Saturday, 19 November 2011

Does increase in ‘constitutional froth’ mar our Scottish media?

In a previous job, a colleague used to regularly advise us to be aware of what he would call ‘froth’ in some reporting of the political scene in Scotland. By that he meant stories that were headline news in some or even all newspapers, and consisted of opposing politicians attacking one another. These stories (of which there were many) were distinguished by the topic of the debate/discussion being either of minor importance, or incapable of any kind of resolution by the combatants involved, eg a consultation.
This has come to mind again recently. It currently seems that a whole raft of spats are being created in the media by pronouncements from Scottish or  Coalition Governments (or Labour Opposition). From consultations on gay marriage, and Scotland’s rail travel, through pronouncements about the impact of independence on the Scottish economy and renewable energy targets to even the furore over ‘doing-gate’ in the Scottish Affairs Committee, the sight of our politicians attacking one another over the constitutional question is becoming less and less edifying (or significant). 
To add to the spectacle, the reporting of these tiffs - from uncritical adoption of the participants’ view of their importance, to the sensationalist bigging-up of the ‘rows’ - seem to blank out sensible analysis and investigation of the issues at all. How much of this is due to continual cuts in journalistic and editorial resources, and how much due to the predetermined political stance of the media in question needs further study, but it does not lead to good reporting.
Now I don’t want to suggest that the individual topics and issues have no validity or importance, at all. Heaven forfend that I might suggest that the Catholic church secretly approves of gay marriage, for example! Or that CitiBank may have a vested interest in rubbishing renewable energy per se. But it is interesting how these disputes tend to end up concentrating on the ‘Referendum’ when we all know that this is some years away, and will not be able to be run successfully unless Westminster and Holyrood come to some agreement (or at least armed neutrality) on key issues. It isn’t even yet clear whether the SNP want a one or two question referendum - or what that would mean for any result!
Am I alone in thinking that at least part of the reason for this froth is to distract us from the key issues that impact on people in Scotland, and the failure of both legislatures to address these? And that this suits both of them?
After all, is Alex Salmond be pleased or upset that George Osborne attacks Scotland’s investment record? Is George Osborne? Is Salmond reasonably happy to be seen as a ‘modern, liberal-thinking FM’ over gay marriage? And while the archaic and macho operations of Westminster are indeed something to be opposed (as we all did in the Constitutional Convention, hoping and planning for a more co-operative and mature Holyrood!) is the SNP ultimately pleased to leave a vacant seat in the Scottish Affairs Committee and wash its hands of a scrutiny of the Scotland Bill where it doesn’t have a majority? Incidentally, the best comment on this episode must be by Joyce MacMillan in her Scotsman piece (on her blog here).
So there can be good reporting. We do have journalists (like Joyce, but not only her) who can blow away the froth and get to the nub of the issue. But increasingly this role is reserved for the commentators. News reporters tend to slot happily into pre-ordained nationalist or unionist tracks, using hyperbolic prose to inflate partisan pronouncements and prejudices into ‘facts’ or suggestions of ‘facts’. (I thought the idea - seriously mentioned by a senior Scottish reporter on Wednesday - that the Electoral Reform Society was part of an anti-SNP ‘conspiracy’ was the nadir of this tendency!)
The latest fight appears to be over an almost unbelievable consultation document on Scotland’s rail transport from Scottish Government agency, Transport Scotland. If you hadn’t had previous with this agency, then it might even look as though the outrageous suggestions in this document were there deliberately to be able to be removed as a ‘listening response’. I have to say that my experience suggests that they are not that forward thinking. But as Scottish Government ministers line up to distance themselves from their own organisation, a suspicion must remain.
At the end of the day, when people are crying out for an economic policy that addresses the crisis we are in, and uses the excess profits of the finance industry to support those who are suffering because of the fallout from the banks’ criminal risk taking, how are our governments responding? Apparently, by ignoring these problems in favour of claim and counter claim about ‘running Scotland down’ or ‘breaking Britain up’.
When two establishments are trying to tell us about the overwhelming importance of the constitutional question, we need more from our media than unquestioning/sensationalist reporting - from whichever side of the constitutional divide. It is also particularly important when the parliaments both have a built-in majority, compliant in one case, and scared in the other, that they are held to account. In this our media has a crucial role. When will we see it adopting this important task?

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