In catching up with the intellectual zeitgeist that is Scottish politics, I see what used to be the usual suspects’ parade of Nat-bashers has been swelled by more open-minded commentators. It’s as if a dam has burst and a torrent of salty material unleashed. Bobbing in the foaming rush are the icons of infamy – Michelle Thomson, Fiona Hyslop, Fergus Frackman Ewing and even the Sun God herself waving helplessly that her record on education and health deserves a lifebelt. No chance, hen. We’re no’ happy.
The mighty buttress of informed opinion on which we rely to repel injustice and untruth – OK, Iain Macwhirter and Kevin McKenna – has turned its Olympian presence against the forces of nationalism. Even dedicated Nat Alex Bell has been putting the boot in – in the Labour-genuflecting Record.
The Press turning on those it first helped to build up is as ancient as Aesop’s Fables. Pick just about any celebrity or idea that has captured public imagination and you’ll see a pattern. First it’s something new – look, here’s a surprise –followed by the rise to fame being celebrated. Then during the long plateau of familiarity, their pet refuses to perform any new tricks. That’s when it deserves a kick or two to remind it who it owes success to. Finally, as everyone from Billy Connelly to Smeeto, from Susan Boyle to Ally McCoist has learned, they put the boot in and hoof you into the dustbin of infamy. Never look at the media as your friend – it’s like getting a loan from the Mafia.
There are fads in the media because there is no such thing as a truly independently-minded paper. To be a journalist is to run with the pack. However differently you see yourself and however distinctive you try to be, you remain in the wider family and obey its rules. You are scared of ridicule by not buying into a story line. If one paper, no matter how biased or unprofessional, gets a story, it becomes law to the herd who follow up or reference it. Trends are established so that at different times the worst evils in society are, variously, cowboy builders, doorstep conmen, dangerous dogs, East Europeans, mobile phone masts or beef burgers…until they get bored and move on to the next. It even happens with war. Papers stopped putting Iraq on the front page as soon as it failed to produce anything new. The murder of our fellow citizens by terrorists in Northern Ireland went from Front to Page 2 many years ago. The non-story of TinthePark has become, in the lazy and thus far, inaccurate jargon, ‘sleaze’.
To be fair, the SNP has had an amazing run. Amid the cacophony of Unionist spite which characterises the Scottish media (if there truly is such a thing in the real sense), there have been – there are – the insightful and intelligent who have recorded the nationalist phenomenon and presented readers with knowledge and understanding. Being a real journalist as opposed to the party hacks peering under stones, is an honourable calling because, done properly, it provides a service which improves society. If you spend your life as a teacher in Brechin, you can’t be in Holyrood to observe the body language of Nationalist MSPs or hear a whisper from Kezia’s assistant. But when those little signals lead to policies that affect your classroom, you need to know. It all requires dissemination and interpretation. News, and especially politics, is never black and white. The job of the commentator is to paint a picture for you which aids your understanding. When he can do it with wit and colour so you enjoy the process of reading it, he transcends the mundane and becomes an Iain or a Kevin.
We are well on the way to a decade of SNP government. They have dominated every aspect of politics in Scotland, their pet project became a global story, they have grown into a phenomenon, have destroyed their opponents and are now big players in a second parliament. They have the most popular leader in Britain.
This isn’t natural.
The SNP story defies all known logic. It is, in a British sense, a loony ragtag of obsessives, lefties and conservatives who have been bit players in a real sovereign nation for centuries and think that hilarious identity accessories like bagpipes and sporrans entitles them to run their own country. Many Scots agree with this.
In overturning the known world the SNP frightened the habitually superior types who know how to run our affairs from Whitehall and whose status or ability is rarely challenged by most of the media. They created a reaction in the Unionist media of fear and loathing which in turn leads to scary, hyperbolic copy. In Scotland, because of the nature of our media ownership and the inflexible mindset of dogmatic journalists, we got much of the same except from those who saw in this the ingredients of a seriously good story. Here was a complex issue that needed explanation. It involved changing public attitudes, power politics, high intensity strategies and the future of a country. Approached properly, it was the story of a lifetime. And that’s why in some notable examples, we have enjoyed a prolonged period of world class journalism, much of it explaining the SNP success and the demise of the opposition. Becoming a critic, of course, doesn’t mean abandoning journalism. But, I repeat, this championing of a party in power is not normal.
In a democracy, the institutional role of the media is to challenge power. That may be laughable when you read the British Press or listen to some BBC correspondents basically do the government Press office’s job on air. But when it comes to MP’s expenses or steel closures caused partly by cheap imports when the Chinese leader is here, the media starts doing its job. In dictatorships (see China) that doesn’t happen.
Yet how do you challenge a government that hardly does anything wrong? What case do you make against it when its popularity isn’t just huge but growing? How do you attack them when they are also an opposition in another parliament ‘fighting injustice’ and ‘standing up for Scotland’? And how do you criticise them when their opponents are so utterly incompetent in comparison and offer so little in useable material? Damn. This is difficult.
Difficult or not, it has to be done. It’s almost as if we need the old media in attack mode for normalisation to occur.
Governments should be doubted, they should agonise over decisions to avoid challenge. They should get used to being disliked – they run our affairs, don’t they, and are you so happy you’ve nothing to complain about?
It may be that at long last the SNP honeymoon is over and it’s already lasted longer than many marriages. From now on we may expect regular bashings across all the conventional media and quite right too. Let’s have our journalists doing what journalists do in every other country. It will be interesting to see how long the Canadian media give the appealing and popular Trudeau.
But, you know I can’t help feeling some of the criticism is contrived. There is no sign that the wider public thinks the SNP is doing such a poor job. One of Macwhirter’s criticisms is based on the Oxfam report showing how the rich have got richer and inequality is rising but this is a global phenomenon from the financial crash. Those with the means to do so moved their money around or withdrew it. When governments threw money at the banks in quantative easing it shored up share values and other assets, putting cash into the pockets of the wealthy. A public sector worker had no such luxury and was used as the dupe who would pay for it all by the government.
Even the Oxfam report is woolly on what specific powers the Scottish government has which could have arrested and reversed this situation. When you don’t even control tax and spend, you can’t begin to take on global finance.
But, never mind, this is how things should be with a questioning media and I believe it is also a good thing for the SNP. They have lived with a largely oppositionist media all these years and it simply doesn’t impact on them the way you might expect. When there is public doubt as there was over independence, it does matter that the media is biased because they act to confirm people’s fears. But when you remove the independence issue and ask Scots what they think of the SNP as a devolved administration, they are untouchable, protected by a force field of respect and admiration.
The non SNP Left may not agree but then they don’t represent more than a slice of opinion compared to the bedrock of support. The referendum experience taught Scots much about their media and it is now the new normal to scoff at journalism that once commanded respect. Like so many institutions, the media was exposed during the indyref and found wanting. The Scottish media will never have the same power again.