MEDIA NOTES (PART 1): WHEN SATURDAY CAME
This is the first of three articles by Kevin Williamson looking at the increasingly fractious relationship between the Scottish media and an increasingly diverse Independence movement.
As the dust settles on the first of three annual marches for Scottish Independence it is worth pausing for a moment to taking stock of the significance of Saturday’s march and where the Indy movement is currently at. Saturday also provided us with an opportunity to deconstruct where Scotland’s national media are positioning themselves pre-2014.
An event like Saturday’s wasn’t about mobilising the full weight of the Independence movement and organising it to descend on Edinburgh. There will be a time and place for that as the 2014 referendum draws closer. Nor can it be simply filed away as yet another protest march for yet anther cause. For one thing nobody was there to protest about anything! This was an embracing of possibilities, preparation for a new beginning. In terms of campaigning Saturday’s march was one of a number of opening gambits put in place to lay strong foundations for the Yes campaign to build on.
In what was a finely measured speech, with plenty of fire in its belly, Alex Salmond announced on Saturday that 100,000 people have signed the Yes Declaration that was launched at Cineworld in May. Tens of thousands have now signed up to become active Yes campaigners in their local communities. The goal of having a million signatories by 2014 has a solid base to build upon. Not bad for a referendum still two years away.
Saturday brought many Independistas together for the first time, forging new connections, making useful contacts, as well as boosting confidence and morale. Yet the significance of the march completely bypassed the mainstream media. Some journalists clumsily tried to compare it with past protests, or the recent 1.5m strong protest against Spanish rule in Catalonia. Scottish journalists to a man (few women get full-time jobs in political journalism here) sought to play down the numbers in case it made the Yes campaign look bold, strong, confident and organised. Which it is.
What none of the mainstream media bothered to do was compare like for like. As someone who helped organise the last two marches for Independence under the banner of Independence First a comparison is useful. Neither of the IF marches in 2006 and 2007 got more than 600 people on them. If we go back to Oct 2004 little over 1000 people gathered on Calton Hill to attend a rally for a Scottish republic. For a comparable march for constitutional change you’d have to go back to 1992 when around 10-15,000 people gathered for a Scotland United demo. This included home rulers, devolutionists and nationalists.
It would be fair and accurate to say that Saturday’s march was the biggest march for Independence in a generation. It was at least ten time bigger than any similar event held in the last 20 years. The organisers claims of 9,500 are born out by photographs. Counters positioned at Forrest Road clicked a total of 11,900 marchers. 10-12,000 is a reasonable ballpark figure.
Lothian and Borders Police gave an estimate of 5,000. They always do this to marches: half the number and then subtract a few more. It may not always be politically motivated disinformation though, since, after discussions with the organisers, L&B only provided enough officers to cover a demonstration of around 5,000. Their official (wildly inaccurate) estimate covers their backs, so to speak.
The same excuse cannot be said for our friends in the mainstream media. The BBC, for instance, understand that anything it publishes on its website will be taken as verbatim and reproduced without question on news reports internationally. So as far as the rest of the world is concerned only 5,000 people marched for Independence. The BBC know fine well they are publishing politically-loaded disinformation but sadly this is the path BBC news reporting has travelled for many years now.
The Sunday Herald tries to position itself as the least politically-loaded “heavyweight” newspaper in Scotland. This isn’t difficult, it has to be said, given the competition, but its a claim that rings hollow on days like Saturday. The two reporters assigned to cover the Indy march were Tom Gordon assisted by Paul Hutcheon. The report that appeared in the Sunday Herald the next day, written by Gordon was sub-tabloid stuff and all the more embarrassing for it: THOUSANDS MARCH FOR YES VOTE IN REFERENDUM
The sheer size and exuberance of the march must have rattled Tom Gordon. He could hardly contain his displeasure and his report combined tangential drivel with palpable dishonesty. Gordon prattled on about a lower than expected turnout (it was much higher), unconnected marches of the past, violent scuffles (2 or 3 racist EDL provocateurs appeared at one point), and splits in the Yes campaign. And that was just the first few paragraphs! But to be fair to him he did include disparaging remarks from other Unionist worthies as well as his own. Gordon’s curmudgeonly inaccurate Tweets (above) do make you wonder about the quality of the other candidates when he got the job of Political Editor.
Tabloid journalism is hardly worth discussing. It is what it is. It is more useful shining a light on the jounralistic practices of the mainstream liberal media such as BBC, Herald/Sunday Herald and Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday. These organisation try to position themselves as intellectual heavyweights, opinion-formers and fair-minded souls. The beauty of social media is that it exposes the sneering, deep-rooted prejudices and downright snidyness of certain journalists.
As can be seen from the Tweets above, the Sunday Herald’s “Investigations” supremo Paul Hutcheon excelled his senior colleague when it came to a handbag-swinging bitchfest. The problem with Hutcheon’s sheer unashamed dishonesty – regarding the numbers present – is that when a reporter goes down the road of disinformation, then stubbornly refuses to correct it when contrary evidence is overwhelming, it raises a question mark over the validity, truth and integrity of their other reports and investigations. It is ABC journalism that a reporter is there to report facts not distort them to suit a political agenda. Maybe the Sunday Herald’s political team should go back to journalist school for a refresher course.
Scotland on Sunday despatched the Unionist dream team of Eddie Barnes and Tom Peterkin to cover the march. Then took fright at the size of the event and relegated it to two inches near the bottom of page 1. This was supposedly to make way for what Deputy Editor Kenny Farquharson described as “the best scoop of the year.” He was referring to one of those nauseating “news” articles where a grieving parent is persuaded to spill their guts for the infotainment of readers. Vile stuff. Even more so when they seek to justify the crass exploitation of private grief in terms of a “respectful approach”.
The Scotland on Sunday almost made complete fools of themselves. The previous week SoS reporter Tom Peterkin ran a story about a flag-burning incident involving the SRSM. A few hours after the march the same reporter phoned me. He had been assigned to place another flag-burning story alongside coverage of the Indy march. The incident occurred at Glencoe in 2006. Peterkin’s angle was that since I had spoken at the SRSM event and photographed the flag-burning for a blog therefore myself and by association the Scottish Independence Convention (his words) were harbouring “extremists” in favour of burning Union Jacks.
The SRSM I know well. Like myself they were members of the SSP from 1999-2006. Colin Fox, Rosie Kane, Tommy Sheridan, myself and many other prominent SSP members spoke at commemorative events organised by the SRSM during that period. After Sheridan’s destructive 2006 court case battle against the News of the World we all went our separate ways. Most of us have embraced democracy as the only way forward for progressive politics. Others may still cling to Marxist dreams of a workers revolution. Each to their own.
During the Iraq War, when the Union Jack was seen as a toxic symbol of illegal war, murder, torture and oil theft, it is certainly true that a few “Butcher’s Aprons” were set alight in protest at UK involvement in the Middle East. After 2007, and the election of an SNP government, such symbolic protests were quite rightly dumped in favour of building a democratic majority for Independence. This is a very different time we live in. A time for thinking and discussing, for utilising the democratic opportunity that presents itself in 2014, not a time for tokenism or self-indulgent displays of aggressive patriotism.
As someone who has never burnt a flag in my life, nor ever intend to, I felt this sneaky attempt at a decontextualised tabloid-style smear was a bit of a low blow. So, in retaliation, through social media, I made it known what the SoS were up to and published Peterkin’s work phone number online. A bit drastic perhaps but maybe some folk wanted to let the media know directly what they thought of Saturday’s event. The SoS must have realised their snidy attempt to detract from the success of the march was going too far and either spiked the story or held it back for another day.
When the original SRSM flag-burning story appeared I dismissed it as just a piece of nonsense to try and undermine the march, wrongly equating the Independence movement with extremism. Upon further reflection, I’m not so sure. The SoS smear story against the SRSM, and the paper’s latest attempt to run with this angle, may have let the cat out of the bag about a new propaganda tactic that Scotsman publications (clearly briefed by Labour Party HQ) intend to use over the next two years against the Independence movement. It’s a tactic that is worth taking a closer look at.
(Coming up next: MEDIA NOTES PART 2: IDENTITY, EXTREMISM & THE INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT)