Old media, new media, commentators and the debate over ‘#SNPBad’

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Scottish Parliamentary journalists enjoying a pre Christmas bash at Bute House

A commentary by Bernard Thompson

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave….”

“Why is no one listening to me?”

It’s a question that rarely merits an answer. Like the increasingly vexed parent stomping around the kitchen while their disrespectful offspring exasperatedly mutter, elongated “y-e-e-e-s-es”, preferring to focus on their smartphones, such pleadings are an act of futility.

And yet such plaintiff cries are increasingly being heard from disquieted media professionals in Scotland.

Journalists Magnus Gardham, Kevin McKenna and now Angela Haggerty have all commented recently, to reasonably warn of the perils of failing to properly hold to account the incumbent party of government. And yet – as both the mainstream commentators and their online detractors agree – there is plenty of scrutiny of the Scottish National Party’s performance record, but fewer people are choosing to listen.

This, we are told, forebodes crisis. Indeed – but for whom?

The SNP government is imperfect and the contrary argument has yet to be forwarded, to my knowledge. For disclosure, I don’t live in the UK and am therefore directly affected by little of the legislation in the land in which I spent most of my life.

My own particular bugbears are the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, aptly described by journalist Graham Spiers as “this accursed piece of legislation, bounced onto the statute book amid panic and anxiety”, and the Alcohol Minimum Pricing Act.

The half-brainchild of Kenny McAskill and that great social reformer Shona Robison, the ill-conceived OBA is both iniquitous  – you can sing what you like at the golf club – and virtually unworkable, creating confusion within the police (with recent unconfirmed reports of an officer asking for “intelligence” on whether the Vatican flag was a banned banner) and chaos in the courts, who have regularly thrown out cobbled-together cases based on the critical analyses of Irish folk ditties.

In this, I believe I have the support of Mr McKenna and Ms Haggerty. I consider the Alcohol Minimum Pricing Act worthy of similar derision. The unimaginative attempt to price people on low incomes out of their right to bevvy appears both contemptuous and based on no reasonable evidence that it could succeed. It also ignores the point that countries where people consume more alcohol than Scotland report considerably less alcohol-related social disorder.

UnknownI also share Mr McKenna’s suspicion of the creation of Police Scotland and wonder how the SNP failed to consider the dangerous potential for the abuse of power that creating a singular state police force could bring. I mention these only as examples as, though largely impressed by the SNP in recent years, I don’t consider myself yet bereft of all critical faculties.

I do, however, find myself nonplussed by the rampant insecurity that seems to have been instilled in media professionals by the popularity of a hashtag: #SNPBad, as has been eloquently explained by many, including G.A. Ponsonby, is simply a six-character expression of a trust lost to corporate journalism.

And yet it is being held up by Mr Gardham and Ms Haggerty as a threat to democracy itself. Ms Haggerty points her finger (#JeAccuse?) at Angus MacNeil and Pete Wishart, seemingly implying that the party itself is advocating “a worrying culture of intolerance within the independence movement for self-reflection”.

Mr Gardham has blamed the hashtag for the supposedly new phenomenon of “mocking opponents”. He was defended on Twitter by colleague David Leask who – arguing in support of an article bemoaning the “infantilisation” of politics – proceeded to block people who disagreed with him.

There is an abundance of criticism of the SNP in the mainstream media, which show no signs of abating. No one is seriously trying to stop journalists from exercising their democratic duties; they are not being persecuted or imprisoned. They are simply increasingly being ignored

And yet hashtags are no different in their power than tags such as “Tartan Tories”, once so beloved of the Scottish press, or the regular misuse of “one-party state”, in a transparent attempt to portray genuinely popular government as an object in demagoguery, brooking no dissent.

There is, though, one notable distinction with regard to #SNPbad: its origin. It was not authored and popularised through the newspaper industry but through social media, i.e. ordinary people. I recall a wise hack once advising: “Never underestimate the reader. Readers are smart.”

There seems evident a bizarre assumption that intelligent people who nod appreciatively while holding a newspaper suddenly switch their brains to automaton mode when they go online or comment in 140 characters. That they enter an ethereal world in which they are prey to the malign will of Wings Over Scotland, oblivious to the good intentions of the “legitimate ones”.

Bella Caledonia editor Mike Small has commented: “This is a media class incapable of realigning to new realities, who we will see sinking further beneath the waves of their own hubris and ego in 2016, as they post self-confident and contemptuous messages to the world they loath.[sic]”

What we are seeing from many writers is a lament for a fading empire, gone with a hashtag. Is it unpalatable to them that sites such as Newsnet.scot, Wings, BellaCaledonia or Common Space should exist through the willing sponsorship of readers who endorse their content?

But sites such as these represent their own manifestation of democracy. They survive because they provide a product that readers want. Ms Haggerty says: “It doesn’t seem to occur to some of the noisiest tweeters that an alternative media source like Wings which, while often offering worthwhile analysis, rarely tackles the party of government on anything, signifies democratic dangers.”

The pro-independence websites are indeed partial in their treatment of the issues. Yet readers are not compelled to rely on any of them as their sole source of news.

Balance is to be found in any one of dozens of established titles and independent blogs offering alternative viewpoints and most readers have the wit to realise that. They can even read The Herald, should they wish.

Footnote: “… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…”