Peter A Smith, the Scotland correspondent for ITV News (which these days is a depressingly pale imitation of the past glories of ITN), conducted an interview with Nicola Sturgeon the other day. It went on for several minutes, but somehow never moved beyond the one and only question that Smith seemed interested in hearing an answer to: what was Ms Sturgeon's "strategy" for getting round the Tories' obstructionism on a Section 30 order? Now, in one sense that's not an unreasonable question, because as a number of us on the Yes side have pointed out, there are a couple of obvious ways forward that wouldn't require a Section 30, and in an ideal world we'd like to hear Ms Sturgeon commit to one or other of them as a Plan B just in case "now is not the time" turns into "never is the time". But Smith didn't come across as a man who was pursuing an exercise in intellectual curiosity about why the Scottish Government are so needlessly reluctant to act without Westminster's permission. Instead, as he shouted in ill-mannered fashion over the First Minister's answers, his subtext appeared to be: "Give up, know your place, and accept there is no strategy that can get you a second referendum. Stop giving your supporters false hope." And that really wasn't a great look when the argument he was shouting down was that the UK government should and will simply accept the democratic choice the Scottish people have already made to hold a referendum in the lifetime of this parliament.
As a clownish postscript to the interview, Smith triumphantly announced on Twitter that the UK government had since "reiterated" that it would not allow an independence referendum to take place, and then added "back to you, First Minister". Which was as much as to say: "No, no, you weren't listening the first time, it really is hopeless. Ready to give up now?"
Given that he was essentially trolling the SNP leadership, it perhaps wasn't surprising that Smith attracted a fair bit of ire from SNP and Yes supporters, and unfortunately some of it took the form of personal abuse. He was perfectly within his rights to complain about that, but the manner in which he did so simply cast further doubt over whether he is living up to his duty of impartiality as a broadcast journalist...
"A selection of the joy sent my way since interviewing Nicola Sturgeon.
These so-called ‘cybernats’ (a useless, reductive term I don’t like) are no worse than other fragile individuals. The problem of people not liking their views being reasonably challenged is just endemic now."
That's about as cynical a dog-whistle as you'll ever see. He might as well have put on a Francis Urquhart voice, and said: "You may think that there's such a thing as a 'Cybernat' problem, and you may feel that these screenshots bear that out, but I'm afraid that I could not possibly agree with you". It was astonishing to see that one or two people were naive enough to take his protestations that he "doesn't like" the word Cybernat at face value. Can any of us imagine him reacting to unionist abuse with the words "these so-called CyberBrits" or "these so-called Yoons"? Nope, thought not.
Basically he's inviting us to make a straight choice between taking the side of abusive people on the internet, or accepting that his interview style was an example of fearless journalism that was legitimately challenging the views of a political leader. Well, in much the same way that I reacted to George W Bush telling us that we were either with him or we were with the terrorists, I'm going to opt out of that moronic false choice. I have no truck with personal abuse of journalists and politicians, and I wish people on all sides would stop doing it. But that doesn't mean I'm daft enough to believe that Smith was nobly speaking truth to power. He was actually doing the polar opposite of that, and attempting to shut down Nicola Sturgeon's views by telling her that "power says no".
Speaking power to truth has long been the preference of the UK broadcast media. Can you recall a single interviewer in the run-up to the indyref shouting over the answers of David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, and demanding to know "but does 'permanent' mean that the Scottish Parliament's existing powers can never be removed?" or "how can the Scottish people be expected to vote for a plan that you won't actually devise until the referendum is over?" or "what recourse will the Scottish people have if this turns out to be the baloney it appears?" or "on what date will you resign if none of this ever sees the light of day?"
Of course you can't. It was all "oooh, how interesting, do tell us more, and why not call it Devo Max?"