Scotland and the EU is the Brigadoon issue of Scottish politics: it appears, disappears, reappears, goes quiet, explodes onto the front pages again only to then recede from the nation’s consciousness. It is complicated, and informed comment demands a deep and proper understanding of the EU and UK constitutions, a familiarity with Brussels to screen for comment that is actually important, and a cool head. I’ll be doing a lot of work early in the new year, full research, some articles and a speech or so to try, try at least, to put to rest some of the assertions that have been traded, but meantime it is worth looking into the rather odd few days we’ve had since the Scotsman splashed on Thursday morning with the headline Scottish independence: Separate Scotland must apply to join EU, warns Brussels (the story has been changed since it first went up).
I’m in favour of a free press – it’s essential to our democratic system, without it our people would be ill-informed about the issues we need to discuss. I’m wary of any degree of control, by anybody, anywhere, of the actions of the press because, however well intentioned, I cannot see the circumstances in which it would not take us to a pretty unhealthy place pretty quickly. I’m a sociable cove; I know a lot of journos in print and broadcast, local and national press. Some I like more than others, some I rate more than others, but I can say hand on heart that in my experience they’re just people trying to do a demanding and pressured job, often for little thanks and lots of unjustified abuse, particularly online, and that isn’t fair and isn’t productive. Politics is complex, the decisions we all have to make are important, information more freely available than ever and the pressure of a 24 hour news cycle unrelenting. I don’t fancy the journalists’ jobs. People are interested in how our media works, with good reason, and it is only right that where politicians, yes even me, are open to question, our scribes could do with a bit of scrutiny too.
With that, let’s come to the fuss and a fury we’ve seen lately; journalists being called to book by Justice Leveson and promptly trying to shift attention to politicians, ‘bad apples’, or anyone else – an enormous, collective excuse of “a big boy did it and ran away”. Those who escaped personal censure appear to believe that they have been endorsed as fine, upstanding, honourable scribes diligently recording the unfolding history of our world; uncovering great conspiracies, digging into the heart of our society to reveal dark secrets and offering ritual sacrifices to the god of public titillation.
The difficulty, though, is that modern journalism wasn’t just tarnished by a couple of bad apples in the barrel; phone hacking wasn’t the entirety of the negative behaviour displayed by the scriveners of the modern media, there is a litany of sins which will continue to be intoned for quite some time to come. The lure of a quick and spectacular headline, the scoop, the glowing prize of being first in print leads scribes down unhealthy and unethical paths. Truth may be the first victim in war but it appears to be a victim of press behaviour as well.
Let me demonstrate this with a recent example or two, and we’re back to the Scotsman front page. Screaming headlines and breathless text told us that the European Commission had sent a letter to a House of Lords committee saying that an independent Scotland would be out of the EU and would have to reapply. Not only had this letter been sent but the journalist had seen it; had held it in his hands, caressed it lovingly and memorised every word, soaked up every nuance and deliberated upon its impact.
The quotes from “the letter” as reproduced in the article are all talking about a part of an existing member state leaving that member state. EU law doesn’t apply any more once it leaves the member state. Well goodness, who knew? Presumably the letter is entitled “stating the obvious”. But even taking “the letter” on face value, it doesn’t apply to the Scottish situation, where the part of the member state seceding wants to remain within the EU, and will do some stuff to ensure that it remains within. The EU does not want to lose Scotland, and in reality our scenario on any objective assessment is a very different scenario than the one the Commission was asked about, and that dealt with in “the letter”.
However, the plot thickens. By mid-morning on Thursday the clerk to the House of Lords committee confirmed that no such letter had been received; at noon the Commission Spokesman responded to a question from a BBC reporter:
Reporter from BBC:
Can you confirm if such a letter exists, and also is the letter a result of immovable legal advice or whether it’s a potentially less solid political opinion of President Barroso’s office?
I can confirm that President Barroso has been invited to contribute to the House of Lords Inquiry on the economic implications for the United Kingdom of Scottish independence. I cannot confirm or comment on a letter sent out by President Barosso as such a letter has not been sent yet, so the letter has not been sent, and I cannot comment on what would be in it because it has not been sent.
That was followed up later with an official position being given as:
“President Barroso has been invited to contribute to the House of Lords inquiry on the economic Implications for the United Kingdom of Scottish Independence. The President has not yet replied. The Commission position is well known and set out in the series of responses given to European parliamentary questions. The Commission has been very clear that we do not comment on specific situations but can only give a view in general”.
So no such letter had been sent, and by the time we’d had our lunch it became clear that the Lords committee had indeed stirred long enough to write to President Barosso at the Commission and ask for information, that much was true, but that the reply was not yet formulated; it was still undergoing the peristalsis of the Commission and had yet to be released in a form suitable for consumption. And in Brussels nothing is signed off until it is all signed off.
So I find myself wondering “what was the letter that the Scotsman saw?” The scribe clearly saw ‘something’ and I’m prepared to accept on good faith that he was flatly misinformed when he was told it had been delivered (and hence signed off and worth paying attention to) because I can’t see why he would get such a verifiable fact wrong otherwise. My own sources in Brussels tell me that there have been various drafts of the letter circulated, and that it was near sign off, and should be delivered soon.
But that doesn’t alter the facts – the Scotsman piece wrongly claimed that the text quoted was from an official letter. It is not. It was at best a draft, and had the Scotsman reported it as such then it would have been good sport, but hardly front page news. Giving the benefit of every doubt there is, it’s likely that factual accuracy was sacrificed here, not for the sake of wickedness on the part of this scrivener, but because there was an imperative to get in first, be the one with the scoop, be the scribe who carries that radioactive glory, win another point in the never-ending race for newspaper supremacy – and that is damaging; damaging to the journalist, damaging to the newspaper, damaging to the debate, and damaging to our democracy. It’s not phone hacking, it’s not a scandal, it’s low level inexactitude as a direct result of the enormous pressure and a lack of insistence on being absolutely certain that you’re right, but it’s damaging.
Even taking the supposed letter on face value, though, it clearly does not apply to any objective assessment of the Scottish situation, it’s a bit like saying “Alyn Smith’s dog has four legs. The European Commission has today confirmed that cats have four legs therefore the dog is a cat and this is a major humiliation for Alyn Smith and the SNP because they have always maintained that dogs have four legs.”
It just doesn’t hang together but, and here is where it gets interesting, this kicked off a feeding frenzy, with the Scotsman piece being cited as gospel by other media outlets, they reported as absolutely true the ‘facts’ that the Scotsman had reported in error. The BBC Radio Scotland flagship programme Good Morning Scotland led with it, the Telegraph, Daily Record, the Daily Mail, and even Newsnight Scotland went with it, though the Newsnight piece was by then pretty well nuanced given the original source of the story had been found to be rather less credible than claimed and the BBC website and the Guardian were more guarded.
So the beast was feeding the beast; the media was feeding off of its own carcass. Think about it: the addition of the words “It is reported that” gets any journalist entirely off the hook – no need to fact check, no need to verify, and the fact that what has been reported has been reported as contradicting SNP statements just adds to the drama. The fact that the, let’s say, ‘misunderstanding’ of the original piece is now once or twice removed is now a semantic nicety – “President Barroso has said Scotland will have to reapply” is a bald statement of fact when he patently said no such thing. In a draft. Which hadn’t been signed off. Or sent.
So the shaky basis, in fact, for the story has not stopped umpteen media outlets, the twitterati and several commentators holding forth about what a disaster this all is for the Nats and doubtless there are some Sunday stories in preparation as I write. I don’t know, does any of it actually stick in the mind of the people who will be voting in the referendum? I doubt it. Where people take the time to think they know fine that some assertions are more reasonable than others.
But there we are, the price of a free press is that we have to let them get it wrong. Accidentally or willfully. The Scotsman has issued a minor correction but has it retracted the, surely, objectively misleading headline, prominence and tone of the original piece? Not yet…
There’s an even more important question – who gave the Scotsman this draft, or excerpts from a draft, and misinformed the journalist that it had been delivered and was therefore official? It quite clearly wasn’t the reply that the President of the Commission had prepared for the committee – that didn’t exist so unless HG Wells has taken over at the Scotsman it couldn’t have been seen nor could it have been read by the journalist and there was no nuance to soak up, no words to memorise – so what was it? Did someone fake a letter to dupe a journalist? Surely any semi-decent journalist would spot that immediately – they’re a suspicious breed who always assume that someone’s trying to get the better of them; they spend their working lives doubting the veracity of everything they’ve been told.
Did someone sidle up to him in a dark lobby somewhere and whisper in his ear that this letter existed and “this is wot is sez, honest guv”? I know the journalist in question and he’d be just as doubting about that, perhaps even more so. Was he shown a draft of the letter, an early draft perhaps? One wonders, I don’t know. It passed from the Commission to someone else at some point. Logically the only place the Commission would conceivably send a text like that would be to the Member state mission to Brussels, UKRep or Scotland House (the Scottish government’s office in Brussels) and I think we can discount Scotland House. Someone in the House of Lords Committee? Possible but they hadn’t seen or received the text, and it would seem odd for them to receive an advance draft, especially one not signed off. Someone in the Scotland Office? I suspect we’re getting warmer here. Michael Moore was in Brussels on the day of the Scotsman splash. I know not why he was there but he evidently could find time in his schedule to set up walking shots outside the European Commission office. But how would the Scotland Office have got hold of the text? As I say, one wonders.
I appeared on the Daily Politics on Friday and there was a massive rowing back, with lots of protestations of wanting to get to the root of the issue when, in fact, it seems to me pretty clear that whoever leaked a draft of a text and misinformed the press wants to do the opposite. Should we just write that off as spin, or original journalism as Andrew Neil suggests? Yes and no. I’ve no problem with being criticised if I’m wrong, I’m not trying to mislead people but I have my own prejudices and preconceptions. But to be told I’m wrong because of a flat misrepresentation, exaggerated with repetition, of a document that isn’t official and doesn’t even deal with the scenario I’ve been talking about seems to me to be pretty unfair. As I say, I’ll be doing a lot of work on all this EU stuff in the new year, meantime I’ll take some time over the Christmas/Hogmanay break to rediscover my sense of humour.
In the meantime, though, I’ll do the honourable thing and recognise Lord George Foulkes’ contributions during this period, both in the television appearances and in his reported comments which show that he understands the position. He said “As long as Scotland remains in the UK, even with independence agreed in a referendum, it would be in the EU.” That’s the truth, that’s what we’ve been saying; after the referendum the negotiations on the details of our continuing membership of the EU will take place at the same time as our negotiations with London. On independence day we’ll be a full Member State of the European Union.