For most of my adult life, we accepted that with a bit of ebb and flow, voters in Scotland were split roughly evenly three ways on Independence: ‘Yes Please’, ‘God No’, and ‘to be honest I haven’t given it a thought as it’s not on the table anyway’. Then, at the fag-end of supposed salad days of the New Labour government in late 2006, it seemed that Scotland was deciding that none of the Westminster parties could provide the government it wanted for itself. In a landmark poll by ICM for the Sunday Telegraph, 52% backed Independence, with 35% opposed and just 13% on the fence. If there had been three similarly weighted constituencies, that meant that 60% of the ‘undecided’ had decided, and that 90% of those had chosen Independence.
Six months later the SNP won their first victory at Holyrood, formed a minority government, and have been in power ever since. Surely the time is ripe for a successful referendum on Independence? Yet, recent polls indicate Yes 32%, No 47%, and 21% undecided or not voting. This is curious. Why would support for Independence seemingly collapse over the last six years, particularly when a humiliated New Labour have been replaced by the Tories, long the favoured target for the disaffected Scot’s ire? Seemingly, the cause cannot be found in the SNP’s record in government, as they were returned less than two years ago with a clear (and supposedly impossible) majority, and are consistently the most popular party in Scottish polls. Neither is it apparently to do with any sort of change in Scottish opinion of the London-based parties, which remain by any historical standard, crushingly unpopular. Voters are being convinced of the relative merits of maintaining the Union, despite them having very little faith in the politicians of the No campaign. How are they managing this? A better question: who, then, is doing the convincing? Let’s, without complaining about it, acknowledge the truth in the obvious answer: the mainstream media. This may be unfair, but to quote my mother-in-law, “Whaddya gonna do?”.
To be fair, the media have a very suggestible audience, weighed down as we Scots are with a default position that we are second class, always making sure to mock ourselves quickly enough so that no-one else has to. I can hear the retorts now – ‘Scots are proud, and woe betide anyone who insults them!’ Those who lead the calls for self-determination are often accused of arrogance, never mind confidence. However, a culture that is truly confident and secure in itself can ignore or even accept sleights. An arrogant one will simply sneer at them, seeing only narrow jealousy in any critique. The people of Scotland, by contrast, react either with anger or with an earnest need to justify themselves. All you need to do is play on this insecurity.
In Scotland, news reportage in the broadcast media is absolutely dominated by the BBC. Often held up to be a bastion of impartiality; this faith is completely misplaced when the debate is over Independence. The one thing that the BBC has never even feigned impartiality about is Britain. Why would it? It’s the very essence of Britishness – its ‘unique selling point’ is that it is supposed to represent everything that is great about Britain. It is both a significant thread and the most recognised narrator in the story Britain tells the world about itself. John Birt, Director General of the BBC from 1992 – 2000, records in his memoirs that part of the BBC’s role is to hold the UK together, and worked proactively with Tony Blair to take steps to “prevent the collapse of the Union”. When challenged more recently on their propensity to favour the Unionist side, the BBC did not even try deny the charge, but merely dismissed the notion that it should be neutral, stating that “we are not in an official referendum campaign and therefore do not have to balance it out between yes and no”.
The print media are seen by many to be something of a busted flush, due to the seemingly irreversible decline in their circulation. However, this somewhat misses the point. Firstly, people still mostly access the same publications, they just often view them online. Secondly, however people get their information, and however often they get it, they still largely believe that what is reported in the papers as news must be true. Whether this intake is a lot or a little, it is, along with TV news, the basis on which they form their views. The message in the news stories, the vast majority of the time, is that Independence = here be monsters.
This is not to say that the newspapers are not presenting both sides of the debate. You will see great differences of opinion – in the opinion pieces. Not, however, in the message of the news reportage, which is what most people read, and regard as broadly factual.
Several times a week, colleagues mention articles they have read in their lunch hour that show how Independence wouldn’t work. Each time there will be a counter argument or clear rebuttal available shortly afterward, but that will not receive any significant coverage. Any event (or non-event) is spun, twisted, or just plain old lied about, to present a ‘bad news for Independence’ message. I will not cover it here, but if you doubt this, Newsnet Scotland (among others) do regular well-explained and well-researched pieces exposing the truth. Or, you could take the time to check for yourself if there’s substance behind what you are being fed.
In truth, there seems little point in complaining about the situation or trying to change it. The BBC has the promotion of Britain and the defence of the Union embedded in its DNA, and all other media are private enterprises, free to take sides. There’s no point in being outraged when blatantly partisan reporting is long-established practice, to the point of being worn as a badge of pride (cf. “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”). Better to simply acknowledge it as a given, and reckon for it. It is not simply Yes Scotland versus Better Together.
The No campaign should be taken to mean the representatives in Scotland of the three London parties and almost all mainstream broadcast and print media, plus non-party activists in Better Together and other pro-union groups. The Yes campaign would then be representatives of the SNP, Green Party, SSP, Labour for Independence, Liberal Democrats for Independence and a few not-for-profit news and comment websites, plus non-party activists in Yes Scotland and other pro-independence groups (e.g. Women for Independence, National Collective and Radical Independence).
These are the rules of engagement. The Sun may flip-flop so it can say it backed the winner either way. If the tide seems to be turning late on, the Daily Record and the Herald may actually come out in favour, for fear of being left on the wrong side of history. But for the most part, we are where we are. Make no mistake, if Independence is won for Scotland, it will be despite generations of a deeply ingrained inferiority complex, and years of negativity and scare stories originating from sections of the mainstream media.