The media failed Scotland during the #IndyRef – it’s time to get our act together

Written by Cumbernauld Media Editor, Scott Campbell.
Published at 11:21 on 23 November 2014.
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I have never made the fact that I am a supporter of the Scottish National Party (SNP) a secret. Indeed, when a friend took to Google, in a joke search to see what the internet had to say about me, a number of things came up – my 2012 local election campaign; and, the various interviews I’ve produced for Cumbernauld Media over the years. However, despite being a party supporter, I felt it only right and proper that my ‘political sphere’ didn’t come into contact with my journalistic one – since starting up Cumbernauld Media in 2010 that’s the credo to which I have strongly abided by – balanced, equal and fair reporting, of a high standard, which encourages and provokes debate.

That’s why the referendum was difficult for my journalistic side. I was going to vote ‘Yes’. I believed that Scotland’s future should be in Scotland’s hands. However, having believed for years that the media was slanted against the campaign for independence, I was faced with a choice – outright support of independence, or fair and balanced journalism, which strives to cover both sides of the campaign, and give equal representation to both cases – for and against Scottish independence. I took the decision to back the latter – people (as far as I could see) wanted a fair and impartial press, at the very least. Therefore, Cumbernauld Media took no position on the referendum.

Indeed, I view it as a testament to the impartially that we carried throughout the campaign that some of my reports have been labelled as biased, from both those in the ‘No’ campaign and those on the ‘Yes’ side – despite me being an SNP member and ‘Yes’ voter myself. Make no mistake, though, I wanted to represent both sides of the referendum equally – I viewed it as my duty as a journalist; so, when we re-formed the website ahead of the vote in September – specially for the referendum – I wanted to capture the views of as many people from both sides of the debate. Thus, the ‘Why I’m Yes’ video playlist was born.

Various people from the local pro-independence campaign – a broad coalition of people from all parties and none, in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth – came forward first; and I interviewed as many as I could, before publishing them online, via Youtube. My aim was to create a similar ‘Why I’m No’, or similar playlist alongside the ‘Why I’m Yes’ series. I contacted the local pro-union campaign various times – via e-mail and in person. I was told “We’ll get back to you”. I made it clear: I want to be fair and impartial, so please come forward and I’ll give you the time to talk. My repeated requests were ignored, so I gave up and threw myself into campaigning mode.

You can track the level of campaigning, therefore, by the number of articles published in the run-up to the vote; by the end, I wasn’t reporting at all – with the last article to have been published on the website created on September 10th; campaigning was every minute thereafter – and, given that nobody from the local pro-union ‘Better Together’ campaign wanted to talk, I never bothered trying. Instead, the doors seemed to be the most appropriate place to be as the clock ticked down to Scotland’s date with destiny.

Yesterday though was the first time I reflected back on the media’s role in the Scottish independence referendum. Listening to the Sunday Herald’s Editor, Richard Walker, speak to the 12,000 capacity crowd at the SSE Hydro yesterday was my inspiration. He spoke to the crowd about how “there is no daily newspaper in Scotland that support independence. On Monday, there will be one”. His words moved me, as he spoke of how "We are no longer the 45. We are the 50-plus and we will become the 60 and the 70." What he announced was the launch of soon-to-be Scottish daily, The National, which will hit the shelves of Scottish newsagents on Monday (24th November) morning – at the neat cost of 50pence – for what will be a five-day trial of whether the paper could make room for itself in Scottish news coverage.

The new publication will – as Angela Haggerty has termed it, “tap into a readership hungry for a different kind of news” – and with 1.6million potential readers, the new daily is the biggest shake-up of Scottish media in recent years, coming after Scotland’s biggest ever show of democracy, when the media appears to fail Scotland.

As I listened to Mr Walker address the 12,000-strong crowd, my mind was taken back to coverage provided by the media, in Scotland. The BBC were repeatedly attacked; not least on the occasions where they apparently misrepresented the number of people who attended pro-independence rallies. The whole sorry saga led some irate ‘Yes’ campaigners to sign a petition, calling for an independent enquiry into the BBC’s supposed pro-union bias. Indeed, Nick Robinson’s impartiality was also called into question over a question to the First Minister at a press conference, just one-week before the referendum.

Indeed, even Andrew Marr’s impartiality was hauled over the coals – after he seemed to illustrate his opinion on Scottish independence, in an interview with former First Minister, Alex Salmond MSP, in March. And, the perceived bias was recognised by academics too – such as Professor John Robertson, of the University of the West of Scotland.

In a an academic study of the BBC Radio Scotland programme, Good Morning Scotland’s output in April 2014, Professor Robertson’s report concluded that coverage of the independence debate over that month was, "balanced in crude numerical terms but, in every other respect, unfair to the 'yes' campaign and favouring the 'Better Together' campaign”, adding that: "Broadcasts began too often with bad news for 'yes' and, too often, featured heavy repetition of such messages over several hours."

His study over the radio programme came after an earlier report, in February 2014, which monitored around 620 hours of coverage of the independence debate on both Reporting Scotland and STV News between September 2012 and September 2013. The conclusion was that both the BBC and STV gave more air time to the pro-union campaign, and ran more negative stories about the ‘Yes’ campaign than similar ones for the ‘No’ campaign. The reaction of the BBC was even more telling than the actual report, though.

Did the BBC simply reject the findings, report it as an act of scrutiny, change its coverage and move on? No. Instead, Head of BBC Scotland, Ken McQuarrie and head of News and Current Affairs, John Boothman seemed to make continued demands for details of the report’s methodology, alongside seemingly scathing attacks against the integrity of Professor John Robertson, as an academic – which was interpreted by Robertson himself as “bullying by a powerful corporation”.

It is therefore clear, the media – including our ‘public broadcaster’ – failed Scotland.

The public, however, has given the media a bloody nose. For instance, the only Scottish newspaper to declare itself in favour of Scottish independence has witnessed a rapid increase in the number of sales. The Sunday Herald declared itself in favour of Scottish independence in a special commemorative edition of the paper, on May 4th, with the now famous ‘Sunday Herald says Yes’ adorning the paper’s front page.

The paper’s decision has seen them buck the trend of other Scottish newspapers – whose readerships are in constant freefall. The paper, for instance, has reported that their post-referendum edition – on September 21st – encouraged a 111 per cent year-on-year jump in circulation, selling some 49,291, according to internal data.

Building on this success, The National, will be “brought to us”, Richard Walker declared at the Hydro, by the same team behind the Sunday Herald. His announcement came before First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took to the stage to urge Labour voters to back the party at the 2015 UK General Election, so the party can take a “record number” of seats and hold Westminster to account over their pre-referendum promises. Looking back, it seems as if we were simply being rallied for the Westminster election; and, with the arena packed up at 12,000, what a rally it was – it was clear: Scotland’s voice will be heard.

By the time I got home – after a trip to the Yesbar, obviously – I was paradoxically both energised and knackered. I fell asleep watching the telly, and by the time I woke up, I noticed my iPhone flashing – it was a Sky News notification: “Gordon Brown to stand down, say Sky sources”. At this point you would expect me to speak of my overwhelming joy at the mere thought of his retirement. However, in reality, I was somewhat angry.

Here we had the man who – in the dying days and minutes of the referendum campaign – delivered a promise to voters: “Vote no, and we’ll deliver as close to a federal state, as we can get, within one to two years”. Now, he and Alastair Darling – the man who led the drive against Scottish independence are leaving Westminster, as polls predict a ritual sacrifice of the Labour in Scotland, at the hands of the Scottish electorate, next May.

It’s all part of a sorry saga that has seen further devolution for Scotland tied into the complicated affair of ‘English votes for English laws’. Although I agree with the case for English votes for English laws, tying it together with further powers for the Scottish Parliament is just a way to deflect the issue, and kick it into the long-grass.

For instance, the ‘Devolution and the Union’ debate at Westminster on Thursday 20th November, got nowhere; and instead, it seen various Tory MPs stand up against the Barnett Formula, and to oppose further devolution to Scotland, without an answer to the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’. The ‘Vow’ carried in the Daily Record seems to be good for one thing now – toilet paper. After all, we should recycle paper, where we can.

Indeed, such was the backtracking by the Westminster leaders that the Daily Record had to take “the fight to Conservative conference”, by parking a 7ft poster of their so-called ‘Vow front page’, outside their party conference, on September 29th. In the weeks that followed, Darling’s said cheerio and Brown has opted to take out his pension early – despite taking many other peoples’ away from them while in the office of Prime Minister at the time of the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression.

And, what has the press got to say about it? Unsurprisingly, nothing. All along, the media in Scotland gave Brown clear space to deliver his ‘pledges’ – failing to challenge him on the fact that he is a backbencher now – and one whose attendance in parliament is often challenged. Now, that he’s going, the press appears to be wiping away their tears and offering him the best of luck – forgetting that, symbolically at least, the supposed ‘Vow’ disappears when he does.

It’s a sorry state of affairs now, in British politics. The Scottish independence referendum result was decisive – Scotland voted ‘No’, and backed staying with the union; however, most ‘No’ voters believed the promises of further powers for the Scottish Parliament, and voted as such. Now, it seems they’ve been deceived; and, at a time, when Scotland could be negotiating independence, we are instead hoping London politicians will be gracious.

Scottish politics, on the other hand, is in the middle of exciting times. The SNP, the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party were all on the ‘Yes’ side, but despite losing the vote, they would appear to the outside observer to have won. The SNP, for example, has become the UK’s third largest political party – and, during her speech yesterday – SNP Leader, and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon announced that the party’s membership had hit 92,187.

Change does appear to be coming, therefore; and, as the ‘Vow’ appears to slip away, becoming the work of fiction novelist, in a make-believe world, or even a historian’s research. It is the job of the Scottish media to hold the politicians to account, and build aspirations of a better, fairer Scotland, across the country. However, this cannot be achieved under the current system; and, as the country moves forward, and ‘Yes’ campaigners strive to keep the empowerment and belief alive, they can do so in the knowledge that Cumbernauld Media is behind them all the way now – it’s time for another way of doing things; another Scotland is possible – independence is the route to a better Scotland, and that is the view to which Cumbernauld Media now subscribes. Let’s show London what Scotland can do.
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