour MEP Catherine Stihler whose malicious Freedom of Information request is an example of a move designed to destroy mature debate.  The story is being carefully contorted by every one of our media outlets as a fight to establish what legal advice the Scottish government has received.

It isn’t of course – what is being sought is a judgment on whether the Scottish government can refuse to confirm whether it has received advice – something quite different.  The intervention of Scotland’s Information Commissioner is unfortunate and sets a very dangerous precedent – it is also bordering on taking sides, given that the No campaign have seized on a decision the Scottish government were compelled to make.

Both stories have enjoyed headlines way beyond their merit and would have withered and died were it not for the ‘Scottish’ media – spearheaded by BBC Scotland, who reporting them religiously.  I watched Reporting Scotland dine out on both and sighed at the apparent willingness of these reporters to promote such obvious attempts at killing real debate.

There’s no desire to apply reason, logic or common sense.  The EU story has been running along for seemingly months ever since Unionists decided that Europe would expel, wouldn’t want or would force the Euro upon an independent Scotland.

Journalists seem incapable of applying even the most basic rigour to these scare stories.  Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 and fully five years later the country’s Finance Minister has just announced that they will not be joining the Euro any time soon.

Simeon Djankov, made clear on the 4th of September that the risks were too high.  Similar announcements have been made by Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.  Last week it emerged that former colonies of France had inherited membership and treaty benefits after they voted for independence.  These statements are not widely reported, if at all, by our Scottish media.

Duncan Smith’s appallingly ignorant statements on the finances of an independent Scotland were destroyed before he opened his mouth.  Scotland already contributes more to the UK Treasury than she receives back and comparing the proportion of GDP spent on welfare – English based claimants receive 42% to 40% from Scottish claimants.

It begs the question as to what, if any, criterion is applied to ensure that these scares contain an element of credibility?  Are all claims, no matter how outlandish, to be circulated regardless?

Sadly the answer seems to be that Unionists have carte blanche and things are unlikely to change.

The debate won’t be allowed to take place unless Scots demand it takes place.  BBC Scotland has become the equivalent of a tabloid newspaper, embracing the editorial practices that goes with it.

There is clearly no barrier to Unionist scare stories making it as banner headlines in the press and broadcast media.  If the No campaign claims that gravity would end in an independent Scotland, one would expect it to be read out by Jackie Bird on that evening’s news.

The fake late night TV debates that follow these claims are just that – fake.  By the time the truth gets its boots on the scare has already made several radio, newspaper and TV laps of Scotland and the scare is firmly embedded in the minds of the electorate, most of whom have already gone to bed.

It also isn’t helped by BBC Scotland’s insistence on using its late night and early morning news programmes as promotional platforms for newspapers, every one of which is against independence and most of which will lead on the scare. 

The Scotsman, vehemently anti-independence, is routinely given free advertising on Newsnight Scotland.  Both the Herald and Scotsman, along with almost every other newspaper, are also given free promotion on Good Morning Scotland. 

The result of course is that where the lead story is political, then the pro-Union editorial line of the papers ensures that anti-Independence/SNP stories will receive considerably more coverage than pro-Indy/SNP stories.  Imbalance is virtually guaranteed.

Months ago, Newsnet Scotland asked BBC Scotland what criterion they employed when deciding which news vendors would enjoy such free promotion.  The question was formally acknowledged by the recipient but no answer was ever forthcoming.

Newspaper Review sample from Friday’s Good Morning Scotland

Newsnight Scotland newspaper previews for four days up to Sept 20 2012

A campaign will be required in order to draw attention to the worst aspects of this ‘debate debasing’.  At the same time it will need to focus on those areas where pressure can achieve change.

There are undoubtedly many areas where change is desired – however for any campaign to be successful it has to focus on those areas it can influence.  Over the coming months, Newsnet Scotland intends to launch just such a campaign.  It will call for a balanced, all inclusive and mature debate.

It will seek to ensure that:

  • all three sides (indy, devo-max, status quo) in the independence debate are treated equally at all times by broadcast media
  • that any and all referendum debates and discussions satisfy equality in terms of participation
  • that, where practicable, pundits and commentators acknowledge their own political and/or constitutional leanings
  • that studio audiences do not favour one side over any of the others both in terms of attendance and participation
  • that the BBC provides the same online commentary facilities to Scotland as it does for England, Wales and Northern Ireland

The campaign for balance and inclusion must not encroach into the debate itself and will seek only fairness for all three sides.

The campaign request for fair play should be so basic, so obvious and so fundamental to an honest debate that few, if any, will be able to argue against it.  Once established, then any broadcaster not complying with these simple conditions will very quickly come to the attention of the Scottish people and will, most probably, find itself with a credibility issue.

Domain names have already been acquired in order to make the campaign accessible to the public and consultation with respected polling organisations has taken place in order to establish whether they would agree to carry out a poll on behalf of Newsnet Scotland.  We can confirm that one of the UK’s most respected organisations has confirmed that they would be willing to carry out just such a survey.

The survey will allow us to gauge public support for these very basic measures.