A week in Scottish politics. Two discussions and two long-term, deep challenges in the independence referendum debate showcased. These are how we address social justice, poverty and exclusion, and the way the mainstream media and broadcasters in particular are portraying this debate.
The two examples I wish to draw from are a ‘Newsnight Scotland’ ‘special’ on Monday (September 2nd) and a ‘Scotland Tonight’ ‘special’ on Thursday (September 5th). Both addressed, if that is the right word, the subject of welfare and pensions; the former having Jackie Baillie, Jamie Hepburn and Alex Johnstone, and the latter, Nicola Sturgeon and Anas Sarwar in some strange kind of face-off.
The ‘Newsnight Scotland’ discussion illustrated the paucity of what passes for a welfare debate. No politician of any persuasion seems to have a single major idea of what to do apart from abolishing the bedroom tax, or fighting over who is best placed to oppose the bedroom tax. Or in Tory MSP Alex Johnstone’s different take, giving us the option of defending the bedroom tax. Of course, I am being unfair; SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn came up with the idea of bringing back Direct Payments of housing benefits which is another policy of returning us to that golden era of welfare of pre-April 2013. Ah, yes, that was a time when it was wonderful to be alive, er, five months ago!
‘Scotland Tonight’s’ format was adversarial, gladiatorial, almost ‘Rocky’ like as Nicola and Anas traded blows in a political boxing match. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t edifying. And it wasn’t illuminating. It was sort of compelling in a bad TV way, and of course it got the twitterati excited, but that’s not saying much.
Strangely there was an introductory film on welfare by Bernard Ponsonby which started with the misapprehension that welfare was about ‘the sick, the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled’. That’s actually the Tory vision of welfare, Bernard, you have just presented as fact! And then to add the boxing match feel Ponsonby and Radio Clyde’s Colin Mackay acted like ringside judges after every round.
It might seem too unrepresentative to pick on two episodes of different programmes, after all both ‘Newsnight Scotland’ and “Scotland Tonight’ are products of much deeper forces and malaises. Yet, let’s look at a slightly longer time frame in this. Both BBC and STV used to make creative political and public affairs programmes. Both had a culture, practice and craft of in the 1980s and 1990s of regularly putting on lively discussion programmes which dealt with the state of the nation. In programmes such as ‘Scottish 500’ and ‘Scottish Women’ the public were an active component – respected, given space and place.
All of these popular and occasionally populist programmes were axed by the BBC and STV with the arrival of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and replaced by specialist news and current affairs programmes, of which the most long running is now ‘Newsnight Scotland’.
The mainstream Scottish broadcast media has for over a decade now been engaged in a systematic retreat from wider participation programmes. Instead they have been content to present politics as an elite spectator sport dominated by party politicians and point scoring. It is little surprise that they have done this as an age of low turnout and disconnection of politics has swept Scotland; the broadcasters of course did not create this mood, but they have encouraged or validated it by their actions, wittingly or unwittingly.
Now there are many mitigating circumstances about the actions of broadcasters. BBC and STV are hollowed out media entities. There has been a failure of leadership and management at the top of both organisations for a long time now. Then there are the structural pressures: BBC Scotland has in reality very little autonomy and is accountable ultimately to London; STV lives in a cutthroat commercial environment. Both now face huge pressures politically because of the highly charged referendum debate. And both find it much easier to present as ‘debate’, yah-boo, adversarial politics.
What if any solutions can be found? One is to do something about political debate. Some engagement with ideas and substance would be a welcome relief. Genuinely talking about social justice beyond the bedroom tax. For the SNP there has to be more detail about the potential social policy agenda of an independent Scotland. For ‘Better Together’, an explanation of how this pulling together of risk and resources in one of the most unequal countries in the rich world works would be good to hear. At the moment in the UK, resources effectively go to those with the most wealth and power.
The other is for broadcasters to find spaces to develop considered, reflective conversations and deliberations. I would imagine some of those might involve parts of mainstream Scotland who are less drawn into the current media debate, while other formats might consider the voices of missing Scotland: the younger, poorer parts of our nation, while also recognising the obvious point which escapes large acres of our media and public life, namely, the gender question, and the exclusion of so many interesting women, and promotion of male only zones.
Why cannot our broadcasters consider formats such as a Scottish ‘After Dark’ or a ‘Night Flyte’ or a ‘Monday Night Live’ which focused on football, but could be used to address the bigger issues of Scotland? None of this costs too much money. In fact, any or all of these could be done quite cheaply.
What any of the above or something similar entails is risk. Leadership. Daring to do things differently. Daring to open things up, be unpredictable and even make a few mistakes.
As of now, with just over one year to Scotland’s big date with destiny, none of this is happening in the corridors of ‘official Scotland’. And that hurts our democracy and the richness of the debate we as a society are having. Because as of now what is winning in this national conversation with many, although not all voters, is apathy, inertia and cynicism. And all that aids is the continuation of a vicious cycle of hollowed out politics and public debate, which reinforces the maintenance of the current state of affairs.
Now that may suit some of the powers that be in the world of broadcasting, while some of the partisan twitterati are too excited and hot under the collar to notice, but is this how we really want Scotland to conduct itself in one of the most crucial discussions in our history? The mainstream media and in particular the broadcasters still have a huge role in public life, news and current affairs, which social media and alternative sources for the foreseeable future cannot adequately replace.
Debate as a substance free zone and politics as a minority political class pastime; that is what we are being offered by some of our broadcasters. They could try to do some things a little differently, and in the process be imaginative, bold and embrace risk. Who knows it might be popular and interesting, and contribute in a small way to challenging the current narrow, closed shop version of politics which reinforces the divided and fragmented society which so characterises contemporary Scotland and the UK.