Saturday, February 10, 2018

The weasel-worded power grab

I suspect I'm not alone in finding Michael Settle's gossip-fuelled reporting for the Herald over the last 24 hours deeply unsatisfactory from a reader's point of view.  The first of the two articles claims that Westminster is about to reverse its plans for a power-grab that would undermine the existing devolution settlement, seemingly on the basis of a single anonymous source who is "close to the process".  Given that this source praises the UK government for supposedly doing everything that could possibly be wished of it, and criticises the Scottish government for daring to have a different interpretation of what is on offer, it can be reasonably inferred that the source is on the UK side of the fence.  So why does Settle not tell us that?  Why does he not explain his reasons for apparently believing this source can be regarded as authoritative despite not being an objective witness?  When this biased source paints the Scottish government's stated frustration with the process as being somehow disingenuous, why are we being implicitly asked to accept that an anonymous and self-interested briefing from one side is more credible than an on-the-record briefing from the other side?  And why are the Scottish government not given an opportunity to respond to the source's assertions?

When the source said that powers that should be returning automatically to Holyrood will now be "put...more directly into the hands of the devolved administrations", was he or she challenged on the obvious point that 'more directly' are weasel words implying that the powers will not 'entirely directly' be controlled by Holyrood?  When the source chucked in the enormous caveat that the UK Government will be empowered "to put in appropriate safeguards to protect the internal market as and when they are required", was he or she challenged on the sinister implication that this will be an enforced principle, not one agreed on an equal and voluntary basis by Holyrood and Westminster? Was it put to him or her that all of the above may be a pretty straightforward explanation for why the Scottish goverment genuinely feel that any concessions so far are inadequate?  And if the source was challenged, as he or she surely should have been, why were we not provided with the response?

Even more mysteriously, Settle's second article does a complete about-face on the "Scottish government rejecting the concessions unreasonably" stuff, and instead claims that Nicola Sturgeon is now totally cool with what's on offer and will shortly be declaring victory.  For all I know that could be true, but where's the evidence?  As far as I can see no source is cited at all this time, whether anonymous or on-the-record.  Did the information come to Settle in a dream?  Did he consult a psychic?  Does he just feel it in his bones?

None of this strikes me as being remotely good enough.  It's hard not to feel that there's a puppet-master behind the scenes who wants to frame this story in a particular way, and that Settle is happy enough being the puppet.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The birthplace of valour, the country of worth

Just a quick (and belated) note to let you know that I have an article in the February issue of iScot magazine, which also features contributions from Alyn Smith MEP, Derek Bateman, Paul Kavanagh and many others.  If you're not a subscriber to the print edition, a digital copy can be inexpensively purchased HERE

The front cover features a verse by Robert Burns - "my heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here" - which oddly enough I'm fairly sure I first encountered in uber-mournful form in the Italian film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza).  But here's a much less gloomy version performed by Fara at the Orkney Folk Festival.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

It's now thirty years and counting since a Scot last represented the UK at Eurovision

I was half-thinking of foregoing the Eurovision posts altogether this year, because some people seem to get weirdly irate when I do them.  But as Bill Palmer of the US went out of his way the other night to ask for some Eurovision blogging, consider this a 'request post'.  To answer his specific question: no, Scotland does not take part in the contest and has always been nominally represented by the UK entry, which is selected by the BBC (or by a process devised and overseen by the BBC).  The corporation would probably argue that the rules make it impossible for there to be a Scottish entry for as long as Scotland is part of the UK, because each entry is put forward by a national broadcaster that is a paid-up member of the European Broadcasting Union.  However, a special exception is made for Australia, and given that the BBC are one of the contest's biggest financial backers, I'm not totally convinced that they would fail if they were to vigorously push the suggestion that the four Home Nations should be separately represented.  The obvious compromise would be for the UK to give up its automatic place in the grand final in return for four places in the semi-finals.  But it's the BBC we're talking about here, and with the upholding of British nationalism effectively written into the BBC Charter, it's highly unlikely they would ever make that case.  So the dream words "Écosse, douze points" will almost certainly have to wait until after independence.

What you'd think the BBC might do, though, is make sure individual Scots are at least given a fair crack of the whip at representing the UK in the contest.  But not a bit of it.  The last Scot to sing for the UK was Scott Fitzgerald exactly thirty years ago, when he famously lost to Celine Dion by just one point after the final national jury failed to award him any points at all.  As I always point out, and incredible though it may seem, both France and Cyprus have been represented by Scots more recently than the UK has.  (Karen Matheson of Capercaillie sang for France in the Breton language in 1996.)  What's truly shocking, though, is that in all of the UK national selection finals since 1988, there seem to have only been two Scottish acts - Do Re Mi featuring the late Kerry McGregor in 1997, and City Chix in 2006.  I don't know whether such an obscene under-representation says more about the southern-centricity of the BBC or of the British music industry, but it's certainly not happening by random chance.

To turn to tonight's national selection for 2018, I wasn't totally unhappy with it - I voted for the winning song for the second year in a row, and the overall standard seemed a little higher than in past years.  It's heartening to see the selection being given a prime-time slot on a mainstream channel (albeit BBC2 rather than BBC1) - gone are the dark days at the turn of the century when it had a graveyard slot early on Sunday afternoon.  What I couldn't understand is why the announcement of the winner was once again so truncated - with the use of a 50/50 jury/public vote system, there was obvious scope to crank up the tension with a gradual reveal of points.  (And given that the eventual winner started the night as a rank outsider, that might have worked particularly well.)  The voting segment is one of the things people love about the Eurovision itself, and with a full ninety minutes to play with, it's hard to see why it was excluded.

Overall verdict: the UK have ended up with a decent entry, but barring miraculously effective staging or a very weak field, it's unlikely to be an outright winner.  It's the sort of song you could maybe imagine finishing a creditable sixth or seventh on a good night.

"Oooh, you little fibbers!" Shock and disbelief as Scotsman newspaper is caught MISLEADING ITS READERS about an independence poll

The days of me religiously following the Scotsman newspaper (at least via its website) have long since passed. But I did vaguely register that at some point last year, an incoming editor announced that the paper would no longer have a political affiliation - individual columnists would still be free to express their own partisan views, but there would no longer be an editorial line on independence, or in favour of any particular political party.  As with the broadcast media, though, you really have to judge a newspaper by its words and deeds, and not by its nominal protestations of neutrality.  There was, for example, a very puzzling headline in January about the annual Social Attitudes Survey: "Majority of Scots want to end freedom of movement post-Brexit".  That seemed intended to give the false impression that public opinion on Brexit in Scotland is not all that different from public opinion south of the border.  In fact, the survey showed that almost two-thirds of the Scottish public would accept freedom of movement as a price worth paying for free trade - a significantly higher figure than in the rest of the UK.  It also showed clear majority backing for the Scottish government's insistence that EU powers over devolved matters should be repatriated to Edinburgh rather than London after Brexit.  Although not technically inaccurate, the Scotsman's headline was exactly the one you would have expected a rabidly anti-independence publication to use when trying to put a positive gloss on survey figures that were, on the whole, extremely unhelpful to its case.

A one-off reversion to the bad habits of the past?  I'm afraid not.  A couple of days ago, the Scotsman reported the findings of a Survation poll which asked a rare multi-option question on the constitution.  17% of respondents backed Devo Max, 32% backed full independence, and 36% favoured the status quo.  As ever with nuanced results of that type, you can spin them any way you want - you could put a pro-independence gloss on them by saying voters were decisively rejecting the status quo, and were demanding massive new powers for the Scottish Parliament by a margin of 49% to 36%.  Or you could argue that voters were rejecting independence by a margin of 53% to 32% - that would be intellectually dishonest, because Devo Max is not on offer and many of its supporters would be likely to vote Yes to independence in a binary-choice referendum, but you wouldn't be directly lying if you said that.  But incredibly, the Scotsman weren't even content with that - they went further still and stepped over the boundary into outright falsehood.  This was their headline: "Status quo preferable to independence for most Scots".  That could only have been true if the question asked by the poll had been something like "If faced with a straight choice, would you prefer independence or the current constitutional arrangements?", and if the majority had favoured the latter.  Instead, a little over one-third of respondents preferred the status quo to two other options, and very nearly half of respondents did not.  The headline is not only untrue, it's pretty damn close to being the complete opposite of the truth.

If this is what the Scotsman looks like when it practices studied neutrality on constitutional matters, the mind boggles as to what it would come up with if it actually nailed its colours to the mast.