John Cawley reflects on Scottish politics as a spectator sport. The revolving doors between politics and commentariat are at the heart of a closed world where media, public relations firms and politicians rule over a broken system.
As a boy, I loved Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. I still love it and have read it to my boys. One of the most striking incidents is when Danny is alone in the woods, searching for his father in the dark. His terror is summed up brilliantly by Dahl in the phrase, ‘Silence was listening to silence’. I found myself reminded of Dahl’s profound and unnerving silence as I once again raised an issue at the heart of the Scottish body politic and was met by the same silence Danny would recognise. It is the deafening silence when an outsider questions any insider, any Scottish politician, spokesperson or journalist on the influence of lobbyists in Scottish political life. It is a silence that speaks volumes. It is a silence that has frightening implications.
I am a fifty year old, a teacher of English with a degree in English and Politics, but recently, like young Danny, I have found myself lost in the woods of Scottish politics, calling out into the silence. Why do I feel this way? Well, I have come to the conclusion that Scottish politics is merely a pretence, a pantomime of democratic agency. Whenever I question any Scottish journalist about lobbying, the rest, as Hamlet says, is silence. My job as a voter is to traipse into the booth, cast my vote and then leave the real politics to the real movers and shakers: the politicians, the journalists and the lobbyists. Funnily enough, often the politicians are journalists and/or lobbyists. Or the journalists are ex-politicians. Sometimes, the journalists are also lobbyists or ex-lobbyists like Chris Deerin, formerly of the Daily Mail, who had a spell at Charlotte Street Partners (CSP) lobbying, advising or whatever Mr Deerin did at CSP. Anyway, Chris is ‘back to the tools’ as my carpet-fitter mate says, at the New Statesman.
What brought this piece on though was a little thing, a wee straw in the wind, a minor interaction on Twitter, but one which illustrated to me a profound disconnect between Scottish political culture and the Scottish electorate. My contention is that Scottish politics positions the electorate as spectators, like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, looking at the wealth, the gold, the substance, but from outside. We, the Scottish public, are simply relegated to spectators – the professionals; not just the politicians, but the lobbyists and the journalists, they are the gilded insiders.
All of this just because I questioned Aidan Kerr, STV’s Digital Reporter, about the propriety of him recommending Charlotte Street Partners’ Daily Briefing. Aidan did not respond. Aidan doesn’t think there’s a problem recommending CSP’s Daily Briefing, but STV has a public service responsibility as does Aidan, whereas CSP are simply engaged in the monetising of Scottish politics, red in tooth and nail.
Aidan’s recommending CSP’s Daily Briefing is the tip of the iceberg, though. CSP handle STV’s public relations. How willing would STV be to reveal malpractice or wrongdoing at CSP when the broadcaster has a commercial relationship with the PR and lobbying firm which employs ex- journalists, ex BBC staff or, as with Chris Deerin, ex journalists on well-paid sabbaticals with CSP. Chris is well-connected and now CSP benefit from those connections at the Statesman. Does the public benefit? What have the public got to do with it? CSP recently got the gig handling Rupert Murdoch’s public relations in Scotland according to The Ferret. CSP are probably the most influential lobbying and PR firm in Scotland. Lobbying is the apotheosis of the art of politics- insiders doing deals behind closed doors- while we, the electorate, well, we’re on the wrong side of the door. Inside, Andrew Wilson, former MSP, Times journalist and member of the Scottish government’s Growth Commission is doing deals accompanied by Kevin Pringle, former SNP communications chief and Times journalist. Both busily monetising their political contacts and their political expertise to the benefit of the clients who are paying Wilson and Pringle for the access to the power and influence they offer. Ask about their client list, that’s for Kevin and Andrew to know, not for the Scottish people to find out.
Sometimes, we get to see the insiders at work: former Conservative party guy Moray McDonald, now Weber Shandwick big noise, appears on BBC Scotland TV or radio or Tom Harris, former Labour MP, now Telegraph journalist, Reform Scotland board member, Scottish Vote Leave chair and lobbyist with Message Matters (Tom is the insider’s insider) often appears on STV or the BBC giving us his view as the experienced politico/journo/insider on the affairs of the day. We might be interested in politics, but Tom, like Michael Caine in Get Carter, well, he does politics for a living (a pretty good one I’m assuming.) Ask Tom how he got the Vote Leave gig and you get short shrift. Wait for one of Tom’s pals in the Scottish media to take Tom on with regard to the disastrous implications of the Brexit he promoted after a career spent in parliament consistently voting in favour of European integration – well, you’ll wait a long time.
Kevin Pringle or Andy Maciver (ex Tory ‘comms guy’ and colleague of Tom at Message Matters) might appear with Gordon Brewer or John Mackay giving their insider’s take on the issues, but what they’re really doing is illustrating that they are inside: acting, moving and shaking- we are outside- spectating, noses pressed against the glass as these political princes give us a glimpse of the expertise and the access they sell to their clients.
Sorry to disagree with Beyoncé, but when she asks ‘Who Run the World? The real answer is not girls, it is entitled, white middle-aged men. This is not to denigrate or devalue the status or contributions of people like Angela Haggerty or Lesley Riddoch or Cat Boyd or organisations like Women for Indy or the WASPI women, but in a Scottish political culture where ‘manels’ are still a regular occurrence, these women don’t need this weatherman to tell them which way the wind is blowing.
The journalist Jay Rosen writes about politics as an insider game in his article ‘Why political coverage is broken’ which, while lengthy, bears out this argument but from the perspective of Australian politics. He describes how the media is complicit in the insider game which positions we, the audience, as outsiders. Rosen also touched upon what he calls the production of innocence’ by which he means the media pretending it is simply a neutral observer or messenger, rather than an integral part of the process that excludes those affected by those inside.
So broadcasters, the BBC and STV add to the cachet of the insiders because appearing regularly on Scottish TV or jousting with Gary Robertson on Good Morning Scotland demonstrates just how inside these insiders really are. On one memorable night, Tom Harris appeared on the now defunct Scotland 2016 on the BBC and then walked across Pacific Quay to appear on STV’s Scotnight. I mean, come on, what client of Message Matters could not be impressed by just how connected Tom is? It would be mad not to hire him.
So, what’s the problem?
How can I object to a bunch of guys just making a living? Well, it’s like this: all these guys know each other, have worked with each other, socialise in green rooms with each other, go for a drink with each other and share inside jokes and insider anecdotes with each other. Where are we, the Scottish electorate, while these princes of politics, media and lobbying are rubbing shoulders, cutting deals and networking busily? We’re watching passively on TV. We’re on the wrong side of the door while the insiders are inside, making deals, opening doors for their clients.
David Cameron said that the next great political scandal would come about because of lobbying. He may be right. However, my fear is that we would not find out about any lobbying scandal in Scotland, simply because the journalists, the lobbyists and the politicians are all the same, part of a caste system, sort of like Scottish Brahmins. Brahmins are the highest caste in Hinduism. The politicians, the journalists and the lobbyists are all Brahmins. All of these pals or cronies, these insiders, their relationships transcend political parties or professions.
The Daily Mail’s Scottish editor is now the Scottish Labour Party’s press guy. Why? Because he is an insider able to communicate with other insiders. The fact that I, a simple Labour Party member find it unthinkable that Alan Roden can seamlessly move from the Mail, a paper which is the implacable enemy of all of the values I hold dear, to the party which has been the recipient of my votes since 1987, is neither here nor there.
This privileged few, this happy few exist in a hermetically sealed world. Any outsider, say a middle aged teacher, who questions this caste, is likely to be ignored, or to have their mental health, their fitness to practise their profession or their integrity questioned. Why? Because Scottish politics belongs to the insiders, the princes. We get to vote and sometimes we even get a wee chance to chin them on Question Time or a heated debate. Sometimes we might get our two minutes of fame as we’re asked a question when they have to do a vox pop in Shettleston or Knightswood, Oxgangs or Whitfield at election time, the rest of the time – Scotland, its power, it’s politics and its media belongs to The Princes- the politicians, the journalists and the lobbyists. We are spectators, enjoying the scandals, the confrontations and the gaffes, but the real business is happening behind closed doors. Should anyone disagree with my argument, try discussing links to lobbyists with Scottish politicians, spokespeople or journalists on Twitter. Ask a lobbyist how democracy is served by closed doors behind which gilded insiders monetise contacts and experience for the benefit of other gilded insiders.
Silence on this issue is golden, especially if you’re on the inside.