Sunday, January 19, 2014

William Hague and the illegitimacy klaxon

I doubt if anyone is going to faint with amazement at the sight of an academic study showing that TV news coverage was biased against the pro-independence campaign by a 3-2 margin between September 2012 and September 2013. But what's useful about the University of West of Scotland research is that it sets out the exact nature of the various types of biases, and gives a precise number for how many times each type of bias occurred. This moves us on considerably, because no longer can the concerns about a lack of impartiality be dismissed as nothing more than (to misquote Derek Bateman) the paranoia of nationalists who obsess over how many times Jackie Bird raises her left eyebrow while reading from an autocue.

We've always known that if a crude tick-boxing approach is used, TV producers can quite genuinely convince themselves that their coverage is scrupulously impartial. After all, they almost always give a right of reply to both sides of the debate. But the true problem doesn't lie there, but rather with a news agenda that is disproportionately driven by the preoccupations of the No campaign and the anti-independence print media, and which thus artificially generates the impression of a Yes campaign that is constantly on the defensive. In one sense, the issue is not what is reported, but what isn't. It would be perfectly justifiable for the broadcasters to hound the pro-independence campaign over certain issues in the way that they routinely do if they also adopted the same approach for the No campaign and its own points of weakness - but by and large they don't. What would it look like if they did?

Take David Cameron's ongoing cowardly refusal to take part in a TV referendum debate with his opposite number Alex Salmond. One obvious thing the broadcasters could do to put the heat on the No campaign over this is what Sky News did prior to the 2010 general election, and threaten to put the debate on air anyway, featuring Alex Salmond and an empty chair in Cameron's place. However, if they conveniently take the view in this particular instance that it's a purely personal decision for Cameron which everyone else must accept, what they should certainly be doing is relentlessly pursuing the No campaign over the consequences of Cameron's stated logic for refusing to debate - namely that the issue of independence is exclusively a matter for Scots to debate and decide.

So when William Hague came to Scotland the other day, the broadcasters shouldn't have earnestly reported the content of his speech. Instead, the 'illegitimacy klaxon' should have sounded from the moment he mentioned the issue of independence : "Mr Hague, why are you speaking about independence? This is a matter for Scots alone to debate and decide, isn't it? I'm sorry, Mr Hague, but you appear to still be speaking. Your lips appear to still be moving. So it's OK for non-Scots to talk about independence now? Does that mean your boss David Cameron has had a change of heart? Will he be taking part in a TV referendum debate with Alex Salmond after all? He won't be? So that must mean he has a new excuse...sorry, reason for not participating? He doesn't? So it's still not OK for non-Scots to take part in the referendum debate? Mr Hague, I believe you are a non-Scot. If the UK government believe that it's inappropriate for non-Scottish politicians to intervene in the referendum debate, why precisely are you in Glasgow trying to convince a sceptical Scottish public that if they vote for independence they'll be personally responsible for women being raped in Africa?" (That's literally what he was doing, by the way - I'm not making it up.) And on and on it should have gone until either Cameron backed down on the TV debate, or announced that non-Scottish ministers will in future be making no comment on the issue of independence. If neither of those things ever happened, there should have been regular "pressure mounting on Downing Street to clarify its position" headlines.

Does that sound like too much in the way of hardball reporting? Fair enough - if the broadcasters are too squeamish to hound the No campaign in that way, they should also be too squeamish to hound the Yes campaign in an equivalent way. Either softball or hardball reporting is fine - but it must be the same for both sides. What isn't OK is softball reporting of the No campaign coupled with hardball reporting of the Yes campaign.

Incidentally, to return to the "pressure mounting" point, that line is often used as a convenient alibi for bias in the broadcast media, because if the press are overwhelmingly biased in one direction (as they clearly are in this contest), then in the literal sense it could always be said to be true that more pressure is being piled on one side than the other. But that just puts even more of an onus on the broadcasters to take a step back from the collective media group-think, and to consider the true journalistic merits of pursuing a certain angle (or not).

Final thought - out of curiosity, I had a look at one or two examples of ITV Border's regional news programme Lookaround the other day. I can vaguely remember the original show of that name from childhood holidays in Galloway and the Lake District (and no, it wasn't hosted by Peter Serafinowicz!), but these days it's a very different beast, presented from Gateshead rather than Carlisle - albeit with a Carlisle backdrop and constant references to "our region" and "this region" to con the viewers. Now, to be fair, I don't think the programme can be faulted for the quantity of its Scottish coverage - on that score there may even have been a slight improvement on the old days, largely due to the Isle of Man being switched to 'Granada-land'. But with the best will in the world, a news team based in Gateshead just aren't capable of covering the issue of independence with anything other than an Anglocentric mindset, ie. lots of stories about attitudes towards English people, or how England will be affected. So, although the situation has certainly improved markedly of late (until a few months ago, the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway had somehow ended up as part of a Frankenstein ITV 'regional news' mega-zone with a population bias favouring the Newcastle/Gateshead/Sunderland area), it's still the case that ITV Border are delivering an even worse service than their counterparts.


  1. Would you post a link to the research so it can be spread far and wide please.

  2. I'm on my mobile so I can't post a link at the moment. But a detailed summary of the study's findings is available at Newsnet Scotland.

  3. I completely agree with you about the unfairness or inequality of the debate.

    I'm not sure, though, that, given the feeling of the average Scot to any Tory, or indeed their puppets, Alexander and Carmichael, it is altogether a bad thing that Cameron regularly dispatches another minister to tell us what we would lose were we to leave the union.

    Looking at the ministers who have been despatched to read reports that their civil service has prepared for them, using taxpayers' money (Hammond, May, Hague, Duncan-Smith, Cable, Osborne, Clegg) I'm pretty sure we can count these Tory millionaires' day trips to Scotland as pluses for the Yes campaign.

    It would be a plus, however, if they were quizzed on both the principle of them interfering and on the content of their reports.

    After all, Hague's rant about rape in Africa must have been written by a complete moron. Firstly it has absolutely nothing to do with Scotland being in or out of the union. And secondly conferences like this do absolutely no good whatsoever.

    Even if every country's governments agreed wholeheartedly with Hague (as I do), that rape is a repugnant act, I doubt that much would change. Presumably the American and British governments don't agree with sexual humiliations of prisoners of war. But it didn't stop their soldiers doing it and their officers turning a blind eye to it.

    Mr Hague's conference will be a jolly junket in London for a number of defence or foreign ministers and their partners. Lots of food will be consumed, much wine drunk. Hague will grandstand as a great leader and we will stump up for a massive security, accommodation and catering bill.

    Some soldiers, however, will continue to rape women, pillage and burn, as they have for as long as there has been war.

    Perhaps Mr Hague party would consider selling fewer weapons to unstable or dictatorial regimes, because, horrific as rape is, it is probably no worse than having your legs or arms blown off.