By Mark McNaught
Any utopian hope that the ‘Better Together’ campaign will calmly and politely debate the pros and cons of independence and let Scots’ verdict be based on their merits has been shattered.
Barely two weeks after the Edinburgh Agreement, we already observe character assassination, distortion of statements, outright lies, and scare mongering. Much of this despicable rhetoric is channeled unchallenged through foreign-owned media outlets, who are patently disinterested in what Scots’ constitutional future will be.
As an American who has observed media campaigns all my life, sometimes inspired to throw bricks at the TV, I fear the tsunami of distortions and lies which will be flooding the airwaves over the next two years.
While there are currently attempts to impose campaign spending limits on both sides of the referendum, there is no question that the ‘Yes’ campaign is outgunned in that the unionists can draw upon the apparatus of the UK. Whitehall is currently gearing up to help the Unionist campaign, presumably to provide harrowing statistics and reports showing everything that Scotland would lose in the case of independence. Do not expect objectivity.
The most important way in which Scottish citizens can assure a fair and honest debate is to hold all media outlets and politicians of all stripes accountable for their accuracy, objectivity, and tone. We have already begun to see this in the planned protests at BBC Scotland. It must go much further, on a mass scale, rapidly.
In the words of Mark Twain, “a lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. This is no time to lay back and hope the debate is conducted honestly. All Scots must act to assure it.
If you buy a paper, watch a TV channel, or listen to a radio station which you believe is not treating the question fairly, contact them explaining why you feel they are not and demand that they do so. Do some internet research on who owns them, and ask them directly if that has any bearing on their lack of fair treatment. Ask them if their owners’ interests take precedence over those of the Scotland’s future in their coverage.
If they publish something which is demonstrably false, contact them and demand that they publish a retraction. Keep writing until they do. Keep records of all your communications, to show how responsive or unresponsive they are to their readers. Remind them that their credibility is at stake, and ask if they truly want to be an impediment to Scots making an informed decision.
Likewise, from politicians, Scots must demand a civil discourse, and that they back up their assertions with facts. If a politician is boorish and insulting, contact them and tell them that this is not acceptable in a debate so central to Scotland’s future. If they focus on petty semantic squabbles rather than substantive issues, tell them to get serious or get out of the way.
Debasing this of all debates is an insult to all Scots. If politician X throws out some statistic about how many jobs Scots would lose in the event of independence, demand to see the study in its entirety and its exact methodology. This goes for any study coming out of Whitehall, given who they are working for.
If it comes from some think tank, demand to know which one and who is funding it. If they don’t, inform them that their statistic is not credible because they cannot substantiate it. Ask them why Scots don’t deserve to make an informed reasoned choice on their constitutional future, and if they rather expect them to be cowered by fear and lies into maintaining the status quo.
It is certainly acceptable for media outlets and politicians to express a pro or anti independence stance, but that they must back up their positions with verifiable facts and reasoned argument, not insults, threats, and statistical fantasies.
There are two years before the referendum. Whatever their position on independence, Scots must collectively demand honesty, decency, and accuracy in the debate. The tone and accuracy of the debate are also crucial for the legitimacy of the outcome.
Winning through political skullduggery will cause deep wounds in Scottish society, which could take decades to heal. One e-mail to a paper can easily be ignored. One million cannot. Scots must collectively demand an honest debate, because no one else will, and accept nothing less.
Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission, an Associate Professor of US civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France, and teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.