Scotland in Europe

scotlandwall-1By Alyn Smith

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?

Spokesman:

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.

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Categories: Commentary, International

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14 replies

  1. “On independence day we’ll be a full Member State of the European Union.”

    Isn’t that rather presumptuous? You seem to be assuming that no one in Scotland would be against continued membership of the EU? Norway seems to have a pretty good relationship with that body — are you denying that choice out of hand?

  2. The EU is a Brer Rabbit/briar patch story: it is always implied that exclusion would be a terrible disaster when, to say the very least, it is more complicated than that. Unease about EU membership is at least as common on the left as on the right, and on the left the arguments seem to me more substantive than the Tories’ Little Englanderism. EU membership was espoused by the SNP for purely electoral reasons – it deflected the ‘isolationist’ jibe. Detailed examination of the consequences of membership is not encouraged.

    I think you’re being too kind to the Scotsman journos. If headlines critical of the Unionist position were as common as those attacking the Independence project you might be entitled to suggest that this latest incident is just a puzzling misunderstanding. But it’s another piece in a completely unbroken pattern. If someone flipped a coin a thousand times and it came up heads every time, I’m sure you wouldn’t defend the thousandth head as a curious and puzzling event. Go to the Scotsman site and search on ‘SNP’. Spot any kind of pattern? A thousand consecutive heads looks relatively random. Ah, these decent, hard-working journalists, trying their best to do a difficult job under pressure! [cue violins...]

  3. “The First Law of Journalism: to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”

  4. Excellent analysis of this storm in a teacup; it will be indeed interesting to find out the background to how this information was leaked, and how the Scotsman managed to get it so wrong! Little better can be expected of unionist mouthpieces like the Scotsman of course, whose recent plunging circulation figures can’t surely be attributed solely to the challenges of “new media”; hasn’t it occurred to the owners and/or editorial team that the relentless, knee-jerk negativity exhibited towards independence and devo-max must have contributed to the precipitous slide in their readership?

    As for the EU membership issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that (whatever one’s individual attitude towards the issue) supporters of independence, whether in the SNP or not, might regain the initiative on this matter and put the unionist scare mongers on the back foot, by committing themselves to holding a referendum in Scotland after a Yes vote in 2014 about whether Scotland wanted to be in the EU at all!

    This would concentrate people minds on the fact that the power in this situation isn’t actually with the EU, the SNP or rUK… it is with the Scottish people! If we vote yes to membership, it can be negotiated on our terms, subject to negotiating the right opt outs. If we vote no, then we can concentrate on taking the measures necessary to secure Scotland’s future as part of EFTA/EEA.

  5. But this kind of story is not the area where we need regulation.

    The Scotsman – well, let’s assume they over-eagerly made a genuine error, wanting to believe the letter they saw had been signed-off and sent. That’s not unlawful.

    It could be argued – and a regulatory body such as Leveson suggests would have to consider – if the press in general so quickly took up the story because of political bias against Scottish independence. But it’s far from clear to me that any crime or any unethical behaviour was committed by the original Scotsman journalist, if they saw a letter and if they had been told or strongly led to believe that it was the final draft. (If they outright lied, it would be good to know that, wouldn’t it?)

    The press who took up the story and trumpeted it know that no one will hold them to account for promoting a story where they have no idea if it’s true or untrue, so long as it pushes their bias.

    Where we need regulation is where journalists write stories that they know are untrue or are directly harmful to the person they’re writing about, happy in the certainty that unless the person most concerned has the money to pay for a good libel lawyer (and is thick-skinned enough to keep pushing) the newspaper can publish what it likes, without regard for either facts or humanity. The Leveson proposal was to enforce ethical codes of behaviour that the mainstream press have already agreed to abide by – but don’t bother with because they don’t have to. It takes huge amounts of money to hold a national newspaper to account. The problem is not the journos but their employers.

    The fumbling confusion about this is not helped by people picking up a confused version of Leveson from the mainstream media and then promoting their confusion as if it was factually accurate. As with this blog post.

    • The issue with “original” the Scotsman story is that once it was found to be inaccurate, if not absolutely false, the retraction should have been given the same prominence as the original story. If that was a requirement, it might make papers slightly more cautious about printing such stories in the first place. The trouble with self-regulation of the press in the past is that the lack of independence and teeth for regulators made it easy for papers to print stuff like this, splash it on the front page and see it faithfully copied by other papers…. then sheepishly print a grudging retraction of a few lines on page 27 sometime later.

      I think you’re probably a tad keen to let “journos” off the hook; as a class they are no more or less to blame than “all” employers. It becomes a chicken and egg situation, and the two feed off each other; bad employers who wilfully or by omission allow the kind of behaviour evident in recent times require unscrupulous journalists prepared to check their humanity and ethics in at the work place door.

      The Scotsman and other unionist biased papers in Scotland may be failing PARTLY as a result of their owner’s political outlook, as well as challenges from new media and general economic problems…. but they need journalists who agree with them to keep up the constant barrage of anti-SNP, anti Yes, anti-Devo scare stories. This editorial line bears no relation to the “actual” support for the No campaign in the Scottish populace.

      From recent figures it would seem that both the Scotsman and the Herald are doomed, which is sad for Scottish journalism and the staff involved, but given their record over the past few years I doubt many will mourn their passing.

  6. I think there is something not so subtle going on in Scotland surrounding the EU, that a higher proportion of Scots (then elsewhere in the UK) currently support the EU is imo due to the fact that despite its pitfalls, its still 100 times better for us than Westminster is.

    Where folks in England may see is as their sovreignty disapearing and a dilution of democratic power, in Scotland we dont actually have any of these thingsto lose anyway.

    For me the EU becomes a different kettle of fish when framed in the context of Scottish Independence. There is a lot wrong with the EU (dont get me wrong here, there is much to commend it also) and while I’d rather Scotland were in a position to contribute to reforming it, I wouldnt be all that disappointed if we were forced to take a step back and re-evaluate our position also.

  7. An don’t forget that Newsnet Scotland debunked the Scotsman story almost immediately, http://www.newsnetscotland.com/index.php/scottish-news/6388-eexclusive-scotsman-eu-membership-story-qincorrectq-says-ec a fact which was not mentioned in the other media, and that BBC Scotlandshire has it own take on the issue:

    http://www.bbc.scotlandshire.co.uk/index.php/city-news/100-kiech.html

  8. One of the outcomes of all the controversy, real or fantasy, over Scotlands membership of the EU might be that people in Scotland just get fed up with the idea of the EU altogether.

    I am at present in the we should join the EU on independence camp, but the more the EU evades the question and does not give a clear answer the more I am becoming minded to say, ok lets not bother, it does not appear to have harmed the countrys not in the EU.

    A final thought, as I am at present a citizen of the EU, is that organisation not failing me as a citizen, by not supplying me with a clear cut answer about my future citizenship in an independent Scotland?

  9. One of the (many) points at issue is that the EC is itself caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to ‘territorial succession/accession’. Catalonia, of course, but also Kosovo/Montenegro/Macedonia/ the Basques, and – if Turkey is ever allowed to join, then – God forbid – the Kurds. So the very last thing the EC wishes to do is to make a clear, precedent-setting statement in advance of a ‘territory’ achieving independence. It is relevant to this that the EC legal department holds ‘no documents’ concerning the position of an independent Scotland. You bet it doesn’t! The EC will – quite sensibly from its point of view – wait until a situation arises, and then decide/negotiate according to the situation on the ground, being careful to do nothing that could be taken to apply to any other future ‘situation’. You can see its point.
    Of course, this helps no one in either indyref camp come to a firm conclusion about what will happen. The unionists are happy enough to jump on the only thing the EC can say – which is that ‘territories’ which achieve independence can apply to join like everyone else. But in doing so, the unionists happily ignore the constitutional and political realities which will apply on the day – such as whether Scotland is a ‘territory’ or an equal partner in a union – such as whether part of a member state can be expelled from the EU merely by voting in a referendum – such as whether the accumulated rights of EU citizens can be unilaterally trashed….. The EC has absolutely no desire to answer these questions in advance, and it won’t. So we can expect continued ducking and diving right up to 2014, and it is wishful thinking to imagine that a clear answer should be available – because there isn’t one.

  10. A new week and the same hoary story is still being related as ‘gospel’ by the BBC and associated media – according to ‘Hardtalk’ spin Barrosso agreed Scotland would not be part of the EU on independence and have to ‘join’ as a new member state. yet in a reply to a Labour MEP the EU commission stated the current UK membership would end on Scottish indepndence and Scotland would have to ‘renegotiate’ opt outs currently part of UK membership. A singularly different position to that being spun by the London media.

    What Barrosso and the EU are currently managing to do is steadily increase the number of ordinary Scottish voters who would oppose an independent Scotland’s EU membership, as why join another politically inept and economically failing Union when you have just left one for the same reasons?

  11. A new week and the same hoary story is still being related as ‘gospel’ by the BBC and associated media – according to ‘Hardtalk’ spin Barrosso agreed Scotland would not be part of the EU on independence and have to ‘join’ as a new member state. yet in a reply to a Labour MEP the EU commission stated the current UK membership would end on Scottish indepndence and Scotland would have to ‘renegotiate’ opt outs currently part of UK membership. A singularly different position to that being spun by the London media.

    What Barrosso and the EU are currently managing to do is steadily increase the number of ordinary Scottish voters who would oppose an independent Scotland’s EU membership, as why join another politically inept and economically failing Union when you have just left one for the same reasons?

  12. The spat over The Scotsman story demonstrates how the debate over independence is being conducted in an atmosphere where both camps seize on potential propaganda seemingly without bothering to do the basics – check the facts.

    That said, Barroso’s subsequent interview with the BBC was a clear setback for one plank of the Scottish Government’s strategy to persuade waverers to vote ‘yes’ to independence and has left it looking amateurish and deceitful.

    On the other hand, secession of a ‘region’ from a member state followed by application for membership by the new state has never happened before in the history of the EU.

    In the opinion of Scotland Economy Watch, Scottish independence, should it happen, could present an opportunity for the EU to establish precedent and demonstrate flexibility in its processes.

    Yet with governments elsewhere worried about independence movements – particularly in Spain – and with other states queuing to get into the EU, don’t hold your breath on the EU proving itself to be adaptable.

    It is also apt to ask whether an independent Scotland should want to shackle its destiny to the EU anyhow. There would be considerable merit in applying to join EFTA, gaining tariff-free access to EU markets without having to wear the EU corset.

    Think of it as ‘gap year’ or two, three, four to try on freedom for size before deciding if joining up as a small cog in the Big Corporation is where destiny lies.

    Either way, it is difficult to envisage a situation where there would not be at least nominal border posts between Scotland and England.

    But so what? Either country could take a view on the ease of passage that there would be across the border. It does not seem beyond the wit of man/woman and technology to have a fighting chance of detecting what seems normal/harmless and what is off-colour.

    As tax and other policies diverged on either side of the border, we would doubtless see the revival of another grand old tradition/industry – smuggling. So what? It is what it is. This is the way of the world. If you want to be part of it, live with it and deal with it.

    Interesting though these questions are, they represent little more than nit-picking points, diversions from the Big Picture.

    Yes, one reason for favouring independence is a desire to have as much freedom as is possible in this complex and connected world to pursue the economic interests of Scotland.

    It follows that there should be deep and serious debate (preferably evidence based, though the paucity of data, absence of models, and ever-present uncertainty about economies mean that mush will be guesswork/hunch)

    Ultimately though, it is surely about a sense of identity, a feeling, and a vision. The key question is, ‘Are You Up For It?’

    Always a footnote: there is also an option that represents far more than a constitutional half-way house, and that is full-blown federalism for the United Kingdom. I am not making a party political point here, having no connection with the Liberal Democrats or, for that matter, any other party. The pros and cons of federalism should have been more deeply considered. Instead, we are locked into a debate that has been usurped by diametrically opposed camps who cannot see beyond the Independence/Union polarities.

  13. Good post. I certainly love this website. Keep it up!

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