Thursday, January 23, 2014

Professional buffoon Ian Dunt thrills the nation with another vintage gaffe, as he suggests that a poll showing a surge in support for independence is bad news for Alex Salmond

Ian Dunt, fondly known to millions across Scotland as "the thinking woman's Richard Madeley", has scaled new heights of idiocy by posting an article on bearing the title "Major new Scottish independence poll brings fresh despair for Alex Salmond". To be fair, he is indeed talking about a "major" poll, and it's a "new" poll in the sense that it's only just been released (albeit the fieldwork is several months out of date, meaning that it's already been superseded by at least nine referendum polls that have been conducted more recently). But the slight snag is that the poll shows an increase of 6% in support for independence. Yes, that's right, I said "increase", not "decrease". And this is the news that is supposed to have left Mr Salmond in a state of despair? Presumably Dunt has already got his headline of "Heartbreak for Salmond as Scots only vote for independence by quite a narrow margin" all raring to go for September 19th.

You might be amused to learn that describes itself, without any discernible trace of irony, as "an impartial political website with no political affiliation, which prides itself on standing out as an independent voice in a landscape where the norm is to nail your colours to the mast". I was going to issue the editor with a friendly hint that getting an openly Nat-bashing hack like Dunt with a proven track record of boastful ignorance on Scottish matters to pen a "news" article like this might not be the ideal way of burnishing the website's desired image of studied neutrality. But it turns out that Dunt actually IS the editor. The mind boggles. Who in God's name is the deputy editor of this oasis of impartiality - Nigel Farage?

* * *

To turn to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey itself, the headline figures on independence (using the traditional multi-option question) are hopelessly tainted by numerous methodological problems, not least the pejorative wording about an independent Scotland being "separate from the UK". All it needed was the addition of the word "entirely" (as in "entirely separate from the UK") and it would have been Alan Cochrane's idea of polling heaven. Another flaw is the suggestion in one of the options that an independent Scotland might be outside the EU, whereas there is no balancing option to take account of the fact that Scotland may be forced out of the EU if it remains part of the UK - and possibly within quite a short timescale. There is also no Devo Max option offered, with respondents effectively forced to choose between independence, Devo-current, Devo-minus, and the outright abolition of the Scottish Parliament. Given that we know from the results of another question that the public would be likely to vote "Yes" in a referendum on Devo Max by a margin of almost 2-1, it's impossible to make sense of the headline results showing a significant plurality for Devo-current - after all, Devo Max is far closer to independence than it is to Devo-current. The contradiction can only really be put down to the misleading and near-obsolete wording of a question that ought to have been abandoned years ago. So all we can meaningfully take from the headline figures is the trend, namely a 6% increase in support for independence, a 6% decrease in support for devolution, and a 2% decrease in support for abolishing the Scottish Parliament.

It's obviously a good thing that the actual referendum question was posed this time around, but we can't really deduce very much from that result either, as there are no baseline figures from previous years to work with. We also know that the referendum question was only asked after the traditional multi-option question and a second tortuously-worded multi-option question about where governmental powers should lie. And while I don't want to be unkind to Professor John Curtice (he isn't Ian Dunt), you don't have to look far for the double standards when he analyses research that he was directly involved in. It's only a few months since he was scathing to the point of absurdity about a perfectly credible Panelbase poll showing a narrow lead for the pro-independence campaign, solely on the grounds that the referendum question was put to respondents third, rather than first. Well, he's openly admitting that his own SSAS poll posed the referendum question at least third, and quite possibly much later in the sequence - so where's his equivalent disclaimer that the results can't be taken seriously? It doesn't seem to be forthcoming so far.

Perhaps the most spectacular finding of the survey is that the anti-independence campaign's cynical attempts to sow doubts about an independent Scotland's future within the sterling zone have catastrophically failed - a full 57% of respondents expect that Scotland will still be using the pound a few years after independence, compared to just 21% who think it will be using the euro, and 16% who think it will be using its own currency.

Encouragingly, the figures on national identity show a modest move towards Scottishness...

More or wholly Scottish : 54% (+1)
More or wholly British : 10% (-1)
Equally Scottish and British : 29% (-1)

That's the good news, but the bad news is that this only very slightly checks a long-term trend away from Scottishness - until 2006, the figure for a wholly or predominantly Scottish identity was routinely well above 60%. It's not entirely clear why this apparent change has happened - as Scottish Skier always points out, national identity isn't normally a changeable thing like voting intention. It may simply be that people who would previously have said they were predominantly Scottish are now telling pollsters something different due to changing fashion, rather than any real change in how they actually feel. That theory is at least partly borne out by several other polls that have found that the "equally Scottish and British" group are by no means a no-go area for the pro-independence campaign, which you would certainly expect them to be if the 'best of both worlds' rhetoric had any real validity. It seems that at least some people are intelligent enough to realise that if it's possible to feel Scottish without needing a sovereign Scottish state, it must by definition be equally possible to feel British without needing a sovereign British state.

Of course, the other possible explanation for the change in the national identity figures is that some elderly "Scottish" people have died off since 2006 and been replaced by "British" young people. But regardless of Jan Eichhorn's wild theorising about the impact of Facebook, that is highly implausible - there is no credible evidence at all that young people are more likely than their elders to feel British, and if anything the reverse is more likely to be true.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wisdom on Wednesday : There is no such thing as Macra! Macra do not exist! There are NO MACRA!

"It's just possible that you've been given a series of orders while you've been asleep. You know, 'do this', 'do that', 'do the other thing'. My advice to you is don't do anything of the sort...

Don't just be obedient. Always make up your own mind."

The second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, in the story The Macra Terror, giving some prescient advice 47 years early on how to withstand the brainwashing techniques of the anti-independence campaign and their associates in the mainstream media. Of course, one of those brainwashing techniques is to try to convince us that an independent Scotland would be just about the only country on Earth unable to watch Doctor Who, meaning that we wouldn't have heard the Doctor's anti-brainwashing advice in the first place. Now, if ever there was a paradox of time vortex-shattering proportions...

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.