Referendum – A three stranded campaign


  By G.A.Ponsonby
The independence white paper is now one week old and it’s almost as though it was never launched.  It was supposed to place the pro-Union parties on the back-foot … it would be the game changer we were told.
It did change the debate dynamic I suppose, for a day, and then came the planned counter attack in the shape of the EU and the pound.

Spanish President Mariano Rajoy’s EU attack was always going to be headlined in Scotland, after all it’s what the media here do.  The currency threat was the other pincer claw and between them they squeezed the life out of the White Paper.

Remember childcare?  It was the issue that caught everyone’s attention on launch day and was supposed to help engage women in the independence debate.  If it did we haven’t heard much evidence of it.

In the Scotsman, Lesley Riddoch wrote:

“Where is the enthusiastic, critical or detailed response to the free childcare system pledged in the Scottish Government’s white paper?  After decades campaigning for overstressed mums and under-engaged toddlers you’d think child welfare charities, academics and women’s organisations would be ecstatic.  You’d think a policy advanced explicitly in terms of economic benefit might excite comment from money experts and think tanks.  And since better childcare is now linked to a Yes vote, political commentators might even opine about its likely impact on the independence gender gap.”

We’re effectively back to the same scare stories the media have been promoting for over a year, and it looks like they’ll run with them right up until the day of the referendum.  I’ve said before that there won’t be any debate – Unionists are not interested.

For anyone who doubts this, just take a look at what happened when the First Minister highlighted an official email that undermined Unionist EU claims.  The media panicked and a coordinated smear campaign kicked in.  BBC Scotland managed to make false claims sound believable when they told viewers that Salmond had lifted the communication from the internet.

Iain Macwhirter in his own Sunday opinion piece criticised the SNP for not challenging yet another tidal wave of propaganda.

“The Nationalists were kicked royally across the front pages last week by everyone from the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to the former Conservative PM, John Major.  Alex Salmond was left at First Minister’s Questions apparently defending his case for continued membership of the European Union with a letter downloaded from the internet.”

When even the respected Herald journalist falls for the lie that the EC email was “downloaded from the internet”, you know the traditional media is now the dead zone as far as the Yes campaign is concerned.  Salmond could find a cure for cancer and the media would still find a way to attack him.

Sadly the penny has yet to drop for many of our more respected commentators.  They appear to believe that rationally constructed articles buried beneath a landslide of anti-independence headlines will make a difference.  They won’t, and as long as they restrict their dancing to the pro-Union media tune, that’s how it will stay.

There will be no debate because the Unionist media cannot risk one.  If we wait on the BBC, Herald, Record, Scotsman and even STV producing a genuine mature debate then we are going to be disappointed.

But is this a lost cause?

Not by a long chalk, for the traditional media is only one strand of what I believe is now a very clear three pronged campaign.

Strand 1 – Traditional Media.

Sewn up for the Unionists and that’s how it will stay.  The influence newspapers once wielded is long gone and circulation figures are dropping fast.  But they retain some power and when tag-teaming with the BBC, as they did over the EU and pound, they present a formidable opponent.

Notwithstanding Nicola Sturgeon’s shredding of Alistair Carmichael on STV, the Yes campaign cannot win any long term debate in the media and the best they can hope for is a holding game.  The Yes team have formidable media performers and Salmond, Sturgeon, Harvie, Canavan and Jenkins can help stem the tide of negativity and doom.

As an example of how skewed the media is, even when they are the victims of a criminal act, Blair Jenkins still found himself being attacked by Gary Robertson over the Yes Scotland email hacking story.  Note that the No campaign had just been found to have broken the law over the sending of unsolicited texts, but Robertson was not interested.

Can the media hold out for another nine and a half months?  Unless the Scotsman or the Herald are bought over by a pro-indy consortium then absolutely nothing will change.  They’ll still be talking about the pound and the EU and how the Yes campaign are struggling until the last ballot paper has been filled in.

Strand 2 – Online Media

Cyber space is where it’s at.  Comments, blogs Newsnet, Wings, Bella – the nats have it sewn up.

Over at the Herald the Unionists take a daily pounding.  One post from the OBE fella attracts twenty or thirty responses – sometimes more.  BBC Scotlandshire provides the laughs – the Yes campaign is kicking cyber-ass.

But does cyber space really influence debate?  How many undecided voters have actually heard of these sites?  How many get their news online?  How many trawl through the sometimes hundreds of ‘comments’ posted beneath articles?

The fact is that the online media is having little influence over the people both sides need to engage with.  Newsnet Scotland attracted 127,000 unique visitors last month but we’re realistic enough to know that our influence is small amongst those yet to decide.

We can never hope to challenge the power of the traditional media but we can increase our impact.  One of the great untapped resources remains the online community in the shape of people who post comments.  I estimate that there must be around two hundred or so such cyber (wo)men – who step into the fray daily.

Some time ago Newsnet Scotland took the decision to restrict comments in an effort at preventing less than helpful messages from appearing and also to make it easier to catch nuggets of research or links to stories of interest.

There was the hope that people would then see the comment facility as a way to help, and instead of posting mostly anodyne messages borne of frustration, posters would have instead re-directed their energy to become the research arm of the site.

If citizen journalism is to make a significant impact in the independence debate then those who engage online need to start organising into small teams.  Work together, co-ordinate, research, collate and assist and then contribute effectively and constructively.

Strand 3 – Face to Face

Online media has a role to play but there’s no substitute for talking face to face with someone.  The undecided voter will grow increasingly thirsty for knowledge as we near our date with destiny.

Yes Scotland has a greater pool at its disposal than its Better Together opponent does.  There is already anecdotal evidence that Unionists are trying to prevent Yes Scotland activists from canvassing at local events. 

This shows two things – first, that Better Together cannot compete with the army of Yes Scotland volunteers and second that they are aware of the effectiveness of face-to-face canvassing.

Every person who believes in an independent Scotland must, at some point, enlist with their local Yes group.

This referendum will see people – who have never before voted – step into a booth and place a cross on the ballot paper.  The historically disenfranchised will likely make up one quarter of those casting their vote.  They have never been factored into surveys by pollsters who continue to over-estimate the lead the No campaign has.

Many of our fellow Scots have little expectation of life and have nothing to lose, but they need hope.  They don’t care about the EU, NATO or Sterling.  Some have never worked, others have had a lifetime of casual low paid jobs and will never receive a pension.  Others may have drink or drug problems and many endure poor-health.

These people all have a vote and will respond to a message of hope.  The Yes campaign has just such a message and it has the people who can deliver it.  The street campaign is where Yes can make significant inroads and it’s all to play for as we get ready for 2014.