We live, perhaps more than at any time in history, in a world characterised by open lies. Only this week, the coalition government was caught red-handed understating the number of school playing-field closures under its administration by 50%. A punk band in Russia singing a protest song about the President’s attacks on human rights are accused of religious hatred, in a show trial every bit as transparently corrupt as anything Stalin or Hitler would have ordered.
Meanwhile in the West, a man dedicated to exposing truth and criminal activities is wanted by the USA to put on trial for espionage. Democratically elected politicians in the “home of the free” call for him to be executed or extra-judicially assassinated as a terrorist. Conversely, the same man portrays as political persecution attempts to have him extradited to another country to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.
(We’re surprised that the UK authorities don’t solve the problem at a stroke by simply getting Kenny Farquharson of the Scotsman to determine whether Assange is guilty or innocent while he’s still in the Ecuadorian embassy. After all, Kenny is apparently able to judge these things without all the tedious and time-consuming business of presenting evidence, hearing a defence and establishing or corroborating facts. So long as the accused doesn’t have access to highly-paid lawyers, of course.)
Here in Scotland things are no different. In the last week alone, two senior Unionist politicians have perpetrated enormous and deliberate lies cynically calculated to poison and undermine discourse. Ian Davidson and Willie Rennie have made inflammatory statements no intelligent human being could possibly believe to be true (we’ll pass tactfully over the issue over whether such a definition in fact includes either man), and angrily reasserted them when challenged.
There is only one purpose for actions like these. They are knowingly designed to create an intimidatory atmosphere where journalists are cowed into following the agenda desired by the culprits, and deflected from areas that said culprits don’t wish reported on. The wider intent is to control the media by recalibrating the centre ground of “impartiality”, and thereby achieve a strategic shift of coverage in their favour.
Here’s how it works.
Davidson and Rennie both made attacks on neutral parties – the BBC and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations respectively – which are by any reasonable measure groundless and far beyond the bounds of normal political comment. Davidson’s extraordinary playground outburst, in which one of BBC Scotland’s most respected broadcasters was harangued and accused of being an undercover SNP agent who should go and stand for election as such, drove a coach and horses through every imaginable convention of decency.
(We can’t even recall the last time a political interviewer anywhere in Britain was so incensed at their subject’s behaviour as to request an apology mid-interview.)
Rennie, meanwhile, demanded the resignation of a man for the heinous crime of receiving an unsolicited email. Alex Bell, an adviser to Alex Salmond, sent Martin Sime of the SCVO a two-word message accompanied by a link he felt Sime might be interested in. That’s the entire extent of the story. There is no record of Sime asking for the link to be sent, of his replying to the email, or of taking any sort of action as a result of receiving it.
(Indeed, even if he had he wouldn’t have been doing anything wrong. SCVO’s position with regard to the referendum is that it wants more choice to be made available to the Scottish people. It has not endorsed any position with regard to that choice, only that it should exist, and it is perfectly entitled to comment on any issues surrounding that debate, including the one highlighted by Mr Bell.)
When Rennie’s demands were rebuffed in the most uncompromising terms with an eloquent and cutting response from the SCVO’s convenor, he didn’t do what any rational human being would do in the same circumstances – slink off with his tail between his legs while mumbling an insincere apology. Instead, he adopted the exact same petulant approach and tone Davidson had done, redoubling his accusations rather than retracting them.
Where Davidson had hysterically accused the BBC of a “conspiracy” in allowing someone who opposed his views airtime alongside him (albeit a small fraction of the airtime than he was granted), Rennie’s schoolyard retort was to claim that the fact his outrageous and ludicrous allegations had attracted an angry response proved that they must be correct. (We’re tempted to apply that logic to Mr Rennie’s own intemperate comments of the recent past.)
In isolation, both of these incidents are noteworthy only for their absurd, almost comical extremity. However, when taken as part of a co-ordinated campaign they take on a whole different complexion. Davidson’s diatribe was quickly backed up in the Scottish “serious” press, while Rennie’s bout of insanity was stoutly defended all over the blogosphere by a prominent Scottish Lib Dem activist.
In both cases, the interesting aspect is that the supporting pieces didn’t attempt damage limitation, but actually intensified the attacks. Michael Kelly’s piece in the Scotsman sowed vague smears against Newsnight’s Isabel Fraser, muttering darkly about her “having form” for SNP bias. Caron Lindsay employed a stream of evasion and ad-hominem to portray Alison Elliot as “hostile” and “unprofessional”, and made the mind-boggling assertion that there was “no excuse” for Elliot having publicly defended her colleague against a libellous and despicable assault.
(Frankly, in Elliot and Sime’s position this blog would have considered anything up to and including kicking Willie Rennie’s teeth in as a fair and proportionate response.)
The final piece of the jigsaw duly arrived in today’s Scotsman. A piece by Eddie Barnes ostensibly bemoaned the behaviour of those in both camps, seeking to drag the nationalists down into the same fetid swamp in which Davidson and Rennie were wallowing. It cited as evidence Alex Salmond’s use of the term “gauleiter” in February this year, and the description of Telegraph columnist Alan Cochrane as a “fascist Tory git” during a radio interview, by what the Scotsman termed an “independence-supporting journalist” called Martin Hannan.
These situations are, on even the most cursory analysis, not remotely comparable to what Davidson and Rennie did. Alex Salmond made no allegations of bias on the part of the BBC with regard to his de-invitation from a rugby discussion, suggesting only that the producer in question had acted in an overly officious manner (that being the most commonly-used definition of the word in question).
Hannan, meanwhile, is not an elected representative, does not speak for the SNP (we have no idea if he’s even a member of the party), and abused Cochrane without impugning him – unlike the BBC or SCVO, Cochrane is under no obligation to be impartial and makes no pretence at being so, therefore saying he isn’t is in no way defamatory. (One might also passingly note that as Cochrane regularly compares Alex Salmond to various fascist dictators including Mussolini and Kim Jong-Il, he was on rather thin ice storming off in the huff when someone did the same to him anyway.)
The attempt to drag the nationalist side into the Unionists’ swamp reveals the intended effect of the co-ordinated strategy. Despite having done absolutely nothing wrong, the SNP are tarred with the same brush as Davidson and Rennie, who have behaved disgracefully. Barnes ostensibly places himself in the “middle” of two equally-sinning fighters, and in doing so surreptitiously redefines the centre ground.
Think of it as a football match where one side has Lionel Messi playing in midfield. The opposition might send out its centre-half pairing of limited cloggers out with instructions to foul, kick, niggle and generally abuse him in the hope of provoking a response. They might pressure (or even bribe) the referee to give Messi a yellow card if he tries to shake himself out of a wrestling-hold “tackle” and one of the centre-halves goes down clutching his face, writhing on the turf in fake agony.
The purpose, of course, would be to intimidate Messi into not playing to his full ability through fear of either injury or sending off, and the political game being played here is no different. Davidson and Rennie have spent 45 minutes scything the BBC and SCVO down and spitting on them behind the referee’s back, and then taken spectacular dives at the first hint of retaliation. Their team-mates (Kelly, Lindsay, Foulkes) have duly clustered around the ref in a baying mob, at which point – out of either incompetence or corruption – he’s cautioned both sides, thereby justifying and rewarding the tactics while affecting impartiality.
The ploy is as transparent as the average American wrestling match, and indeed is a variant of one that’s infected US politics since the Bush era. It’s proved fairly successful over the Atlantic – even when it couldn’t prevent the election of Barack Obama, it’s managed to effectively hamper much of his administration’s policy programme – so we shouldn’t be surprised to see the Unionist parties adopt it here.
It’s a gameplan that tends to be adopted when all else is failing. When your arguments are strong, a positive approach usually pays better dividends than dirty tricks – a lesson the SNP have learned to powerful effect in the 21st century. The only danger for the nationalists is in allowing themselves to be drawn into a kicking match. As the old saying goes: if you have a mudfight with a pig, you’ll both get filthy but he’ll like it.