We will all benefit from a genuine debate

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  By Lesley Riddoch
 
Two years ahead of the biggest political event in 21st century Britain, the Scottish press should be having a ball.  Since David Cameron announced “game on” in January, there’ve been headlines, scoops, news stories and meaty issues aplenty.

Sure advertising has crashed.  Certainly a near triple-dip recession hasn’t helped.  Admittedly the remorseless growth of a Google News generation is scary.  Thank God then for the independence referendum.

  By Lesley Riddoch
 
Two years ahead of the biggest political event in 21st century Britain, the Scottish press should be having a ball.  Since David Cameron announced “game on” in January, there’ve been headlines, scoops, news stories and meaty issues aplenty.

Sure advertising has crashed.  Certainly a near triple-dip recession hasn’t helped.  Admittedly the remorseless growth of a Google News generation is scary.  Thank God then for the independence referendum.

It’s given hacks something new to write about every week. 

  • Sixteen year olds to vote.
  • No devo-max option.
  • An Indy Scotland possibly outside the EU.
  • The UK possibly outside first.
  • Alex Salmond’s star rising.
  • Independence support flatlining.
  • ConDem cuts prompting a Unionist rethink.
  • 800 lefties launching Radical Independence in a 4 star Hotel without a single arrest.

Across the world journalists are readying themselves for the biggest political story of a lifetime, unless the Euro falls – the possible collapse of the UK.

If you were scripting the run-up to 2014 you couldn’t create a cliff-hanger with more opportunities for the local media.  And yet despite all of this, the Leveson Inquiry and the BBC’s bungled handing of the Savile scandal – Scotland’s newspaper executives are preoccupied by just one thing this Christmas.  The woeful state of newspaper sales.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the number of papers sold in Scotland during November 2012 was way down on 2011.

The Sunday Post saw sales fall below a quarter of a million for the first time in living memory, the Herald opted out of monthly sales comparisons and the Scotsman saw a 16.2 % drop.  Since the Scotsman enjoys a “challenging” relationship with supporters of independence, a torrent of crocodile tears may now erupt. 

But beware what you wish for.  The London-based Daily Express currently sells 80% more and the unequivocally unionist Scottish Daily Mail three times more papers than the Scotsman every day.  

In the mid-70s, Scottish newspapers accounted for 64 per cent of daily sales, in 2011 it was 44 per cent and this year the proportion will be lower still.  Put bluntly, as Scots prepare to vote on independence, Scottish papers are losing market share to English titles that don’t primarily focus on Scotland at all.  What on earth is happening?

The Scotsman won Newspaper of the Year in last year’s Scottish Press Awards – commended for the broad range of views published in its Perspective section.  Its reward has been a continuing decline in sales.  Holyrood Road executives must feel like Strictly Come Dancing contestants — stuck in the dance-off after winning top marks from the judges.

Then change the routine, I hear nationalists cry.  And it’s a fair point.  With newspaper sales falling and 30-40% of Scots ready to back independence – you’d think some Scottish title would decide to nail its colours explicitly to the mast. 

And yet only the Sun has had an intermittent dalliance with the Yes cause.  That says a lot about the enduring influence of tradition and establishment thinking in Scottish institutional life.  Some papers crossed the Rubicon to support the SNP as the best party of governance in 2011.  But none has been tempted to cross the ocean and support the Yes Campaign itself.

Why not?

Well taking heartfelt and deep-seated political opposition out of the equation for a moment, there’s a widespread belief that papers should be constant critics not cheerleaders of any government.  Since the referendum’s still two years away, many Scots agree the press does everyone a favour by teasing out detail while there’s still time to analyse and digest it.

But senior figures in the Scottish media are also wary of embracing independence because they think constitutional change itself is the circulation killer – responsible in part for 2012’s drop in sales and impossible for readers to digest without a sugar-coating of personality, revelation and angry accusation.  Unfortunately this becomes a self-fulfilling ordinance.

Take Barrosogate.

Nationalists are currently on the back foot after claiming foul play regarding a letter from the EU Commission President to a Lords Committee suggesting an independent Scotland must reapply for EU membership.  It seems the “letter” was initially only a draft – but days later it was duly sent and published by the Scotsman.

The conundrum of Scotland’s EU membership has animated party faithful, activated newspaper editors, dominated headlines and fascinated late night current affairs programmes – the angry claim and counter-claim probably also guaranteed that normal viewers switched off within minutes.

Barrosogate wasn’t really about Europe – it was about uncertainty.  Ewan Crawford was quite right to observe – in the Scotsman ironically enough – that “the overall task for the Yes campaign is to operate in a hostile political environment … against a barrage of stories focussed on uncertainty.”

In a novel situation uncertainty is not anyone’s fault or any paper’s contrivance.

So why does the SNP feed the unhelpful suggestion that the road to independence is paved with unequivocal, cast-iron certainty?  Why continue to trade in the same devalued coin of paternalistic head-patting that switched so many Scots off Labour?

The way each side deals with the unknown – and unknowable – speaks volumes about motive and practice.  Angry rebuttals don’t impress.  Automatic gainsaying doesn’t work.  Thinly disguised propaganda pumped out by an ever increasing army in the Scottish Government doesn’t cut ice.

Yes Campaigners in particular need to be the change they want to see, in order to dispel the biggest fear of many Scots – that independence will unleash clannishness leading to nepotism, exclusion, conformity and score-settling.  Just as most parents don’t care “who started it” when children squabble, most Scots don’t care about the “sides” taken in these short-run arguments.

They realise real answers may take time to emerge and will appreciate the papers and politicians who act accordingly.  Evasion, wooden repetition, pointless aggression and defensive posturing are all the enemies of interest.  And yet for fear of invoking the press maelstrom, that’s what mainstream politicians generally deliver.
 
This year there was one glorious exception – and it didn’t occur in a set-piece TV or radio debate but in the sweltering heat of the Horsecross Conference Centre in Perth as delegate after delegate got up to speak from the heart about NATO membership, nuclear weapons and their conception of Scotland’s possible place in the world.

It was real and risky.  The leadership stood 33 votes from defeat.  Suddenly the independence debate was genuinely captivating.  I’m not suggesting a NATO debate every day – no-one’s blood pressure could stand it.  But there’s a lesson in there all the same.

Someone needs to orchestrate this level of genuine debate – and it can’t be the Yes or Better Together campaigns.  They both need an ambitious, adventurous but honest broker.  That should be a public service broadcaster like BBC Scotland or STV.  But until now they’ve both tended to stick to the weary ping-pong of defensive set-piece studio debates as “good enough” – and what’s expected on all sides.

The public needs to expect more, broadcasters need to devise new formats and politicians need to stretch themselves and perform.

In 2012 much of the really ground-breaking comment was not delivered in conventional arenas – but in online forums like this, Bella Caledonia and Scottish Review – all relying heavily on volunteers and (very) occasional funding.

In 2013 another largely voluntary effort The Big Vote will join the throng.  As suggested in this column last year the Scottish Community Alliance is organising an alternative roadshow of events in village halls and community centres across Scotland to get people exploring independence through the lens of local priorities.  Twenty events are planned and eleven communities have signed up already.

All our politicians say they want to stop bickering over detail and communicate ambitious Blue Sky visions of Scotland’s future.  Less party political control of the debate might be the best way to make that happen.

More Big Vote information from Angus Hardie angus@scottishcommunityalliance.net