We should get one thing straight from the start: the only thing on Earth more tedious than a conspiracy theorist is a conspiracy denier. For every swivel-eyed nutter you find shouting hysterically that the government and royal family are 12-foot-tall shape-shifting lizards from space, there’ll be an equally (but differently) dim-witted Pollyanna at the other end glibly sniggering about “tinfoil hats” and rubbishing the mad notion that a group of people might ever get together and covertly seek to achieve an aim.
Because the history of humanity is the history of conspiracies. From Guy Fawkes to various military coups, revolutions and civil wars to the burning of the Reichstag and right up to the present day, mankind’s records are littered with events which, had anyone actually warned of them before they happened, would have been dismissed by smug idiots as the deranged fantasies of the comically paranoid.
As recently as last year we saw one right here in our very own country, when the South Yorkshire police were found to have perpetrated a co-ordinated, decades-long cover-up over the Hillsborough tragedy. Yet like moths which keep flying into lightbulbs over and over again in the irrational hope that THIS time they’ll turn into the moon, we stubbornly refuse to entertain – indeed, openly mock – even the abstract possibility that anyone in a position of power might ever be up to no good.
So, then, to the Scottish media.
Last October, the Scottish Government got into a spot of bother over an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU. Though the events were widely and uniformly misrepresented in the press, there was certainly a legitimate news story somewhere underneath all the hype, and the media leapt on it excitedly.
The most notable piece of coverage saw Nicola Sturgeon hauled into a BBC studio and given the third degree by Newsnight Scotland’s Gordon Brewer in a one-on-one interview afflicted by very strange “technical problems” which saw the Deputy First Minister’s microphone repeatedly silenced when she was trying to speak and which somehow eluded the show’s production team before broadcast.
Nobody from any other parties was called upon to discuss their own position in a broader debate – the focus was trained entirely on the SNP and the whole story was that the SNP had been misleading voters over Europe. But so far so fair (mysterious equipment failure notwithstanding) – it is, after all, wholly and properly within the remit of current-affairs programmes to grill politicians on the electorate’s behalf.
But then yesterday, the anti-independence parties, and particularly the Tories, got into their own spot of bother over Europe. It turned out they too had been misleading people about Europe, pretending that Scottish independence represented the most serious danger of Scotland finding itself shut out of the EU when in fact one of the UK’s two parties of government plans a referendum on the subject just a few years from now, which current opinion polls show would see a clear majority taking us out.
The announcement by the Prime Minister ripped the “Better Together” organisation asunder, right down the middle. Its official Twitter account went into an unprecedented day-long silence as it desperately tried to cobble together some sort of statement unifying its three member parties and their diametrically-opposed positions on Europe. Satirists had a field day pointing out the absurdly colossal hypocrisies the No campaign had spent the last three months gleefully pumping out.
Impartially-minded viewers, then, might reasonably have expected to see a prominent Tory, or BT chief Alistair Darling, put well and truly under the spotlight by Scotland’s newspapers and nightly politics shows and made to explain the enormous, yawning contradictions in their stances, account for their blindingly-exposed double standards and to face up to the reality of which vote in the referendum stood the greater chance of throwing Scotland out of Europe.
And yet, that wasn’t what happened.
Where the SNP had been singled out for solitary interrogation, last night saw both Newsnight Scotland and Scotland Tonight* conduct cross-party discussions, which spent large chunks of screentime demanding that nationalist MSPs Fiona Hyslop and Humza Yousaf defend the party and the Yes camp’s pro-EU views and offering opportunities for them to be attacked by their opponents.
*(Highly unusually, last night’s edition of ST – normally available within an hour or two of broadcast – isn’t online at the time we write this, around 11am on Thursday.)
The insidious aspect of this approach is that neither the October coverage nor last night’s can be criticised in isolation. As we noted, Sturgeon being aggressively quizzed on Alex Salmond’s comments was in itself perfectly legitimate journalism. Nor is there anything wrong, clearly, with having a studio debate where both sides of an argument are represented.
The problem arises when you take the two things together and thereby see how the rules are different for each side – the SNP get in trouble and they face a full-on solo inquisition, the Tories and Labour get in trouble and it’s an all-party free-for-all where somehow the SNP are under accusation as well.
At least, however, Newsnight Scotland led with the Europe story and devoted the bulk of the programme to it. Both current-affairs shows went with identical subject choices and discussion formats, but STV actually made their headline feature an “opinion poll” which both of Scotland’s newspapers also chose as their front-page splashes this morning (a decision which both publicised on Twitter just before the show started).
We put “opinion poll” in quote marks there because the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey isn’t a snapshot like most polls, but an ongoing study in which participants are surveyed over lengthy periods (on this occasion five months between July and November 2012) on questions which have remained the same for 14 years. That’s all very fine and proper in its own right, but the media spin put on the subject last night and this morning was dizzying, and strangely consistent across the media.
To illustrate what we mean, let’s look at the SSAS’s findings over those five months.
The first thing you’ll note is that there doesn’t appear to be an actual question as such asked – or at least, we’re not told what it was. A bit of digging reveals that it was apparently based on the proposition “Scotland should become independent, separate from the rest of the UK” – a formulation which will bear no resemblance to the eventual ballot paper, not least because it includes what the Scottish Government regards as the highly pejorative word “separate”.
But more to the point, the range of possible responses to that proposition which are offered to the survey’s participants are, to put it mildly, somewhat vague. The “middle of the road” option is described simply as “devolution”, and therefore encompasses everything from the status quo to so-called “devo max”.
This fact alone renders the survey almost useless as a guide to the referendum vote. It’s a long-held view (though not a 100% accurate one) that “devo max” is by far the most popular choice of the Scottish people, but it’s an option the Unionist parties have excluded from the ballot paper. A “No” vote is technically a vote for “devolution” simply because devolution is the status quo, but the word itself is extremely ambiguous in context, and no polling company worth a light would phrase a question about the referendum in a manner so comprehensively misinterpretable.
It’s nevertheless perfectly appropriate for the media to note that within its own internal frame of reference, the 2012 SSAS does indeed indicate a drop in support for independence during the summer and autumn of last year. (Immediately after the Jubilee, slap bang in the middle of the Olympics and taking in the aforementioned giant media frenzy over Europe. Who could possibly have imagined, etc?)
What clearly WOULDN’T be fair, though, would be to present those statistics as a drop in the “Yes vote”, because the SSAS’s multiple-optioned findings on an obsolete 14-year-old form of a “constitutional preference” poll bear no relation whatsoever to any “Yes/No” question that’ll be asked in 2014.
Step forward, then, Magnus Gardham of the Herald.
The latest findings of the SSAS are an entirely valid news item, and we look forward to more detail on them. But they’re nuanced statistics that require very careful analysis before translating them to any sort of pointer on the referendum.
They offer three options where the referendum will only offer two. One of those options (the total dissolution of Holyrood, favoured by 11%) is not supported by any party and is not and never has been part of the constitutional debate since 1999. Another encompasses two very different options within it (the status quo and any number of versions of enhanced devolution), one of which will not be on the ballot paper and whose supporters are likely, at the very least, to split between the Yes and No camps for want of being able to have the thing they really want – substantially increasing the Yes vote from the 23% the Scottish media has chosen to blare across its headlines.
For experienced professional journalists and broadcasters to portray them in such mistakenly black-and-white form, then, is something beyond mere clumsy ineptitude. It is, at the very best, a cavalier disregard for honesty. At the worst, and particularly in the eerily uniform fashion we’ve seen in the last 12 hours (combined with the subtly unfair tactics applied to the EU debate) it’s something else entirely, whether individual or institutional, co-ordination or coincidence. You can call it whatever you want.