What do I know about the role of the media on the road to the referendum?
Earlier this year, I took part in a panel debate about the role of the media in the referendum debate at Dundee university. And in a Scottish Constitutional Forum one on its future at the Scottish Parliament.
On Tuesday, I’m a last minute blow-in to the panel in the Sunday Herald sponsored series of chats about the Road to Referendum. At the end of the month, I’ll be at the Scottish Parliament’s Festival of Politics talking about the power of social media (and deftly demonstrating my lack of nous on this subject with my failure to embed the Verb Garden flyer in this post).
I’m as confused as you are. I’m not quite sure what credentials folk think I have, but I’ll settle for interested consumer, occasional bit-part contributor and dabbler and woman. This last qualification is probably, sadly, the most germane. We are not overly blessed with pro-independence female media types who perch precariously astride the message fence. I can usually be relied upon to say what I think, having a little knowledge on a lot of stuff, more opinions than is probably healthy and the luxury of representing only myself on such occasions.
Having done the odd gig in the last year or two, I’ve realised some of the reasons for this lack (though having worked in and around the field for decades, I always sort of knew anyhow). Participating in live studio blethers and dust-ups is not conducive to family life. Doing these things involves getting out of bed at a ridiculously early hour or setting out from home late evening and most women I know have other responsibilities at these sort of times. Unless they are in the freelance journalist bracket and gamely trying to make a living out of it (and a supportive other half), they usually also have other jobs to attend to.
Partly this is the nature of the beast, though there’s an element of aye been as well. And also of broadcasters – just like the press – being way behind the curve in terms of embracing technology to improve flexibility, access and reach. This is way beyond my ken, though that’s never stopped me before, but I do wonder at how static and lumbering our mainstream media is compared to new kids on the block. Go to any end of year university showcase of work by meeja students and you will be awestruck at what they achieve on shoestring budgets, cheap kit and an abundance of ideas. Women are just as involved as men.
So what happens to all that in the journey to the mainstream? By dint of how they go about their business and how they make their product, the mainstream media makes it hard for women to participate and despite technology, the problem seems to be getting worse.
There are promising signs. STV in particular, with its local and online platforms, as well as its approach to Scotland Tonight, which integrates different media channels and invites lesser known suspects on to its sofas to talk about a broader range of topical issues, appears to have a plan and it’s working. And in response to girning from the likes of me, BBC Scotland was stung into action last year to try and balance the gender on its talking head slots on the likes of Newsnicht.
But better does not mean great. Or equal.
The fact that the BBC didn’t think it had/has a problem is of course, a big part of the problem. Until the lack of women being invited along to comment and participate was pointed out publicly to them, did the programme controllers and Head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland never broach the issue at planning meetings? Do editorial conferences at our broadsheets not bother to factor in the need to hear the opinions and views of representatives of half the population on a regular basis?
Maybe it’s just me, but I find it incredible that those what make the programmes and fill the pages never stop to think what might be missing when they survey all male editions and panels. And indeed, ones dominated by well-educated men from white, middle class backgrounds and outlooks. Scotland is a diverse, mongrel nation, though you’d never realise it if your only source was the male, pale and stale demographic of our mainstream media.
Then there’s what is considered to be newsworthy. Scan the online headlines and the social media feeds today and the only political story in town is Andrew Marr’s comments about perceived anglophobia as a consequence and by-product of the independence debate. Now, I liked Mr Marr as a political correspondent. He makes for an interesting interviewer and TV presenter, even a passable historian. I was as shocked as anyone at his sudden ill-health and am delighted to see that he is back, well on the road to recovery.
This is the media – the male-dominated, political media – eating itself.
And that too is part of the problem. The political media likes to report stories about the referendum which bear little relevance and carry scant interest to the population at large. Including, if not especially, women. And much of it is contributed by members of their ain ilk or from the political commentariat/intelligentsia. Chattering classes are us: I am happy to acknowledge that for all my pretensions otherwise, I probably qualify as a paid up member. Though it was only by setting up this blog that I breached its defences.
It’s a bit of an unvirtuous circle. The more the media ignores what might interest women, the less they will tune in or buy the product, and the less money there is to invest in diversification, so the more reliant does the media become on its own ranks to fill the void. Devolution reinforced the narrowness of our political discourse and the road to the referendum is amplifying it. The result is that politics – and this most important political decision in our, our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes – is an adjunct to daily life, tucked away in the unsocial hours slots and sections, rather than being a staple of our daily viewing and reading lives.
So what to do? Having chipped away at issues like this, on and off for decades now, progress has been either fleeting, painfully slow or largely non-existent. I’ve grown intolerant of incremental change. Pleading, campaigning, cajoling and persevering has delivered diddly squat. Confidence and self-belief have atrophied under devolution: the cringe is alive and well in a community near you. That applies to the media as much to more pernicious social ills like poverty.
I’ve been an independence supporter all my life and increasingly am of a utilitarian bent. Scotland needs the big bang of a yes vote and a rush of change before the dust settles. A written constitution that provides rights and responsibilities – to expression but also to equality – will help. And we need people prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel to fashion a new Scotland, a different Scotland which bears little resemblance to the current one.
So, all you media types who use the cloak of owner and editorial preference, dalliance and orders to hide your true colours and feelings? Well, your country will need you post independence. Therein lies your chance to shape and make the media environment which befits a modern, outward looking nation with aspirations to be if not the best wee country in the world, then a darn sight better than what we have now. One where women’s participation is a given.
And if you want to hear me ruminate some more on this or as might well happen, witter on about something else altogether, get yourself along to the Verb Garden on George Street in Edinburgh on Tuesday. Though more likely than not, I’ll be mostly hanging on the every word of my more esteemed and erudite panelists – Lesley Riddoch, Richard Walker, Magnus Linklater, Kevin McKenna and chair, Iain McWhirter. And wondering why on earth I was invited.