The Scottish political media, ‘infantilism’ and the row over ‘SNP Bad’

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Commentary by G.A.Ponsonby

The columnist Kevin McKenna wrote in the The National on December 21 that the SNP must be “tested, criticised and properly opposed” if Scotland is to become independent. He opined:

“If Scotland is to gain its independence the SNP, while in government, must be at the top of its game, and be seen to be. To perform at such a level it must be tested, criticised and properly opposed.”

Five days later, The Herald‘s political editor Magnus Gardham published an opinion piece in a similar vein.  Entitled ‘“SNP bad” is contributing to an infantilized political culture’ – Gardham’s Saturday article said the following:

“SNP bad isn’t just a way of deflecting questions or criticism, it’s a way of mocking opponents who have the temerity to raise issues of legitimate concern. As such, it betrays a complacency bordering on arrogance and contributes to an infantilized political culture in which supporters and activists begin to resemble the fan base of a teen pop band.”

I’ve heard this stuff before from professional journalists. The argument usually goes something like; ‘Democracy demands an effective opposition. The SNP must be challenged if democracy is to thrive.’

Few would argue with the principle. All governments must be challenged and held to account if democracy is to flourish. But to suggest the SNP hasn’t been challenged or to deny that much of this ‘challenge’ has been little more than politically motivated smear, is to fly in the face of reality.

SNP challenge

The SNP is the most criticised, challenged and smeared political party in the whole of the UK. Until the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn, no party endured the sheer volume of coverage ‘enjoyed’ by SNP politicians.

Corbyn: Under fierce scrutiny
Corbyn: Under fierce scrutiny

The claim that the SNP has escaped scrutiny has been rehashed several times by other journalists and broadcasters. Below are the words of blogger Peter A. Bell who challenged the claims contained in Kevin McKenna’s aforementioned article.

“The suggestion that the SNP administration is not subject to scrutiny is just plain idiocy. A substantial part of the resources of the British state, including almost all of the mainstream print and broadcast media has for years been devoted to finding – or inventing – something by which to discredit the party and/or its leaders. If anything gives the party the appearance of being beyond reproach it is, not the accolades of those honest enough to recognise its achievements, but the signal failure of all the smear stories and dirt-digging.

If scrutiny of the Scottish Government is inadequate then it is folly to blame this on the SNP, which quite properly has no role in such scrutiny. It makes even less sense to blame the electorate whose democratic choice it is to have the SNP in government. And it is just as stupid to blame party members and supporters who have absolutely no power to prevent scrutiny. Nor even to discourage itIt is sheer hypocrisy for Kevin McKenna to condemn a lack of proper scrutiny even as he exhibits the ill-informed prejudice and/or wilful dishonesty that have rendered both opposition and media incapable of even commenting in a rational manner on the SNP administration, never mind properly holding it to account.”

Like other journalists who inhabit the hermetically sealed environment of Scotland’s corporate media, some  are heavily influenced by another recent phenomenon which is the description of Scotland as a ‘One Party State’ [OPS]. The OPS claim is itself a child of the decades-old description of the SNP as a dictatorial, fascist like entity where dissent is quashed.

One Media

But the truth is Scotland isn’t being damaged by a ‘One Party State’.  It is in fact suffering due to a ‘One Media State’. There is a lack of plurality. Aside from The National, there is no national newspaper currently backing the SNP or independence. It is why the term ‘SNP Bad’ has taken hold.

In his own article, Magnus Gardham writes the following:

“SNP bad is one of the year’s most striking phenomena. It began as a meme on social media, as Nationalists took to dismissing anything critical of or embarrassing for the SNP government as ‘SNP bad’. It was eagerly picked up by tweeting MPs and MSPs and has now entered the political lexicon at Holyrood, trotted out by backbenchers and even ministers answering parliamentary questions. It’s not a good thing.

A recent example shows why.  Without rehearsing every twist and turn in the story of the Forth bridge closure, it’s clearly reasonable to ask why it happened. Regular maintenance is supposed to stop bridges breaking, after all. But even before an explanation was provided, questions about the closure were ridiculed as an attempt to create an ‘SNP bad story’.” [my emphasis].

UnknownThis misrepresents criticism of media coverage of the bridge closure. Nobody was describing questions relating to the closure as being ‘SNP Bad’. What was being described as ‘SNP Bad’ was the politically motivated accusations, the false claims and the hypocrisy from Unionists.

There was no mature analyses of the decision-making that prioritised different aspects of the maintenance work over the years. There was no highlighting of the fact that the organisation charged with looking after the bridge – FETA – was comprised of more Unionist councillors than nationalist. There was no acknowledgement that, contrary to Labour claims, cuts played no part in the decision to delay strengthening work and that FETA had sufficient financial reserves with which to pay for such work had it deemed the work necessary.

The closure of the Forth Road Bridge was used by opponents of the SNP in order to seek to undermine support for the nationalists. It was this political manipulation of the closure that turned it into another ‘SNP Bad’ story, not a reluctance to answer questions.

Urgent Repairs

Here’s just one example. Just over a week after the bridge was closed, the Mail on Sunday newspaper published an article by Mike Blackley which was based on a so-called leaked email. The email had been sent by former bridgemaster Barry Colford on February 24 to Labour councillor Lesley Hinds, convener of the Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA), which ran the bridge until May.

Titled ‘Truss End Links – Abnormal Vehicle Restriction‘, the email notified Hinds that loads weighing more than 150 tons would be banned from using the bridge and that “the restriction needs to be in place until all the Truss End Links are either strengthened or replaced”.  The email said nothing about urgent repairs, nor  did it urge Hinds or her colleagues at FETA that they should do anything other than that which was already being carried out or had been scheduled to be carried out.

On the day Blackley’s article was published, his own newspaper published an editorial based on the same article.

bridge_bungle_mailonsunday

By the time our professional journalists got hold of the story, the ‘urgent repairs’ lie was being reported as fact.  Even BBC Scotland began promoting the nonsense.

urgent_email

This BBC online article contained the following sentence:

‘Scotland’s Transport Authority was told of an urgent need to repair the Forth Road Bridge 10 months ago, a leaked email has revealed.’

So, not only had BBC Scotland repeated the ‘urgent repairs’ lie, it had added another of its own in claiming the email had been sent to ‘Scotland’s Transport Authority’ – as well as FETA. The Mail on Sunday article formed the basis for several news broadcasts that day on BBC Scotland.

This kind of false reporting is what has contributed to the emergence of the SNP Bad phenomenon.  We saw it again last week when a ruling by the European Court of Justice on minimum price for alcohol was grossly misrepresented by every Scottish media outlet, including BBC Scotland.

Only the Financial Times accurately covered the ruling.

min_price

The emergence of the #SNPBad meme is a reaction to years of ‘SNP Accused’, and similarly styled headlines.  The Scotsman newspaper alienated half of its readership and became a laughing stock after 2007 when it based a considerable amount of its political output on ‘SNP Accused’ headlines. The Herald is beginning to suffer from the same malaise.

Influence

Mainstream journalism is losing the ability to influence in Scotland. It’s becoming ineffective because those who once relied on it alone for news, now have alternative sources. Those alternative sources are online and people are prepared to pay for it through donations and subscriptions.

Magnus Gardham’s criticism of the SNP, and the party’s supporters, was ridiculed within hours of publication. His desire to blame the SNP for something that is a symptom of a politically partisan media suggested a blindness that will only lead to more of the same.

The Scottish Labour Party looks now to be in terminal decline, a decline that became evident in the months leading up to the 2007 Holyrood election. It has never been addressed or arrested. Instead of calling it out, the media has indulged a discredited ultra-Unionist entity.

The demise of the media in Scotland is now mirroring that of its once powerful Labour ally.  Like Labour, it has started lashing out. The ‘SNPBad’ meme is not a sign of panic amongst the ranks of nationalists, it is a sign of confidence that the tactics are no longer working. The recent poll which showed the SNP extending its lead over Labour was a testimony to just how ineffective the media has become.

Prior to Gardham writing his piece, Derek Bateman had already called out the Scottish media over its tendency to headline political articles from the standpoint of Unionist opponents of the SNP:

“It is always informative to know what opponents think – in this case that they are small-minded with no real argument – but just because a spokesman makes an objection it doesn’t constitute the main point of a news story. The feeling is that the journalists are caught in the tramlines of a fixed view – get story, get contrasting spin and headline it.

It’s the same mindset that led to headlines this week on the TNS opinion poll findings showing the SNP up again – ‘despite the troubles over the bridge.’ They suggested there was no dispute that the SNP was in trouble over the closure whereas in fact there is no evidence that the wider population remotely blamed the government. That was the opposition and the media’s own instinctive response but one I doubt was shared across the country.”

Just as Labour in Scotland has sought to blame the electorate for its demise, so the media is now seeking to blame those same people for its own loss of trust.  It’s a strategy doomed to fail and will lead to the further circulation loss.

‘SNP Bad’ will remain for as long as those who run Scotland’s media continue to run our media, and it will get worse as May 2016 approaches.  Those of us who do so, must continue to highlight media excesses and inaccuracies.

G.A.Ponsonby is the author of the book ‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum’.  You can read the entire book for free HERE.