Prophecies for the year 2014

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  By G.A.Ponsonby
 
Do you know that when they opened the coffin of Nostradamus, there upon his chest was a brass plate on which was engraved – ‘Even I wouldn’t believe Project Fear’.
 
OK, it’s a poor joke, but some of the claims from the No campaign we’ve had to put up with this last year have been just as poor.  A few have been forgotten, such as the claim that North Korea could nuke an independent Scotland.

But one thing needs be said, and that is that without the promotion of these scares by the media there would be no Project Fear to laugh at.

The media in Scotland has let the public down badly with its handling of the independence debate.  An over reliance on smears, scares and blackmail emanating from the pro-Union side has meant people have been denied what could have been an illuminating debate on the future of Scotland.

But let’s not look back, let’s look forward to what we might expect as we enter the final nine months to referendum day.  Will our print and broadcast media grasp the nettle and remember what honest journalism is all about or will it be more of the same from the professionals?

BBC Scotland

In two weeks from now the BBC Trust will publish its ruling in which it found BBC Scotland guilty of breaking guidelines on accuracy on the issue of an independent Scotland’s EU status.  The ruling follows a shocking year for the BBC’s Scottish branch which has seen it lose some of its most experienced reporters.

Derek Bateman opted for voluntary redundancy and Raymond Buchanan resigned, whilst others suffered compulsory redundancy.  It’s most adept political interviewer, Isabel Fraser, remains conspicuously absent from her TV role well over a year after Labour MP Ian Davidson launched a verbal attack on her reputation.

A series of strikes was averted at the eleventh hour after the corporation withdrew the threat of forced redundancy from another member of the BBC Scotland staff.

The much vaunted arrival of London based radio presenter James Naughtie to front Good Morning Scotland has been a disaster with Naughtie blundering his way through handovers and links and unable to disguise his clear pro-Union feelings in interviews.

Its head of News and Current Affairs, John Boothman, has been accused of bowing to pressure from Scottish Labour party officials and of trying to influence the content of political programmes. 

Another former reporter, Waseem Zakir, who had accused BBC Scotland of racial discrimination after he was made redundant despite having over twelve years’ experience, received a settlement days before his case was due to go to an industrial tribunal.

BBC Scotland enters 2014 with its credibility shot to pieces and giving every indication of an organisation in crisis.  Sadly this second rate regional institution is exactly what its pro-Union London bosses want so it will be business as usual in referendum year.

BBC Scotland relies heavily on domestic stories in order to fill up political news output.  Don’t be surprised to find the spotlight focus on Holyrood even more this year as the Scottish Government finds itself coming under greater scrutiny.

Watch for suggestions that the Scottish NHS is in crisis.  A very real crisis is hitting the NHS south of the border, and with the referendum looming it will help the No campaign if the Scottish public can be persuaded that their own NHS is just as bad.

Expect attacks on the SNP by Scottish Labour to increase and for BBC Scotland to run with them.  Johann Lamont’s party are not set up to challenge for government, the job of Scottish Labour is to sabotage governance in Scotland, her Holyrood Labour group is a political guerrilla squad.

The No campaign is now relying to an even greater extent on the esoteric issues of the EU and currency.  BBC Scotland will play its role in keeping these issues simmering, to the exclusion of the real referendum issues of welfare, opportunity and a fairer society.

Look out for BBC Scotland contacting the Foreign Minister of Greece in the New Year in order to seek some kind of comment on Scotland’s EU membership post-independence.  Greece takes over the EU Presidency on January 1st 2014 and will hold its first intergovernmental conference on January 21st.

It was at this conference in Dublin in January 2013 that Raymond Buchanan interviewed Lucinda Creighton.  This is precisely the kind of opportunity BBC Scotland will look to in order to keep the EU membership scare in the spotlight.

Westminster will continue to issue reports highlighting the perils of independence.  BBC Scotland devours such reports, and this will also continue.  Currency will be pushed more and more as we near September 18th.

Expect to see Westminster attacks appear more and more on Reporting Scotland.  The tea-time news programme is the most effective vehicle for getting the message across to the public, and it doesn’t allow questions to be put to those making the claims.

Also expect scrutiny of the Scandic countries to feature a lot more.  BBC Scotland once filled a whole Good Morning Scotland programme on the issue of Ireland when the country experienced its own banking crisis.  This was a result of Alex Salmond’s ill advised ‘arc of prosperity’ description of Ireland, Iceland and Norway.

An easy, and quite moronic, argument against independence is the apparent high taxation experienced by countries like Norway.  So watch out for any Douglas Fraser fronted programme that focuses on the Nordic countries.

In terms of the referendum itself, we’ll see a continuation of late night studio ‘debates’ with the audience made up of zealots from both sides who will insist on clapping and cheering their own respective team’s answers.  These information-free rammies will turn undecided voters off.

The job of BBC Scotland will be to appear to be providing in depth analysis and balanced coverage of the referendum but whilst singularly failing to do so.  Thus, issues that are damaging to the No campaign, such as the donation from Ian Taylor and the letter from the EC official confirming no legal barrier to Scotland negotiating EU membership from within, will be airbrushed out of their coverage.

We won’t see much call for the consequences of a No vote to be defined before the referendum.  That is the albatross around the No campaign neck and the beeb will pay mere lip service to that one.

BBC Scotland’s coverage will be brutal.

The Papers

They don’t have the resources to cover the referendum, and their circulation continues to plummet.  The Herald, Scotsman and Record will continue to push the ridiculous stories that have pockmarked media coverage of the independence debate.

Worst by a significant margin has been the appalling coverage of events in Catalonia and the moronic ‘dealt a blow’ claims with regards Scottish independence that follow statements from some of the key players involved in the Spain/Catalonia situation.  Newsnet Scotland has highlighted a few of the more embarrassing misinterpretations by our professional journalists, and Paul Kavanagh’s blog continues to correct the unremitting ignorance that passes for professional copy.

In truth what the Scottish newspapers, and the BBC for that matter, serve up in relation to the EU issue is not journalism or mature analysis, but manipulation and spin.  If you want to be really undiplomatic, then you simply call it bare faced lying.

The issue of EU membership come independence is of course impossible to set out in absolute terms, because the situation where a member state breaks into its two constituent components will be unique.  However, any realistic and honest analysis will come to one conclusion and that is that there is no mechanism for expelling a nation (Scotland already is a nation) which is already part of the EU.

The newspapers though will continue as they have done because it’s simpler to deliberately misinterpret in order to pursue your own agenda than to honestly analyse.  Of course, placing a simplistic albeit inaccurate anti-independence spin on opaque comments from Artur Mas and not so opaque politically motivated comments from Mariano Rajoy, is easy to do.

Not so easy would be to provide in depth analysis of reports from world renowned academics and economists like Professor Joseph Stiglitz.

The circulation figures suggest that the Scottish public are becoming increasingly weary of this narrow pro-Union agenda and lazy writing.  However these figures will do little to alter the anti-independence stance of the newspapers.

Expect them to up their attacks on online citizen journalism as sites like Newsnet Scotland seep into the public consciousness.  The Daily Record mounted the first real attack of this kind when its editorial described Newsnet Scotland as a “crackpot website” that “regularly engages in paranoid conspiracy theories”.

Their fear though is that more people actually visit these sites and learn that far from being crackpot, the standard of writing is as good as, if not better, than that offered up by the Record and its ilk.

STV

I have been impressed with STV’s approach to the referendum, but its political news coverage seems to ape the BBC more often than I prefer.

I don’t think STV will take a huge gamble by increasing its referendum coverage to any great extent.  It’s a private company and the bottom line is god.

Saying that, Scotland Tonight continues to provide better debates on the subject of independence and its new format, which sees each side allowed to cross examine the other, is one I like in principle.

Notwithstanding the public beating Nicola Sturgeon inflicted on the hapless Alistair Carmichael, I think their cross examination format needs tweaking to lower the heat and increase the light.

This referendum debate needs to be about information.  I like the idea of the host not trying to steer the debate, as happens on the BBC, however more needs to be done to ensure the exchanges do not descend into the kind of nonsense we witnessed when Labour MP Anas Sarwar decided to sabotage the programme by effectively refusing to participate.

Similarly, the Sturgeon versus Carmichael bout was cracking box-office but there was little attempt at real debate.

I would anticipate STV refining these exchanges to a degree.  By all means put questions posed by the protagonists to the other, but those responding must be allowed to speak whilst being pressed to provide an answer.

Whether STV bites the bullet and schedules a few prime time exchanges remains to be seen.  I hope they do.

The Campaigns

Better Together will continue to play the scare card.  If polls are to be believed then it has proven effective to date.  Polls though, despite what David Torrance says, are showing movement from No to Yes.

I predict that this will continue and the No campaign will become increasingly desperate.  This will manifest itself in a drift towards smears.  These have been part of the No campaign already, with attacks on Alex Salmond, but will increase dramatically in 2014 if the polls continue to show an erosion of the No campaign lead.

Do not be surprised to see Better Together issue allegations which turn out to be false.  They have already attempted to employ such tactics when claiming their HQ had been the target of almost daily attacks by SNP activists.  Only the refusal of the media to pursue the claim, which was untrue, saved the No campaign from significant embarrassment.

Alistair Darling is already coming under pressure for running what some leading Unionist politicians think is a lacklustre campaign.  I expect scares to morph into threats if Yes looks like it might be capable of overturning the current deficit.

Whatever the Edinburgh Agreement says, this campaign is all about winning at any costs for Unionists.  Scares will quickly become threats and the gloves will come off in earnest.

The No campaign knows it has the backing of the media in Scotland.  This media will comply and will provide as little scrutiny as possible to whatever claims Better Together makes.

Yes Scotland has been quietly getting on with the job it was designed to do, which was to mobilise grass roots activists.  They have an unsympathetic media who are forensically examining everything they do with a view to a damaging headline.

Even when the victim, yes Scotland finds itself under attack as witnessed by the coverage given to astonishing revelations its email communications had been hacked.

Yes Scotland has made some blunders, not least was the failure to anticipate the pro-Union media reaction to the fee it paid Elliot Bulmer for an article on a written constitution.  It has though learned the lesson from that episode.

The Yes Scotland campaign team could do worse than engage with the more thoughtful online outlets such as Newsnet Scotland and Bella Caledonia.  Too many good stories suffer from a lack of exposure, and another news outlet running an article can’t but help.

Online Media

Dominated by three sites – Newsnet Scotland, Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland.  All three have their own unique approach to the independence debate and all three approaches are vital.

These sites are the only direct challenge to Scotland’s traditional media outlets.  Each should find its visitor numbers increasing as interest in the referendum grows.  Many of these new visitors will be those yet to make their minds up on how to vote in the referendum and they are there to be persuaded.

The Achilles heel of the Yes campaign comes in the shape of those who are unable to exercise restraint when posting messages online.  It will be for those who operate each website, including Newsnet Scotland, to decide whether the messages and articles that appear on their site will endear the undecided voter or alienate them.

The campaign that manages to entice and win over the undecided voter will win the referendum.