The TV debate – From Inside the Beltway

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  By Peter Geoghegan
 
Last night, outside Kelvingrove half a dozen men stood wrapped in Union flags. One carried a “no thanks” poster. A few feet away, a white and black “vote yes for Scotland” banner lay unfurled across the museum’s front steps. A girl, who looked no older than twenty, swung a saltire. She wore a t-shirt with ‘Jacobite’ on it.

  By Peter Geoghegan
 
Last night, outside Kelvingrove half a dozen men stood wrapped in Union flags. One carried a “no thanks” poster. A few feet away, a white and black “vote yes for Scotland” banner lay unfurled across the museum’s front steps. A girl, who looked no older than twenty, swung a saltire. She wore a t-shirt with ‘Jacobite’ on it.

The rear entrance – don’t snigger – was reserved for the press. As I made my way around the back of Kelvingrove, I heard for the umpteenth time in the referendum campaign the sound of a man with a guitar playing Dougie McLean’s “Caledonia”. He stood silhouetted against another huge banner – this one said “End London Rule”. A couple of TV of cameramen beamed as they got their shots.

If outside felt like a low budget Bannockburn anniversary, inside the debate’s press gallery had the look of a cut-price version of the West Wing. A queue of journalists waited to speak with Johann Lamont near the main door into the long, narrow basement room. Close by, a small huddle congregated around Danny Alexander. Humza Yousaf stood on the opposite side of the room.

Political advisors and party hacks from both Yes and No buzzed around. Mainly they seemed to disseminate various shades of spin and snippets that might have began “I am only telling you this…” but having not been deemed worthy of such an audience I cannot tell for sure. (This sense of exclusivity, of being so close to power that the receiver mistakenly thinks they actually possess power, explains a lot about how the media works, and doesn’t. I, perhaps, am jealous that I am not even so close as to imagine I wield any.)

With half an hour to go to the debate, the three banks of long, white tables in the press gallery were almost all filed, overwhelmingly by middle-aged white men in suits bent over laptops and tablets. (Including your correspondent: I am not getting any younger, and for once I wore formal dress without a wedding, a funeral or a bar mitzvah in sight.) On the wall was a bank of TVs framed by the same purple light used on the rather garish debate set. Towards the back of the room, recognisable faces from national news channels practised their autocues. 

Just after 8pm the man from the BBC charged with corralling the press pen made an announcement: doors will be locked at 8.20. At the appointed hour, a pair of men who looks like nightclub bouncers – arms crossed in front of their navel – moved into place. One journalist turned to me and said: “I’ve to file for 10.30 tonight. I already have a top line- ‘both sides claim victory in debate’”.

But it quickly became apparent that the contest was too one-sided to be declared a score draw. Alex Salmond’s ventures out from behind the lectern to deliver sermons to the audience – inside the museum and watching on TV – were met with almost continual laughter from sections of the press gallery. But The Guardian’s snap poll, which gave the SNP leader victory by 71 points to 29, suggests this folksy approach chimed better with viewers and voters than the Fourth Estate.

As the debate dragged on – and they always do tend to drag on, even the most zealous political junkie surely must struggle to stay focused for a full ninety minutes – the apparatchiks grew increasingly nervous. Senior Better Together spindoctors paced around the back of the room, or, in a flurry of digits, tapped away on IPads and IPhones.

With half an hour to go, as the debate descended into a shouting match between Salmond and Darling, the press secretaries began bouncing between the various local political correspondents. Maybe this is how things are in the White House pressroom, too? Who knows.
 
Once the contest ended, the spindoctors prowled around the room, arguing fiercely why their man had won. Whether any of this made any impact on the coverage is hard to say: just about every newspaper, regardless of stripe or allegiance, declared Salmond the winner.

Whether last night’s debate was political theatre or a turning point in the referendum remains to be seen. But sitting in the press gallery reminded me of why the media has struggled at times to tell the story of the referendum – because it can’t be handed down like stone tablets by spindoctors, or controlled by party hacks.

Recently I attended a large Better Together photocall on Sauchiehall Street. A cadre of senior political correspondents stood together in a group. In over half an hour I only saw them speak to each other and, briefly, Mr Alexander. In that time I spoke to a Malaysian born house wife who is voting no, a yes supporting busker and an 18 year old UKIP supporter who was part of the ‘No Thanks’ group for the press shot.

I came away feeling like I knew a little bit more about what is happening in Scotland than when I woke up that morning. Can say the same after thing about last night? Yes – and no.